Apr 2, 2010

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (and April events)

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

When a while ago I posted a poll asking you which classic I should read next, The Awakening won by a landslide. Well, it seems that you know me well. Set in Louisiana in the late nineteenth-century, Kate Chopin’s novel tells the story of Edna Pontellier. Edna is a young wife and mother who as the story opens is spending the summer at Grande Isle, a resort on the Southern coast of Louisiana. Edna becomes close to Robert Lebrun, the son of the proprietor, and even when the summer ends and she returns to New Orleans, she cannot get rid of the new thoughts and feelings that the summer seems to have stirred in her. The Awakening traces her psychological and social journey – a journey of increased restlessness, dissatisfaction and unconventionality, leading to the eventual sad consequences of trying to be herself in a world where this was not allowed of any woman.

My favourite thing about The Awakening was the fact that it acknowledged and gave voice to feelings that are still largely unacceptable today, let alone in the nineteenth century. It can happen that a woman will not particularly connect with her children; that she’ll find family life stifling; that she’ll have sexual feelings for a man other than her husband; that she will, in short, be unhappy with the role that was assigned to her. It can and does happen, and contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t make her a monster, or “unnatural”, or anything other than a dissatisfied human being. But this is a touchy subject even today, and I can see Edna being dismissed as “irresponsible” or “selfish”. However, I couldn’t have felt more respect for Edna’s feelings, as well as for her resolve not to let her self be consumed.

One of the most powerful scenes in the book was when Edna realised that she would give her life for her children, for Robert, for those she cared about, but she could never give up her identity or allow herself to be engulfed. She resolves “never again to belong to another than herself.” Most of us will at one point or another in our lives willingly give up things for the sake of those we love, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that. But losing our identities for the sake of others is one of the saddest things I can imagine – and throughout history and up until the present, this has been the lot of countless women. I admire Edna for becoming aware of this; for slowly realising that her identity was the one thing she simply could not give up. I wish we didn’t live in a world that routinely expected this of women.

A hundred and eleven years after its publication, The Awakening is still a revolutionary novel. I can only imagine the kind of scandal that followed its publication back then (note to self: look that up). Not only does it acknowledge that a married woman could feel entrapped, that someone with a seemingly perfect life could be unhappy, and that women also experienced sexual desire (take that, Dr. William Acton), but it does so in a completely neutral, non-judgemental tone. The narrator’s voice is, if anything, sympathetic to Edna’s plight. But more than anything, it lets her story speak for itself and invites the reader draw whatever conclusions she or he will.

Passages I liked:
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight—perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman. But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!

Mrs. Pontellier was not a woman given to confidences, a characteristic hitherto contrary to her nature. Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.

She heard him moving about the room; every sound indicating impatience and irritation. Another time she would have gone in at his request. She would, through habit, have yielded to his desire; not with any sense of submission or obedience to his compelling wishes, but unthinkingly, as we walk, move, sit, stand, go through the daily treadmill of the life which has been portioned out to us.

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 color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.
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. She could not work on such a day, nor weave fancies to stir her pulses and warm her blood.
Other opinions:
Book Addiction
Trish’s Reading Nook
Care’s Online Bookclub
Shelf Love
The Infinite Shelf
Page After Page
The Zen Leaf

My Porch

(Let me know if I missed yours.)



Poetry Month and Blog Tour AngelaCarterMonth

April is here, which means that it’s time for two book blogging events that I’ve been very much looking forward to. First of all, April is Poetry Month, and Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit has put together a blog tour in celebration. I’ll be posting my thoughts on Mary Oliver later this month, and until then I look forward to seeing what everyone else has to share. Please visit Serena’s blog for all the details.

Secondly, April is Angela Carter month at the lovely Claire’s blog, Paperback Reader. I’m a big fan of Angela Carter’s work, and I look forward to joining the celebrations with a read of one of her books that I
ve been saving. Again, please visit Claire’s blog for more details, as well as for a wonderful giveaway of two Angela Carter books.

Finally, for those of you who celebrate it, have a wonderful Easter weekend. I hope that wherever you are the weather is less miserably rainy and cold than it is here. Spring? What Spring?

