August 11, 2009
Kate Chopin's "The Awakening"- Captures the Early Feminist Movement in America?
I remember reading Kate Chopin's short story "A Pair of Silk Stockings" in High School, but thanks to a British education system, Kate Chopin and other equally interesting American writers never made it to my active reading lists until I was in my twenties. "The Awakening", one of only two novels that Ms. Chopin wrote, is a delightful read which takes the reader to New Orleans in the early 1900s when women were grappling with basic identity issues in the South while the likes of Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony wre busy establishing the National Women Suffrage Association in NY.
The chief protagonist of the novel, Mrs. Edna Pontellier, an artist and a thinking woman of the early 1900s 'refuses to be caged by married and domestic life and claims for herself moral and erotic freedom" thus becoming a hallmark character of the feminist movement that had started gaining ground across the country. No surprise therefore that Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" was one of many 'feminist literature' books that was pulled off the shelves for being 'morbid, vulgar, and disagreeable'.
Interestingly it is Edna Pontellier's Creole connection, Madame Lebrun's predominantly female summer colony on Grand Isle, that sparks Edna's quest for self outside the patriarchal culture that surrounds her. The openness with which her Creole friends discuss their intimate relationships is something that both embarrasses and piques Edna Pontellier. This strong reaction of hers eventually results in Edna stepping out of her traditional role as wife and mother to explore her world, something that gives her a sense of personal fulfillment. Her initial trepidation and fears during the course of this journey could easily have made her abandon her exploratory quest but for her friend Mademoiselle Reisz, the pianist. Reisz's words, "The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies" inspire and encourage Edna to continue her maiden 'swim...blindly following whatever impulse moved her as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility...running away from prayers...a stifling atmosphere...and reach the open air."
The male characters are no less intriguing than Edna is in the novel, and they could become interesting research projects in themselves: Leonce - Edna Pontellier' husband, Robert Lebrum - Edna's love interest, and Alcee Arobin - Edna's first sexual encounter outside of marriage. Each one of these characters introduces a different flavor of male society as it existed at the time: Leonce, the domineering husband who is indifferent to the emotional and social needs of his family; Robert Lebrun- a 'ladies' man with limited finacial capability who falls madly in love with Edna but has no clue about what to do next; Alcee Arobin - a businessman who is a womanizer and gambler and ultimately manages to seduce Edna.
The title of the novel could just as well be the theme of the novel. It is Edna's 'awakening' as an artist, as a thinking woman living in New Orleans in the early 1900s who wishes to live life on her own terms. Ms. Chopin has, indeed, created a very powerful character in Edna, almost too powerful for both the times and the plot of the novel; Edna's character pushes the boundaries of both, demanding her space on the sheer power of what she brings to the table.
Definitely a novel I would recommend as a hallmark read of the early feminist literary movement in the USA.