There aren’t many books where my first thought upon finishing is “wow, I wish I could study this book”. But The Awakening is one of them.
I originally bought this book after reading Melissa Marr’s story ‘Awakened’ in the Rags & Bones anthology. As Chopin’s book inspired a story about selchies, I thought that it would be more supernatural than it was. But, at its core, The Awakening is about a woman discovering herself in a time period where, if a woman’s personality didn’t include the word “subservient”, people were concerned.
The reason that I wish I could study this book is because there is so much going on, and so many ways in which this book can be interpreted, that I want to have a place where I can discuss my opinions and listen to other people’s.
The Awakening opens on a family holiday abroad where we are introduced to our heroine, Edna Pontellier. She’s a strange woman for her time, to be sure. Edna’s not really interested in keeping her home or looking after her children, or pleasing her husband. Instead, she has an iron streak of independence that can’t be shaken. Her close friendship with a man named Robert Lebrun awakens (see what I did there?) in Edna the possibility of a future that Edna never before thought possible.
The blurb for this book has a line that to me, both sums up and disregards the main theme of the story:
Poignant and lyrical, it tells the story of a New Orleans wife who attempts to find love outside a stifling marriage.
As this line suggests, Edna falls in love with a man outside of her marriage. And yes, this man is Robert. However, I feel that this summary doesn’t quite capture what I thought the crux of this story was.
I read this book two different ways. The first of which was that Edna, upon becoming infatuated with Robert, discovers her feminine sensuality. In a time where a woman’s job was to please men for their own sake, Edna discovers that the love and touch of a man can please women just as much as it pleases the man in question. Throughout the story, although Edna is head over heels for Robert, she experiments a little with affection from other men, namely a gentleman named Alcée Arobin. Chopin explains the effects of this affection perfectly in The Awakening:
When he leaned forward and kissed her, she clasped his head, holding his lips to hers. It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.
There was a dull pang of regret because it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her, because it was not love which had held this cup of life to her lips.
To me, this reads like those times where you kiss a stranger upon knowing them for all of a day or night. When you spend hours talking to a perfect stranger and then lean in and kiss them afterwards. That kiss is not full of love, but full of possibility of new things. It fizzles with all that the kiss could mean. Does that make sense? The kiss exciting, and usually passionate, but it’s not love. This emotional response is very nearly commonplace in this day and age but for a woman in 1899 these emotions are scandalous. And for a married woman to be kissing a man who is not her husband? String her up for high treason against the patriarchy!
So, to me, Edna is experiencing that thrill of the new, but is regretting that this discovery of new emotions is not happening with Robert.
But what about Edna’s husband? Well, he spends a lot of this book absent, travelling for work. So Edna goes through this miraculous journey of self-discovery alone. Her children are staying elsewhere and Edna is left alone in her huge house with her household staff. As such, Edna finds different ways of occupying her time; some of which give her money. Edna is an artist and starts selling her works for small fees. She also goes to the racetrack and (according to the story) knows horses so well that she is capable of making successful bets and coming home with substantial winnings.
These lucrative pastimes give Edna a sense of independence that she has never had before. And what does she do with it? She moves out! She moves out of her husband’s home and into a small house, with no man to help her. She brings only her own belongings and one servant and sets herself up. Like, that’s not so much a big deal now, but for back then? A woman living alone? Perish the thought. This streak of independence is incredible to me. The strength it would have taken to go against the grain like this boggles the mind.
I did mention a second way of reading this book. And I think this might be because of my current studies in psychology. But, Edna’s erratic behaviour could be due to an undiagnosed mental illness. Back in the good ol’ days (so much sarcasm) whenever women exhibited real emotions, they were branded as hysterics and dealt with by negligent or cruel means. I feel like, and this could just be me reading way too much into this book, that when Edna’s emotions are awakened by Robert, love isn’t the only one that comes through. I think Edna may have been exhibiting signs of bipolar disorder. I mean, look at this quote:
There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the colour, the odours, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day.
There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why, – when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation.
Edna acts erratically and is “fine” for long stretches but also ends up despondent for no apparent reason and lying in bed all day until the feeling passes. To me, it sounded as though Edna needed to be talking to a psychologist. Obviously I am no expert, and if this offends anyone with bipolar disorder, please tell me. As a neurotypical, all I have to go on is what I’ve read in textbooks and heard from friends.
The reason I have read this book this way, is because of the ending. I’ve given away a lot about this plot of The Awakening but I don’t want to give away the end. In essence, I feel like if someone had sat Edna down and had an actual conversation with her about what was going on in her life, rather that spouting unwanted advice, the ending may have been different. Or if the doctor character in this book had spoken to Edna about her state of mind, rather that just going off of Edna’s husband’s account, the ending may have changed.
There’s so much I want to talk about, but I’ve already written a post that is nearly three times as long as what I usually write, so I’ll leave it here.
As per usual, I do not give star ratings to classic novels, but what I will say is:
CAN SOMEONE PLEASE READ THIS BOOK AND TALK TO ME ABOUT IT? I HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS.