Wednesday, April 28, 2010
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know what a huge fan of used book stores I am. While visiting Colorado last summer, Alex dropped me off at this great book store called Poor Richard's in downtown Colorado Springs. (As an aside, I'm not really sure why I feel the need to describe where / when I obtained this book, but, for some reason, in my mind, the book and the experience of vacation are inextricably linked). It was my perfect idea of a store, with a used book store, a coffee shop that sold delectable confections and also wine and beer. I loved that place and could have stayed there for much longer! Anyways, I picked up The Awakening by Kate Chopin while there. I'm not sure where I first heard of this book, but I do remember it was a controversial book at the time it was published (late 1800s). I'm a big fan of controversial books - anything that gets people riled up is usually a really good book, right? And this book was a really good book. The Awakening is about Mrs. Pontellier, an upper class housewife in New Orleans society. The book opens upon Mrs. Pontellier summering on an island with her two children and her husband. Her husband periodically returns to New Orleans to continue working, while Mrs. Pontellier stays at the resort with the children (and their "nanny" - Chopin actually calls the childrens' nanny a "quadroon" which was acceptable terminology at the time, but I feel is somewhat unacceptable terminology now - there are many examples of this throughout the book, which I suppose is a risk one takes when reading historical literature). At the resort, there are many families vacationing, and the reader is introduced to many social niceties and interesting dialogue, especially a lot of sayings in French or French Creole. The story is of the "awakening" of Mrs. Pontellier - that is, she discovers she is her own person, that she has her own feelings and her own self worth and that no one owns her or can tell her what to do, not even her husband. The awakening occurs gradually, over a several month period, and Mrs. Pontellier ends up shunning different societal traditions, realizing that she is in love with a man who is not her husband, and discovering that she is able to do things on her own, which is very much appealing. She somewhat abandons her children, abandons her household, leaves her husband to his trips across the country and lives her life for herself for a very brief period of time. I thought this book was brilliant, and I thought it illustrated well a struggle that women still have to this day. The idea of societal pressures, the pressure to "look good" (in whatever way you want to take that, physically, financially, job-wise, etc) and the pressure to have the perfect household, the perfect kids, the perfect marriage, etc. contrasted with what you, the individual wants, where you want to go, what you want to do with your life and how you want to portray yourself. These are all very pertinent issues that I struggle with on a daily basis. The Awakening is brilliantly written, if a bit old fashioned. It gave me a glimpse into what life might have been like over 100 years ago - and it illustrated the struggle we all still continue with. I identified with Mrs. Pontellier on many levels, and I nearly wanted to pull her out of the book and make her real so I could have a conversation with her. Chopin was a wonderful writer who received absolutely no credit for her controversial novel - I am looking forward to reading more of her work.