The Awakening


I don't know if high school was this way for y'all, but there came a time in my late teens when it seemed like I did nothing but take tests. Advanced Placement tests, SAT tests (both general and subject tests), college placement tests: you name it, I took it. Standardized tests, mostly, but also the "writing" versions of same—canned essays written out long-hand on a book of the student's choice, in response to an anodyne question such as "Which is preferable: competition or cooperation? Cite examples from literature"; or "Demonstrate a character's changing relationship to family over time." Our teachers recommended that we have one or two books fresh in our minds, ready to adapt to the structure of whatever prompt we happened to receive. I'm betting you see where I'm going with this: that book for me was Kate Chopin's The Awakening. I must have written five, six, even seven facile timed essays on Edna Pontellier and her sad fate. Luckily for my current self-respect, those essays were taken away when the buzzer rang and never given back to the hapless test-takers, so I will never know how truly horrible they were. I do remember that by the summer of my senior year I was deathly tired of pointing out the low-lying symbolism and nascent feminism in Chopin's 1899 novella, and hoped never to read it again.

But times change. And now, having butchered Chopin in 25-minute chunks for the better part of a semester, I welcome the opportunity to write about her in a more leisurely—and hopefully complex—fashion.

The first thing I noticed, reading Chopin at thirty (when people have started asking the childless if they plan to reproduce) instead of seventeen (when people fervently hope the childless will remain that way), is the emphasis in this novella on childbirth and motherhood, and its acknowledgment of the difficulty for women who are not naturally nurturing types, in navigating the social and literal perils of motherhood. While the blurbs and reviews I've read of the book often point to its portrayal of marital infidelity—casting Chopin as a precursor to DH Lawrence as a sympathetic portraitist of sex out of wedlock—Edna's crisis of existence and reputation revolves at least as much around her role as a mother as it does around her role as a wife or lover. As a teenager I gravitated toward the storyline that takes Edna through the pangs of semi-unrequited for Robert Lebrun, and less on passages like this, which play her off her friend and Angel-in-the-House Adèle Ratignolle:

It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define to his own satisfaction or any one else's wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. It was something which he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without subsequent regret and ample atonement.
       If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother's arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up, wipe the water out of his eyes and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing. [...]
       In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. [...]
       Many of them were delicious in the rôle; one of them was the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm. If her husband did not adore her, he was a brute, deserving of death by slow torture. Her name was Adèle Ratignolle.

Apologies for the abridgements here, but I wanted to show Chopin's clever trajectory over the course of a couple of pages. Although the narration throughout The Awakening is omniscient third-person narrator, the sentence beginning "It would have been a difficult matter..." privileges Edna's husband's point of view (or at least, his hypothetical point of view, should anyone have asked him how his wife failed in her motherly duties). The comments that follow, on the behavior of the Pontellier boys, presumably form part of their father's viewpoint as well: he feels this self-reliant attitude on their part reflects poorly on Edna, on her lack of motherly warmth or nurturing impulse.

Does the declaration that Edna "was not a mother-woman" derive from Mr. Pontellier as well? As the paragraphs progress, and particularly as the last section of this quote is followed by a long paragraph praising every physical virtue and charm of Adèle, we start to suspect that the narration is drifting away from Mr. Pontellier. (This is confirmed as the description of Adèle transitions into a scene in which Edna and Adèle are present but where Mr. Pontellier is absent.) Nevertheless, a trace of his influence still remains. So that when we get to the claim that "Many of [the mother-women] were delicious in the rôle," there is a distinct flavor of the male gaze. "Delicious" obviously requires an audience to find them so, and said audience is plainly not the children. Chopin raises the question of just why a non-maternal woman is a failure in the turn-of-the-century bourgeois South. Is it because she is depriving her children of necessary guidance and care? Is it because she is depriving the men around her of a pleasing spectacle that conforms to their notion of womanhood? Or is it simply because the entire society is unable to imagine a template of "womanhood" that diverges from this model, or in which these two sets of obligations might come into conflict?

Chopin's subtle wit (another aspect I didn't appreciate at seventeen) allows her to get away with things in The Awakening that would come off as blatantly preachy without it. In the scene just following the above quoted paragraphs, for example, Adèle has shown up to an afternoon hang-out session equipped with the pattern for a winter-weight baby romper of some kind, which she reckons Edna might want to whip up even though a) Edna's kids are both old enough to run around playing on their own, and b) Edna is not currently pregnant with any future babies. What's more,

Mrs. Pontellier's mind was quite at rest concerning the present material needs of her children, and she could not see the use of anticipating and making winter weight garments the subject of her summer meditations. But she did not want to appear unamiable and uninterested, so she had brought forth newspapers, which she spread upon the floor of the gallery, and under Madame Ratignolle's directions she had cut a pattern of the impervious garment.

To me, at least, Chopin's wit is what allows her, in this scene, to avoid letting anyone off the hook, and yet making no one the object of contempt either. Maybe it's silly of Adèle to be inflicting winter-weight romper patterns on her friend, but her genuine enthusiasm about the cleverness of the pattern, is born of a deeply-felt maternal solicitude. Likewise, maybe Edna is a little spineless (to cut out the pattern she's not going to use) or vague (to resist planning for the future), but she's just trying to spend her time as pleasantly as possible while at the same time safeguarding her own private thoughts.

