Next stop on my mission to finally read some of the feminist works I haven’t gotten around to: Chopin’s The Awakening. It seems like most people read this one in high school, and I’m glad I didn’t actually. I am fairly confident that I would have hated it then and dismissed it completely. Reading it now, at 29 (same age as the main character for the latter part of the story), I could appreciate it. Reviewing this book without giving away major plot points is impossible, so be warned that what follows is full of spoilers!
The story revolves around Edna Pontellier, who is married to a wealthy businessman and has two small children. The book begins in Grand Isle, where the family is vacationing in the Gulf. We see that Edna’s marriage is stifling and mothering doesn’t interest her all that much. As the summer goes on, Edna develops feelings for another man, Robert Lebrun. But he sets off for Mexico unexpectedly. Back in New Orleans, Edna’s passionate awakening is now in full swing. She starts to follow her own desires instead of trying to fit into the restrictive life that has been set out for her– she pursues her interest in art, starts to come and go whenever she pleases, and finally takes up residence in a smaller house around the corner from the family mansion. When Robert returns to New Orleans, the desire Edna’s been harboring for him doesn’t quite work out. After some passionate kissing and caressing, Robert decides to leave in order to protect Edna and himself from the fallout that would likely occur if they followed their desire to be together.
In some ways, this is the perfect first-wave feminist work of literature. It seems obvious to point out that Edna is white and extremely privileged, but it’s important. The womanhood that she struggles against (with its emphasis on submissiveness, chasteness, purity) is constructed in contrast to the supposed easy sensuality of a number of women of color who we see mostly coming in and out of the background of the book. There is Mariequita, the “Spanish girl” in Grand Isle, with her dirty feet, and the general category of seductive “Mexican women” the characters refer to. Edna’s world is one where “the quadroon” looks after her children (though Edna always has a comment about her ineptitude), nameless “black girls” sweep and do laundry, and Edna has a relaxing weekend watching the “darkies” do fieldwork at her parents’ estate. I point these things out, not because they are aspects of Edna’s world that are so jarring to me 2015, but because it is vital to understand how white, middle-class womanhood is racially constructed (still to this day).
In this context, Edna’s attempts to feel passionately, to become awakened, fall flat for me. Though there are some poignant scenes towards the beginning, my empathy for her peters out. Edna’s obviously not shaking off some great chains of oppression in her situation, and the way she takes people for granted bugs me. I can’t help but draw comparisons between her and Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which I also read recently and definitely enjoyed more. Same kind of privileged white woman, but at least in Nora’s case, she is upfront with her husband about why she needs to break free from him. Nora decides to leave to go become an independent person, and she walks out the door. Edna, in contrast, is a little bit sneaky while her husband is away on business and seems to be waiting for somebody, ideally Robert, to rescue her from the monotony of her life. In the end, no one can rescue her. The other dude, Arobin, is a creep, and Robert is just as beholden to the rules of the era as her husband is.
I suppose what annoys me about it all is that Edna’s struggle to find passion and become a real, independent person comes off as shallow (and maybe this is just because it’s 2015 now and I have more options for how to live than Edna did). Passion can definitely awaken you to life, but you have to go somewhere from there. Love is a more nourishing, sustaining action, and I don’t think Edna ever allows herself to get there. Of course it’s going to end badly if you just substitute one man for the next! But she’s got her artwork and her new attitude towards the world and a model of what it’s like to be a female artist living on your own (the pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz). Why not move forward and explore the possibilities of what life could be like, as Nora does? For me, that would have made a much more powerful, feminist statement.