Against the grain.
Publisher: Various (I read Vintage Classics’ edition)
First Published: 1899
Date Reviewed: 22nd May 2015
Holidaying with her husband and children on Grand Isle, Edna becomes friendly with Robert, a man close to her age who seems taken with her. On returning home she starts to feel limited in her life as a wife and mother, and slowly begins to make a play for freedom.
The Awakening is a book far ahead of its time. A novella that restricts itself to its subject, in the context of our present day it offers a look at the sort of repressed thoughts women of the late 19th century may have had.
The story, whilst upsetting – of course – is somewhat sublime. You can almost feel the liberties Chopin is taking by writing about the theme in her time and you can predict some of the tale simply due to the fact our society is different. One could argue that Chopin, whilst writing for her own society, has found her target audience in our modern selves – we may not be in a position to be affected in the way she might have wished, because our society has moved on, but we can still relate.
The Awakening was originally going to be called Solitude. It’s not known who changed it – Chopin or her publisher – or why they did, but ‘Solitude’ does express what Edna’s mission is all about. As she is ‘awakened’ to her individuality, her sexuality, Edna seeks time for herself. She may want Robert but she also wants to pursue painting, time to go out rather than play host to every woman who brings her card on a Tuesday, a place of her own bought with her inheritance rather than the house her husband owns.
It’s all about person-hood and, an unloaded manner, selfishness. That Edna is selfish is something that was comprehended most by her peers; today it will be down to the individual reader as to whether or not she is so. And it’s an interesting one because Edna is understandable, too. Selfish not because she wants to be free but because we can see how her responsibilities put her in a position that we frown upon today, namely the neglect of her children. The story makes you question how much ‘right’ a mother has to her own time. Chopin brings up the important point that a woman can love her children and still need alone time – in the context of her time that was a particular issue.
Chopin looks at the way a woman in her society was considered owned by her husband, belonging to him. She shows how a woman might want to refute the notion and the use of a fictional character allows her to give physical action to the thought. It’s interesting to note Chopin wrote as a widow; she would’ve likely had more freedom than most of her peers, indeed we could see her in Mademoiselle Reisz. Widowhood also means she would’ve experienced both sides of life – belonging and free – and that she married the man she wished surely influenced the way she writes Edna’s hopes for Robert.
There is plenty of symbolism in the book – birds, Mademoiselle Reisz, the sea. The sea features throughout, both ‘in person’ and as something Edna remembers. It’s the catalyst for change. It represents the freedom Edna wishes for, life without limits, and mirrors her memories of childhood, a meadow’s horizon.
The ending is particularly poignant. You may predict it, you may not, either way it is both satisfying and not so. It’s where Chopin is most bold yet questions are often asked as to why it was written. Is it weakness or freedom? It’s up to the reader to decide because it is also ambiguous. There’s a lot to it, it’s powerful, and you’ll be considering it for days.
The Awakening will awaken in you a love for Chopin. It’s superb; it’s one to savour, to think about, and to add to your knowledge of both literature and social history.
As you may know, I’ve been giving inspirational (Christian) romance a try. It is a genre that’s particularly prevalent online and I wanted to broaden my horizons. I was interested in seeing how they ‘work’ – the differences; it made sense to choose romance because I know a fair amount about the romance genre (ironically, as I read romance because of a previous broadening horizons project) and it’s easy to find Christian romances.
I can’t say I’ve read a lot of Christian romance; I’ve found it’s something I’d like to limit in my reading, but I’d say I’ve read enough to write this post.
This post comes from my questioning the gap between Christian and, for lack of a better word, secular romance. Secular romances have no/rare references to religion. Perhaps a historical will talk of church but not in depth. Christian romance uses religion, faith in God and Jesus, as a theme. What has struck me is the lack of fiction that fills the gap. By this I mean there are few romances wherein characters have faith but it’s just a part of their life rather than a theme of the book. Perhaps they go to church or pray before bed but it doesn’t inform many choices and isn’t written in detail. I feel romance is missing that, especially as I think it’s fair to say many people have a faith but wouldn’t consider themselves religious. To me it would seem normal to have such a book, for faith to be there but more in the background than it can be in inspirational romances.
It’s appropriate here to say I’ve noticed this partly because thanks to Janet’s article on a similar theme. Janet wonders about romances that look at faith and/or values, morals. I agree with her sentiment that it would be nice to have more books wherein characters made choices based on their morals and that such books wouldn’t have to be a separate genre.
I’ve read both books where religion is included to an unnatural degree (in view of what I see in mainstream culture), and books in which it reads well, however even those that read well are of course subject to chastity. I have absolutely no problem with chastity if that’s what the author wants, but it’d be nice to see faith in a book that includes sex, too.
I have read such a book, and there is such an author. In Noelle Adams’ Married For Christmas, which the author notes is not inspirational, the characters are Christian, and there are sex scenes included in the required context of marriage. I’ll admit I wasn’t a fan of the book in general however this element was done well. But the fact that one character is a minister does mean that even if it’s getting there, it’s still not quite filling the gap.
