Official Book Summary:
When first published in 1899, The Awakening shocked readers with its honest treatment of female marital infidelity. Audiences accustomed to the pieties of late Victorian romantic fiction were taken aback by Chopin's daring portrayal of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, who seeks and finds passionate physical love outside the straitened confines of her domestic situation.
Aside from its unusually frank treatment of a then-controversial subject, the novel is widely admired today for its literary qualities. Edmund Wilson characterized it as a work "quite uninhibited and beautifully written, which anticipates D. H. Lawrence in its treatment of infidelity."Although the theme of marital infidelity no longer shocks, few novels have plumbed the psychology of a woman involved in an illicit relationship with the perception, artistry, and honesty that Kate Chopin brought to The Awakening.
I thought that I was going to love this book. It had everything that I loved -- New Orleans (my favorite city), a masterpiece of classical literature, a deep romantic classical read and a honest telling of life in the early 1900s for upper-class Creole people. Not only that, but I heard that this was the most feminist book ever written that featured a complex heroine.
So in short: I thought that I was going to fall in love with it. How could I not?
Well... it's safe to say that I was wrong. I was utterly and completely wrong.
Chopin's novel wasn't very thick. However somehow, despite how fast that I read, it took me almost two weeks to finish! Granted -- some of the time was due to my schedule. Though to be truthful, I definitely did not want to read it either. It was almost a blessing not having the time.
Edna Pontellier is the main character of the novel.
She's an upper-class wife of a Creole man named, Leonce. Edna unlike her husband was from an old, colonial American family in Kentucky and grew up Presbyterian. Their differences in culture are often noted with a sense that Edna is not a fan of the Creole world; as if she's simply observing an alternative world that she feels no connection to -- nor wishes to. Edna feels in all ways that she is trapped.
Edna and Leonce have two young boys who are often expressed with a tone of monotony. As Edna herself notes, she loves her children but doesn't feel that sense of maternal love that she sees in other women. Like so many things in Edna's world, they are often disregarded in juxtaposition to her current desires. Her sons were only acknowledged in passing; either to mention the nanny, that her mother in-law thinks she's unfit or that Leonce is a much better parent. These are all things that Edna admits without a sense of shame.
While summering in New Mexico, Edna becomes infatuated with a young man named Robert. Robert becomes the all-consuming love to Edna; her actions, her thoughts and her entire being seem to cling to him. Robert (as noted by a minor character) is often a flirt with the married women. Yet, Edna is the first married woman to take Robert for anything but some fun. For Edna, he symbolizes so much more than a fling. He symbolizes her lack of "freedom," that she feels by being a mother and wife.
After summering, we see Edna become more and more unattached to her life -- especially her husband. She wants more freedom and enjoys rebelling against her husband's wishes. I felt no connection to Edna throughout her change. She was often cold, selfish and thought of no regards except in passing.
I think my lack of connection with Edna wasn't so much because she was defying female stereotypes (such as the notion all females want to be a mother, etc) but because Chopin spent too much time describing trivial descriptions or conversations. The chapters were short, crisp and often left me wondering why Edna was behaving or feeling as she did.
I understand that Chopin was describing a taboo topic -- the idea that a woman may not want to be a wife and mother. I think it's wonderful that Chopin, despite the restrictions of her time, felt so strongly about this topic. However, the novel is so all-over the place. It jumps from a seemingly irrelevant conversation to a profound, poetic expression.
In short: it gave me a headache.
Mostly because I was never able to understand any character. It's not because Edna was careless and selfish. It was because she was never given any character development. The character development she had was very short. I think with anti-heroes/heroines that a backstory is important. With Edna, the most backstory that we get is that she was a wild young girl who was prone to infatuations. Would an explanation make Edna a better mother? No... but it would make it easier for the reader to build a connection with her.
There's also a sense of racial superiority that Edna feels that is echoed throughout the novel. It made me very uncomfortable.
Even more because I have yet to see anyone notice the way that Edna describes her Creole husband with a sense that she's superior in culture. The Creoles are displayed with a sense of far-away wording. The way that Edna describes the Spanish servant, Mariequita, is said with such a sense of disdain; as if her 'seductress' ways could not be helped due to her heritage. I think Edna's worst trait was not her lack of feeling, but her feeling of such entitlement.
There was so much focus on Edna -- her feelings, her desires and her infatuation -- that other interesting characters such as her husband and even Robert are pushed aside. There's such a lack of conviction when it comes to what even drives Edna to feel as she does. Every action of hers is rounded up to selfishness and detachment, even by herself. How is anyone supposed to connect with a character that doesn't even seem to connect with herself?
I haven't read something that incited so much apathy since reading Hawthorne. I love classical literature and period pieces. You can convince me to read almost everyone, but never Hawthorne again. The idea of poking myself in the eye is more appealing. Seriously.
There is absolutely no love in my heart for Hawthorne. One of the reasons why Hawthorne instantly comes to mind (besides my obvious dissatisfaction with both of their novels) is that Chopin, like Hawthorne, is repetitive and dry. However, while Chopin is lackluster with her writing: her prose is nothing short of beautiful.
I think Chopin is a genius of expressions which is why I rated this 1.5. She has a poetic sense of description that chills your bone. Though I felt that the characters often didn't emote -- her voice as a narrator was so emotional at parts that it juxtaposed the coldness and blandness of some of the characters. I think some writers were meant to be poets, not writers. Chopin spent so much time on useless details (much like Hawthorne has a tendency to) then would jump to a character's action.
I think this novel would have been much, much better if it was expanded and edited. I think Chopin could have written a true masterpiece, if only she had the help of an editor or spent more time on her novel. I understand how delicate of an issue that she was writing which I think was her downfall with this novel.
This is a classic that I cannot recommend nor even say that I enjoyed it. But if you're possibly interested in it, I can say that it is a short read and there are beautiful prose lines in it which is about the kindest that I can say.