Some books are full of memories. For example, I can’t think of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe without remembering the little reading cubbyhole that I made in my mom’s closet, when I was around 8 years old. I vividly recall the day my mom let me stay home from school to read all day. I was curled up with blankets and pillows, my mom’s dresses hanging above me, tickling my forehead, reading the adventures of Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, and wondering what Turkish Delight was. I have since learned what Turkish Delight is (it is tragically disgusting, and not at all worth betraying one’s family for), but that memory—that day, that book—still remains magical.
Another book that holds memories for me is The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. It was assigned reading for my senior year in high school—for my A.P. American Literature course. It was 1998 or 1999, depending on what semester it was assigned, so I was 16 or 17 years old. So young, so naïve. And did I mention young? The edition I read that year included a lengthy introduction, which I made the mistake of reading first. SPOILER ALERT! (Not that we said “spoiler alert” back then.) The main character killed herself at the end, by drowning?!?! I couldn’t believe it. And I couldn’t believe that the stupid introduction would ruin it. Let me tell you, I learned a valuable lesson about saving introductions of novels until the end. But more importantly, I remember how the book made me think. It prompted me to wonder about about things I never had before, to examine the values of the society around me, and to contemplate my own future. Like Edna Pontellier, I had an awakening of sorts. (Sorry to be so super cheesy. I fully anticipate your groans.)
The Awakening is not really a book that has answers. I mean, the heroine resorts to suicide in the end, so I’m not trying to say that it provided any moral instruction, or a theoretical framework for how to live my life. Nope. But it provided questions. It described feelings that I could relate to. Honestly, I think it was the first thing I read anything that challenged the idea that marriage and children led to happiness. Not that I was surprised that there was a heroine in an unhappy marriage–that was common enough in books and film–but it was unusual to read about a heroine who was, in fact, unsuited for the entire institution. Edna’s story demonstrated that other people can’t necessarily complete you. It was the first book I ever read that brought up the idea that some women aren’t “mother women,” as Chopin termed it. (I mean, yeah, there was that woman in the news who killed her kids, but I’m referring to women who are not homicidal maniacs.)
I went to an all-girls catholic high school. It was a really competitive school academically–the type where everyone took multiple A.P. classes and a 4.0 GPA was average. Everyone I knew was planning to go to college. It also seemed like every girl I knew planned on someday becoming a wife and mother. My best friend at the time, in fact, had already designed her dream engagement ring, using a website online. I … didn’t do that. Already at that point in my life, I knew that marriage and children weren’t things that I desired. When I told people this, everyone just laughed and laughed at me, rolling their eyes. “Yeah right.” Feminism has come a long way, but very few people are willing to accept that some women don’t want to be mothers or even wives. Nowadays, everyone tells little girls, “You can be whatever you want when you grow up.” But once those little girls grow up, they will continually be questioned as to their relationship status, and asked if matrimony and motherhood are on the horizon. If you hint that maybe these aren’t your life goals, you just earn a knowing look that says, “Oh, you just haven’t met the right guy.” Or you just get pity. Whatever.
The Awakening was the first book I read that featured an exploration of societal pressures on women in a complex way. The way that Edna started examining the world around her, after her “awakening” that summer in Grand Isle, provided a piercing look at patriarchy and stifling effects of the society’s expectations. While also a love story, The Awakening is at its heart a story about the internal struggle for independence. It’s about reexamining the world around you with your own eyes, not the judgment of society. Or at least that’s what it seemed to be about to me. While Edna may have been a privileged housewife with two children, and I was a teenager with my life ahead of me, her story spoke to me.
