In 1994 shortly after the birth of my second child I took a class for renewal of my teaching certificate. The class was on women in education and focused on women in literature. It was an eye opening class for me, and I was exposed to a number of woman writers such as Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin.When my book group was looking for a different kind of novel to read than we’d been reading, someone suggested Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I immediately agreed with this choice mostly because this book stood, unread, on my bookshelf, but also because I liked what little I’d already read by Chopin.
After publication, this book was banned, was unsuccessful and severely criticized for its subject matter.
The Awakening is a story about 28 year-old Edna Pontellier who, while on vacation with her two young children and husband, finds she is dissatisfiled with her life. She admits to not feeling as close to her children as she knows she’s supposed to feel. Her closest female friend, Adèle Ratignolle, is a model wife and mother, which makes the contrast between Edna and what society expects even more pronounced. When young Robert Lebrun pays attention to Edna during the vacation, she falls in love with him, and apparently he falls in love with Edna. Alarmed, Adèle worrys that Edna will harm her children:
Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one. Then had followed a rather heated argument; the two women did not appear to understand each other or to be talking the same language. Edna tried to appease her friend, to explain.
“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. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”
“I don’t know what you would call the essential, or what you mean by the unessential,” said Madame Ratignolle, cheerfully; “but a woman who would give her life for her children could do no more than that – your Bible tells you so. I’m sure I couldn’t do more than that.”
“Oh, yes you could!” laughed Edna.
When Edna returns to New Orleans she becomes restless and disregards her “duties” to the point of sending her children to her in-laws and moving into a smaller home when her husband is away.
I’m glad I finally read this book, but reading it on the heels of Lady Chatterly’s Lover was a bad idea. I became tired of reading about wealthy young women dissatisfied with their lives.
This book would be a great companion to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’sThe Yellow Wallpaper and Henrik Isben’s A Dolls House for a discussion about Victorian era marriages told with a feminist slant. I believe it is on some high school book lists. I’m not sure it belongs there. I think one must be older, and perhaps even married with children to really understand the ideas behind this story. It is only a tiny novel, but it took me a while to read because I found the language difficult to wade through and I was not charmed by any of the characters.