My ongoing dialog with the Tao te Ching has convinced me of one thing: the universe sends us messages and we’d be foolish not to listen.
Consequently, when a hardcover edition of Kate Chopin‘s most celebrated work fell into my hands soon after I’d terminally misplaced my just-set-aside-for-a moment softcover copy, I decided it was time to get serious and finish this late 19th Century tale of New Orleans society.
The Awakening, which I gather attracted a scandalous reputation when it was published, is the tale of Edna Pontellier, wife and mother. There’s a lot of baggage that accompanies those two terms today. One hundred and twenty years ago the cart was piled even higher with expectations, roles and responsibilities.
When first we meet Edna she’s on vacation, although not the hurried kind I usually experience. It’s the end of the 19th century and people who can afford to ‘summer.’ Around here, that meant Newport, Bar Harbor or the Berkshires. In New Orleans, it meant Grand Isle, a barrier island on the Gulf coast.
The Pontelliers–Léonce and the children are there, too, at least at the outset, with a servant–are ensconced en famille at a resort run by the Le Brun family: Madame LeBrun and her sons, Robert and Victor.
Edna’s children are a good place to start ruminating about what’s going on. There are two. Young boys–I think they’re well under age ten–most often referred to as “the children,” although they have names: Raoul and Etienne.
Consider that. It’s the 1890s. To the extent a nascent feminism exists, it’s diffuse and hardly in the ascendance. Women have no higher calling than to be a wife and mother. Yet here we have a mother whose children exist somewhere between accoutrements and bit players.
So Edna is on vacation. Many years ago, as part of my day job, I read a marketing study that said vacations, as a break in normal routine, often result in major life changes–marriage proposals, pregnancies, demands for a divorce. Nothing that dramatic happens to Edna besides learning to swim.
Swimming serves as an important metaphor, I think, and not just because we have a cliché about success. Moving in water speaks to our most primal experience and, at least to me, feels incredibly free, the bulky bathing garments of the day notwithstanding.
Edna not only learns to swim, she has a flirtation with Robert, the elder of the LeBrun boys. Like Léonce, the LeBruns, indeed all of the other guests, are French Creoles.
Don’t mistake these successful folks for the country-dwelling Cajuns we associate with Zydeco, gumbo and étouffée. This is high society and old money aligned with birth. The best analog is how ‘old’ New York money, like that of the Astors, is of higher quality than mere industrial money, say that of the Rockefellers. Edna is not one of them except by marriage.
Robert’s role at the property is to be the garrulous front man who flirts with the female guests. The husbands are often missing, off at Klein’s playing cards and, no doubt, talking business and making deals. Husbands are almost ghosts in this novel and I think that, too, is significant.
Léonce, we know, is about 40. If I had to guess, he’s at least ten years older than Edna who fell for his ardent proposal when the love of her life ran off with an older woman. Edna hails from old planter stock–her father still posturing as a full-on Confederate colonel thirty years after the war’s end–whose family may be better off than the Creoles. No matter, Creoles put no stock in a Kentucky–Mississippi heritage.
So Edna flirts with young Robert, who may be ten years her junior, and starts to entertain heretical thoughts. One of the other guests warns Robert to beware. Edna, he’s told, does not understand our Creole ways, she will take you seriously.
But he does persist and she does misunderstand him. Or does she? There’s a real risk of reading this book as a morality tale, especially after Léonce returns to the city and Edna’s time is consumed by Robert. They spend a long, idyllic afternoon on another island and husband and children may as well not exist for our heroine.
This can’t go on. Tongues will wag in this tight-knit circle and so Robert removes himself to find fortune in Mexico. At which point the season is nearly at an end and the community returns to New Orleans.
At home, on delightfully redundant Esplanade Avenue, Edna is a changed woman. She’s taken up drawing and painting and becomes more involved in her art. She gradually gives up the calling and hosting duties of a society wife along with managing the household.
Lêonce and the children disappear, he to New York by way of her sister’s wedding, which Edna refuses to attend despite a visit from her father, and the children to their grandparents. Unencumbered, Edna packs up the house and moves to a smaller space around the corner.
Friends start to worry and say things to her. The focus is often on her role: think about the children. At one point, shockingly, Edna claims she’d give up anything material for her children but she would not sacrifice the core of her being.
Events accelerate. Edna keeps company with Alcée Arobin, a man with a reputation for destroying reputations. She visits her bohemian musician friend and there crosses paths with Robert who has returned.
To say much more would spoil the ending. Chopin’s style reminds me of other writers from that era. While it might just be the focus on the well-to-do, I found myself thinking a lot about Edith Wharton and Frank Norris.
Wharton, in particular, focuses on manners and expectations for women in higher society. In Norris’ case I found myself struck by the notion that Edna Pointellier was struggling to be more like Laura Dearborn.
I was once told by an English professor that I had no ability to read a book and understand what is really being said. I fear that’s happened in this case. Yet I think this is one of those books that everybody should read.
Then you can decide for yourself what it means.
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