I will readily admit that I realise part of the reason it seems, to me, religion is shoehorned in is because of the differences between American and British Christian culture, at least in the context of inspirational romance. Of course there are varying levels and sects in both places, but the devotion in American Christian fiction is not something I can relate to culturally. (I’ve not had experience of all the denominations but living in a country you obviously get a general feel for the religious culture.) Yet at the same time the extent I sometimes see religion included, and the way so many people actively avoid inspirational fiction, surely means a lot is the same across the borders. (I know my knowledge of American Christianity has been influenced by what I see and read; I’ve not witnessed it first-hand.)
To go back to my point, then, and to put my thoughts on culture into context, it seems to me that too often faith, in particularly religious faith, is included where it ‘shouldn’t’ be, at least from the perspective of the mainstream. It’s often obvious from the blurb if this will be the case, but not always. A prime example is The Butterfly And The Violin. It’s a nice story but I found the extent to which Christianity was included was inappropriate for a novel set in Auschwitz. The religion overtook the Holocaust.
In contrast there is Erica Vetsch’s work (A Bride’s Portrait Of Dodge City, Kansas). I feel Vetsch is on the cusp of the balance, in a difference way to Adams. Whilst there are a couple of places where religion sticks out, for example a character wanting to proclaim his faith to his boss at random, otherwise the religion is subtle. It’s included from the start but it’s in the background, the characters may discuss it but it reads as natural – people share interests so why not talk about their beliefs, too? And it of course informs the sexual content – kisses only. Vetsch is pretty good at showing you can have plenty of chemistry in a book without including sex.
So Vetsch is on the cusp but there is still that place Adams inhabits where faith in a book doesn’t rule out sex (when considering married couples if that’s what fits). There’s the place for fiction wherein people wait until marriage without faith being the backbone of the story (or being there at all), there’s the place for faith being part of a character just because it’s reality, and so forth. (I focus on sex and faith here because of the whole ‘clean read’ idea – a book doesn’t have to be clean to deal with faith.)
What I think is fascinating is that we don’t have this prevalence, at least not in English-language romance, with other religions. You’re going to see more of the traditionally western religions; I think there’s more hesitation to pick up Christian books than books that include other religions. But I can’t help but think that a Hindu romance, for example, would be better received as a whole. Perhaps it’s the ‘exotic’ factor or even the way people view a religion that isn’t theirs (thinking white perspective here) or that doesn’t come with the baggage of being something they turned away from, but there’s something. I also think, however, that it could be the way other religions have remained a part of the overall culture of those who follow them, which is something Christianity, in the main, has lost. There is also a learning factor. For many a book including Hinduism would mean a chance to broaden horizons. A Christian book would be reading what you may have been brought up with, or brought up near, and had enough of. Of course this is all from my white western perspective – I’d be interested to know how those of other ethnicities and religions view Christian fiction as well as hearing from Christians of a non-western background.
I’m likely to stay on the lookout for balanced romance and make a point of reading those I find, whilst acknowledging inspirational romance sometimes fits the bill and reading a couple of them. I would love to see more balance not just in romance and without a new genre being created – I think it’s as natural to include faith from time to time as it is to be diverse in general. Faith can be as much a part of a person’s identity as ability and sexuality.
Your thoughts are very welcome.
I wondered if I’d ever have enough to say to warrant another post of this type that wouldn’t be a compilation of many months; it seems I’ve been thinking about it constantly. The very act of writing and planning these posts has had an impact on my recent reading – I’m studying what I’m reading, writing more notes.
It’s likely obvious how little inspiration I’ve had recently. I’ve worried about the fact I’m running out of general topics, that I’m losing my voice. To be perfectly honest, I’ve always wanted to write in depth posts but in the past it seemed it was something I was incapable of. A dream. I can write an essay to a set question but my arguments are limited and I can’t come up with questions myself. I think this may be changing. Slowly. I’ll be posting a new sort of post in the coming weeks, longer pieces, and we’ll see how it goes, if it’s any good.
I’ve moved away from romance for the time being. It’s occurred to me I read in phases. I’m now onto classics and finding them very satisfying. The House On The Strand is set aside but I’ll get back to it, I know; for now I want to complete Anna Karenina. As I’ve said, I’ve restarted it. Reading a new translation feels like reading a whole new book.
Something that starting this new translation has shown me is that the way Tolstoy writes about Anna is down to sentiment and subtext – in other words his writing in this context transcends word choice. I can’t explain it exactly, can’t say what causes it, but Anna is as alluring to read about as it sounds the characters find her. If Anna was in the room I’d be in awe, too, just like the characters. She comes to life.
