Let’s get one thing straight: the actions/thoughts of a character are distinguishable from the actions/thoughts of the author who created that character. Perhaps Freud would disagree, but I don’t believe that every writer necessarily gravitates towards stories populated by a bunch of mini-mes. Readers too hung up on Humbert Humbert’s perversion as an extension of Nabokov himself totally miss out on the incredible prose of Lolita. People have imaginations. Artists like to use them.
For the most part, the men and women of 1899 begged to differ. When Kate Chopin published The Awakening*, people simply could not deal. A book about a woman, Edna Pontellier, who *awakens* to the notion that she is no one’s possession—not her husband’s, not her children’s, not even her lover’s? God forbid. A book about a woman who realizes her own humanity and acknowledges that sometimes being a human means feeling a little capricious? Thanks, but no thanks. Her Victorian peers could not get past Chopin’s explosion of gender norms, so they shunned both Chopin and her book.
So, what about readers in this day and age, over a hundred years later? They’re certainly less shocked by female infidelity, but some are still not that impressed. Complaints I’ve heard usually revolve around the fact that Edna isn’t unlikable because she values her independence; she’s unlikeable because she values her independence over everything else. Edna is a mother of two when she experiences her psychological rebirth and she’s fairly candid as to how she sees herself in relation to them. She says, “I would give up the nonessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (Chopin, 62). She doesn’t hate her kids. Rather, she becomes conscious of the fact that motherhood is only a portion of her identity. The veil of blind contentment is lifted and her socially appropriated role can no longer contain her expanded identity.
I understand that Edna does not react to her awakening in a totally reasonable, moral way. But would we really expect her to—in a time still twenty years shy of women being able to vote? Her emotions have been tempered and her opinions have been ignored for so long that they are bound to erupt in the opposite direction. She might come across as immature and selfish but up to that point she has lived her life in a completely selfless way, sacrificing her own desires and needs—her essential self-- for her husband and children. Maybe cut her a little bit of slack?
I never thought of Edna as an asshole, but I did think Kerouac was one. I watched him gallivant around in On the Road, encouraging and enabling his friend Dean to eschew his responsibilities as a father. Maybe Edna’s decision to start doing whatever she wanted to do, even if it wasn’t beneficial to her children, is easier for me to digest because she’s a fictional character. Edna is a symbol for the liberation of women and an important milestone in feminist writing; Dean Moriarity is an actual man (Neal Cassady) who in real-life treated his kids and his (many) women in atrocious ways. Maybe I justify Edna but not Jack and his gang because Kerouac’s writing skills disappointed me whereas Chopin strung beautiful sentences together like it ain’t no thang. One of my favorite sentences in all of literature belongs to her and speaks of Edna—“He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was become herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (Chopin, 75). What an absolutely beautiful way of portraying Mr. Pontellier’s limited perspective and Edna’s multilayered, enlivening persona.
Indeed, Chopin’s novel is ahead of her time in content and in scope. Her use of the sea as a symbol of Edna’s endless possibilities is effective. It also adds to the novel’s sensual undercurrent, if you will. Describing Edna, she says, “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (Chopin, 34). Chopin is not overtly sexual, rather she seamlessly intertwines sensuality in her work, as when she writes, “…the same glance which had penetrated to the sleeping places of her soul and awakened them” (Chopin, 131).
Overall, I think that The Awakening is a significant book for men and women alike and it deserves 5 out of 5 camel humps. When you read it, ask yourself how you feel about Edna. Are you inspired by her renewed sense of wonder or are you put off by how she redefines the concept of a caregiver? Should she have to attend to others if she’s not allowed to attend to herself? These questions are ultimately moral dilemmas that are relevant to today’s society as well. Consider how your response to Edna might reflect your own expectations of women and how those expectations shape the social-equality landscape today.
*Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Bantam Books, 1899. Print.