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The Awakening and Other Stories by Kate Chopin : highly recommended

March 20, 2022 26 comments

The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin (1899) French title: L’Eveil.

“One of these days,” she said, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think—try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”

The main course of The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin is the novella The Awakening. Mrs Edna Pontellier is the speaker of the quote opening this billet.

We meet her at Grand Isle, where she’s spending the summer with other people from New Orleans. She’s there with her maid and her two children, her husband Léonce staying in town during the week and commuting to Grand Isle during the weekends. New Orleans’ Hamptons, so to speak.

Edna isn’t happy as a wife and a mother, not that Léonce is a bad husband. She just finds no fulfillment in taking care of the children or being a doting wife.

Léonce is a man of his time and has the common expectations towards his wife. He’s courteous and thinks he treats her well but in his mind, she’s like an employee whose performance doesn’t quite meet with her job description.

He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it? He himself had his hands full with his brokerage business. He could not be in two places at once; making a living for his family on the street, and staying at home to see that no harm befell them.

Edna, as a wife, is also a mandatory fixture of a successful man’s life, like a mansion or a carriage:

“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.

He needs to show off his children, his wife, his well-kept house and she needs to have her visiting day to entertain the network of his business circle’s wives. Sometimes, she’s more like a glorified servant than a partner. Like here, where he complains that she doesn’t listen to him…

He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.

…but this conversation occurred at night, when he woke her up after being out! He wanted to talk about his day! It’s like calling the maid in the middle of the night to have some tea or run a bath.

That summer at Grand Isle, Edna became the center of Robert’s attentions. He’s a young flirt, the son of the inn keeper. He’s known to attach himself every summer to a woman, especially to interesting married women, and everyone knows that it is a meaningless summer thing. The ladies and Robert know the rules.

But Edna, and that’s important in the story, is not a native from Louisiana and she’s not a Creole. She doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the same background. She was already dissatisfied with her life reduced to maternal and conjugal duties before coming to Grand Isle and Kate Chopin sums it up nicely:

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Robert opens a window she had closed when she got married. Her awakening is her self as a woman, a sleeping beauty who wakes up and wants her place in Edna’s life. And suddenly, Robert leaves Grand Isle to go to Mexico on business. The reader understands that he got a little too attached to Edna. She goes back to New Orleans but she can’t fold back into her previous Mrs Pontellier box. Like toothpaste, once out, you cannot get back in.

So, she starts neglecting her wife duties: housekeeping is approximative, she stops doing her Thursdays, she doesn’t visit other wives. She takes on painting again even if she has no illusion of her gift as an artist. She knows she doesn’t have a real talent for it but she applies to it seriously. She enjoys working hard.

Mr Pontellier is worried about his wife’s mental health but chooses not to intervene. He has an important business deal to conduct in New York and is away from New Orleans for several months. The children stay in the country with their grandparents. Edna is suddenly totally freed from her daily duties.

She spends time with Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist who was a guest at Grand Isle that summer too. She chose to remain single and enjoys her freedom. She has news from Robert and these letters help Edna understand that she loves him and that the feeling is mutual.

We see Edna taking back her freedom of movement and of thinking, getting her own money on the race field, moving out of her mansion to a smaller house that she pays herself.

How will this unfold when Mr Pontallier comes back?

I imagine that some have compared Edna to Emma Bovary. There are some similarities, since they are both bored by marital duties and motherhood. They don’t have bad husbands, just ones that aren’t what they need.

The main difference between the two is that Kate Chopin is not a misogynistic male. So, Edna is not a stupid woman who falls for the first man who pays attention to her. Chopin shows that not all women have fun changing diapers, taking care of running noses and organizing diners and she doesn’t judge Edna for that.

Edna is not uncaring, she loves her children but her life as a wife and a mother is not enough. Edna is not frivolous or impractical. She doesn’t behave as foolishly as Emma Bovary or overspend on fashion and trinkets. She wants to be herself, to be free and to exist as a separate entity from her husband and children.

I believe that the ending is not one that a male author of the time would have written and it is closer to Virginia Wolf than to Gustave Flaubert. The Awakening was published in 1899, before The House of Mirth (1905) or The Custom of the Country (1913). It is a feminist work by a writer who probably had common points with Edna and I thought it was very modern for her time.

A word about the short stories included in the book, which are:

  • Beyond the Bayou
  • Ma’ame Pélagie
  • Desiree’s Baby
  • A Respectable Woman
  • The Kiss
  • A Pair of Silk Stockings
  • The Locket
  • A Reflection

They are little gems, stolen pictures of Louisiana in the 1890s, with the scars of the Civil War and the race question. Their main characters are women who struggle with their life, who have desires they can’t fulfill and who survive as best they can.

As a French reader, I have to comment on Chopin’s style. She was a Creole and her writing is peppered with French words and sentences. See here: We’ve got to observe les convenances if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession. How does it sound to you, English-speaking natives? There’s the word “convenances” in the middle of the sentence and the whole phrase sounds French to me.

I have the same impression with this one: She made no ineffectual efforts to conduct her household en bonne menagere. It’s not the first time I read a book set in Louisiana and there’s a familiarity in the language and sometimes in the way of thinking: Mr. Pontellier did not attend these soirees musicales. He considered them bourgeois, and found more diversion at the club. It could come out of a book by Maupassant, no?

All the French words, expressions and sentences are not translated into English in footnotes. English-speaking readers, how do you fare with that?

It may sound futile but I was irritated that the publisher didn’t bother to write French properly: no accent on chérie, grammar mistakes due to missing accents (a instead of à), no cedilla on garçon. Is that so complicated to check out the right spelling?

I owe the discovery of The Awakening to Vishy and read his post here. Many thanks, Vishy, I loved it and I think it’s an important milestone in the 19thC literature. Highly recommended.

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