LITERATURE: The Awakening – Conflict and Story

Well I’ve gotten halfway through this novel of Kate Chopin’s without posting so far but felt I should keep to my tradition of commenting as I read.

While there’s no special moments that struck me particularly on the writing, I would say that it’s clear and concise and easily read for its flow of plot and structure. Unhampered by fancy language or heavy description, Chopin lays the story out by the interaction of the protagonist with her husband and acquaintances to reveal a growing restlessness and dissatisfaction with her circumstance in life.

Set in the late 19th century, it is the story of Edna Pontellier, spending the summer at a resort near New Orleans with her husband and two little boys, enjoying the life of the well-to-do with little responsibility over that of overseeing the servants and presenting the image of the perfect wife.  Her relationship with her husband has reached a point of realization of her subordination to her husband and this is where Chopin shines. In this scene, Mr. Pontellier returns late from work, his wife is asleep, and he tries to tell her of his day, gives up and goes in to check on their sleeping sons:

He thought it very discouraging that his wife who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.

(…) He turned and shifted the youngsters about in bed.  One of them began to kick and talk about a basket full of crabs.

Mr. Pontellier returned to his wife with the information that Raoul had a high fever and needed looking after.  Then he lit a cigar and went and sat near the open door to smoke it.

Mrs. Pontellier was quite sure Raoul had no fever.  He had gone to bed perfectly well, she said, and nothing had ailed him all day.  Mr. Pontellier was too well acquainted with fever symptoms to be mistaken.  He assured her the child was consuming at that moment in the next room.  (p. 12)

And here is where it starts.  The child is perfectly fine, but it was her husband’s way of showing Edna his dissatisfaction with her behavior as a wife and mother.  Edna finds herself crying as she gives in to this first acceptance of the fact that she has lost her own sense of self.  A bit later in the story, she insists on staying out in a hammock in the night air rather than coming in to her bed, despite her husband’s near orders.  He stays up, smoking cigars, until she after a brief dozing, makes her own decision to come inside.

"Are you coming in, Leonce?" she asked, turning her face toward her husband.

"Yes, dear," he answered, with a glance following a misty puff of smoke.  "Just as soon as I have finished my cigar."  (p. 54)

With the first stirrings of rebellion come the first minor battles of powerplay.  She refusing to do as expected and bid, he pushing to reestablish his dominance.

Chopin has drawn a picture of a woman who has fantasized over small crushes while a girl and who has given up these dreams as a wife.  She is prime then, to return to this tendency as a first harmless yet tenacious handhold on her privacy, her emotions, her self.  She flirts with Robert, a young man at the resort and is devastated when he leaves.  Back home after the summer vacation is ended, she cannot go back to the way things were.  We can see that she is seeking something that she’s just barely tasted, and we are getting prepared for the reaching out and the probable consequences.

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