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Kate Chopin's The Awakening is a work of
fiction that tells the story of Edna Pontellier, Southern wife and mother.
This book presents the reader with many tough questions and few answers.
It is not hard to imagine why this book was banished for decades not long
after its initial publication in 1899. At that time in history, women did
just what they were expected to do. They were expected to be good daughters,
good wives, and good mothers. A woman was expected to move from the protection
of her father's roof to the protection of her husband. Edna didn't fit
this mold, and that eventually leads her husband to send for a doctor.
It is here that Edna Pontellier says words that define The Awakening, "I
don't want anything but my own way. That is wanting a good deal, of course,
when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of
others - but no matter..."
As the book begins, Edna is a married woman
who seems vaguely satisfied with her life. However, she cannot find true
happiness. Her "awakening" begins when a persistent young man named Robert
begins courting her. Edna begins to respond to him with a passion she hasn't
felt before. She begins to realize that she can play roles other than wife
Throughout the book Edna takes many steps
to increase her independence. She sends her children away, she refuses
to stay at home on Tuesdays (as was the social convention of the time),
she frequents races and parties. Unfortunately, her independence proves
to be her downfall.
Edna stays married because divorce was
unheard of in those days. She wants to marry Robert, but he will not because
it will disgrace her to leave her husband. No matter how much Edna exceeds
social boundaries, she is held down by the will of others, despite what
she wants. In today's world divorce, sadly, is almost commonplace, but
in her time she would have been an outcast of her society. By the end of
The Awakening, Edna feels like a possession - of her husband, of her children,
and of her society. The only solution she sees is to end her life, which
she does by swimming out into the sea until her strength gives out. This
is a very symbolic death.
I feel the theme of The Awakening is deeper
than the obvious themes of independence and women's rights. The Awakening
presents suicide as a valid solution to problems that do not offer many
Why do people commit suicide? Some common
reasons are isolation and loneliness, disruption of one's social life,
and suicide for the common good. It's easy to connect these with Edna's
life: the isolation of her small house, the disruption caused by Adele's
death, and the common good of the children.
However, her suicide had nothing to do
with any lack of personal freedom. She was, for the most part, doing whatever
she wanted and there were no signs that she intended to stop. Rather, it
was the lack of good, healthy alternatives that led to her demise.
Robert had left her in an attempt to protect
her, himself, or possibly both. This left Edna to pursue a minor romance
with Alcee Arobin. Or stay in a marriage that held no hope of fulfillment.
Or she could pursue other third-rate affairs, while being discreet enough
not to hurt her children. None of these options satisfied her longing for
the one who had "awakened" her. Edna chose suicide.
The only shortcoming I found in The Awakening
was its lack of dialogue. The book is filled with page after page of descriptive
phrases, thoughts and actions. This doesn't leave much to the imagination,
and in spots, the book seems to drag.
The merits of The Awakening far outweigh
its few faults. It tells a story of independence, freedom and will power
unheard of during the times of its publication. It's a stirring book that
forces you to confront tough issues. It paints a picture of what goes through
the mind of a person who loses hope.
Like Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded
Knee, Chopin's The Awakening tells us a story from the perspective of the
oppressed. It is far more than another romance novel with a tragic ending.
It is a book about the choices one will makes to protect one's freedom,
and Chopin wonderful job presenting them in The Awakening.
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The Awakening, Edna, Awakening, Literature, Fiction
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