Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Nook - The Awakening

The wonderful thing about great literature is that it gets great conversations started.  And the thing that stirs up that great conversation is perspective.  Different people can look at a book & its characters, plot, etc. in very different ways.  The same person can see a book in very different ways after re-reading it, or experiencing something in their life that may change their views.  Literature is the stuff of life and reflects back on us.

I'm waxing poetic here because I think that The Awakening by Kate Chopin (published in 1899 and shunned by society) is a book that, for me, has changed a great deal with my personal perspective, as well as being a great book to generate discussion.  When I first read it, I was required to do so for an assignment in high school.  I liked it so much, I re-read it again a few times in my teens/early 20s.  Now, I've re-read it years later, and find that because my perspective has changed, I feel a lot differently towards the characters and the story.

Edna Pontellier is a 28 year old mother to two young boys, wife to Leonce Pontellier, a wealthy banker.  She is very wealthy, coming from money and marrying into it.  She summers at Grand Isle, spends the rest of the year at their mansion in New Orleans.  Her days on the island are filled with swimming in the ocean and lounging about.  A "quadroon nurse" takes care of the boys 24/7.  There are servants to cook and clean for the family.  It's the same in New Orleans - Edna's days are filled with social calls and painting, if she feels like it.

From one perspective, Edna has it made.  She has everything handed to her at request, she has no worry of money, no hassles or demands of any kind.  Yet she is unhappy and has recently realized that fact.  The catalyst for this realization is Robert Lebrun, who is like a puppy at her side during the summer at Grand Isle.  He showers her with praise and attention and is always there for her.  Edna starts to see Robert as more than a tag-along, even though she is married.  And then suddenly, Robert announces he is leaving for a business venture in Mexico.  He promises to write but never does.  Interestingly, Edna's close friendship with Robert is never questioned by others as anything more - the reader infers that in this society, this kind of relationship is quite normal and harmless.  After all, Edna is married and that's that!  There is an interesting conversation between Robert and one of their mutual friends (Madame Ratignolle), in which she cautions Robert that while everyone knows not to take his affections seriously, he should be careful because Edna is not a Creole by birth and she might read more into it.

Anyway, I'm digressing here a bit.  The real heart of the story is not the relationship between Edna and Robert, but rather Edna's slow realization that she is unhappy with it all: being in a marriage that is not made of passion, being a mother, being required to receive visitors every Tuesday, the pressures of the society in which she lives, etc.  Edna starts to stray from the path that she is socially obliged to take.  She stops social visits all together.  The only social interactions she makes are the rare visit with Madame Ratignolle and rather frequent visits with a eccentric pianist named Madame Reisz, who is the only person who seems to understand her.  During these visits with Madame Reisz, Edna discovers that Robert has been writing to her (Mme Reisz).  And over time, she learns that Robert loves her and that is the reason he left town....and he's planning on coming back!

OK, I'm still digressing!  Back to my bit about perspective: I guess it depends on your perspective as to how you feel about Edna and her actions.  In the novel, all characters are very sympathetic towards her: Mme Ratignolle, who is very traditional, never looks down at her friend despite her unconventional behavior.  Mme Reisz acts as a good listener always, and plays her piano for Edna to cheer her up.  Even poor Leonce never gets angry with her: when he is away for business and Edna declares that she is going to move into a little house down the street from the mansion, Leonce never tries to make her change her mind.  Instead, he has remodeling work done on the mansion so that the family has a convenient reason for Edna's decision.

Those are some of the character reactions to Edna.  My own perspective, as a wife and mother, is a little less sympathetic.  I really can't believe that Edna can act without thinking of anyone else but herself (one example: she refuses to go to her sister's wedding, simply because she doesn't want to go)!  I know she's in the midst of an "awakening" and all, but I believe that her actions paint her as a rather selfish, ungrateful person.  So, she feels lukewarm towards motherhood......perhaps she should spend more time with her boys and get to know them better.  So, she feels unloving towards her husband.......perhaps she should attempt to make a connection with him (rather than the endless focus on Robert) so that she can remember why she married him in the first place.  So she feels suffocated by societal rules.......perhaps she can find a way to live with them and find happiness rather than throwing it all away. 

But there's always perspective.  When I read this novel as a teenager, I didn't think the way I do now.  I totally rooted for Edna and her one-woman-societal-upheaval.  I sympathized with her realization that she will never be happy.  And isn't that the gift that literature gives?  Something organic, something that changes with us, something that gives us new things to ponder...........and new perspectives.


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