Thursday, August 25, 2011

#25: The Awakening, Kate Chopin

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The Awakening
by Kate Chopin
-born in America, 1850
-214 Pages
-more about Chopin (via Goodreads)
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Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Kate Chopin was born to an Irish immigrant father and French-American mother, and at 20 married the owner of a New Orlean's cotton brokerage.
- Widowed after 12 years of marriage, Chopin found herself left with six children and a deeply indebted business. She sold the business and moved to her widowed mother, who died soon after.
- Deeply depressed, Chopin was advised to try writing as a form of therapy and potential income.  She was quickly successful, often writing of Creole culture.
- She became a virtual pariah in her hometown after publishing The Awakening.  Crushed, she published less and less.  In 1904 she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while visiting the St. Louis World's Fair with her children, and died two days later.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
When it was first published in 1899, The Awakening was universally vilified for its frank discussion of female sexuality and the oppression of women.  Willa Cather called it "sordid," others called it "immoral," and its publication effectively ended Kate Chopin's theretofore successful career.

But this story of a New Orleans woman trapped in her marriage has also come to be seen as more than just a proto-feminist classic; it's now recognized as one of the most influential works of the nineteenth century.  In its dazzling blend of psychological acuity, complex characters, and exotic locale, it is, simply, a moving and absorbing work of literature.

My Impressions:
This book wasn't what I was expecting.  I thought I was in for a 200+ page slog through a depressing, poetic pity party; instead I found fluid writing laced with humor.  The subject matter was still rather depressing to me, but it was made better by the portrait of Creole culture and the fact that it was a pretty quick read.  A taste of the manners and humor is apparent from the beginning:
The parrot and the mockingbird were the property of Madame Lebrun, and they had the right to make all the noise they wished.  Mr. Pontellier had the privilege of quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining.
What prevented me from really enjoying this book was the main character.  Mrs. Pontellier was shallow, and let her emotions dictate her actions to such a degree that she never really knew why she thought or felt as she did.  She couldn't properly explain why she was doing the things she was, and honestly...I felt as if she made a case for being touched with a bit of madness.  It's one thing to buck convention and know what you are doing and why, but it didn't seem to me that Mrs. Pontellier's brain ever really touched solid ground.  The clearest picture of her was towards the beginning:
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman.  The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle.  It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened theri precious brood.  They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings a ministering angels.
Bitter much?  The idea of the mother-woman is quite similar to Dostoevsky's idea in The Eternal Husband, and it really is an idea that is worth exploring.  I can't say that Chopin did it as eloquently as Dostoevsky, (nor as subtly and expansive as Willa Cather,) but I'd hardly expect that.  So...Mrs. Pontellier knows that she desires more than she has, that she isn't content with being wife and mother: the socially esteemed domestic goddess, but she never delves into the issue much more than that.  That's what is sad.  Not that she wasn't supported in her desires and ideas, but that she didn't even really know what her desires and ideas were.  At least the writing added some levity:
Miss Highcamp played some selections from Grieg upon the piano.  She seemed to have apprehended all of the composer's coldness and none of his poetry.  While Edna listened she could not help wondering if she had lost her taste for music.

5 comments:

  1. I've been waiting for your review of this book. Great post. I thought the writing was excellent. I felt she actually did love her children, but she wasn't a hovering mother--which to me is fine.

    I like your thought that the main character had a touch of madness. I thought depression, but madness seems more fitting. She made a real statement about independence-- but in an unhealthy way.

    It's too bad Chopin stopped writing.

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  2. I've heard only glowing things about this book, so it's nice to read a more balanced review. I think I will give it a go.

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  3. Heidi, I really enjoyed her writing too. It was much...friendlier? than I thought it would be. It seemed that the main character like an outsider in the Creole community; I wonder how her story might have changed in a different setting. And her husband being in NY for half the year? What was with that? Anyhow, I agree, too bad she stopped writing.

    Sam, reading too many 5-star reviews can make me skeptical too. Knowing some of the non-wonderful things can often help me make a better decision. It really is a quick read. I'd like to hear what you think about it.

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  4. My Kate Chopin reading has been limited to this point, but I love "The Story of an Hour" -- one of the shortest, but most poignant stories I've ever read. I'm looking forward to trying this one at some point. I know it's waiting for me on the shelf at home.

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  5. Thanks Andi, I'll keep my eye out for that one. I just put her complete collection (Library of America) on my wishlist. :)

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