Over the weekend, a friend suggested that I pick up The Awakening, arguably Kate Chopin’s most noteworthy work (and the piece that brought her writing career to a screeching halt). I thought I’d read the work already in high school; but it turns out I had been missing out on this classic gem for years.
I opened Chopin’s novel with some apprehension — I feared her work, which is famous for its feminist themes, would be trite and over generalized. However, I was pleasantly surprised, and so enthralled with the piece, I broke two of my longest standing Reading Rules: I downloaded the book (free!*) and read it on my iPhone (Cardinal Rule #1 – Never use an e-reader) and I listened to the LibriVox recordings (also free!*) in the car (Cardinal Rule #2 – Never listen to an audiobook). Yes. I was that desperate to finish the book.
The book follows Edna Pontellier, a young Southern Presbyterian who has married Leonce Pontellier, a financier and Catholic from New Orleans. The novel is set in the late 1890s/early 1900s in New Orleans and a resort in the Gulf of Mexico. Edna, 28 at the start of the novel, is mother to two young boys and the perfectly suitable southern wife — she is courteous, polite, modest (much more so than her Creole peers), and domestic, all virtues to be expected of a turn-of-the-century woman. She’s married well and has a circle of friends who, though not complex by any means, are certainly available for light conversation and observations about social niceties.
Through a couple of intimate relationships with men (spoiler: not her spouse[s]), a lucrative gambling trip, and mastery of the sport of swimming, Edna begins to see her life and purpose in a much different light. Ironically, Leonce becomes baffled by this “new Edna” and approaches a doctor for insight (one of my favorite scenes of the novella). Neither Leonce’s domineering attitude (sometimes husbandly, sometimes fatherly) or Mrs. Ratignolle’s matronly presence can prevent Edna from discovering who she is, and what she desires — or the realization that, as a woman, it is not unacceptable for her to have dreams, ambition, desires.
This tale was not an overly complex read in terms of diction; however, you might want to keep Google translate handy as Chopin includes several French phrases throughout. Chopin’s work is not something to be read quickly and thrown back on the shelf; it is best read with highlighter in hand, savored word for intricate word. Her novel is an honest and reflective commentary on the role of Woman; which, though evolved since 1899, still faces backward thinking in corporate America and rural towns with limited exposure (to the world, or education).
In sum, Chopin’s Awakening is a subtly fierce read with beautifully significant symbolism and irony — and a Must Read. In twelve short hours, the book carved out a place in my heart and landed itself on my Top 10 list . . . and that’s not something that happens often. I wholeheartedly regret not having read The Awakening earlier, and as an act of contrition, plan to purchase a print copy to enjoy over and over again. I’m sure that each read will reveal more significant facets of this commendable work of art.
*Chopin’s novel, as well as several other classics, is available for free download on e-readers and can be listened to for free via LibriVox because these books are in the “public domain.” Basically, if you’re like me, and you appreciate the classics, there’s a gold mine awaiting you online. But, if you also hate e-readers and must purchase your own copy, there’s no judgement coming from this girl.