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, in a way, 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.
May 25, 2015, 4:52 pm
I have heard of this before but didn’t really know what it was about. It sounds fascinating and ahead of its time. Pleased you liked it and it got you thinking.
May 25, 2015, 9:25 pm
Oh this sounds sublime! Definitely something I would enjoy reading.
May 27, 2015, 12:31 am
I need to reread this — God, it’s been years. I think when I read it last, in high school, I was a little too young for it. I could do with revisiting it. I remember really loving the short stories of Kate Chopin’s I read.