The Awakening, Kate Chopin

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No, I don’t understand the cover either. Shades of the gratuitous breasts on the cover of Anne Brooksbank’s All My Love (here). The painting above is “Antes del Baño” (Before the Bath) by Ramon Casas, a Catalan Spaniard, doubly or triply inappropriate for a buttoned-up, French-American heroine who takes her ‘baths’ in the sea.

To get back to where I meant to start, I have begun downloading audiobooks from Project Gutenberg (here). The first was Silas Marner and this was the second. The books are read by volunteers for LibriVox and so far have been uniformly good. It’s not completely straightforward, the books must be downloaded a section at a time (as MP3 files in my case), named, and copied to one directory per book on a USB drive so I can play them via the USB port on my truck radio, you Apple nuts can experiment for yourselves. In the case of The Awakening each section was 5 chapters, each with a different reader, all women, four American and two French. This caused no problems at all. The next book I downloaded was Howards End (I was wondering where the apostrophe would be, but there isn’t one) which has one reader but 44 chapters, which took quite a while to download, name, copy etc. The readers name themselves at the beginning of each section but do not appear to be named on the Project Gutenberg site.

Ok. The Awakening is beautifully written, is yet another example of the anti-marriage theme in C19th women’s writing, and suffers from unthinking racism throughout. It’s a book I’ve had in my TBR for many years, so I’m glad to have finally got to it. I have the Penguin Classics edition pictured above which contains as well 12 short stories and an Introduction by Sandra M Gilbert, an English professor. Don’t read the Introduction first as it completely destroys the ending.

Gilbert says that Chopin (1850-1904) was born to parents with Irish and ‘aristocratic’ French antecedents, grew up in affluent circumstances in St Louis, Missouri, was a voracious reader in English and French, was an acknowledged belle, supported the Confederate side in the Civil War (1861-1865), married at age 20 a cotton trader/plantation owner in Louisiana, and had six children.

On the death of her husband in 1883 she returned to St Louis and began writing – first “delightful sketches of her life in ‘Old Natchitoches‘”, then novels. The first, At Fault (1890) was derivative, particularly of Jane Eyre. The second, The Awakening (1899), was received so badly for its discussion of women’s sexuality that Chopin basically stopped writing. Gilbert argues that Chopin was writing not just in the tradition of the Brontës and George Eliot, but in an end of century atmosphere of eroticism and women’s independence created by the New Woman movement and writers and artists such as George Sand, Zola, Beardsley and Oscar Wilde.

The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a young wife, an American from Kentucky, who has married into properous middle class, Francophone New Orleans. The setting is first Grand Isle, an island near New Orleans (map) in the Gulf of Mexico, then the French Quarter of New Orleans itself, then finally, briefly, Grand Isle again.

The racism – in the telling, not in the conscious actions of the protagonists – begins early.

Some young children were out under the water-oaks playing croquet. Mr Pontellier’s two children were there – sturdy little fellows of four and five. A quadroon nurse followed them about with a far-away, meditative air.

Why couldn’t Chopin write ‘Mary, the nurse followed …’ ? Because no-one who is African-American, except the old woman who becomes her house-keeper, is named. The nurse is always “the quadroon”, other servants “mulattos” or “coffee-coloured”.

There is much academic discussion of racism in The Awakening with one writer concluding,  “Chopin is guilty of oppressing these characters for their color in exactly the same way Edna is being oppressed for her gender.”

Grand Isle was formerly the grand home of Mrs Lebrun which, on the death of her husband, she turned into a guest house with cottages around the main house for families, but with central dining room and lounges. During the summer Mr Pontellier, who seems to be an investment banker, goes up to town during the week while Edna and the children (and the ‘quadroon’) stay on Grande Isle. She is generally in the company of the older Lebrun son, Robert, who every year is infatuated with one of the wives, but she has or makes friends among the other guests, particularly the beautiful, plump, and fecund Adèle Ratignolle – “There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams” – and the crusty spinster pianist Mlle Reisz.

Without going too much into the plot, this is the story of Edna’s gradual increasing awareness of her position as a dependant, of her sexual awakening, and of the movements she makes away from her husband. Robert goes away, to a position in Mexico City, and Edna back in New Orleans visits Mlle Reisz to read Robert’s letters to her, but also falls into the ambit of a seducer, Alcée Arobin. Lots of readers, then and now, get excited about the sex, which puzzled me, I must be dense. The nearest I found was:

[Arobin] did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle seductive entreaties.

Mr Pontellier (before Arobin comes into the picture) worries about the increasing distance between him and his wife but nevertheless goes to New York on an extended business trip. His mother takes the children back to her farm and Edna is free to pursue her own interests. I will say no more except that The Awakening contains one of the loveliest images in the literature of the Independent Woman:

“… when I left [Mlle Reisz] to-day, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. ‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’ Whither would you soar?”

A wonderful book! I’ve been wondering what I would do if I were a young African-American English student and this was a set text. I think that I would read it, but I would hope that the teacher led a discussion of the racism, and that Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, was also set.

 

Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 1899. The Awakening and Selected Stories, Penguin, 1984, 2003. Project Gutenberg Audiobooks (here)

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