Friday, February 22, 2019

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Realist housewives of New Orleans
Published in 1899, Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening has been hailed as a groundbreaking work of feminist literature and a pioneering stylistic precursor to modernism. The book’s examination of gender roles was too ahead of its time for many critics of its day, some of whom belittled it as “sex fiction,” which it certainly is not. Viewing the novel with 21st century hindsight, however, it may be an admirable work of American literary naturalism, but the feminist message seems dulled by Victorian gentility and class cluelessness.

The novel opens at a resort on Grand Isle, an island off the coast of Louisiana where wealthy residents of New Orleans spend their summer vacations. Edna Pontellier and her husband Léonce are frequent visitors here and enjoy the company of a circle of friends and acquaintances who are also regulars at the resort. While her husband is often off doing his own thing, Edna begins spending a great deal of time with Robert Lebrun, the son of the resort owners. The two form a very close attachment, one that might blossom into full-blown love were it not for Edna’s marital status. Edna also forms a friendship with Mademoiselle Reisz, an unmarried pianist, and comes to envy the single woman’s independent lifestyle. After returning to New Orleans, Edna becomes dissatisfied with her role as wife and mother and begins asserting her independence, much to the chagrin of her husband.

Though much of what Chopin has to say about gender roles is pioneering for her time and still bears relevance today, she is less liberal and innovative in her views on class. Like so many writers of the Victorian era, Chopin finds the lives of wealthy people of the leisure class the only lives worth writing about. This novel smacks of “rich people’s problems.” At the island retreat, Edna’s greatest concerns are what to wear, what cushion to recline upon, and what fan to cool herself with. If she feels faint, there is always someone handy to brush her face with cologne water. She and her friends are waited upon hand and foot by black servants, whose problems aren’t worth mentioning. Because of her high social status, Edna is totally excused from the hard work of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing typically requisite to the gender role of women of her era. It is difficult to identify with or feel sorry for characters among this social set. I’d rather read the novels of Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman—or, for that matter, Theodore Dreiser, Emile Zola, or Frank Norris­­—in which the female protagonists deal with more realistic and less aristocratic problems like poverty, discrimination, sexual harassment, or violence.

The Awakening doesn’t come across as so much a feminist statement as just a depressing look at the confines of marriage. Even so, Mrs. Pontellier enjoys more personal freedom than any other married person I know, male or female, even by 21st century standards. Somebody else takes care of her children, she spends her time and money as she chooses, pursues her artistic dreams, keeps her own apartment, and her spouse lets her run around with other lovers. Her living hell sounds like a fantasy camp to me. So what is she actually rebelling against? Monogamy? The solution to Edna’s problems would be divorce, though unfortunately that wasn’t a common option in 1899, thus leading to the book’s memorable final scene. Chopin is a fine writer who examines the psychology of her protagonist with a naturalist’s precision, but had I known what I was getting into I probably wouldn’t have chosen to spend a few hours of my time with this character and her social circle.
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