There was no repression in her glance or gesture.
She reminded him of some beutiful, sleek animal waking in the sun.
In Vagina, her last famous essay, writer and activist Naomi Wolf writes: “I began to notice that many women writing between 1850 and 1920 articulated aspects of female sexual experience that did indeed often suggest a connection between a sexual awakening and a creative awakening”. Then she quotes Kate Chopin and her novel The Awakening, first published in 1899. I read the novel during the summer and I realised that I had come across an abandoned, little jewel.
The plot is short and linear and I’ve made a summary of this site for you. It’s the end of the nineteenth century. Edna Pontellier is in Grand Isle with her husband Léonce and their two children. They stay at a summer holiday resort for wealthy New Orleanians owned by Madame Lebrun. Léonce is quite absorbed between his business and the saloon, thus Edna spends most of her time with her Creole, charming friend Adèle Ratignolle. Observing Adèle and her “sensuous beauty“, Edna begins to experience a new freedom of expression. Her inner world of suppressed emotions and desires presents itself languidly in the progressing summer: it is a dim, fascinating pang in the heart. The “awakening” of this inner force and the consequent process of self-discovery are the very core of the novel.
However, a new loving Self requires an appropriate object of love, thus Edna comes to know Robert, the son of Madame Lebrun. The two spend their days talking, but as the summer progresses (as in a tropical version of Death in Venice… ) the relationship grows more intimate and the dark tide inside Edna dangerously begins to rise. She experiences the epiphany of herself. She feels alive and starts to paint again, as she did in her youth. Above all, she learns to swim. Anyway, Edna and Robert never speak about their love for one another, thus she becomes depressed with her husband and joyful during her moments of freedom. Recognizing how deep the relationship has become, Robert removes himself from Grand Isle.
Thus Edna returns to New Orleans, but she is now a different woman. She continues painting, ignores her social duties and moves into a home of her own. The momory of Robert is devouring her but she pursues an affair with the town seducer Alcée Arobin, who satisfies her sexual desires. She doesn’t love him, but she maintains control over the affair and experiences her freedom from male domination.
Then a wonderful character – the old pianist Mademoiselle Reisz, first gimpsed in Grand Isle – adopts Edna as a protégé. She is the only person who knows of Robert and Edna’s secret love for one another. She encourages Edna to admit and live her feelings. And above all she is the mentor Edna needs to be born again as a woman and artist. But Robert returns to New Orleans, finally expressing his love. The end of the novel is a poetic, metaphorical, and supreme act of freedom.
A bunch of thoughts about the novel:
Surfing the net, you will find a lot of criticism about The Awakening and its collocation in the history of women’s rights. I found this article on The Guardian very interesting and if you really want to lose yourself in the study, here you can find a university paper. This last one mainly is in Italian, but you can read an English version here (translated with Google Translator).
Nevertheless, in my opinion the novel possesses great qualities under a psychological perspective as well. After reading Naomi Wolf’s essay, I also appreciated the relationship between woman’s sexual awakening and creativity. Above all, I was stroken by the poetical representation of the return of the repressed. The awakening of the feminine’s self-consciousness is rendered with poetical brush strokes which all have a place in a clean metaphorical narrative structure. The images of the Self come in succession in a constant, placid meditation, but they never exceed into the narrative tradition which built stories around the Freudian Uncanny. Kate Chopin is original and pure.
A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her, – the light which, showing the way, forbids it.
Secondly, I was stunned by Kate Chopin consciusness of psychological shades and details. In the following passage, for example, Chopin makes her character realise that her voice has never expressed her true self:
She was flushed and felt intoxicated with the sound of her own voice and the unaccustomed taste of candor. It muddled her like wine, or like the first breath of freedom.
A recognisable set of metaphors also contributes to the visual and sensorial structure of the book. Here, the breeze from the gulf obviously is an inner movement of novelty as the longing for the sea will be the natural incarnation of freedom:
… the capricious will of a stiff breeze that swept up from the Gulf.
Then, we must notice that the experience of art is a crucial transition between the old and the new Self. Art – together with nature – seems to be the vehicle for the awakening par excellence:
It was not the first time she heard an artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth.
To conclude, dont’ expect a pressing plot but a psychological, intense, and delicate story. The Awakening rather is the gentle fresco of the rising of a soul. “The beginning of things, of a world especially”, writes Kate Chopin, “is necessary vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing”.