Reading Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING (first published in 1899) was like sitting under a full oak tree with sunlight streaming through its leaves while one savors fine chocolate truffles and languidly pets the sleek, soft fur of a sleeping panther at one’s side. Her writing is at once intriguing and blissfully mellifluous.
Through the character of Mademoiselle Reisz, a cantankerous woman in her sixties (if I remember correctly), the story’s main message is relayed:
“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”
Much occurs in the narrative leading up to this foreshadowing quote and thereafter.
Edna Pontellier, aged twenty-eight and married to a respectable, social climbing Creole gentleman who works in high finance, is the story’s tragic heroine. She is a woman stifled by the conventions of her day, filled with a longing to have an independent, more self-led life, free of social and marital-familial obligations. Her meeting the attentive, amiable Robert Lebrun while summer vacationing at Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico, slowly awakens her repressed passions. The story unfolds from there.
Back at home in her fashionable house in 1890s New Orleans, Edna becomes absorbed in portrait painting as a way to express her passion and sensuality while inwardly feeling consumed with her friend and beloved Robert. There is some hopefulness for her future as Edna begins to sell some of her artwork along with setting up a plan to collect a small annuity inheritance from her deceased mother. These and visiting with local friends she had met on Grand Isle sustain her, since Robert had left to try his fortune in Mexico fairly early on in the book.
Ms. Chopin’s descriptions of people, places, and feeling states often enthralled me. Here are just a few of many exciting moments in the book:
“She felt somewhat like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour………He sometimes talked in a way that astonished her at first and brought the crimson into her face; in a way that pleased her at last, appealing to the animalism that stirred impatiently within her.”
And then a little further along:
“It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.”
These passages are all in reference to Edna responding to the vain attentions of Alcee Arobin, a handsome playboy whose presence is a flattering yet frustrating distraction from the main character’s unrequited love for Robert, a man who remains off-stage for most of the story.
A sumptuous dinner scene, put on by Edna as her farewell from high society before transitioning into a more simplified lifestyle, away from her husband and two children, read like a three dimensional moving painting. I felt like I was right there, watching and listening as Edna and her guests– all dressed as if for an extravagant ball– socialized. Eventually, the gathering culminates in a crescendo of imaginative intensity, when the youngest guest, Victor Lebrun, aged nineteen and brother of the older, ever-absent Robert, drunkenly embodies Bacchus/Dionysus:
“As if a magician’s wand had touched him, the garland of roses transformed him into a vision of Oriental beauty. His cheeks were the color of crushed grapes, and his dusky eyes glowed with a languishing fire.”
And, then, shortly, the hypnotic effect continues:
“The effect of the wine upon Victor was, to change his accustomed volubility into silence. He seemed to have abandoned himself to a reverie, and to be seeing pleasing visions in the amber bead.”
The spell is broken when this youth tauntingly sings a song that reminds Edna of his brother, which jars her and– by extension– the other guests back into present-day reality.
The spell was also largely broken for me the reader after this turning point scene, which was most certainly the author’s intention. The narrative proceeds to Edna leaving her old life of physical luxury and trying to make it on her own in the world while hoping to reconnect with her beloved Robert. Therein lies one of her main inner conflicts: on one hand Edna wishes to be self-sufficient and free while, on the other, she feels devoid of love and incomplete without her heart’s companion by her side.
Blatant yet beautiful symbolism abounds in this story. As a youth being introduced to literature, I would have puzzled over much of it, but I did not at this time in my life. The first part of the narrative has the recurring presence of two young lovers and a widowed woman in black often near them, clearly foreshadowing a grim outcome for Edna and her love for Robert. The sea itself surrounding Grand Isle is the subconscious and unconscious, sensuality and sexual desire, and the longing for and achieving a nurturing womb-like state (often briefly experienced during and after orgasm), all of which directly pertain to Edna’s psyche. These are but a handful of the symbols presented throughout the book. Some readers may find such abundance of this type of literary device passe, uninteresting, over-the-top, and/or “overly” romantic, but I sure didn’t.
THE AWAKENING read like one long, exquisite build up of sexual and emotional tension, parallel to a symphony playing a classic piece of music crescendoing towards a grand finale of sorts. That said, I felt somehow punched– or splashed with a bucket of frigid water– when I reached the last page. My emotional and mental response was a complex one. Ms. Chopin was working within a time period she was both ahead of and yet a product of. So, while, days after finishing the novel, I continue to puzzle and even agonize a little over the ending, I also ultimately accept the author’s resolution to this overall deliciously-written joy of a book.