Women in a Controversial Light: Chopin’s The Awakening

In case you’re wondering, I picked this Warholesque image of Kate because it illuminates the many 
facets of her being. In fact I think it is something which is true about most of us. We are all 50 Shades of self in all different colours and hues, some colours just shine brighter than others.

Kate Chopin (1850-1904) was an American author, who in her short lifetime published two novels At Fault (1890)The Awakening and many popular short stories. Her most well-known collections are Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897).

The Awakening, published in 1899, was originally titled the Solitary Soul. I think both titles are indicative of the upheaval in Kate’s mind, body and soul at that moment in time. They also speak volumes of how she felt completely alone. Kate’s father died when she was 5 years old and she was raised by a bevy of widowed females and nuns courtesy of the Catholic schools she attended. This was probably a factor when it came to her views on women in society.

When Kate was a mere 32 yrs of age her husband Oscar passed away and she was left to raise their six children by herself. It was actually her doctor who suggested writing as a pastime to deal with her grief. Little did they both know that Kate the Scribe would pen a work that would split the opinions of critics and although it didn’t quite earn her a place on the illustrious banned book list, the book was largely condemned on a national scale. That book was called The Awakening. The subsequent public reaction and fallout due to the content of that story would be the beginning of the end of her career.

What on earth could the woman have written to upset society so?  The plot revolves around Edna, a married woman who embarks upon an adulterous affair, first emotionally then  physically. The ensuing calamity of emotions triggers an awakening in her on both a spiritual and physical level.

However that isn’t the part of the story that breaks the camels back according to her greatest critics.

Aside from presenting a character who seeks her own sexual and emotional gratification without regard for any consequence she may bring upon herself or her family, Chopin has created a woman who dares to question the social order of women in society. I can almost see them in my minds eye. Sitting in distinguished men-only clubs, smoking their cigars, whilst debating the hysteria of women, who dare to think and feel independently.

In the story Edna does what I believe people consider to be the essence of anti-mother in nature. She leaves her husband and her children to pursue the object of her obsession and desire. Even today in our own society many of us find it hard to comprehend a choice like that.

Not so much leaving the husband, because they are merely partners during specific periods in our lifetime. Leaving the child you bore and/or raised and choosing own self over your dependent children is another matter entirely.

Let’s take a closer look at this controversial piece of work shall we? The husband Mr Pontellier is a typical gentleman of that particular era and his thoughts are quite clear when it comes to his perception of Edna.

Looking at his wife, as one looks at a valuable piece of property.

She was not a mother-woman.

If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?

He believes that Edna is a failure as a mother, the evidence of that fact being the independent nature of his sons, who dust themselves off and wipe their own tears when they tumble. Other children have mothers that wipe those tears and hug away the hurt. So instead of acknowledging that perhaps Edna is making his children stronger and more self-sufficient he would prefer them to seek solace at every occasion.

Meanwhile Edna is becoming increasingly unhappy with her life…

An indescribable oppression…..filled her whole being with a vague anguish.

It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day.

There is a moment in the story that I connected to on a level that I can only describe as ‘been there done that got the T-shirt (I bet you were expecting something astoundingly prolific right?). The moment when Edna is listening to Mademoiselle Reisz playing Chopin on the piano.

At first she is assailed with the usual imagery that accompanies the enjoyment of listening to music. Then those images change to barefaced emotions and Edna is overcome by a tidal wave of emotions. Some inner barrier has broken beneath the waves of beautiful music streaming through her psyche and assaulting the walls of her inner sanctum. She cries, for herself, and the epiphany she has just experienced.

…the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her.

It was one of those rare literary moments when your heart goes out to the fictional character in a book, because in that silent space of time you recognize that your heart has been there too.

I am going to keep stumm about the ending. Okay that was a complete lie. Needless to say it is tragic that Edna feels she has only two options going forward. Chopin manages to turn the tragedy of suicide into something akin to a rebirth. Edna feels free because she owns her choice. She takes control of her life and does with it as she wishes and not as others wish.

Unfortunately she does this once again without considering the people she is leaving behind. Although I can understand Edna wants her freedom and I can reconcile with her choice on that level. I cannot help but think of her actions as those of someone who is self-obsessed and selfish. This conundrum also explains why the content of this piece split opinions at the time it was published.

I hope this will entice some of you to take a closer look at Kate Chopin and her work. She has received a lot of recognition for her very distinct literary voice, albeit a lot later than her work deserves. It is very unfortunate that Kate died just a few years after publishing The Awakening, especially when you realize that the public reaction to this book had such an adverse affect on her that she almost stopped writing altogether.

Almost.


Free downloads of the books mentioned above:
Download to read The Awakening by Kate Chopin at the Internet Archive.
Download to read The Awakening and other short stories by Kate Chopin at Feedbooks.
Download to read The Fault by Kate Chopin at the Internet Archive.
Download  to read the short story collection The Bayou Folk by Kate Chopin at the Internet Archive.
Download to read the short story collection A Night in Acadie by Kate Chopin at the Internet Archive.
Download The Awakening and Selected Short Stories or read online at Project Gutenberg.
Download or listen online to The Awakening at LibreVox read by several volunteers.
Download or listen online to The Awakening at LibreVox read by Elizabeth Klett.
And you can also download or listen on to The Awakening at The Internet Archive

5 thoughts on “Women in a Controversial Light: Chopin’s The Awakening

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