In addition to the Tolstoy I’ve started The Awakening. Notes aplenty. It’s a similar story with Anne Somerset’s Queen Anne (Stuart), though in this case I’m not sure I want to continue (overly-biased historian). These books have me looking into women’s studies, I almost want to create a commonplace book just for the quotes they offer.
A window shopping expedition means I’ve picked out my next few classics. I’m looking to concentrate on America: Tender Is The Night, The Bell Jar, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Catcher In The Rye. I also flicked through Mrs Dalloway and Orlando to get a feel for Woolf. The Tudor setting did it – I’ll be starting with the second.
Lastly, I’ve been on the search for a reader-friendly hand cream for a while. I’m sure you can relate: so many hand creams leave you greasy and would ruin books; I’d rarely use them. I’d use them whilst watching television, which is rare itself. I’ve been looking for a paraben-free hand cream – I used Vaseline’s intensive care, which does soak in well, but I won’t be replacing the bottle I have once done. I’ve tried Neal’s Yard – it smells nice but is incredibly expensive and not at all worth the oily residue. Now I’m trying Aveeno. It smells nice and soaks in well, and though I haven’t yet tried reading I can write and use the computer, no issues. There’s a slight sheen and that’s it.
How has your reading life been this month? And have you had problems with hand cream?
I’ve acquired several books since my last post on the subject; many arrived a few days after it published, which is just the way it goes! You’ve seen many of them (I won’t name them here but they’ve formed most of the most recent content here) but here are the rest:
Dahlia Adler: Under The Lights – If I recall correctly it was by following Roselle Kaes on Twitter that I was introduced to this author and so on seeing she had a book on the way I thought I’d give it a look. I liked what I saw (it’s a theatre-based LGBT novel).
Eloisa James: When The Duke Returns – The second book I received from the boyfriend as an Easter present. The plan was to read it this month but I’ve moved on, mood-wise, to classics for now. I’ll likely read it later this year.
Helen Simonson: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – This was an instant ‘yes’ at first physical sight; everyone seems to rate it very highly. And I’m assuming once I’ve read it and can join title with content I’ll stop confusing it with Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day…
Judy Chicurel: If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go – I was drawn to the cover first, but the title is the mainstay here. I don’t think I’ve come across one quite so long. I foresee many broken image links in my future as I use book titles in the filename.
Juliet Madison: Sight – A fair premise here, five sisters who share the five human senses to a supernatural degree.
Kate Chopin: The Awakening – This book only came to my attention a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve only known of it for about a year. It was mentioned on a couple of blogs recently and I left a note to myself to download a copy. It’s a lot shorter than I’d expected – length being one of the reasons I’d not yet opted to read it – so I’m hoping to read it soon. By all accounts it sounds fantastic.
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina – Yes, you’ve seen this before. It was time I found another translation because I know it was Vintage’s Louise and Aylmer Maude translation that was the problem. This is Penguin’s Pevear and Volokhonsky version and it’s a good fit. I’ve read a number of books this month already; the plan is to give Tolstoy my full attention until this book is finished. I’ve restarted it and already have an idea for a post one a theme. (I’ll be changing the cover I have on this site when I come to review it – so far my posts have been about the Vintage.)
Raymond Jean: Reader For Hire – Peirene Press, translated by Adriana Hunter, about a reader. Enough said!
What books have you acquired recently? And if you’ve read Anna Karenina, which translation(s) did you read and how did you like it/which did you prefer?
I thought I’d use today to compile my research on a topic I expect a few of you might appreciate – how to order surnames that aren’t your stereotypical spellings, in other words your Mcs, Vans and O’s. I know I’ve had trouble deciding where to place them and have opted to go with the flow, but here is what I’ve discovered:
- Mac and Mc are traditional patronymics; both mean ‘son of’. Mc is essentially the same as Mac and should be treated as though it has an invisible ‘a’. Both Mac and Mc should come before any surnames that start with ‘Mad’.
- Van or Von, if not capitalised by the person (look at the book cover), should not be treated as part of the surname. If they are capitalised they come before the surname and affect ordering.
- D’ – ordering depends on the next letter of the name.
- O’ – ignore the apostrophe when ordering.
- De, Le, Du – These are more open to personal interpretation. De – before surname when the surname has only one syllable. Du – under ‘du’, though most people will put ‘Du Maurier’ under M. All are usually written as lower case. The issue with ‘de’ and ‘le’ and ‘du’ is that you need to consider the person’s preference which of course may be difficult to ascertain. It also depends on the language you’re dealing with as well as the nationality. Spain may view ‘de’ differently to France, for example, and an inherently British person with a French surname may view it differently than a French person who shares it with them.
- Double barrelled surnames, if hyphenated, should go under the first of the two names. If not hyphenated they go under the second. Check the hyphens and remember that some names may actually be the middle names.
I’ll end here on that preference: if all else fails, check the Internet and opt for the most commonly used. Even if not technically correct, you’re less likely to confuse your own readers.
How do you order your shelves?