The magic of a good book is that no matter how unrelated its story is to your life, it can still throw a light into the secret corners of your own heart. The Awakening by Kate Chopin has this magic too.
Kate Chopin may never have earned much money by her writings. She may have earned the ire of many for her independent thinking. But she now holds a prominent place among writers of feminist fiction. She had the courage to rebel against the restrictive society that prohibited women the freedom to aspire. At a time when a good marriage and motherhood was considered the ultimate success for a woman, Kate Chopin presented women as individuals with separate wants and needs, independent thought, and desire to be free of the conventional, restrictive mould forced on them.
The Awakening – Theme:
The Awakening is a journey of solitude, it’s a desire to break free, it’s the yearning to live as you desire, the world’s expectations be damned.
First published in 1899, the book is set in New Orleans and on the Louisiana Gulf coast at the end of the 19th century. It centers around Edna Pontellier as she awakens to her individuality and her thirst for freedom. This ‘awakening’ clashes strongly against the claims of motherhood and the societal norms of American South of that time.
Symbolizing the theme, a caged bird appears more than once in the book. When we finally see a free bird, its wing is broken and it too can only flutter, instead of flying high.
The whole book centers around the heroine, and the heroine is a person that would not please many readers. She might jar against your moral sensitivities and come across as selfish and self-centered.
The heroine Edna Pontellier is the wife of a sensible and devoted man. Her friends believe he is the best husband in the world. She’s mother of loving little children. Yet, all she cares about is her freedom to be as she desires. She falls in love with one young man, has sexual affair with another. In the end, she cares neither for her children nor her husband and commits suicide to assert her freedom.
Shocking, isn’t it? How much more shocking she might have appeared to readers when the book was published!
Outwardly, Edna has everything. She is young, healthy and beautiful. She’s married to a good man. She is rich and lives in luxury. She is mother of hale and hearty children. Yet, she is miserable. She is miserable because she’s expected to be a wife and mother and does not have the freedom to be herself and live with the man she has fallen in love with.
While striving for her freedom, she breaks free emotionally from her husband. But she cannot free herself from the claims of her children on her. She loves her children and is willing to give up her life for them. But she is NOT willing to give up being herself for them. So, she kills herself. That is the only option she has to escape from her bonds.
It is not easy to like and agree with such a heroine. But Chopin’s masterful writing has the power to make you understand her.
A Psychological Journey:
The most remarkable aspect of The Awakening is its deep insights into a woman’s heart that is craving for freedom. It is not an eventful book. Not much happens in it. It is the psychological journey of a woman waking up to her desires and personality and feeling stifled in the narrow confines set for her by the society. The emotional turmoil of Edna is very well brought out. Whether you agree with Edna or not, you cannot escape feeling with her.
There is no hero in The Awakening. The book has many minor characters, including the young men who ‘awakens’ Edna. All are vivid and intelligently drawn. Robert Lebrun, the man Edna falls in love with, comes across as a very nice and sensible fellow. He loves Edna enough to distance himself from her so as not to risk hurting her reputation. But even he does not occupy a hero’s space in the book. The book is all about the heroine and her emotional turmoil.
The Awakening review:
When The Awakening was first published, it received a lot of negative criticism. Due to lack of acceptance, it even stayed out of print for many years. But this same book now holds an important position in the feminist literature. You’ll even find it recommended in the lists of books all women should read.
So, should you read it?
As I mentioned earlier, it is a very uneventful book. One might even say that it does not have much of a story either. If you enjoy books with lots of twists and turns, this book won’t interest you. But if you can enjoy a book for the beauty of its writing, if you like books that dive deep into the psychology of its characters, The Awakening is worth checking out (See The Awakening & other short stories by Chopin on Amazon.) You might find an echo of your own thoughts and feelings in its pages. And by laying bare the heart of Edna, the novel might force you to look into your own.
Also check out:
The theme of The Awakening is much the same as Moods, by Louisa May Alcott. Comparatively, The Awakening is more Feminist in nature, while Moods is a more entertaining book with loftier characters. You can check out my review of novel Moods.
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