Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
First published in America by Herbert S Stone in April 1899.

This is my fifth book for the See Orange Feminist February Challenge.

How I got this book:
Downloaded from ForgottenBooks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘THE AWAKENING, originally titled A Solitary Soul, is a novel by Kate Chopin, first published in 1899. Set in New Orleans and on the Louisiana Gulf coast at the end of the 19th century, the plot centers on Edna Pontellier and her struggle to reconcile her increasingly unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South. It is one of the earliest American novels that focuses on women's issues without condescension. It is also widely seen as a landmark work of early feminism, generating a mixed reaction from contemporary readers and critics.

Set in an upper class American society in the last years on the 19th century, The Awakening attempts to understand, although not to condone, the actions of a woman who finds herself trapped in a domestic life for which she is patently unsuited but, due to the morals of the day, which she has no choice but to endure.

Edna has two children whom she loves and a frequently absent husband who loves 'owning' her. However, Edna is not overtly maternal so when she knows her children to be cared for by nursemaid of their grandmother, she often does not give them a thought from one hour to the next. I got the impression that if she had been allowed the same choice I enjoy over a century later, she would have given motherhood a miss. Unfortunately, she has blindly followed societal expectations. When a summer meeting with a younger man awakens Edna's sense of self, she first tries to bury her emotions as she 'should', but unable to continue the charade, she sets out for a future which is impossible to achieve. Her potential new man will not take the risk to be with her and a bereft Edna cannot return to her previous life.

The illustration of desperation and Edna's inner turmoil is always believable when set against the strictness of the time and I was amazed by the vitriol and spite churned up against the character in other reviews. In her mind, Edna does the right thing. Leaving her husband would permanently stigmatise her children and she would experience serious mental breakdown by staying, so instead fakes accidental drowning while the boys are safely out of the way at their grandmother's.

I liked that Chopin obviously understands her characters completely and manages to set out their lives without actually proffering any as best. Mademoiselle Reisz is fascinating and an interesting choice of confidant for Edna. Leonce is ghastly! Self-important and only out for possessions and social climbing. The writing style is a little dated now, perhaps too coy for modern tastes, but this softness did not detract from my growing sense of unease as Edna's behaviour becomes both stronger and more erratic.

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