Thursday, October 11, 2012

Kate Chopin's short novel of infidelity in the search for self

The class for which I am a teaching assistant is reading one of my favorite classic American novels, this week: Kate Chopin's The Awakening

It was a doozy of a controversial novel when it was first published (1899), because it clearly displayed a woman's quiet unhappiness in her marriage, her realizations that she was unhappy (and seen as nothing more than property by her husband), and her actions following that realization--leaving her husband, children, and home for independence; stepping so far outside the accepted roles society had set for her that she left herself vulnerable to seduction; and her eventual suicide on her realization of how many wrong decisions she made in the process of trying to find out who she was.

Edna Pontellier doesn't seem that sympathetic of a character, at first.  She's quietly unhappy, but oblivious to that fact, for a time.  When she realizes how unhappy she is, rather than try to make the best of her life and create happiness where she is, she takes steps that we see far too often in modern times: the dissolution of her marriage, no matter the cost to her husband and children. 

Then, as we keep reading, we notice something: she's acting out in this way because she literally has no idea what to do.  She has the emotional and mental maturity of a pre-teen, and is trying to live the life of an adult.  She has no real education, her talents have been stifled all her life by the authority figures around her (first her father, then her husband), and she suddenly wakes up to find herself shackled to a man she doesn't want, by children she doesn't know what to do with but loves in a distracted, confused way, and a man she could love just out of her reach.  Every one of the actions she takes are those of a rebellious teen girl who just can't see the future consequences of her decisions. 

By the time of her suicide, I was wishing I could have been there with her, sat her down earlier in the novel, before she'd moved into her own little house, and explained a few facts of life to her.  I was really wishing someone could see the desperately unhappy little girl in the woman acting out, and could have helped her. 

And I was really wishing I could have kicked her husband in the balls for courting her so persistently while she was so very young, and marrying her without letting her grow up. 

4 comments:

  1. I had to read that novel in high school.

    I am embarrassed to admit it, but my friends and I were rooting for Edna to drown herself. We really hated her. We thought she was spoiled and stupid and tedious. And her husband, too. I remember one of my friends saying, "This is considered a feminist novel, why?" (I suppose it is because it shows the folly of plucking young girls from their families without giving them proper education or views of the world, and expecting them to act as adults when they really aren't. Or something.)

    And I don't think it's just an indictment of the times; there are other, earlier novels where the women make more mature choices, or are better at making the best of bad choices. (as in Middlemarch).

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    1. I'm not entirely sure Chopin wasn't writing in response to early feminism--kind of a warning novel for young women heading into something they weren't ready for.

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  2. I read it twice last year. I read it once through and couldn't see why she was so egotistic, then read it again and saw the confusion of what she deamed "self-worth".
    By the end, it had me wondering where I was going with my life, and I started to realize how far society has traveled on the feminist side, and how far it's fallen on the values side.

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    1. I read it a long time ago, and wrote about it in grad school. I suspect we're going to be seeing an upswing in depression like Edna's, and possibly suicides, as those who have spent their lives in perpetual adolescence (like Sandra Fluke, only without the dubious fame) wake up once they're kicked out of college with new degrees in hand, and are expected to act like adults--something they're ill-prepared for.

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