My only experience with Kate Chopin was her short story, “The Story of an Hour.” I had heard good things about her book, The Awakening, so I thought I would pick it up and read it. I was not disappointed. Chopin’s character and thematic development are impressive. Having taught so many novels, it’s nice to actually read something that impressed me. Plus I have a fascination with New Orleans and its pseudo-European culture and this novel wraps its characters in this Creole setting.
The opening chapters of the novel were great at introducing the world the story takes place in. However, it did take a while before Chopin reveals what the book is about. At first glance it seems that we are just seeing the obvious ennui of rich white people, on summer vacation, escaping their “busy” lives back in New Orleans. But that’s where Chopin’s craft kicks in. Soon, with a few well placed narratorial quips, she reveals that maybe all is not well in Grande Isle. That this boredom is not something to be praised, but rather something that should be changed.
This is what I appreciated about her approach to character development. She isn’t afraid to critique and present a well-rounded, flawed character. Chopin’s approach is similar to Edith Wharton’s characters who, at first glance, seem to be people we are supposed to like, but upon further analysis we are supposed to judge them as much as the author does. I like this approach to writing and this is why I like these early Modern writers. Particularly because I enjoy reading books from different perspectives. Having read Wharton previously, I’m glad to say that Chopin is now going on the shelf right next to Edith as two of my top authors.
The development of the theme is another feather in Chopin’s quiver. Once she establishes her characters, she quickly, and adroitly, takes the reader on a somewhat spiritual journey as Edna Pontellier attempts to discover why she is so bored and dissatisfied with her life. I won’t give away her discovery, because that’s part of the joy of the novel, but I will say that while I don’t agree with her methods, I do think that Edna’s ultimate epiphany is important. One phrase establishes with readers what Chopin is trying to tell the world about women and women’s rights: “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose.”
While there is a lot of discussion about feminism in our modern society, I feel that it’s good to remind ourselves what feminism is about. I don’t profess to be up-to-date on feminist philosophy, but I believe that Chopin would be a great foundational text to introduce feminism. Frankly, I’ve never been that guy who wants a trophy wife, or who feels threatened by strong women. Luckily I found a wife who is talented at what she does with a living and who is a strong and independent and is willing to share her life with me. That’s what I think Chopin is trying to say in her story as well. It’s not a diatribe against men. Rather, it’s a warning to women to not let themselves get married for the sake of being married or to let themselves be lost in a marriage. But to life a wholesome life and share in marriage with a man who will respect you and love you for who you are. And not treat you like a new sofa.