Day 1089: Literary Wives! The Awakening

Cover for The AwakeningWe have two new members of Literary Wives joining us today, I hope. They are Eva of Paperback Princess and TJ of My Book Strings. Welcome, Eva and TJ!

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!

Ariel of One Little Library
Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

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.

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12 thoughts on “Day 1089: Literary Wives! The Awakening

  1. Naomi June 5, 2017 / 11:32 am

    That’s a good point, Kay, that even her “awakening” was brought on by a man – it would be nice to think that she would have come to it on her own terms, without the help of a man. Which might explain my anger to how this novel ends. I feel like her whole life and death has been determined by some man or other. However, I do think this is a common story; women passively going along with society until something significant shakes them up (like feelings for another man).

    • whatmeread June 5, 2017 / 12:43 pm

      Yes, that’s true, and as TJ points out, we have to judge a book within its own time period.

      • Naomi June 5, 2017 / 3:27 pm

        That’s what I seem to find hard to do!

      • whatmeread June 5, 2017 / 5:02 pm

        I try to, but in this case it was difficult.

  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings June 5, 2017 / 11:37 am

    I like your point about how Edna’s new life is still defined by the men she is with. So true, and also sad, when you think about it. But when this was written, I don’t think Chopin could have gone beyond that, to a point we today might agree with. I am struck by what you say in the second-to-last paragraph. Do you think Mademoiselle Reisz is unhappy with her life? She seemed rather content to me, even if she didn’t have many friends or possessions. I also saw her as a contrast to Madame Ratignol, but not as being miserable.

    • whatmeread June 5, 2017 / 12:41 pm

      No, that’s very true. The book is a reflection of its time. That’s why made the remark about a “modern feminist viewpoint.”

  3. The Paperback Princess June 5, 2017 / 11:55 am

    It didn’t bother me so much that it seemed like Edna’s awakening was brought on by a man. Maybe because he runs off to Mexico so quickly and she’s left to handle her own business. Yes, she gets involved with Arobin but I also choose to see that as something she wanted to do. Is it ideal for her to be changed by men? No. But I don’t think it’s uncommon and I really appreciated that we got to see a woman, in 1899, be dissatisfied with her conventional lot in life.
    I agree with TJ too – I didn’t think Mademoiselle Reisz was dissatisfied with her life. I think she understood how people viewed her, but I don’t think she was unhappy with her choice.

  4. whatmeread June 5, 2017 / 12:34 pm

    Ah, I didn’t realize you two had posted yet. I’ll have to go look. I didn’t mean to imply that Mademoiselle Reisz was unhappy. But the implication seemed to be that a woman could either have a family or a career without a family. There didn’t seem to be a sense of having both.

  5. Melinda June 8, 2017 / 9:34 am

    One of my favourite classics!

  6. whatmeread June 8, 2017 / 2:59 pm

    It’s provoked an interesting discussion.

  7. Kate Rae Davis June 16, 2017 / 11:50 pm

    Your pre-awakening description of Edna as bored and abstracted is helpful. I think she’s not that far away from us in time when I think about the many women I know who seem to get married and have children because it’s just what’s done next, either by age or stage of life. The narrative of “happiness” seems like a thin veneer over cultural expectations of “this is what’s done now.”

  8. whatmeread June 17, 2017 / 11:25 am

    I hope not as often now as in years before. Certainly, she seems ill-suited for wife- and motherhood, even if she hasn’t realized it yet.

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