Originally published on Goodreads.
With several hours to kill before an appointment, I decided to pop inside a bookstore to pick up something “short but old.” In pursuit of this end, I solicited the aid of the shop lady, one of those former English majors who’ve evidently forgotten everything they might have once learned in university. Following several false starts (“Sorry, ma’am, but I’ve already read both Animal Farm and The Metamorphosis“), she pulled a slender book from the shelf, saying as she did so: “I can’t remember if I read this in school, but I think people view it as important for feminism or something.”
Trying my best to ignore the garish cover design, which suggested some sort of third-rate historical romance novel, I consented to buy it.
Before this incident, I had not heard of either The Awakening or Kate Chopin; and as I read through some of the short stories and vignettes that pad out this volume, I began to fear that her recent revaluation by critics had been more the result of patriarchal-related guilt than literary merit. Granted, tales like “Beyond the Bayou” and “Désirée’s Baby” displayed a subtle knack for characterization and an admirable economy of prose. But as exquisitely crafted as they might be, these pieces nonetheless struck me as mere sketches, as études rather than sonatas.
The Awakening, however, boasts all of the strengths of Chopin’s shorter fiction, but without the flaws. First published in 1899 and originally (and more forcefully) titled A Solitary Soul, the novel follows the travails of a certain Edna Pontellier, a young New Orleans woman who grows disillusioned with her hollow yet perfect-on-paper existence. Married to a wealthy Louisiana businessman, Edna already feels alienated from the tight-knit, rambunctious and casually sensual Creole community in which she lives. Yet her feelings of isolation and discontent become amplified when she garners the attention of a young Creole man named Robert Lebrun, an attraction which, to Edna’s simultaneous joy and despair, turns out to be mutual.
Critic Marilynne Robinson, in her largely astute introduction, explains how many readers have taken the book to be a wholesale endorsement of the liberation of femininity from its patriarchal prison. But such an interpretation obscures the full extent of Chopin’s genius. For The Awakening doesn’t simply pit one half of a dichotomy against the another; rather, the novel teases out tensions and contradictions inherent to the notions of femininity, family and love. What is a woman’s obligation to her children? What is the relation between love and duty? Like any other great novelist, Chopin shows herself to be far more interested in asking questions than in generating any definite answers.
Sadly, The Awakening represents both Chopin’s first and final excursion into the art of novel writing: in the face of a vicious critical backlash, the talented author opted to leave the business entirely. One hundred years later, the least we can do is give her magnum opus the attention it deserves.