The Awakening is story of Edna Pontelier, a terribly bored house wife. She has unquestioningly followed the path defined for her sex. She married young probably for convenience, went on to have two beautiful children and at the ripe young age of twenty-eight she has found that she does not have anything to live for.
That is until she meets Robert LeBraun, the handsome and kind son of their lodge owner at Grand Isle. She begins to feel the hints of infatuation which bring along with it other realizations about her life, marriage and physical desires.
More than anything she feels trapped by her marriage and children – she feels that she deserves more from life but it’s being kept from her. Her husband is a very angular man for whom marriage is something to be endured and not enjoyed. The there are the children. She loves her children because they are her flesh and blood and they are beautiful, but she feels no more than a sense of duty towards them.
The book is titled “The Awakening” but I believe that there are a series of awakenings that happen to Edna as she pushes her boundaries of being a woman in nineteenth century respectable society. The first pivotal moment is when she goes swimming by herself, goes farther than intended and is scared out of her wits. This is the “spreading out her wings” moment when she realizes that she can do something by herself and for herself.
The real defining them of the book is captured in what Edna tells Robert, when Robert confesses his love for him – “You have been a very, very foolish boy wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr.Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.”
Edna has clearly come on her own. She loves Robert but she loves herself more. She has finally found the freedom of mind and body that she was striving for and she believed that Robert would understand that. But Robert, like her husband fails her. He wants to define in her a relationship that he understands and is conventional. Edna’s realizes that she may have found the freedom that she wanted but not the peace and her solution to it is both tragic and fitting.
Reading The Awakening in 2012 is no shocker. Women all over the world are realizing every day that there are not committed to live life in a certain way. They can choose who they want to be and whom they want to be with. However, when published in 1899, Chopin’s novel was like a bucket of cold water thrown on people’s heads. She was a fairly regular regional writer, penning short stories for local magazines. The Awakening would have surely pushed people to think out of the comfort zones. I was reading about Chopin and learned that she was widowed at 32. She ran her husband’s business, took care of her children and was known as an outrageous flirt. I wonder how much of her was in Edna and how many challenges she faced being a single mom.
PS: I also happened to watch the movie version of the book starring Kelly McGillis. I really did like the cinematography but apart from I thought the performances were etchy. I am not sure this was exactly the best representation.