Kate Chopin's The Awakening is a work of fiction that tells the story of Edna Pontellier, Southern wife and mother. This book presents the reader with many tough questions and few answers. It is not hard to imagine why this book was banished for decades not long after its initial publication in 1899. At that time in history, women did just what they were expected to do. They were expected to be good daughters, good wives, and good mothers. A woman was expected to move from the protection of her father's roof to the protection of her husband. Edna didn't fit this mold, and that eventually leads her husband to send for a doctor. It is here that Edna Pontellier says words that define The Awakening, "I don't want anything but my own way. That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others - but no matter..."
As the book begins, Edna is a married woman who seems vaguely satisfied with her life. However, she cannot find true happiness. Her "awakening" begins when a persistent young man named Robert begins courting her. Edna begins to respond to him with a passion she hasn't felt before. She begins to realize that she can play roles other than wife and mother.
Throughout the book Edna takes many steps to increase her independence. She sends her children away, she refuses to stay at home on Tuesdays (as was the social convention of the time), she frequents races and parties. Unfortunately, her independence proves to be her downfall.
Edna stays married because divorce was unheard of in those days. She wants to marry Robert, but he will not because it will disgrace her to leave her husband. No matter how much Edna exceeds social boundaries, she is held down by the will of others, despite what she wants. In today's world divorce, sadly, is almost commonplace, but in her time she would have been an outcast of her society. By the end of The Awakening, Edna feels like a possession - of her husband, of her children, and of her society. The only solution she sees is to end her life, which she does by swimming out into the sea until her strength gives out. This is a very symbolic death.
I feel the theme of The Awakening is deeper than the obvious themes of independence and women's rights. The Awakening presents suicide as a valid solution to problems that do not offer many choices.
Why do people commit suicide? Some common reasons are isolation and loneliness, disruption of one's social life, and suicide for the common good. It's easy to connect these with Edna's life: the isolation of her small house, the disruption caused by Adele's death, and the common good of the children.
However, her suicide had nothing to do with any lack of personal freedom. She was, for the most part, doing whatever she wanted and there were no signs that she intended to stop. Rather, it was the lack of good, healthy alternatives that led to her demise.
Robert had left her in an attempt to protect her, himself, or possibly both. This left Edna to pursue a minor romance with Alcee Arobin. Or stay in a marriage that held no hope of fulfillment. Or she could pursue other third-rate affairs, while being discreet enough not to hurt her children. None of these options satisfied her longing for the one who had "awakened" her. Edna chose suicide.
The only shortcoming I found in The Awakening was its lack of dialogue. The book is filled with page after page of descriptive phrases, thoughts and actions. This doesn't leave much to the imagination, and in spots, the book seems to drag.
The merits of The Awakening far outweigh its few faults. It tells a story of independence, freedom and will power unheard of during the times of its publication. It's a stirring book that forces you to confront tough issues. It paints a picture of what goes through the mind of a person who loses hope.
Like Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Chopin's The Awakening tells us a story from the perspective of the oppressed. It