The first time I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, I knew I was reading something special. I mean, in how many books about the Victorian age can you find a woman who is brave enough to leave her stable, “traditional” family, in order to truly find out who she is? This book was written in a time when the feminist movement was little more than a dream deferred, a joke to be laughed about by men over cigars. When this book came out in 1899, people were so shocked that they banned it for decades. I have a sneaking feeling that, like the most ardent antagonists of things like gay marriage, those that were most outspoken about the scandal of The Awakening were also those who most identified with it, and who were most afraid of it.
Like I mentioned in my review of Fear of Flying, Edna Pontellier tries, and fails, to do what Isadora Wing accomplishes almost a century later. The husbands of the late 19th century had a much firmer hold on their wives, a hold supported by the entire society, and any woman who so much as dared to do anything seen as not entirely befitting a wife and mother, was ostracized completely. In most cases, wives were closer to possessions than companions, and Mr. Pontellier frequently thinks of his wife as one of many objects that he owns. “‘You are burnt beyond recognition,’ he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (3). Edna is aware that her husband thinks of her as property, and this knowledge is part of what drives her away, and into herself. “Conditions would some way adjust themselves, she felt; but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself” (106). Part of Edna’s “awakening” is her realization that she is more important to her than either her husband or her children. Although she somewhat admires the almost mother goddess-like figure of Madame Ratignolle, Edna finds that she feels no desire to be like her.
Madame Ratignolle is portrayed as the absolutely quintessential Victorian mother and wife, and is used as a stark contrast to Edna’s lackluster mothering skills. Everyone adores her, but no more than her husband and children. She is infallibly kind and nurturing, and cannot in the slightest understand the cause for Edna’s unhappiness. When Edna informs her that “she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one” (62), it is as if she and Madame Ratignolle no longer speak the same language. Even when Edna tries to clarify what she means, Madame Ratignolle completely misses her meaning. “I would give up the unessential, I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (62). What Edna is saying of course, is that she wouldn’t give up the part of her that makes her unique. She could never bring herself to sacrifice who and what she is for the benefit of her children. This makes her profoundly different from Madame Ratignolle and the rest of the “mother-women” of her time. In fact, throughout the book, Edna shows very little interest in her children, unless with a certain novelty, like a child with a toy which is only beloved when nearby. Edna can see no satisfaction in the way Madame Ratignolle lives, and envies her not at all.
So if Madame Ratignolle is the Victorian angel of motherhood, Mademoiselle Reisz is the epitome of a spinster: alone, unpleasant, and often a source of snide amusement among the circles of society. She is practically a caricature, with her fake hair adorned with fake violets, and her shabby top floor apartment. But she is a master piano player. It is this that I find interesting. Why does it seem, so often in literature, that a woman can be either an artist or a wife, but not successfully be both? Edna finds that she draws best when she is alone. Mademoiselle Reisz has only her piano to keep her company. Isadora Wing realizes in the end of Fear of Flying that she doesn’t need a man in order to be able to write. The men in her life seem to put down her writing as if, because she is a woman, it can be little more than a silly hobby, not to be taken seriously. What is it about artistic women that threaten the traditional bounds of marriage and conjugal happiness?
These two women are the extremes that Edna is presented with. And yet she is happy with neither. She only wants to pursue her own happiness, and the rest be damned. “…I don’t want anything but my own way. That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others…”(147). The uniqueness of Edna’s situation comes from the fact that she comes to realize that society is not ready for a woman like her, that there is no place for her. Even the man who caused her “awakening” isn’t brave enough to be with her in spite of society. He leaves her, thinking he is doing her a favor, that maybe since he caused her awakening, that he could also reverse it. He leaves her a note saying “I love you. Good-bye, because I love you.” He thereby makes her decision for her, it seems. If she can’t be happy with her family and she can’t be happy alone (since society will not allow her to be so), Edna decides on the only possibility left open to her, in her mind: suicide. In a way which suggests that even Edna was unaware of her own self-destructive plan, she goes back to the beach where the book began, and swims out to sea. This is important because her learning how to swim the summer before parallels her subsequent education on the art of being independent. She no longer needs the help of another to stay afloat. She swims further and further out, pushing the bounds of her strength just as she pushed the bounds of her role as a woman, and then, when she can go no further and hasn’t the strength to return, the book ends.
In my college Women in Literature class, some people argued that she didn’t die in the end. I don’t see how you could interpret it any other way. She swam out further than she’d ever swam before, just like she ventured further into her own self and independence than ever before, and then simply gives up. For her, it is the easiest way.
Why do I love this book? Because for an American novel written by a woman in the 19th century, it is strong, unforgiving, and real. Chopin dared to portray a female protagonist in a way that was incendiary and unprecedented. Bravo, I say. The only thing she didn’t do? Include very many descriptions of food other than one word dishes like “fish” or “fowl.” I think I’ll have to exercise a certain level of improvisation this time. But it’s set in New Orleans, so I think it’s going to be great.