Books that Built Us: ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

Monday, April 9, 2018 - 3:18pm

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In elementary school, I heard a story about the Liberty Bell. Philadelphians, I was told, were eager to find a bell with exactly the right sound: sweet, clear and strong. The bellfounders of the city cast hundreds of tiny bells, trying to model the shape that would produce the perfect pitch. Finally, they found it. That’s what a good sentence is like, or a good book. The right string of words should reverberate, twisting and winding, its ending inevitable upon rereading. Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” (1899) is a perfect bell of a novel.

“The Awakening” tracks the spiritual and emotional deterioration of Edna Pontellier, a Kentucky native living with her Creole husband and two young sons in New Orleans during the late 19th century. Edna is a patchwork of contradictions, as we all are. She is both disagreeable and pleasant, euphoric and depressed. Most of all, she is unafraid of her own predilections yet unable to realize them in a society where she is expected to be only a wife and mother. The singularity of her assigned role becomes increasingly disturbing to Edna as she weathers various trials: Abandonment by a young lover, a friend’s difficult childbirth, an older woman’s alternating approval and scorn. In the novel’s conclusion, she drowns herself.

It was a man — Anton Chekhov — who first told writers to show, not tell. Chopin tells, and wonderfully. “The Awakening” is densely interior, full of ruminations on Edna’s moods and the textures of her day-to-day life: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.” Or: “It was not despair, but it seemed to her as if life were passing by, leaving its promises broken and unfulfilled. Yet there were other days when she listened, was led on and deceived by fresh promises which her youth had held out to her.”

Thematically, this is a heavy novel. It is a book for women and about women, penned before ‘chick lit,’ ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘beach reads’ pigeonholed female authors, readers and characters. Its preoccupations (motherhood, death, obligation, loneliness, identity) are rendered in language so rambling — so unabashed, tender and direct — that nearly every page contains a gut-punching line. At 17, assigned to read “The Awakening” for my American literature class, I was floored by Chopin’s inquisitive, unembellished prose. I had never before read a book that spoke quite so eloquently about the experience of being a woman. Chopin writes of Edna: “She was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.” Edna is nothing like the self-actualized, precocious women who populated the YA fiction I grew up reading. She doesn’t know what she wants, save for the desire to find out. Reading Chopin’s novel, I began to understand that my interior life was worth description — retreating into myself was not a useless activity. Rather, it could be something inherently useful and important.

“The Awakening” is almost protean in its ability to always be the book I need. Every time I read, it is like the first time. “A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her — the light which, showing the way, forbids it,” Chopin writes. What a perfect sentence: The image of a light beginning to glow inside Edna, her stark realization of its impossibility, the clipped em dash, each word chosen for its precise weight and shape. It wasn’t until I read “The Awakening” that I knew how I wanted to write: with empathy but not sentimentality, with kindness, with an unflinching gaze. Good writers must read good books first. Kate Chopin is a good writer, and “The Awakening” is a good book.