The Awakening by Kate Chopin

by Cara on July 13, 2007

in books, feminism, media, reviews

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.


1 Kitty Glendower July 13, 2007 at 11:29 pm

I must agree with you. I considered her suicide equivalent to the reason Sethe murders her children in Beloved. However, I like the older books for the exact reasons you dislike them and dislike the contemporary ones for exactly the reasons you like them. That is so funny.

Btw, I got here from the Verging Writer. She has the wrong link. I believe you said somewhere you would like to know this info.

2 Cara July 13, 2007 at 11:35 pm

Oooh– another interesting literary analogy. I hadn’t considered that one. I’d actually say that Sethe’s actions are a lot more justified than Edna’s– slavery, the constant threat of having your children taken from you, the constant threat of rape and being murdered is a hell of a lot worse than being forced to live in stuffy privileged society under strict gender rules. But there certainly is a parallel.

And thanks for the info; Anna seems to regularly read this blog, so hopefully she’ll see it!

3 Roy July 15, 2007 at 11:10 am

I think you’re dead on- the former reading of her suicide misses so much of the context of the act. It’s not her being unhappy because she can’t be with Robert, it’s much more a realization that even that relationship- one that she thought was founded on a mutual respect and understanding- is tainted by the differences in their sex and by the restrictions of society. That she, as a woman, will never have the sort of respect and appreciation that she deserves. That’s her final awakening- that she’ll never be equal under that society. She refuses to live in a world that doesn’t respect her as a human being, and so, her only solution is to not live in that world anymore.

4 Leah July 17, 2007 at 11:00 am

Thank you for talking about this book. I read it a few years ago for a class. I really enjoyed it but found it difficult to follow (in parts) because of the language. At the time, I was irritated because I just wanted Edna and Robert to ‘do it’ (haha) and I was really upset by the ending where she commits suicide. Now I can see that it was better not to end up with Robert because one shouldn’t need a man to be complete or be rescued. I can see WHY she committed suicide, but I’m still upset that there wasn’t an alternative. However, living in that time period, maybe there simply was no other way for Edna to claim her person-hood. Such a conflicting book for me still…I’m a sucker for happy endings

5 kax July 17, 2007 at 1:14 pm

cara: love this book. i read it for pleasure and then years later for a class. as a feminist book it has held up through the years. i wrote a paper on the relationship of smoking, power and masuclinity. note that edna never smokes, but all the men around her do. smoking cigars vs. the more ‘feminine’ (and decadent) cigarette. it was a fun paper to research and i’m still thinking about the implications of this aspect. fun fact: kate chopin was a smoker and was known to have a cigar while in the bath. i would have loved to have known her.

6 Michelle August 9, 2007 at 11:01 am

History always has a context – i hope you’ll become warmer to the classics in time

7 Michelle August 10, 2007 at 10:18 pm

to add: You have to view classics in their context – the “difficulty” getting past the sexism and racism may be a subconcious “currentist” expectation that people from the past should somehow act in accordance with modern culture and worldview rather than *their* culture and worldview. Context doesn’t excuse their attitudes but it does explain them and help you to understand them.

Of course, a Cara living a century ago would likely have shared many of those old views and probably been as religious as most people then too.

8 Cara August 10, 2007 at 11:00 pm

I’m not so sure that it’s “currentist” expectations so much as it is my complete 100% utter intolerance of any form of intolerance (without the purpose of showing how vile the intolerance is)! I understand the cultures and world views of the time are merely being reflected in the work. But that doesn’t make me any more tolerant of a character who is racist and/or sexist or desirous to know anything about them.

Also, as I think I mentioned, I have issues with the writing styles, as well. I’m a contemporary snob. Older, more formal styles of writing just tend to bore the fuck out of me. It probably says something about my character (or maybe the mild ADD my husband constantly insists that I suffer from), but it’s true. Writing style means a lot to me. I have a degree in English. And I hate Shakespeare. I also hate Ernest Hemmingway with a (much stronger) passion. And dozens of other writers that others consider to be genius. In most cases, I can recognize and acknowledge the literary contribution that has been made, admit that they were gifted or created great story lines. But I still don’t like the writing.

9 Molly February 5, 2009 at 5:05 pm

I had to read the book for my English class and I really enjoyed it. I thought the suicide was an effective way to end the story because the whole book seemed to build up to that point and it seemed the only way for Edna to find freedom. However, for my English class I have to argue that this was an inappropriate ending and I’m having trouble building my arguement seeing as I believe it was the best ending for the book and what makes it such a memorable story. I was wondering if anyone could give me any ideas to help with this. Thanks!

10 Rolando R April 23, 2009 at 2:55 am

Cara-well said. I wish I saw more texts and literature on this book. It’s absolutely one of my favorites.

For Molly, the ending is not just about her suicide, as you well may understand. One tip yoou might want to consider is what drove her to swim instead of cutting or shooting herself and the actual rhetoric of Choin in the last parapraph notice how there is no mention of what she is doing but what she feels. This alludes to the event being more than suicide. That is just one thing I’d like to mention.
Cara-again, great job. One of my favorite parts about the texts is the use of birds as symbols. I recommend looking back and seeing where that appears and how it applies to feminism. Also, symbols like the garden, her home, and even her discription of Mexico really opens a lot of oppritunity to expand on what Chopin is saying.

Just thought I would add something. Feel free to respond.

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