A few months ago, I did the gutsy move of critiquing an accepted literary classic in Far From the Madding Crowd. I was not met with literary scholars armed with pitchforks and thesauruses storming my home for vengeance. So, I arrived to the natural conclusion that I should bestow it upon myself (the simple reader of books) the title of classic literary critic, once again. This time I am choosing Kate Chopin's most well known work, The Awakening.
The Awakening was originally published in 1899, and is considered one of the first major literary works of modern feminism. When it initially came out, while it did receive some positive reviews, it was widely panned as an immoral work that upset social norms of the time. Today it is considered a classic, and is lauded by scholars as a progressive work that helped push forward feministic ideas. Unfortunately, the work was too progressive for its time, because the tome was so harshly criticized and widely banned that it actually lead Kate Chopin to become quite depressed, and it ended up being her final novel. She did write a few more short stories, but she actually had a hard time getting them published due to the controversy of The Awakening (seems places weren't lining up to publish a banned author). Even though the novel is much more widely accepted and praised now, I am sure the subject matter still makes it very controversial among certain groups, and I'd bet my left hand that there is right winged parent watched groups that are working hard to make sure the book is still banned in certain school boards. It definitely contains subject matter and issues that are still debated today, and would be considered outright immoral among specific moral right organizations or groups.
The Awakening is about Edna Pontellier, who is the mother of 2 boys and lives in the Croele soceity around New Orleans, on a journey of discovery that causes her to question the role and status of women in her society. The novel explores issues of adultery, feminism (in case you didn't get that from the previous paragraphs), role of family, tradition, society norms, and self realization (among many other things). The story begins with Edna who is trapped in a marriage with Leonce Pontellier, who is a man that is seen as the perfect husband by others, but has very traditional and rigid views of the roles of woman in the family, but she starts seeing the chance for freedom and expression when meeting Robert Lebrum (and to an extent, the talented pianist, Mademoiselle Resiz). The novel follows the inner and outer conflict Edna is constantly confronted with as she tries to explore her desires and dreams, in a society where women are essentially entrapped. The novel presents this tale with a unbiased and amoral narration that neither approves or condemns of the actions that take place, which I am quickly learning is fairly rare for Victorian literature (for example, the other classic novel I reviewed was full of judgment from the narrator). I am sure part of the initial controversy with this story, was that the judgment of the actions were being left up to the reader rather than the reader being told what was morally correct. The story just describes and tells how one women deals with the rules and structure of her society, rather than attempt to moralize the situation.
The moral criticisms against this book are that it encourages adultery or for a woman to abandon her family. I am not a supporter for someone to take on the hobby of adultery or for anybody to purchase a one way ticket to Family Abandonment Villle, but at the same time, I completely disagree with this novel being immoral (I can't disagree with it being controversial though, because the ongoing debate alone signifies it must be -- it will be until the perceptions and hierarchy of our society change). I am not going to argue that since the narration remains unattached that one can not assume Kate Chopin endorses the actions and journey of Edna, because the mere fact Edna is the protagonist and focus of the entire novel means her actions will be the ones scrutinized and amplified by those who read and study the work (no matter the real opinion of Chopin). Instead, I take the stance that the reader and critic must understand the circumstances and society the protagonist finds herself in. This is not a story that is acting as a guidebook for how women must flee from their families, but rather, it is an exploration into the obvious inequality of women due to the established societal norms and gender roles. I actually believe some of the controversy and criticism levied towards this novel today (though admittedly, it is no where near what it would have been a hundred years ago) has more to do with perceived threat to certain authority groups (read: certain conservative affluent white males) rather than any genuine disgust towards the books' content. The real message of the story is about the blatant inequality that is prevalent and protected throughout society, and forces a woman to take dangerous extremes in order to obtain the freedom already being enjoyed by the other gender.
A quick analysis of a few of the key characters in the novel helps explore this idea more closely. Edna is a women who is constantly plagued with an internal struggle between what has been the ingrained need to care for her family, but also becoming increasingly aware of her own dissatisfaction with a community that expects one gender to be sacrificial and selfless while another is allowed to pursue their goals and dreams. The more she tries to follow her heart and dreams, then the more she becomes painfully aware of the disparity between gender rights and expectations. Leonce Pontellier is an interesting character because he comes off as both callous and kind. He is perceived as the perfect husband by others , because of his constant showering of gifts and wealth upon Edna. He is also believes his wife should be completely subservient to him, and he believes an ideal mother and wife is a sacrificial one (while a husband is one who enjoys long nights playing poker or lounging at the bar). He also puts great value on appearance and perceptions, and is a devout follower of societal expectations and traditions (thus the impetus for friction when Edna attempts to becomes independent). Robert Lebrum is a key figure because not only does he become the trigger for Edna's 'awakening', but he also displays how powerful the reach of societal norms really are in one's thinking, which makes him also become a major obstacle for Edna. Adela Ratignolle may seemingly appear to be a minor character, but she provides the juxtaposition between Edna. Adele is the perceived perfect woman, because she puts her children and husband above herself, thus constantly seen as the ideal wife. Each of these characters play a important part in providing a glimpse into the type of society Edna finds herself trapped in, and opens up the reader to the indisputable inequality rampaging throughout.
The novel is one that is still very valuable for discussion today. I am sure there are people who will believe Edna is completely in the wrong. There will be those that will see Edna as brave and strong. I think, most will agree the story is a tragedy. No matter the person's stance, they must agree there is clear inequality, but then the debate is questioning if that is acceptable or how do you properly address it? The reading of the novel made it clear to me that, even though we have come long way for gender rights, that some of the issues in the novel are still prevalent now over hundred years later. The novel can still be used as a good starting point for discussion of why inequality still exists and how do we go about bridging the clear gap that still remains.
The novel is definitely one that can still be easily read today. Chopin's prose are not overly wordy, and it is a much more clear cut story compared to some other novels from the time period. The language isn't poetic, but rather very straightforward. There is some words and phrases that are no longer used. There are some activities or occupations or terms that have now become long forgotten (how many of you know what a Quadroon is?). For the most part, I feel the novel is fairly accessible to most readers today. The story goes at a rather brisk pace, and is actually more of a novella at 190 pages (my copy, at least). There is a great variety of characters, and most of them are pretty layered. It actually is a really good story, that just happens to contain material that is great for discussing (rather than a story that contains interesting subject matter but the actual story is about as entertaining as punching a moving lawn mower blade).
The Awakening is a key work in the annals of feminist literature. It touches on matters that are still very important today. At the same time, it is also a very well written story, which contains interesting characters. This is a novel that deserves the title of classic, and is one that should still be read by everyone today.