By Kate Chopin
Intro by Barbara Kingsolver
London: Canongate, 2014
Paperback, 295 pages, $12.95.
Reviewed by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
The Awakening was far ahead of its time when it was published in 1899, but in the 1960s and 70s it was rediscovered; and in tandem with The Feminine Mystique it caused a great many “awakenings.” Barbara Kingsolver writes that together the two books, “made me want to weep and rend my clothing. They gave words to the increasingly suffocating atmosphere of a life I had entered…” (pp xiii-xiv) to which I can only shout, “Same here! Same here!”
But I must admit that as I re-read the Awakening here in 2014, in the 82nd year of my life, I saw a more confused picture than I saw 50 years ago. At that former time I resonated with Edna Pontellier’s “indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness [and] filled her whole being with anguish” (p. 14). I overlooked some of the strange choices Edna made and assumed that she swam outward to her death as a protest and liberation from a stultifying life. Kingsolver says that Edna was “waiting to walk out into the water and awake” (p. xxii).
At this point I now see Edna Pontellier as a much more complex character, “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being” (p. 31). What she finds, however, is a world “necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing” (p. 32). She is fond of her husband and fond of her children, but in an “uneven, impulsive way” (p. 44). She is also attracted to Robert Lebrun, the owner’s son of the Grand Isle resort in Louisiana. Robert is very much in love with her but is trying to respect her marriage and her husband.
Once Edna has learned to swim, what draws her toward the ocean is “the unlimited in which to lose herself” (p. 68). She wants to be “free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails” (p. 84). She wants to “quit the stifling atmosphere of the church and reach the openness” (p. 87). She knows she is “seeing with different eyes,” but she does not yet suspect which “new conditions in herself had “colored and changed her environment” (p. 99).When Robert goes abroad, the future appears to Edna as “a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate” (p. 112). Even the sight of Mr. and Mrs. Ratignolle’s marital harmony leaves her feeling “an appalling and hopeless ennui” (p. 139). She begins to do whatever she likes, disturbing her husband by the loss of any “tacit submissiveness” (p. 141). But on her happiest days she likes being “alone and unmolested,” while on her unhappy days she views life as “a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation” (p. 144).
Before moving into her own little “pigeon house,” Edna throws a dinner party, sitting among her select guests looking regal but feeling “hopelessness… a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords waited. There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable” (pp. 222-3).
Sometimes, while living in her “pigeon house,” Edna feels that although she has descended in the social scale, she has “a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual” (p. 235). She even “began to look with her own eyes to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life” (p. 235).
Yet after Robert has said his final good-bye “because I love you” (p. 282), Edna walks “rather mechanically” down to the beach (p. 287). She realizes that lovers will come and go, but that her children are “like antagonists” whose slavery must be eluded (p. 288).
Standing naked by the sea, Edna feels “like some new-born creature” (p. 289). She thinks that her husband and children have had no right ever to think they “could possess her body and soul” (p. 290). As she swims outward toward death, she is remembering “the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree” – so she continues to swim, to “dare and defy” in order to evade possession, until finally she can swim no more.
As Edna Pontillier’s Christian humanist sister, I trust that she swims straight into the arms of a loving and beloved Spirit she had sensed but never fully recognized during her lifetime. But the original title of the novel was A Solitary Soul, and Kate Chopin herself said that when she had begun to write it, “I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontillier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did” (“About the Author” p. 295). Were the current publishers agreeing with that negative interpretation by edging all the pages in black?
Well, as a feminist/humanist Christian I can only hope that Kate Chopin’s artistic inspiration carried her farther out and farther in than she herself realized. I also hope that many other feminists will read or re-read this amazing novel and will share their understanding of its significance with one another.
Virginia Mollenkott taught literary interpretation for a total of 44 years, at Bob Jones University, Temple University, Shelton College, Nyack Missionary College, and (for the final 30 years) at William Paterson University.
© 2014 by Christian Feminism Today