Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Kate Chopin – ‘The Awakening’

I’ve read, and written about this book before. It was on my American Literature course, and I remember it fondly but vaguely. Digging out my slightly embarrassing essay about it, from April 1998, I’m surprised by how strongly I reacted against Robert Lebrun, the focus of Edna Pontellier’s affection, and the cause of her awakening. ‘Pathetic’ is how I described him. ‘Pitifully weak’, ‘childish’, ‘immature’. This is not at all how he struck me this time around. This time I liked him: a carefree young man, content to hang around at his mother’s establishment of summer cottages, making friends, not thinking about the way he should be making in the world. Many of the friends might be women, and some of them married, but although there is flirtation in these friendships there is no sleaze. This time, Robert’s weakness – his lack of direction – seemed to be a virtue. In contrast, Edna’s husband Léonce is all about direction, money, and worldly accomplishments. He made me think of Mr Wilcox in Howards End – both are the same kind of stock character: wealthy, proud of it, and oblivious to the sympathies of poorer but more sensitive characters.

Her husband is not the only target of Edna’s sympathy:

She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle, – a pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have a taste of life’s delusion. (p. 56)

Blind contentment sounds alright doesn’t it? Better than anguish and delusion, you’d have thought. But no, the point of The Awakening is that to be alive is to be out of control: bourgeois conventions (there is particular contempt for the ‘at home’, a group of friends meeting at the same house on the same day every week) are worse than death. So Edna, with her successful husband and their children and two houses, falls for the underachieving Robert, and he for her. For him it is love, pure and simple: he takes her marriage seriously, and backs off when he realises that he is threatening it. For her it is love too, but there is something bigger at stake than domestic arrangements. With Robert off in Mexico ostensibly attempting to make his fortune (whoever heard of moving from the US to Mexico to get ahead?), Edna revels in her love for him, isolating herself almost totally. Neither of them believe that they have a chance of ending up together, but whereas for Robert this is a disaster and a reason to do all he can to shake himself free of his feelings, for Edna this logical short circuit is the jolt she hadn’t realised she needed to shake herself free of her state of un-feeling. Who is right? Is it better to kill the love or the marriage? There isn’t any real answer to that (there are children; Léonce is a considerate husband). Last time I despaired of Robert, this time of Edna.

A twist in Edna’s favour is the function of art in the novel. Only two characters are capable of creative activity: Edna, who takes up painting after Robert leaves, and Mademoiselle Reisz, an awkward and unpopular character who plays piano dazzlingly well. Robert and Edna are the only people for whom she considers it worth playing. Many of the other characters are pleasant, but none is creative, or properly appreciative. The hint is clear: if you want to be a genius musician (or whatever), you have to be an amateur human being. Music is central to Howards End too, of course – it is how Leonard Bast comes to meet the Schlegel sisters. But in that book the conclusion is gentler, a finely balanced middle way: Mr Wilcox (bourgeois) is ridiculous, but less so than Leonard (artisan), who demonstrates that suffering doesn’t guarantee Art, and that anger very often mars it. The Awakening is less subtle: you’re either awake or you’re dead. You can have sense or sensibility, but not both.

Whichever side you come down on, The Awakening is masterfully evocative. As the scene moves from the exteriors of the serene Grand Isle in summer, to the increasingly claustrophobic interiors of New Orleans in winter, you feel the tightening of fate, the movement of the principals’ moods towards ever bleaker climes. You see Edna goading herself further and further along this path, and you applaud, or you turn away.

2 comments:

horsemeatpie said...

Hmmm. I had thought that I had read The Awakening, but it turns out that I haven't after all. One to add to the list, then.

Any similarities with Richard Yates? The fractures, the drift, the domestic situation all sound familiar.

Happy birthday, by the way.

Chris said...

Thanks!

Chopin and Yates don't feel particularly similar to read, but I see what you mean - fate closing in, and the built in fragility of situations / people leading to tragedy.

Edna's collapse isn't really a drift though, it's far more self-willed than Yates would have had it. Although there is tragedy about it, there is also a strong moral sense about her rejection of bourgeois values, and it is this (and its relation to art) which takes the tone closer to Forster than Yates, I think. But yeah, definitely worth reading if you haven't.

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