28-year-old Edna Pontellier is married with two young children. We meet her in Grand Isle where she is staying for the summer. She returns from bathing with a young friend, Robert Lebrun, son of another resident of one of the cottages in which they are staying. He has a habit of attaching himself to one of the women each summer and is considered friendly and harmless.
However, Edna and Robert are not the first people we meet. In order to establish the dominance of Edna’s husband, the reader meets Mr Pontellier in the opening pages of the novel as he reads the financial news from the previous day. When Edna and Robert return to the cottage, he looks ‘…at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property…’. We are told shortly afterwards:
He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.
It becomes exceedingly clear as the novel progresses that the idea of Edna being the only thing he lives for is nonsense; the only thing Mr Pontellier really cares for is money and every decision Edna makes must not reflect badly on him and his investments.
But Edna’s view of life and her existence is changing.
A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her – the light which, showing the way, forbids it…Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.
She is already aware that she is not like other women when it comes to children – as is her husband who thinks that she ‘failed in her duty toward their children’, although he cannot provide examples to support his thoughts. Edna’s view of motherhood is highlighted through her friendship with Adèle Ratignolle who is beautiful, has had three babies in seven years and is discussing the possibility of a fourth.
…Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.
Chopin uses a swimming metaphor to demonstrate that Edna is ready to break from society’s (that is the patriarchy’s) expectations of her. She has spent the summer learning how to swim, eventually having daily lessons with Robert. Despite this, she is still fearful of the water until one evening when Robert suggests a late night bathe following a party:
But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water.
A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given to her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.
Although some parts of The Awakening might not be as controversial as they were in 1899 – a western woman leaving her husband does not provoke the same scandal today as it would previously – there are certainly strands which feel as relevant as ever.
The idea of motherhood and how women should feel about it is particularly pertinent. Following an interview with Christina Hendricks in last Sunday’s Observer, many news outlets reported the piece by choosing to focus on her comment that she and her husband have chosen not to have children; Cameron Diaz recently felt she had to declare she has no intention of procreating, and barely a week goes by without the latest on Jennifer Aniston’s apparent despair at her childless status.
It’s also still very evident that women are fighting to find their space in the world, to be recognised as individuals with achievements that don’t have to be qualified with or by an acknowledgement of their gender.
Barbara Kingsolver writes the introduction to the new Canongate edition of The Awakening. In it she talks about being a late arrival to the book, discovering it in her first year of college alongside ‘…a choir of renegade women writers…’. That comment alongside this one:
I am also reminded that fiction by and about men is called “literature”, but this novel and others by women are regularly sent to a shelf called “women’s lit,” and more than a few male readers remain as uniterested in that shelf as Mr. Pontillier was in his wife’s conversation.
made me think back to my undergraduate years where I took a module in American Literature. Over the course of the year we studied a number of American classic works – Bartleby the Scrivener, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter – but only one by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Where was The Awakening? Why, aged twenty, trying desperately to find my way, wondering why I was so angry about having young men tell me I was ‘scary’ because I had opinions, did someone not put this book in front of me? Why wasn’t it required reading for the course? I can only hope that the current wave of feminism and this excellent new edition places Kate Chopin and The Awakening where they belong: on the literary canon.
Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.