When it comes to “classic” literature, I’m a tough sell. Without a doubt, I prefer modern literature because I prefer modern language and modern narrative styles. I find most of the classics to be over-rated, with the real strength being in theme and basic storyline, not the actual storytelling. I also have a lot of difficulty getting past the misogyny and racism in a lot of classics, no matter how representative of the times it may be.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I became engrossed in The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I picked it up precisely because I had heard of its supposedly feminist themes, but I was highly skeptical of it actually living up. What I found was a compelling story and constant awareness and criticism of the gendered roles and power-relationships between the characters.
The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a married woman in the late 1800s. Through a friendship with a single male (Robert Lebrun), which slowly turns to sexual desire, she begins to question her life as a married woman, how she is treated by her husband and the place of women in society in general. The “awakening” in the book is both a sexual awakening, and an awakening to the restrictiveness of her place in society.
[Spoilers begin here, after the jump]
The feminism of the book is clear early on. There are descriptions of her husband looking at her as a piece of property, and though Edna loves her children, she does not feel an all-consuming devotion towards them that was expected at the time (hell, it’s often expected now). Her first instance of rebellion occurs when she first realizes that she can swim and “she grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”
This moment of freedom, empowerment, and self-realization is a catalyst for Edna’s growing assertiveness and independence. In fact, it is after this moment that, for the first time, she openly refuses to obey her husband’s wishes. Normally, “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 . . .” In other words, she began to recognize that she had automatically assumed a role of inferiority towards her husband, when she did not necessarily have to. It leads to bigger and better things: perusing her talent as an artist, giving up social expectations and domestic responsibilities, moving about freely, moving out of her husband’s home and finding the courage to finally express her love for Robert.
It is frustrating, from a storyline standpoint, that her affair with Robert is never truly consummated. In fact, they never share more than a few embraces and kisses. It does, however, allow for a lot more personal growth on Edna’s part. Instead of this turning into some bullshit story about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage only to be saved by a better man, it is a story of self-realization and empowerment. In the end, she didn’t need Robert to discover her sensuality and she didn’t need him to make changes in her life.
He does, however, turn out to be her downfall. In the end, he foolishly and paternalistically rejects her “for her own good.” He effectively denies her agency, rejects her ability to make a competent choice and turns out to not be much better than her husband. After all, they both treat her as highly irrational and not knowing what’s best for herself.
The ending, of course, is the most talked about part of the book. Firstly, I’d love to say that I love the moment where she strips naked on the beach and stands in the sun. Earlier in the book, she sees an image in her head, while listening to particularly transcendent music, of a naked man standing on a beach in front of the water. He looks free, peaceful, and Edna implicitly envies him. The image of her stripping naked is a direct reference to that earlier vision, with the drastic difference of her sex. I saw it as a highly feminist moment, where Edna realized that she could, in fact, be what she dreamed. I imagine that the original subject of her vision was male because she did not yet know how to imagine differently; I saw her replacement of that man as the climax of her transformation.
Sadly, her suicide by drowning directly follows this moment. This turn of events genuinely shocked me. The ending could be taken in several different ways. I imagine that one of the most obvious interpretations would be that Edna let her love of an undeserving man get the best of her and foolishly sacrificed herself for him.
I, however, saw Edna’s suicide not as the result of grief over losing Robert, but as grief over her loss of the hope that she could ever truly be herself. Shortly before her drowning, there is the statement that “she understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.” It is my interpretation that Edna felt like she would have to sacrifice herself in order to go on living in such a patriarchal world, where she would never truly have control over what happened to her. Robert’s treatment towards her firmly cemented that fact in her psyche.
I’d compare it, in fact, to the ending of Thelma and Louise or the suicide of the Lisbon girls in The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (my favorite book). All of these characters felt the overwhelming constraint of society, because they were female. All of these characters felt trapped and were subjected unfairly to societal forces beyond their control. And though it’s far from the ideal solution, and not one that I would ever advocate in real life, all of these women chose to die rather than live in the man’s world that was handed to them. Realizing after extreme struggle and pressure that they could not, in fact, beat the patriarchy, they chose suicide. For them, no life and a death on their own terms was a hell of a lot better than a life out of their control. And as a literary device, I’d say that it’s highly effective, pretty fucking badass and also, in fact, quite feminist.