“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.
The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”
I, like many, am a creature of habit; not in everything, not on every day, but in some cyclical moments. There are cultural markers to which I must pay homage periodically – The Godfather movies (I and II, of course), the masterpieces of the Impressionists, the canon of Paul Simon… and Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”. I first read “The Awakening” about 25 years ago, a budding feminist and bibliophile, transitioning my love of reading into the wide open world of adult literature. I was enchanted. It seemed only right, therefore, to round out 2016 – my year of reading only women – with a re-read of one of the earliest feminist works in my repertoire.
Writing at the end of the 19th century, Kate Chopin created stories about bold, independent women which met with both critical acclaim and popular disdain and scorn. Sometimes dismissed as a frivolous woman, often banned as an immoral danger, Chopin was also seen by many as a voice of a growing new sentiment – feminism.
In her most successful work – the novella “The Awakening” – Chopin has created Edna Pontellier, a young woman adrift in her life and disdaining of the limited roles in which she has been cast. Wife, mother, idle woman – these titles and their confines chafe.
“In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”
While on vacation by the seaside, Edna begins to feel herself coming alive, stretching her limbs after a life-long slumber
“An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day. It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood.”
From this point forward, Edna struggles to decide if she is ‘no longer herself’ or if the woman emerging is, in fact, the true self who has been long-suppressed. Needless to say, Edna’s changes are discomfiting to those around her, particularly her oft-absent husband.
“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.”
“Object” is the key to that sentiment, and the very thrust of Edna’s awakening. No longer interested in being an object in anyone’s life, she fumblingly determines to be the subject of her own story.
While many of the notions and plot devices Chopin employs may seem quaint some 125 years later, the disorientation, the quiet desperation, and the gradual stirring as if from a deep slumber are visceral and disarming. “The Awakening” is a quiet book about a stifled woman shedding the roles that have nearly smothered her. It is simple, delicate, and despairing. It, like the sea it venerates, “speaks to the soul”.