49 comments:

  1. Love, love, love this book, for all the reasons you mention. The first time I read it, I was a young stay at home mom with three kids under 6 years old, and I was miserable. I could feel everything with Edna. I know people who think of her as selfish and it upsets me, though I can understand - I understand that they simply can't understand her.

    My review, which is more like an emotional diatribe about the book, is here: http://zenleaf.blogspot.com/2008/07/awakening-by-kate-chopin.html

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  2. This is another that has been on my list for a long, long time. And actually one that I'm a little bit embarrassed that I haven't already read.

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  3. Wonderful review! I love this book and have read it several times - first in college, then as a struggling at-home mom with a three year old and newborn twins, and again several years later. My appreciation grows each time.

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  4. It is intriguing to me that this book can inspire admiration and a whole array of emotions, when another more recent book can write about the same thing (a woman unhappy in her own skin) can cause readers to feel annoyed at the selfishness. It is all about how it is presented. It is amazing how many women I know who feel like this, but is still very taboo. It makes me sad for them, and I can only hope they can find the peace within themselves so they can find happiness in their lives.

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  5. Well, I'm trying to cut back on my addiction to leaving rambling, irrelevant comments on your blog. So I'll just say your very compassionate review of this book was very meaningful to me. I've never felt stifled by my children, or, for that matter, ever been a woman, of course, and really have never had anything of the extent that poor Ms P, or a whole lot of women, have to complain about. But this is still a very deeply felt book, and I'm glad you could enjoy it and love Edna. That's one of the things I loved about it this book - the 1 paragraph summary, for many people, wouldn't make you love her, but the book can let you see something you don't usually see. OK, so it's a little rambly and irrelevant. I can't just go cold turkey, or I'll start twitching and stuff!

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  6. I agree with Sandy, presentation is so important here. I loved this book because we understand Edna, we hurt for her. She's baffled by her own unhappiness and we, as reader, are relieved when she decides to do something about it. And the material itself was so unique and daring for that time period. It might not be accepted now, but it's certainly written about more frequently.

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  7. Wow! Can you imagine how controversial that book would have been when it was published?

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  8. I haven't read this one yet, but do have a copy on the shelf.

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  9. I believe this is the fourth time in three days that this book has been recommended to me. What a coincidence, must be fate! I haven't read it for years and years; I actually think I was in high school the last time. Time to move it up my to read list!

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  10. When Eva read this, I made some attempt to capture how what speaks to me is the way she was willing to give her life but not herself for her family. You make it much clearer than I did what she meant, and I think now that I'm older, I understand much better what the main character meant. At the time of reading, I didn't really "get" it.

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  11. this is a new one on me ,i ll have keep a eye out for it at book sales ,great review

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  12. I've wanted to read this book for a while, but your review has convinced me that I MUST read it. I just loved everything you spoke about and think it's a book that would speak to me greatly. This sounds like such a thoughtful, powerful and important piece of women's fiction, and I can't wait to read it myself!

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  13. I had not heard of this book before but it sounds incredible. Also, sounds like you will have a busy month :)

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  15. Bravo. I'm so glad you were pleased that we all suggested this book. I know I am delighted (or encouraged?) to read your thoughts. I might surmise you will be none too happy when you delve further into the aftermath of its publication; how the controversy affected Ms. Chopin. (my knowledge is sparse - I'm sure you will find more. I look forward to that, as well?) #luvana

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  16. Excellent review, as always! I'm interested in reading it, although I'm not sure if I'd be able to relate to the story. Even still, I'll be looking out for this the next time I'm at the library.

    Emidy
    from Une Parole

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  17. Loved, loved, loved this book!!! She was an excellent writer. great post!

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  18. If I recall, Chopin never published another book again due to the scandal from this novel, and had to live in seclusion. But I might be confusing her with another writer.

    This book sounds great. It's still waiting on my TBR shelf. :)

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  19. BTW I just found her first novel, At Fault, today at Half Price Books, as well as a collection of her short stories! :D

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  20. I read this in college but I can't remember it at all. Maybe I was just assigned it but never really read it. Yeah, that's probably it; I was assigned it, which is why I have the book but totally bs'd my way through the classwork. I should probably pull it out and read it.

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  21. This sounds wonderful, especially since the message is just as compelling today as it was a century ago.

