Edna Pontellier is a 29-year-old mother of two in late nineteenth century Louisiana. As befits a woman in her station, she has maids to clean, cooks to prepare her food, and a nanny to care for her young ones. As Kate Chopin’s novella The Awakening (published 1889) begins, she is spending her summer vacation at a lake, where she begins to see her husband’s treatment of her, her pointless “proper” behavior, and especially her own sexual identity in a new light. For the first time, she recognizes herself as more than the superficial image her era dictates her to be. As she develops a friendship with a young man, Robert, Edna becomes awakened to her own limitless possibilities for self-determination.
At once both a feminist tale and a sexual awakening story, The Awakening delves into the complex emotions of a woman searching for herself. Edna searches for ever-elusive happiness, and when society fails to meet her in her newly discovered self, she abandons the social mores and traditions for her self. Although The Awakening is short, I found it to be an intriguing look into society of the late nineteenth century American middle class, as well as a story that may unfortunately be all too resonant to women today.
Her story is not a happy one: her “awakened” selfish approach to life brings her only more uncertainty and unhappiness. And yet, given her place in a strict society (including her stifling husband), her choices were few. Many women today have more options. If their husbands are as rude and unpleasant to them as Mr. Pontellier was, they could leave him. If they were unhappy staying with their children, they could get a job without scandal. Society does not require such strict social play as was indicated was expected of Edna in the novel: call on friends between certain hours, return such calls promptly, leave a card at the front door, etc.
Yet, despite changes in the past 125 years, women are still expected to fulfill certain roles, and for some women, “awakening” to their individuality may cause them to feel unsatisfied in their “boring” roles. So Edna’s feelings, self-awareness, and life story may not be all that unfamiliar to us today. It certainly resonated with me, although I’m a happily married woman who could work if I wanted to but would rather stay home with my kids because that actually brings me lots of joy.
I don’t want to “spoil” the ending for readers unfamiliar with the story, but I will say that I was disappointed when it ended, suddenly. I felt like Edna needed to undergo yet another awakening in which she found peace and happiness. That, however, would be the “romantic” in me wanting things to end nicely for a woman I sympathized with, despite my strong feelings of disgust for her selfish choices. It’s interesting how a character in a novel can be both likeable and completely unlikeable at the same time: in Edna’s case, I wanted her to find happiness without selfishly disregarding the feelings and needs of others, especially her children. As much as I felt Edna needed her “awakening,” I felt her selfish choices eventually negated all the sympathy I had developed her for.
As I read, I got excited to discuss this with my Classics Book Club . . . and then I realized this was not our discussion book: I’m just reading it for fun. I’m sad now I can’t discuss it further. There is more packed in the less than 150 pages than I realize at first.
How did you feel about Edna? What other literary characters do you both like and dislike?