The Awakening. Kate Chopin. 1899. (221 pgs)
Prevailing Narrative Voice: A third-person, highly detached voice describing a character’s actions and conversations, but not allowing the reader to know what a character is thinking. That voice shifts equally from one to another, giving the same value to persons as to pets, furniture or the weather.
First Sentence: “A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: ‘Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!’” (Get out! Get out! Damn it!)
What we learn in first paragraphs: After a slightly confusing exchange between a parrot and a mockingbird, we observe Mr Pontellier, unable to focus on yesterday’s newspaper. It is Sunday, mid-day, and he is on a summer vacation with his wife and family from New Orleans in an idyllic setting on Grande Isle, Louisiana.
What we learn in first 10 pages: Mr Pontellier is a satisfied man who loves his family. He observes his wife and a young male friend of the family (indicated as “very young” however, more an indicator of emotional maturity since he smokes cigarettes but prefers cigars) emerge from a swim without suspicion of threat and yet he cannot sit still as they approach. At the end of the first short chapter – all chapters seem to be 5 – 10 pages – he kisses his two sons and goes off to the clubs and a late-night poker game. In the second short chapter we are given a detailed physical description of Mrs Pontellier and her young friend, Robert. She is described as “an American woman”. She observes that her husband is not coming back for dinner. At the beginning of the third chapter it is eleven o’clock and Mr Pontellier returns ebulliently intoxicated from many hours of winning at the tables. He chides his sleeping wife for not taking adequate care of the children and laments that he can’t be everywhere at once, making money in business and guardian at home. She ignores. He escalates. He smokes a cigar. She gets out of bed and checks the boys. When she returns to bed her husband is snoring. She retires to a rocker on the porch and begins to cry, slowly at first and soon with such force that “the damp sleeve of her peignoir no longer served to dry them.” She has no idea why she is weeping. The following morning, as Mr Pontellier prepares to leave for a week in the city, he regrets his “lack of composure” the previous night and gives his wife half of his winnings, which “she accepted it with no little satisfaction”. Later in the week an elaborate box of candies, fruit, pate and flowers arrives which Mrs Pontellier generously shares with her friends, all declaring that “Mr Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew of none better.”
Setting: The lakeshore and cottages of a Grande Isle summer vacation establishment and New Orleans.
Plot & Expectations: it is important to remember the social backdrop of the time and that The Awakening was written at the turn of the previous century long before the feminist movements and in the midst of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. Women did not gain the right to vote in the US until 1920. That said, my expectation, based on the book’s title and from reading the opening pages (chapter three ends on pg 13), is that we are about to embark on a woman’s personal journey of discovering the source of her dissatisfaction and her powerlessness to change her situation and remain within her societal group. Those who awaken to new ideas or life concepts are faced with great upheaval, not from the proposal or its newness, but from the impossibility of maintaining the old order with a new conception. How does one return the round peg to the square hole without damaging both? Mrs Pontillier’s inability to grasp the meaning of her tears immediately following her husband’s accusations bode trouble and is the thread the this reader is excited to follow. The conflict of the book appears to reside in Mrs Pontellier and the realities she will awaken over the course of the novel. Her husband offers the catalyst; the social norms of the time will provide many opportunities for rising and falling action over the course of the story. Even though the text is simply written and even though we are not (yet) invited into the personal thoughts of the main character, it is clear that Edna Pontellier is about to embark on an emotional struggle that will challenge her core believes of womanhood and what it means to be a wife and mother.
Notes: I intend to finish reading The Awakening as I am curious about how Edna Pontellier navigates the cultural situation outlined in the early pages. From researching (Google-ing) the author and title, it is clear that Edna Pontellier drowns herself at the end of the book. I was able to put that out of my mind while I was reading the first ten, but as I was writing this commentary I had to peek at the last page and indeed, that is the ultimate solution to her dilemma. From page 221, “’Good-by – because I love you.’ He did not know; he did not understand… but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone.” Moments later, “There was a hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.” Hmmm, even in suicide a woman was required to go quietly and with decorum.
Interestingly, I wrestled with how to notate the publisher of this entry. The version I read was a Knopf imprint publication of the Everyman’s Library added in 1992. Needless to say, The Awakening resonates deeply and has aligned with feminine movements since the turn of the century, but in the day, public reaction to The Awakening in 1899 was vicious and Ms. Chopin’s story garnered “offensive reviews and local displeasure” that affected her personally. The Everyman’s Library publication offers a fantastically researched and written introduction by Elaine Showalter, one of the founders of feminist literary criticism in the United States and who coined the term ‘gynocritics’ to describe literary criticism based in a feminine perspective.