The Awakening by Kate Chopin was my first book for the Feminist February reading challenge. I chose The Awakening because it was first published in 1899, and apparently caused a scandal with its descriptions of female infidelity. (It’s also free on Kindle!)
When first published in 1899, The Awakening shocked readers with its honest treatment of female marital infidelity. Audiences accustomed to the pieties of late Victorian romantic fiction were taken aback by Chopin’s daring portrayal of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, who seeks and finds passionate physical love outside the confines of her domestic situation.
Aside from its unusually frank treatment of a then-controversial subject, the novel is widely admired today for its literary qualities. Edmund Wilson characterized it as a work “quite uninhibited and beautifully written, which anticipates D. H. Lawrence in its treatment of infidelity.” Although the theme of marital infidelity no longer shocks, few novels have plumbed the psychology of a woman involved in an illicit relationship with the perception, artistry, and honesty that Kate Chopin brought to The Awakening.
Why is it that, although written in the 1800’s, that The Awakening is still relevant today? The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, speaks of how a woman is expected to give herself up for her children, and rages against this notion. Today, we still speak of women in terms of their relationship to other people (mother, grandmother, wife, sister). Think of the headlines involving women: “Mother, 35, eats ice cream at the park!” “Wife of celebrated politician wears leopard print dress to charity ball!” It’s quite ridiculous, isn’t it? And yet we are still subjected to this form of sexism, sometimes without even noticing.
Edna’s lover, Robert, mentions dreaming that Edna’s husband would free her, give her up, for Robert to have:
“You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.”
Many people, even in apparent forward-thinking cultures, still believe that women are property. If challenged, they may deny it, but you only have to speak to a group of people about a woman keeping her own surname upon marriage, or the husband taking his wife’s surname, to discover just how backwards their views actually are. I kept my surname upon marriage, yet I have received negative comments from several places – not just online trolls, but members of my own and my husband’s family. I have even broken ties with some family members because of their downright nasty response to my decision. How ridiculous that, in this day and age, some people feel so strongly about what is and isn’t acceptable for a woman to do.
The Awakening, with its incredibly apt title, is a great read. It’s wonderfully written, and very enjoyable. If you’re participating with Feminist February, this is an excellent book to pop on your list. Actually, even if you’re not participating, you should read this book.