Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!
Literary critic Elaine Showalter, in her introduction to The Awakening, says it is “recognized today as the first aesthetically successful novel to have been written by an American woman.” I’m not at all sure what she means by “aesthetically successful,” but there is no doubt that the novel was revolutionary, and controversial.
The novel begins with a summer on Grand Isle, south of New Orleans. The Pontelliers are vacationing there, or at least Edna and the children are. Léonce spends the week in the city.
Edna has an almost constant companion, the young man Robert Lebrun. As he adopts a young married woman every summer to worship, no one takes him seriously. But sometime during the summer, Edna realizes she is in love with him.
Edna begins a slow self-realization during which she tries to cast off the parts of her life that are not really hers. Shockingly for her audience in 1899, these include her duties to her husband and children.
Even from the beginning of the novel, her husband criticizes her child-rearing and housekeeping skills, and her mothering is contrasted to that of the other mothers very simply. We’re told that when her children fall down, they pick themselves back up and go on instead of crying and being fussed over by their mothers. This sounds like good mothering to me but apparently was not the norm in Edna’s set of Creole neighbors. Creole in the New Orleans sense means of French descent, and tellingly, Edna is the only one among them who is not Creole.
The descriptions of this summer are heavy with atmosphere and lush, almost sensual. Although barely perceptible on the island, Edna’s awakening affects her behavior after Robert leaves for Mexico and she returns to the city. She is no longer able to lead a conventional life.
Although the novel is considered a feminist classic and was radical for its time, from a modern feminist viewpoint, Edna’s behavior is still defined by her relationship to men. She is awakened by her feelings for Robert, but even in her emancipation her fate is determined by her relationships to men.
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
Even before her awakening, Edna seems bored and disenchanted with marriage, although she perhaps doesn’t know it. She is married to an older man who is both critical and generous, at times controlling, at times neglectful. She loves her children but does not dote on them or even seem to think of them very often. In truth, she seems a lot like my mother, dreamy and abstracted and not very prone to domesticity.
As her foils in the story, she has two opposites. Madame Ratignolle is the personification of motherhood, with a loving relationship with her husband. Mademoiselle Reisz, the musician, lives a meager and bitter existence alone. These two opposites seem to pose extremities of alternative lives for her.
For Edna, marriage is stifling. She attempts to move out of the bounds of marriage and take up a creative life. To do so, she feels she must shed everything pertaining to her previous life.