The Awakening was difficult for me to read. It wasn’t that I found it over my head conceptually — it was just hard for me to watch Edna Pontellier’s downward spiral. She wanted so badly to be a free spirit, but she was doomed before she ever began. A society bent on conformity was not her only obstacle — she also faced her own inability to truly see what she needed to be in order to be free of contraint. She needed to become Mademoiselle Reisz.
I recently taught this novel, and I found myself steering towards a feminist critic’s take on it. I think it might be the best analysis of the novel. Three men in Edna’s life seek to possess her for different purposes. Her husband, Léonce, wants a submissive, conventional wife and mother to tend to his house and children. Alcée Arobin is after another notch on his bedpost. I think perhaps Robert Lebrun is the most dangerous of all — he wants Edna, but he is not willing to defy convention to be with her. He toys with her feelings and controls her more than her husband or lover, Arobin, ever do. It is when Edna sees that even true love is not enough to move Robert against society that she succumbs to the seduction of the sea and drowns herself. Don’t hate me because I gave away the ending. It was known to me the entire time I read the book and did not lessen my appreciation of the book.
The Awakening is a very quick read. My copy was only about 100 pages. I felt Chopin’s character development was an achievement. The characters were realistic. Edna is very flawed, but Chopin presents her just as we might see her with no editorial lens on the part of the author skewing our vision. I felt her description was especially vivid. I had a clear picture of Grande Isle and old New Orleans as I read. There are so many levels to this book, and I think it still speaks to the ways in which we constrain ourselves, whether society is really at fault or not. I was reminded of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which is another favorite of mine.
I don’t know how I went 33 years before reading this book, but I’m glad I didn’t go any longer. You shouldn’t either.