And (spoilers here and throughout the next paragraph) it's this need for privacy and autonomy, and its conflict with a socially-constructed vision of motherhood that did not allow for the scandal of divorce or separation, which is really at the heart of Chopin's novella. Edna realizes, even as her lover leaves her, that his memory will eventually fade. She does not kill herself for love, but because she knows that she can't choose to live out her life in the stifling society in which her family moves, and she can't bear to inflict the scandal of any other lifestyle on the reputations of her sons.

Notes on Disgust

There's very little physical disgust in The Awakening, and even Edna's growing spiritual disgust at the blind adherence to social convention that dominates the world around her, is generally overshadowed by emotions like depression, exhilaration, impatience, lassitude, and so on. The one scene that explicitly mentions disgust takes place between Edna and Alcée Arobin, the lover she takes out of boredom when Robert Lebrun gallantly removes himself from her vicinity. After clutching Arobin's wrist where it is scarred on the inside, Edna recoils, saying "The sight of a wound or a scar always agitates and sickens me [...] I shouldn't have looked at it." He then apologizes, saying "It never occurred to me that it might be repulsive." If Edna does actually feel disgust in this scene (if she is not just covering up a spasm of desire), it may be that the scarred inner wrist reminds her of mortality, even of suicide. Arobin claims to have received it in a sabre duel, but its placement suggests an oft-publicized mode of killing oneself. This scene could be read as a subconscious recognition, on Edna's part, of her own suicidal thoughts, still unacknowledged at this point in the novella although deducible to the reader by her drastic mood swings and periods of dejected hopelessness. Her liaison with Arobin itself suggests the degree to which she has compromised with herself and is falling into depression. Disgust as recognition of unacknowledged desire/fear?


I revisited The Awakening as part of Frances's Art of the Novella Challenge. My goal is six novellas from Melville House's Art of the Novella series over the course of August.

Oh, and part of this challenge is to include drinks pairings for the novellas. While I have been slightly under the weather and so did not consume alcohol while reading Chopin, the obvious choice for drowning your sorrows along with Edna is a strong Southern cocktail like those invented by her father the Colonel or quaffed by the characters while betting on horses at the track. A mint julep (Kentucky) or a sazerac (New Orleans) leap to mind as very apropos.


  • Somehow I managed never to read this in high school, though I have very clear memories of exactly the kind of test-taking you describe. I do have a feeling though that the same things will strike me, as childlessness becomes more of an "issue" in my life as well (ugh). While part of me recoils from this (leave me alone!), another part things that will make the book ultimately more appealing than if it were just about a married woman taking a lover. And I like this little bit of disgust, it's an interesting new take.

    • Chopin at least has a lot of sympathy for women who are not born mothers. And a lot of criticism for a system that did not provide ladies with any other model of how to live their lives. So hopefully she won't strike you as annoying in the leave-me-alone way; I'll be interested to see. I definitely know what you mean, though!

      I found it interesting this time around to observe the extent to which the lover is not really the point.

  • And the whole issue of childlessness is treated in an interesting way here, portrayed so honestly (and with humor as Emily points out) and as a better alternative for Edna. Marriage is a script that drags her from her authentic self and motherhood the "blessing" that derails her. I believe there was a time many moons ago when it was popular to examine this one under the lens of French feminist literary criticism - writing the body feminine - and that given no voice in a phallocentric society, Edna rejects the patriarchal voice and makes the best decision for herself. And that's what I remember from test prep! :)

    • Yeah, Edna is sort of the original Betty Draper - the child-free life just would have made so much more sense for her. (Though I think you said you don't watch Mad Men - she's one of the main characters.) Love your test-prep memories, Frances - obviously from a later stage of test-taking than my "provide an example of a METAPHOR." Haha!

  • What an awful thought, that our old school essays might still be archived in a forgotten warehouse. In a future time, when essays are submitted in some digital medium, the spectre of rediscovering teenage analyses might haunt future students.

  • I read this years ago and can only faintly recall it (I didn't like the ending - is that likely?). I love what you say about the need for autonomy and privacy spoiling that lovely social patina that family matters demand. And when has it ever been okay for a woman NOT to mother according to the dominant ideology? It's even worse now than the 19th century (bear this in mind when those concerned/nosy types start asking impertinent questions about childbearing!!).

    • Yes, extremely likely that you would dislike the ending. I very much disliked it when I read this in high school, although this time around I was surprised to find I liked it much better.

      And wow, you think the social pressure around mothering is WORSE now than in the 19th century?? That's a sobering pronouncement indeed!

  • This is, alas, the perfect kind of book to "work up" for exams, which isn't really fair to the book, as it's likely to make one hate it! But it's short, it's chock full of symbols and "issues," and no wonder you wrote about it so much. Interesting that your reading of it is very different now; I'm not sure I paid much attention to the mothering business when I read it quite a while ago.

    • It's true; it does really lend itself to the test-taking treatment, sadly! It was nice to have the opportunity to revisit at a more leisurely pace, and notice the changes in my reading. I've also read a lot more Southern Regionalist writers since high school, and could see how Chopin's work was an ancestor of that movement.

  • How easily those memories of all those horrible tests come back after I thought I had managed to bury them for good! I didn't read Chopin until college and then it seems like I read in three different classes at three different times. It's a wonderful book. Even in college though I didn't pay attention to the mother aspect of the book though I was aware of it. The affairs and budding feminism were much more front and center in my mind then. And thankfully, when you get past 40 and still don't have kids, people stop asking. Anyway, thanks for the walk down memory lane :)

    • Ah, the college triple-threat - that happened to me with The Waste Land. I was pretty done with it by the third time through in three years. I agree that Chopin is really wonderful, and definitely improves with rereading!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography