Summer of Southern Women: The Awakening

M: Welcome back to the CHB Summer Book Club! Hopefully you are following along with #CHBSummer on our various social media (links below). Victoria and I are super excited to be highlighting southern women this summer and we wanted to kick it off with Kate Chopin's The Awakening. There has been a lot written about The Awakening (and indeed all of the books we are reading this summer have mountains of criticism behind them) and so my first question to you is, do you read introductory materials before beginning a classic novel or do you prefer to dive right in and make your own way?

Speaking of diving in, we have quite a bit that we wanted to talk about regarding this novel. It's a short book but one with deep ideas that really make you think. Check out our discussion of the book below, and feel free to tell us your own thoughts on the book in the comments!

M: This is a complex psychological novel thus there are a lot more ideas here than plot, which means I highlighted quite a bit. As I noted on Twitter, "In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman" was an early line that really struck me. It not only establishes the idea that Edna is different that her peers it sets her up as a modern woman. First we need to deconstruct the term mother-woman, what this compound word suggests is that a 'mother-woman' loses her personhood for the sake of her family. Not all mothers are mother-women and one can be a kind and caring mother (as I genuinely believe Edna Pontellier to be) without sacrificing the entirety of who you are for your family. Edna's struggle comes because she lived in a time that valued mother-women more than women as individuals and when she was awakened to that fact it was more than she could bear. Modern women are free to choose, do I want to be a mother-woman? A career-woman? An artist? All of the above! We are free to make that choice. Edna and this novel are interesting in that they are a study of a society that did not allow such choices and to what those constraints could lead.

V: It is interesting to see, and, for me anyway, it's actually very difficult to fully imagine. I had a hard time trying to empathize with Edna's situation and put myself in her shoes because the idea that society or the people in my life could control my life and my decisions to that extent is just so hard for me to truly understand, having never had to deal with that to the anywhere near the same extent as Edna. You're completely right; women today get to choose what they want to be, and that naturally means that most women who end up in these roles are much happier in them than women in Edna's time would have been, having been forced into something they don't want. In that way, I do think books like The Awakening are important because they help us realize and appreciate the choices and options we have in life, and it helps paint a much more sympathetic picture of women of the past, who are often painted with dramatic and hysterical strokes.

M: I'm so glad you mentioned hysteria! So the whole time I'm reading The Awakening I'm wishing that I could hand Edna a copy of The Feminine Mystique. She is so clearly suffering from "the problem that has no name" - that problem of bored, repressed women that manifested itself in depression and mood swings and was labeled "hysteria." You have no reason to be unhappy, yet you are unhappy; you must clearly be hysterical. It is so unfortunate that this was the common belief held by lay and professional people! Nonetheless, that brings me to Doctor Mandelet, my favorite character in the novel. Mandelet is so perceptive and ahead of his time. He genuinely seems to understand what Edna is going through; he counsels Mr. Pontellier to give her space to make her own decisions and her mood will pass. This probably would have worked were it not for Arobin. Pontellier was a kind and doting husband who seemed willing to take Mandelet's advice (though they couple would have obviously still had trials). If both of the Pontelliers had taken Mandelet's advice, Edna may have been able to flourish in her own life of art perhaps even creating new business opportunities for her husband to pursue. The final moments of the novel even acknowledge the possibility: "Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him." That was a lot for me to simply say that the inclusion of Doctor Mandelet absolutely deepened the novel for me, and I find it exceedingly interesting that he may have been based on a real person (one of Chopin's own doctors). Where there any particular characters that stuck out to you?

V: Actually, now that you mention it, Robert stuck out to me quite a bit. I know that's kind of cheating because he's a main character, but he struck me as a really decent guy for the most part. He ended up having feelings for a married woman and did his best to remove himself from the situation so as not to potentially ruin anyone's marriage or even life, and even at the end after he came back, he tried so hard to do what he felt was best for the situation. Unfortunately for him, leaving Edna was not what was best, but he couldn't really have known that. I felt bad for him, almost as bad as I felt for Edna. He was in a crappy situation as well, and there wasn't a whole lot he could do about it. What's interesting with this novel is that we don't really have any character who fits the role of "villain." Everyone seems fairly decent, actually, including Edna's husband, as you mentioned. The villain here is more societal expectations than any person, and so all the characters are in some way complicit in what's going on, as they are all attempting to follow society's constrictions. But it makes for an interesting book where none of the characters ever really do anything wrong, per se. I think you're right about the doctor being a really interesting character who might have been able to help Edna if he's been given the chance. Because of things like that, this novel comes across to me almost like a Shakespearean tragedy; just enough goes wrong so that the worst possible scenario plays out. Edna doesn't see the doctor who could help her. Robert doesn't realize what'll happen if he leaves Edna. Small events and misses add up to the book's ultimately tragic ending.

M:  I disagree with you about the villian issue. Arobin is totally a villian; ultimately all of the bad stuff that happens can be traced to Arobin - she wouldn't have gone as far with Robert if Arobin hadn't opened that door. And while I don't think Robert is a villian and really do think he's a good guy living in a weird social structure, his habit of flirting with married women is a pretty bad one. Also, when people say this novel is about a woman "awakening" to her sensuality I get so upset! That is not what this is about. AT ALL! It is about a woman awakening to her personhood! And yeah, that involves a little bit of sex (with Arobin who takes advantage of her confused/unhappy emotional state) and definitely involves falling in love unexpectedly and outside of marriage, but it is not about a sensual awakening!

V: I agree with you! I totally thought going into this novel that that's what it would be about, but that really wasn't the focus at all, it was more a particular vehicle for her discovering all that she could be or could have in life and then realizing that societal pressures would never let her be or have those things. This awakening includes an awakening sensuality, but the sensuality is not the actual focus. And I did forget that Arobin was trying specifically to seduce her, so he is sort of a villain, though I don't think he's portrayed as THE villain, if that makes any sense. I don't know if I agree that she wouldn't have gone as far with Robert without Arobon's influence, though. It might have taken a bit longer, but I feel like the deepening of their relationship still would have happened eventually.

And that marks the end of our reading of our first book of the summer! Do you have any thoughts to add? Let us know in the comments! Next week we begin reading The Color Purple by Alice Walker, so don't forget to follow our read-through on twitter! Join in the discussion on facebook, twitter, tumblr, and instagram as well!

The Awakening and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin (Enriched Classics) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780743487672
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Simon & Schuster - July 1st, 2004

Enriched Classics offer readers accessible editions of great works of literature enhanced by helpful notes and commentary.