Jump to content, Jump to navigation.

Amber Paulen

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

The Awakening

Published in 1899 by the American Kate Chopin, The Awakening is a novella I’m surprised not to have heard of before. I’m surprised that it doesn’t more often follow mention of Madame Bovary, written 43 years before. In The Awakening Chopin advanced in idea what Flaubert advanced in prose and psychological portrait. Edna Pontellier cannot be the American Emma Bovary because Edna rises above in strength and reserves where Emma falls into her romantic notions. As a woman, The Awakening is a far more satisfying read than Madame Bovary. Chopin’s prose is also satisfying; it has a soothing, rocking quality to it, like the waters of the Gulf that much of the book is set on.

The Awakening opens on Grand Isle, a holiday resort on the Gulf coast near enough to New Orleans to travel there in a day. Water, awaking, birds, night and swimming are some of the major symbols threaded into the text that provide for much of its richness and depth, and also give it a dreamlike quality: Edna is waking, but into what new reality?

After a party the group of holidayers walk down to the beach for a night swim, Edna and her husband are among them. Edna has just begun to learn how to swim and she gets a sudden burst of strength and energy while in the water.

She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.

Soon after her night swim Edna walks back to her cabin and Robert, the young man whose mother owns the resort, comes along with her. During her time at Grand Isle, Robert was never far from her side—which could or could not be because of Edna, every year he chooses a new woman to be friends with. On the way back to the cabin she says to Robert:

I wonder if any night on earth will ever again be like this one. It is like a night in a dream. The people about me are like some uncanny, half-human beings. There must be spirits abroad to-night.

And after is the first time Edna defies her husband. Laying in the hammock, she refuses to go inside when asked, she remains awake, alone in herself. That night, once Edna does go inside, she sleeps only a couple hours and badly. She wakes early, finds Robert, and invites him to go with her to the island of Chênière Caminada where she walks out of a church service and goes to sleep in a friend of Robert’s house. Edna sleeps the whole day. And then she wakes up.

Much of the rest of The Awakening is Edna realizing what it means for her to be an awakened person, an individual, not wanting to remain within the confines of her children and husband. And this is where the great difference between Edna and Emma is: Edna tries to live as an individual; Emma could never see that she even was her own person. Maybe 43 years brought an advancement for women, after all, in 1899 they could get a divorce if their husbands beat them or for similar reasons. But more did not changed. Witness the scandal that broke out after Chopin published this book; a scandal that shattered her reputation as a literary writer. Five years after The Awakening had been published, Kate Chopin died.

There are twelve other short stories in this collection that I’ve checked out from the library. Those I’ve read are also about the situation of women. In such a light, The Awakening seems the brilliant culmination of a theme that Chopin had been working on for years. Why the novella would have been such a shock to the reading public already familiar with her work can only be explained as Chopin was a woman in far advance of her time.


·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·