Unlike other writers from the Realism period, including Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin did not shy away from female sexuality. Her novel, The Awakening, published in 1899, shocked the reading public of the time with its frank depiction of an upperclass woman with a healthy (by today’s standards) libido. Yet female sexuality is not the only “awakening” happening in this novel, nor is it, by any means, the most shocking.
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Edna Pontellier, a New Orleans society wife, spends the summer on Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico. She’s there with her children while her husband, Léonce, visits on weekends when his brokerage office closes. Edna finds herself, probably for the first time, in a close-knit society of women, whose Creole background gives them a frankness that Edna initially finds disconcerting.
Edna develops friendships with two women on the island: Adèle Ratignolle, a matron with four children, and Mademoiselle Reisz (we never learn her first name), a spinster concert pianist. Edna becomes the object of affection of Robert Lebrun, the resort-owner’s son, who focuses on one woman or another for his summer flirtations. Yet it is in the presence of Adèle, and later Mademoiselle Reisz, that Edna first experiences the pangs of awakening: sexually and spiritually. During the summer Edna also learns to swim and for the first time, she resists unthinkingly submitting to her husband’s arbitrary will.
When the Pontelliers return to New Orleans at the end of the summer, Edna does not resume her old society life or acquaintances. She prefers to spend time with her new friends from Grand Isle, dreaming about Robert who left suddenly for Mexico, or painting in her atelier at the top of the house. Edna embarks on a course of doing what she wants to do, not what her husband wants, or her children, or anyone else.
Edna eventually begins to sell her art work, makes a sum of money off horseracing, and with a small inheritance from her mother, moves out of Léonce’s house into a small home that she rents on her own. She sends her children to spend time with their grandmother on the family plantation. She also begins a friendship with Alcée Arobin who has a reputation as a rake.
Elements of Style
Chopin’s writing is so multi-layered that I could go several different directions at once. Her use of imagery is superb and puts the reader in mind of caged birds, Venus portrayals, and queens regnant. Through the text, Chopin comments on patriarchy and capitalism, the paradoxical constraints of the ideal of Southern womanhood, and the idea that a woman who asserts herself is hysterical. Chopin demonstrates thoughtful insight into the perpetuation of the chivalric codes of Southern society, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, and how one woman’s rebellion threatens an entire patriarchal system built on out-moded ideals of romance and socially-constructed motherhood.
Chopin deftly manages to expose the Victorian sanctification of motherhood as a fallacy that subsumes the autonomy of the individual woman. She juxtaposes the “mother-woman” figure of Adèle, the submissive wife and attentive mother, against the celibate but independent Mlle. Reisz. Edna wants elements of both, the passion and the independence, a balance that 19th century society did not allow women to create. I find this text extremely relevant in light of my own generation’s struggle of balancing a family with a career or having to choose one over the other.
“Multi-layered” seems to inveigle its way into my descriptions of Realism writers and for good reason: these books offer so many ways of looking at them, analyzing them, consuming them. Despite the burial of The Awakening for 50-plus years and the critical classifying of Kate Chopin as a “local color writer,” Chopin and her exemplary novel have re-emerged amongst a society better equipped to deal with issues of selfhood and female sexuality. It’s about time.