I just finished reading The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. In its brief pages, the story comforts me in a way many may find disagreeable. No matter, it is as true today as it was when written at the end of the 19th century.
*If you have not read the novel, the following contains spoiler alerts.
Published in 1899, Chopin put down in words how thousands of women must have been feeling at the time. Women – often artists of one medium or another – who know in their soul that their lives were being playing out in ways that were not true. In those days, women married and had children. All activities revolved around her husband and children. Without them, she would fall right out orbit.
I was surprised by the ending, sure that Edna would either: A – Run off with Robert or B – Return (emotionally) to her husband and family. I also rushed to a grossly incorrect comparison to Anna Karenina, based on how often we find heroines in these old novels to be so willing to end their lives over a lost love.
That comparison was misdirected because I failed to remember that one of the stories was written by a man. Tolstoy has Anna kill herself because her life has become tragically unbearable due to the lack of a man’s affections. In The Awakening, Edna ends her life because she cannot figure out way to deliver herself from society’s constraints on her as a PERSON. I doubt that Tolstoy could imagine a woman who wouldn’t struggle with losing custody of her child if she left her husband…couldn’t conceive of a female for whom motherhood wasn’t the primary desire. Anna was a weak character who was not written for happiness. On the contrary – she seems to be written to scare other women off from traveling that the same path and to remind them that looking for happiness outside of the living room of her family can only end one way?
When I was young, I was obsessed with a rock goddess who never married. Her affair with a band mate was legendary, and my twenty-something-self lived for the day they would figure it out and end up together. At some point, I realized that music was her true partner. She as much said it so many times, but even I didn’t listen. There is a stronger pull than the love of a good man.
When Edna tells her husband that he will not speak to her in a condescending manner again, and if he does, she will not answer him. Later she writes to him to advise that she has rented a house for herself while he and the children are away Allowing herself to become smitten with a young man who flatters her isn’t the smartest way to let it play out, but that relationship is not what matters in the story. It is the awakening that it provides: a sexual awakening; an awakening to her art and finally, the overwhelming fear that she will suffocate in her role as mother and wife.
Much is said here about motherhood. Edna no doubts loves her children, but she stands apart in that love…acknowledging their sweetness with bonbons and gushing letters – but leaving their raising to servants. Her true nature regarding motherhood is better revealed through the terror she experiences when attending her friend’s childbirth.
I’m sure it’s what would be seen as disregard for these children that people most wanted to burn Chopin at the stake for. Even younger, female writers took issue with Chopin on this topic. Like today, women are not always the support system for their sisters they should be.
Edna tries to accomplish what’s expected of her. Like most of us do. We sacrifice years in relationships that play little part in defining who we really are. Affection and friendship must be secondary to what your soul screams to you or else you find yourself swimming out to sea and not looking back.
For me, the breakthrough character was the doctor and it’s unfortunate that all the critics of the book don’t recognize Chopin’s ability to include a male among those who possibly would be an ally. How the author must have hoped that a man could understand that wanderlust she craved. What would have happened had Edna spoke to him in longer confidence? He told her she would be surprised at how well he understood what she was going through. And he cautioned the husband against the all-too popular judgement that his wife’s actions and tendencies belied a madness within her.
History books are filled with men for one simple reason. They enjoyed the freedom to explore their passions and their strengths, not confined by their biology. Glances weren’t cast sideways at men who dared to create beauty from their desks or easels or musical instruments. Where would we be if they had been?
Life is short. Choices must be made, but from a place of peace and certainty – not from standards set by someone outside ourselves. Art is thought-provoking. That is its purpose, and these were my thoughts after reading The Awakening.