‘I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly …’: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

‘I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly; but I have got into the habit of expressing myself.’ This illicit confession is made by Edna Pontellier to Robert Lebrun, a young man who is not her husband.

grandisle

imagesThe Awakening, set in 1890s Louisiana, is the haunting tale of a young married woman, Edna Pontellier, and her growing struggle to express herself beyond her roles of wife, mother, daughter, sister. While holidaying with her servants and two young sons at the seaside resort of Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico, under the sway of the languorous sea and her easy Creole companions (her husband visits from New Orleans only on weekends), Edna Pontellier becomes aware of deep, desperate urgings in her soul and sexual being.

Long after midnight, as she sits on the porch, she finds herself crying for reasons she could not have told, except that ‘An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her unconscious, filled her being with a vague anguish.’ In her sure, relentless unfolding of Edna Pontellier’s crisis, Kate Chopin exposes the soul of a woman struggling within the confines of other people’s needs – those of her husband, children, society, religion – to find some ground on which to exist in her own right.

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin was born in 1851 in St Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a wealthy Irish merchant, Captain Thomas O’Flaherty, and Eliza Faris, whose family was part of the French Creole aristocracy of the South. When Chopin was only four years old, her father was killed in a  railway accident, and, like her own widowed mother and grandmother before her, Chopin’s mother never remarried. So Chopin was raised in a household of strong, independent, intelligent women, and was especially close to her great-grandmother, who taught her piano, encouraged her to read French literature and told her old Creole stories.

Unusually, in an era when few girls went to school, Chopin received a rigorous, intellectual education at the Sacred Heart Convent. Although her education was interrupted by the outbreak of civil war in 1861, Chopin eventually graduated in 1868 a star student. Two years later, aged 19, she married Oscar Chopin, the son of a wealthy Creole Louisiana cotton grower. When their honeymoon in Europe was cut short by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, they returned to America to settle in New Orleans, where Oscar was a cotton merchant. But the Civil War had almost destroyed the cotton industry and ruined many of the old Creole families, and financial pressures eventually forced the couple to return to Oscar’s family home in Natchitoches Parish, one of the oldest French plantation communities in America. Three years later, Oscar died of swamp fever, leaving Chopin with huge debts and six children.

Eventually Chopin took her children back to her home town of St Louis, and soon after their arrival in 1884, encouraged by her close friend and family doctor, she devoted herself to writing. Fiercely intelligent, Chopin lived an independent, bohemian life, smoking Turkish cigarettes, drinking alcohol and walking alone through the city streets – unheard of for women at the time. She read Darwin, Zola, Ibsen and Maupassant (her literary model), and had named her only daughter Leila after George Sand’s rebellious heroine.

Chopin soon earned a reputation for her beautifully written, perceptive stories, which were published in magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. Her stories seemed to fit neatly into the genre of ‘local color’ which was popular in America between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, and Southern local color stories like Chopin’s were particularly sought after, their portraits of French Creole and Southern life being exotic in an increasingly industrialised, urbanised, homogenised post-Civil War America.

170px-The_Awakening_ChopinBut with the publication of The Awakening in 1899, Chopin overstepped the bounds of acceptability. As one of the earliest novels to portray the troubled consciousness of a woman who finds that her full sexual, creative and intelligent being has no place in the world of 19th century Christian morality, The Awakening was greeted by most critics with astonishment and regret that so fine a short-story writer should have entered ‘that overworked field of sex fiction’ (The Times-Herald, Chicago, June 1899).

As one reviewer lamented: ‘It is with high expectations that we open the volume, remembering the author’s agreeable short stories, and with real disappointment that we close it. The recording reviewer drops a tear over one more clever author gone wrong’ (The Nation, 3 August, 1899). Another reviewer considered that Chopin’s novel about a married woman’s sexual adventures could ‘hardly be described in language fit for publication’ (The Providence Sunday Journal, 4 June 1899).

Even the writer Willa Cather, then in her mid 20s, declared in her review of The Awakening: ‘I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme’ (The Leader, July 1899). Cather called The Awakening a Creole ‘Bovary’ and since then it has often been seen in this light. But Chopin’s novel was written by a woman, 43 years after Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Edna Pontellier’s rebellion possesses a substance and defiant self-awareness that go far beyond Emma Bovary’s romantic yearnings.

Edna Pontellier will not be owned. ‘I don’t want anything but my own way. That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others,’ she declares. ‘I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.’ This subtle but profound distinction lies at the heart of Chopin’s devastating novel.

Madame Pontellier is not a ‘mother-woman’, those women who ‘efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels’. Chopin locates ‘mother-women’ firmly in our fantasies – she can find no words to describe these supreme beings, ‘save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams’. This ideal woman is as real as a knight in shining armour, she is an outdated model, and Mme Pontellier is determined to live her way out of the cliches.

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

Chopin writes with an extraordinarily rich yet simple and direct manner, inspired initially by the French writer Guy de Maupassant. In her selection of the detail of life, Chopin’s ear and eye are as unerring when they portray moments of the domestic round as they are in conveying the caprices of Mme Pontellier’s moods, such as when Monsieur Pontellier checks on his sleeping sons after a day at the beach: ‘He turned and shifted the youngest about in bed. One of them began to kick and talk about a basket full of crabs.’ By the end of the 19th century city living had become the prevailing mode of life and this is captured in the novel in M. Pontellier’s mother’s concern for her grandsons. She doesn’t want them to be ‘children of the pavement’, wishing instead for them ‘to know the country, with its streams, its fields, its woods, its freedom, so delicious to the young’.

The negative reviews and subsequent poor sales of The Awakening effectively ended Chopin’s writing career. Her third book of short stories was rejected soon after the publication of The Awakening, and Chopin died five years later, in August 1904. Her only other published novel, At Fault, was self-published in 1890. The Awakening soon went out of print and Chopin’s work drifted into obscurity until the 1930s, when the first biography of her life was written by – ironically, given the pagan nature of The Awakening – a Christian minister, Father Daniel Rankin, and published in 1932 as Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories. A French translation of The Awakening was published in 1953, arranged by the French writer Cyrille Arnavon, who considered Chopin a major writer. When Norwegian scholar Per Seyersted discovered Chopin’s stories, he was so struck by their beauty that he combed the libraries of St Louis, seeking out her work, copying her stories down by hand and eventually publishing her complete works in two volumes in 1969, alone with his biography Kate Chopin: A critical biography. The Awakening is now seen as a landmark work of early feminist and southern American modernist writing.

The 1991 film Grand Isle, produced by and starring Kelly McGillis and directed by Mary Lambert, is based on The Awakening.

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