Back in June of 2011, my sister Francesca texted me the following: “What’s the name of the book where the girl doesn’t want to have kids … and in the end she drowns herself?” It prompted all these memories to come back, and is the reason for this post. Thanks, Frani. I looked through my bookshelf and found an old yellowed copy of The Awakening. I thumbed through it and realized that it wasn’t the same edition I read in high school—no introduction. I must have ended up with someone else’s copy when I moved away from home. Then a little piece of paper fell out. As I picked it up, I realized that it was a faded ticket stub for an Alaska Airlines flight from San Francisco to Seattle on May 17th. The ticket didn’t include a year, but it had to be 2000. That was the only year when I flew home to Seattle in the spring. I must have decided to re-read The Awakening during Spring Break—home from college during my freshman year. (I know, such a geek.) But judging from the placement of the “bookmark,” I never finished it. Looking at that faded plane ticket stub, I decided I would finish what I started—revisit Edna Pontellier, 13 years after I first met her. I was a little nervous. Would the book still mean anything? What if it didn’t hold up? What if rereading it changed it somehow? Because I had changed. Nevertheless, I decided to go for it …
And I’m so glad that I did. I finally finished my reread and The Awakening really did hold up. I guess sometimes they call them “classics” for a reason. In rereading it, in fact, it reminded me of another one of my other favorite books: The Age of Innocence. Both novels take place in the United States at the turn of the century. Both deal with a privileged world that is stuck in the past, and yet unknowingly on the brink of change. Both address the internal struggle between the individual and society’s expectations, between the heart and the status quo. And both Wharton and Chopin use language in a similar way, describing the intricacies of expected social interactions in detail. In fact, this detail gets to the very nature of the world in which their respective heroines lived.
There is also an element of humor in Wharton and Chopin’s exploration of society, as both authors give voice to usually-unspoken quirks. Take, for example, this exchange between Edna and Robert in The Awakening: “‘Take the fan,’ said Edna, offering it to him. ‘Oh no! Thank you. It does no good; you have to stop fanning sometime, and feel all the more uncomfortable afterward.’ ‘That’s one of the ridiculous things which men always say. I have never known one to speak otherwise of fanning.’” Or this narration at the opening of The Age of Innocence: “It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.” People do do that. They really do. You know? Oh, and both authors are fond of a nice tragic ending. My favorite kind.
I’ve collected some of my favorite passages from The Awakening below. I think perhaps they demonstrate more clearly what I’ve been trying to say in this post.
- “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day. It was a strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood.”
- “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. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”
- “She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted. She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command. Of course she had; she remembered that she had. But she could not realize why or how she should have yielded, feeling as she then did.”
- “She let her mind wander back over her stay at Grand Isle, and she tried to discover wherein this summer had been different from any and every other summer of her life. She could only realize that she herself—her present self—was in some way different from her other self. That she was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment, she did not yet suspect.”
- “Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one. They had followed a rather heated argument; the two women did not appear to understand each other or to be talking the same language. Edna tried to appease her friend, to explain. ‘I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.’ ‘I don’t know what you would call the essential, or what you mean by the unessential,’ said Madame Ratignolle, cheerfully, ‘but a woman who would give her life for her children could do no more than that—the Bible tells you so. I’m sure I couldn’t do more than that.’ ‘Oh, yes you could!’ laughed Edna.” 
- “He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear to the world.” 
- Mr. Pontellier talking to the doctor: “‘She won’t go to the marriage. She says a wedding is one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth. Nice thing for a woman to say to her husband!’ exclaimed Mr. Pontellier, fuming anew at the recollection.” 
- “‘You are too lenient, too lenient by far, Léonce,’ asserted the Colonel. ‘Authority, coercion are what is needed. Put your foot down good and hard; the only way to manage a wife. Take my word for it.’ The colonel was perhaps unaware that he had coerced his own wife into her grave. Mr. Pontellier had a vague suspicion of it which he thought needles to mention at that late day.”
- “… but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.”
- “One of these days,” she said, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think—try to determine what character of a woman I am, for, candidly, I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”
- “I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly; but I have got into a habit of expressing myself.”
- “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.”
- “The years that are gone seem like dreams—if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! well! perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”
- “Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her, who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them. She was not thinking of these things when she walked down the beach.”
- “She thought of Léonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.” 
 Kate Chopin, The Awakening (1972; repr., New York: Avon Books, 1998), 74.
 Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (Public Domain Books, 2006), Kindle Edition, location 35.
 Chopin, 14.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 67.
 Ibid., 79-80.
 Ibid., 96.
 Ibid., 110.
 Ibid., 119-120.
 Ibid., 133.
 Ibid., 137.
 Ibid., 175.
 Ibid., 178.
 Ibid., 184.
 Ibid., 188-189.
 Ibid., 190.
She thought of Léonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.— Kate Chopin, The Awakening
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