Culling The Classics: "The Awakening"
Last month I sent out a call on Twitter for November "Culling The Classics" suggestions to get a feel for what the public was dying to see culled, what classic works of literature people were really curious about but didn't want to invest in without a bit of confirmation that the read wouldn't be a waste of time.
I got one reply. Thanks for voting, Shantel.
The Awakening, by Kate Chopin (H.S. Stone & Co., 1899)
Although highly controversial and critically condemned at the time of publication, today considered one of the pillars of feminist literature, an important early work on the physical and emotional rights of women; GoodReads rating of 3.77.
The Spoiler-Free Skinny
New Orleans socialite Edna Pontellier is spending the summer on Grand Isle, an island off the coast of Louisiana, with her husband and two children. While there, she becomes close with Robert Lebrun, a young bachelor with a history of flirting with unattainable women. Over the course of the summer, Edna experiences a rising wave of self-determination and distaste for the restrictions that her role in society has placed upon her. The summer ends and Robert leaves for Mexico, but back in New Orleans Edna cannot silence the restive spirit that her relationship with the young man has awoken in her.
You'll Love It
For a book written well over 100 years ago, the tone, topic, and themes are all incredibly modern. This is one of the few 19th-century works that isn't overflowing with relationships and situations that would today be considered wildly politically incorrect. In fact, the main focus of the novel is one that is just as important today as a century ago: the role of women in society, and more specifically a woman's own right and desire to determine what that role may be. Chopin is also an excellent writer. Her descriptions are succinct but highly visual, and her grasp of human emotion and the frustrations born of rigid social rules is nuanced and complete. There is nothing tedious or melodramatic about any of the scenes or characters, a remarkable thing for a novel written in 1899.
You'll Loathe It
It's a bit reminiscent of Henry James and his way of toying with the upper class in a mellifluous fashion, though Chopin is not nearly so flowery. It's almost as if Hemingway set a Henry James story down in the Gulf and cut out all the superfluous bits, and then Virginia Woolf cleaned it all up for him. Wait, this is supposed to be reasons why you wouldn't like the book. Okay, umm, it might be a bit depressing if any of the emotions hit too close to home? Although that could be a good thing, a kind of kick in the pants maybe. Uh, if you hate women, you'll be disgusted by the idea of one forgoing her family obligations to follow her own purposes and desires. Although if that's the case, fuck off, pig. Misogyny is so lame. The world isn't going to end just because a woman wants to enjoy the same freedoms that her husband does.
Yeah, you know what? There's nothing to loathe about this book. It's a bit depressing is all. Deal with it.
Read It Or Leave It
Before this month, I knew that The Awakening was a thing that existed in the world kinda in the same way that I know baklava is a thing in the world: it's important to a lot of people, but I could not tell you anything about it. I had zero expectations for this book. Admittedly, I'm a fairly staunch feminist, but I didn't know what the story was about or if I'd like the writing style or if the characters would annoy me or really anything. Had things been a little further down the scale towards Henry James, I doubt I would've gotten even 20 pages in, but Chopin is much more direct, even when she's describing minor details of Southern aristocratic society. All of her descriptions serve a more specific thematic storytelling purpose, which is refreshing in a classic work.
There are some people for whom this novel would just be a blank reinforcement of beliefs already held, but for many it might provide a bit more insight into the quiet unevenness that pervades even "polite" society. It's really not too difficult to imagine any of the events in The Awakening taking place today. It's main strength is its subtlety, though. At no point does the novel scream, "Women should be allowed to do this! We are equal! Hear us!" Instead, it speaks through Edna and attaches a universal attitude to all of her thoughts and emotions. She does not want to be free to dictate her own movements and decisions because she is a woman and all women should have those rights; she wants to do these things because she is a human and all humans should have those rights. Her struggle is not against men, but against society, represented both by her husband and by her best friend, Adèle, a woman who lives for New Orleans society and the motherly/wifely/matronly duties that have been bestowed upon her.
The Final Verdict
I had trouble with Frankenstein last month because the reading experience didn't match up with the intellectual experience for me. The themes and ideas that the book represented were compelling, but the writing style and overall narrative presentation left much to be desired. The Awakening is a much more successful book. It sets out to present Edna Pontellier's incredible and somewhat dangerous journey of self-discovery in a sympathetic manner, and the prose bolsters the story's themes along the way. The opening chapters are a bit slow, but once I fell into the pace of the novel, it picked up steadily and naturally, as did the book's "feminist" themes.
I almost think it's a bit unfair at this point to keep referring to The Awakening as a feminist novel. It's a humanist novel, with an intensely self-aware protagonist for whom self-awareness is a relatively new sensation, not one attached to any specific goal or doctrine. Throughout the course of the book, she rediscovers the world through discovering herself. The title is apt: there is a point in the story at which Edna stays up all night thinking over her station in life. While on a trip to a neighboring island the next day, she is so overwhelmed by exhaustion and the newness of these strange thoughts and emotions that have arisen in her that she nearly passes out in church. She rests in a nearby home, and when she wakes up, her transformation from a subservient family matron to a self-possessed independent member of the human race is all but completed in her mind. She merely has to begin acting upon this change that has long begun within her.
Honestly, I wasn't expecting to enjoy The Awakening as much as I did. It was good, though, and I highly recommend it—not because it is a singularly phenomenal piece of literature, but because it's so solidly on point thematically and stylistically throughout. It's a good story told well, which is really all any book should ever strive to be.
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