Fat Books & Thin Women


Classic (Re)read: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

High school reading remains, for me, a blur of poor attitude and disinterest. I may have trudged through each and every assignment and performed admirably on the exams and occasional paper, but that doesn’t mean I remember anything about the books or viewed the reading of them as anything other than the bullshit drudge work typical of my teachers, so intent on distracting me from my real work of becoming a famous author.* It wasn’t until a reread that books and plays like The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five and Macbeth became palatable to me.

From Wikipedia

I just finished rereading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. My high school memories of reading this book are pretty clear, as it was around this time that I hit my low point, attitude-wise. (I had probably just gotten my college acceptances.) My thoughts on the book were, and I apologize if you have until now remained unaware of the book’s ending, “I read this whole fucking book and all she does is go out swimming and drown herself? Why didn’t she do that a hundred pages ago? Jesus Christ!”

I think the plot of this novella is pretty well known, but a brief recap: Edna Pontellier is a wife and mother in New Orleans who increasingly desires her own freedom, and who isn’t able to reconcile her changing views on the role and needs of women with those of society.

As with so many books, this one was better the second time around. I found Chopin’s style fairly workmanlike, and sometimes she states things too clearly rather than trusting them to the reader. But this reading, I thought the development of the story and the sometimes minor ways in which Edna tries to remove herself from her husband’s realm and to gain agency over her own life were well done. And looking back on the passages I marked from the novella’s start, a degree of foreshadowing is evident. On a reread, the close to Edna’s story seems inevitable: she can’t extricate herself from society and its rules governing the conduct of women and remain whole, but nor can she remain in that society once she has begun to see past it.

Early in the novella Chopin writes:

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

Then, at the end:

The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

The repetition is really interesting to me in a few ways. For one, it is almost as though the novella is a circle, that at the end it returns to its beginning. And when reading the second quote, I’d expect to see “…enfolding her body in its soft, close embrace.” But by referring to Edna’s body as “the body,” it’s almost like Chopin is moving her onto another plane, signaling that her body is representative of a whole class of female bodies. This isn’t, she suggests, the story of just one woman.

The Awakening was well worth a reread. I also read the accompanying stories (I am pretty sure 17-year-old Me skipped those) and thought some of them, especially “Ma’ame Pelagie” and “Beyond the Bayou” were well-crafted. A lot of her stories deal with conflicts between, say, memory and the present day, or different cultural groups, or the self vs. the larger culture.

In “Ma’ame Pelagie,” for instance, the title character literally lives in the shadow of her ruined home, in the shadow of her memories of better days. At story’s close the home is reawakened, restored, brought into the present day, by Ma’ame Pelagie’s brother and his daughter, but it seems to be too late for Pelagie. When she first meets her niece, La Petite, she “…looked into her eyes with a searching gaze, which seemed to seek a likeness of the past in the living present.” The present is only of interest to her as it might hold a key or likeness to the past.

In “Desiree’s Baby” Chopin shows the lengths to which some people are willing to go to remove themselves from their own pasts, even at the expense of the people they love in their present.

And then, in “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” she shows how the main character, Mrs. Sommers, “lives” in her past for a day, when she gets $15 and buys only those inessential items that have the “feel” of her past and bring her back to the “better days” her neighbors speak of her having once had. At story’s close Chopin hints at the danger in this as a passenger on a cable car sees in Mrs. Sommers “…a poignant wish, a powerful longing that the cable car would never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever.” Chopin shows how easy it is to become caught in the past, to fail to live in the present.

I don’t think that all the stories hold up to The Awakening in terms of quality, but to see how Chopin explores similar themes in her stories is interesting after finishing the novella. This goes to prove, I guess, that 17-year-olds do not always know what’s best, or best for them, and that even books we once dismissed as not worth our time are, well…worth our time.

Read it: The Awakening at Project Gutenberg

* That went well for me, if by “becoming a famous author” I actually mean “earning $200 a month, not from my writing.”

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[…] The Beautiful & Damned (9/22/10) Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter (9/19/10) Kate Chopin – The Awakening and Selected Stories (9/14/10) E.M. Forster – A Passage to India (9/11/10) Jeff Long – The Descent […]

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