Cannonball Read 2: Book 7: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Technically, the next few Cannonball Read 2 posts are way overdue. These are the books I read for classes in November and just never ever posted about. I actually took pleasure in most of them, so the omission is baffling to me. Catch-up, away!

I have a thing for Modernism. It's true. I can't get enough of this literary period. I'm particularly fond of the European inter-war avant garde, to the point that I consider my research and reading into this period to be the end all, be all of Modernism.

The problem is, I have a very bad habit of avoiding American literature. I blame one too many middle school teachers telling me I couldn't write a report on Dickens/Woolf/Joyce and instead shoving some Steinbeck or Hemingway my way. With the exception of Faulkner (be still, my heart, I promise you ample Faulkner soon), I hate this grouping of writers with a passion and let that (plus a painful Twain experience for another post) push me away from my own country's literature for nearly 10 years.

So what does this have to do with a controversial proto-feminist American novel from 1899? In my mind? Everything.

Kate Chopin's The Awakening brought to mind a less wordy Virginia Woolf. Shoot, they even share a common metaphor/framing device: waves for intellectual growth, personal exploration, and the life cycle (Virginia Woolf's The Waves). The focus isn't on narrative, but technique and character exploration. There is a distinct cultural criticism going on through outrageous actions, like a woman staying outside the house all night in defiance of her husband who won't leave her side. Technically, Chopin's novel is not a Modernist text under stricter definitions (namely being a good decade removed from the canon of Modernism), but I play it fast and loose with literature. Give me a ghost and I'll call it a horror story for better or worse.

The Awakening is the story of one Edna Pontellier, a well-off wife and mother who feels detached from her life. While all the other good "wife-mothers" seem pleased as punch to chase after their children and tend the home, Edna is lifeless, depressed, and distraught. She would rather spend her days on the beach with a young man not learning how to swim than wait in the house to greet her husband's business clients. Throughout the novel, Edna tries to figure out what she wants out of life by eliminating what she doesn't. She doesn't want to follow the traditional role of a woman in upper class society; she doesn't want to be faithful to her husband; she doesn't want to raise her children; she doesn't want to even live in the same house as her family.

What can be viewed as frustrating is Edna's refusal to admit what she wants. Freedom? That's clear. She's trying to cast off the constraints society placed upon her without her choice. She's still young and can still make a big change in her life if she wants to. But what change does she want? That, I believe, is the point of the novel.

Kate Chopin brilliantly crafts a subtle, lyrical examination of a woman at a crossroads in her life. There is no right or wrong choice for Edna because according to society, there is no choice. Everything she does is a blindfolded step on a tightrope. Eventually, she will lose her balance and have to save herself. Chopin isn't condoning Edna's negligent parenting or infidelity: she's proposing that women should have a choice beyond the home life.

For late nineteenth century America, this was as radical as radical could get shy of attempting to shoot the president. Copies of The Awakening were burned and critics savaged the novel. Chopin couldn't get anything else published after the release of The Awakening. Fortunately, history has looked kindly upon The Awakening. Well, contextually history has looked kindly on the novel. It's considered an important feminist text, though the content overshadows the lovely form. I believe the true triumph of the novel is an artful representation of an underlying cultural tension between tradition and progress; this goes beyond traditional feminist readings. Chopin's achievement is producing a great American novel that happens to have strong critical resonance; this means the skill of the writer cannot be overlooked just to claim the text for one camp.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin can be a fast read, but is best savored like the beautiful summer days Edna relies on in the novel: slow, alone, and without distraction. Let the words wash over you as you wade into the deep end of uniquely American text.