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  22. I thought this book was beautifully written - and loved that it validated the feelings that Edna had - I think any wife and mother who doesn't admit to having those feelings at different times is being dishonest. However, I did find the choice Edna made in response to those feelings to be a selfish one.

    And maybe this is because I'm looking at it from a modern sensibility - as a woman living today, I have many more options and ways to deal with feeling subsumed by motherhood and marriage - Edna obviously didn't have most of those choices.

    Great review - thanks for reminding me about this book and making me think of it in a little different way. Have you read any of Chopin's short fiction? It's wonderful, too

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  23. Wonderful review, Nymeth! This is one of those classics I want to read and have just put off. I'm looking forward to it.

    Happy Poetry Month! Oh and if I can I'll send you some of the sunshine we've been having here in Texas :)

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  24. Losing our identities for the sake of others is indeed one of the saddest things. I hope this will not happen to me. What I do hope is that my identity will not only be retained but be strengthened and edified because of others. What a great review, Ana!

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  25. This is one of my favorite books.
    That last quote always stood out to me as well.
    Fantastic review. I can imagine this book caused quite the scandal back when it was first published.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  26. Ah, this is one of those books where I read ages ago and loved, but could not give any specifics. :P

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  27. I remember reading this in high school. I wasn't really a fan of the book until the end where it turned into one of my favorites that we read for the curriculum. I think I'd like to read it now to see how a more mature me would take it. Great review!

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  28. I read this so very long ago. After reading your wonderful review, it sounds like time for a reread! Great job!

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  29. I read this in college, but I think I was still too immature at the time to really appreciate it. I still have my copy, and I hope to re-read it at some point.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  30. Amanda: I'm so sorry I missed your review! I always seem to miss the early ones - maybe because you transferred them over, they haven't been crawled and don't turn up in the search? Also, woohoo for finding her short stories! I read one in college, The Story of an Hour, and it was awesome.

    Elisabeth, nothing to be embarassed about! The same was true of me until a few weeks ago :P

    JoAnn: I have a feeling mine will too when I revisit it.

    Sandy: I definitely agree that presentation matters. In this case, the story is told so well that it's definitely not so sympathise with Edna.

    Jason: You shouldn't cut back, as your long comments are more appreciated than you know :P It wasn't at all rambly or irrelevant.

    Avid Reader: Yes - Chopin makes it so easy for readers to feel what Edna is feeling. I'm glad these things are talked about more frequently now - that's the path to acceptance.

    Kathy: I know! I think it was so brave of her to publish it.

    Jeane, I look forward to hearing what you think!

    Trisha: the world wants you to read it :P

    Aarti: I'm sure I wouldn't either have had I been younger.

    winstondsdad: I hope you manage to find it.

    Andreea: I hope you do! I think you'd enjoy it.

    Steph: I can't wait to hear your thoughts on it!

    Amy: I've actually already read my book for the poetry blog tour, as much to my surprise I couldn't put it down!

    Care: I've looked it up, and no, I wasn't happy at all :\ Poor Kate Chopin.

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  31. I'm so glad that you enjoyed it. I read it at least a few years back with my Classics book club.

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  32. I love this book. Such a powerful read. I hated the ending though but i suppose she really had no way out in the end.

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  33. The newspaper book sections are always including this in their lists but you're the first person who has actually told me why I should read it.

    By the way our weather has been horrible too, but it's perked up for Easter Sunday. Hope you're having a nice weekend.

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  34. This is a novel I've never really connected with. When I have to teach Chopin, I choose The Story of an Hour because it seems to me to say the same things as The Awakening, but much quicker!

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  35. I’ve been meaning to read this book for quiet some time now, it’s been on my “to be read” list for far too long! But after I read your review, I think it’s time I pick it up and start reading it already :)

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  36. Great review, Ana!
    As always, you've easily made me add another book onto my wishlist, LOL.

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  37. I loved this book as well. Here is my review.

    http://myporchblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/book-review-awakening-by-kate-chopin.html

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  38. At the time I read this, I was in high school, so I didn't quite understand it, a lot went over my head, and plus I think life experiences really do shape how you connect with a book. Now that I'm a whole 6 years older since reading it, I think it may be time for a re-read.

    Also, I do agree with you on how this still espouses controversial views. Whenever I say I hate kids and want to be childfree, I get odd looks, but seriously, just cuz I am a lady does not mean I want kids.

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  39. I have never read this book but it seems quite powerful. You are correct, those feelings are frowned on then and now. Thanks for a great review!

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  40. I read this last year and loved it, I'm glad you did too. I agree that so many of its themes are still relevant today.

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  41. This was far and away my favorite book that I was assigned to read in high school. I remember the class discussions being very polarized by sex - all of the boys thought Edna was being flighty and selfish, and of the girls were like "no, she sounds pretty normal to me."

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  42. I have wanted to read this book for a long time, but after reading your review, I realize that I must try to do so soon. I think it sounds wonderful and think that this book has a lot to say to me, personally. I loved this review and am going to hunt down a copy of my very own! Thanks, Nymeth for your very eloquent thoughts on this classic.

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  43. This is one of those books that I always say to myself, why have I *still* not read this?

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  44. I liked The Awakening, but it bothered me how closely it resembled Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary in terms of passionate love lost equals self destruction. It's interesting to me how the story's been done from three different countries, and probably many more if I looked farther.

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  45. Emidy, I think you might. Even if our circumstances are very different, the feelings Edna experiences are easy to relate to.

    Staci, she really was.

    Heidenkind: I looked it up, and yep, you're right :\

    Lisa: lol, I think we've all done that at one point or another :P

    Stephanie: Yeah, I think the themes are definitely timeless.

    Carrie K: I don't want to talk too much about her final decision in case someone reads this and has it spoiled for them, but I can see how people would consider it selfish - it's selfish in the sense that she had to let go of her ties to anyone and anything to go that far, but I felt such sympathy for her, because like you said she had no options at all. As for her short fiction, all I've read was The Story of an Hour, which I loved. Clearly I need to read more!

    Iliana: Happy Poetry Month for you too! I hope you enjoy The Awakening as much as I did.

    Alice: I don't think it will - you're so passionate and full of life! And fortunately we both live in times and places where we can mostly pursue our interests without being punished for it, unlike Edna.

    Naida: Yes, it seems that it did. Which makes me admire Chopin all the more!

    Christina: Time to read it again, then :P

    She: I hope you enjoy it the second time around! The ending is really powerful, isn't it?

    Diane, thank you!

    Anna, I hope you enjoy it more when you decide to revisit it :)

    Teddy Rose: I really did!

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  46. Mae: I hated that she was driven to that, but I thought the ending worked really well in the context of the book. It really emphasised how desperate and trapped she was.

    Jodie: Fortunately the sun decided to come out here too for Easter. And I think you'd love this book - I can't wait to hear your thoughts.

    Jeanne: I think my professor felt much as you did, as that was the story I was taught in university :P

    Lua, I hope you find it as rewarding as I did :)

    Melody: Sorry :P

    Thomas, I've added your link - thanks.

    April: I completely agree that life experiences make a huge difference when it comes to whether or not a book clicks for you. And don't get me started on the HORRIBLE things people tell me when they realise I don't want children :S

    Jaimie, you're welcome! And yes, unfortunately it's true.

    coffeestainedpages: Sadly they really are!

    Fyrefly: She definitely sounded normal to me as well. It's too bad that the boys just dismissed her :\

    Zibilee: I look forward to hearing what you think!

    J.T. Oldfield: I'd always ask myself the same until two weeks ago :P

    Bellezza: I haven't read Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary (I know, I know), so I can't compare them. But, I didn't quite read the ending as Edna making the decision she did because of lost love. I thought it was more about feeling that no matter what, she'd never be allowed to really be who she wanted to be.

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  47. RE: Poetry, I'm also hosting the Bookworms Carnival at the end of the month, so I hope you (and everyone!) sends in a link to a favorite poetry post.

    I really want to read this now! Thanks for all those great quotes. Sounds like it's perfect for the Women Unbound Challenge.

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  48. Love this book. My 8th grade teacher gave me a copy and it blew me away.

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  49. oh my god, i absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE this book!! I'm 17 and had to choose a book for english to read and I borrowed this one from the library..this book is so beautifully written! it's now one of my favourites! i couldn't put it down, and i kept renewing it over and over! i was actually really sad when i had to return it lol, so i'll be buying my own copy soon! :) i really appreciated this book, imgaine when i re-read it again when i'm older how much more i'll appreciate it! :)

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.