My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I first read “The Awakening” many years ago, as an undergraduate English major. It was somewhere in the midst of that huge Norton Anthology of American Literature, with its tiny print and thin pages. I’m almost certain I didn’t have any way of responding to the imagery used by Chopin, or the characterizations, or the roles of men and women. My head was on the plot-line. I’m reading it again now because my high school sophomore chose it as her outside reading project for Honors American literature, and she wanted to talk about it with me.
Her perspective on the role of women is far from that Edna Pontellier fought, futilely, but mine at her age, and when I read the novel the first time, was not. As a young married woman I felt some of the same disconnection Edna feels from motherhood and the expectations attached to it, the same desire to find an authentic and creative self, and the same naive hope that it would come by the vehicle of true love. I’m glad there’s a bigger difference between LP’s reality and mine in the Virginia of the 1970s than there was between mine and Edna’s the first time I read it.
I also wonder if Edna isn’t a person suffering from bipolar disorder? Her swings are characteristic, even if Chopin wouldn’t have had the psychological language for the condition we have today. (Now I’m Googling that idea and of course I’m not the first person to think of it.)
It’s fun to read it knowing New Orleans and having an image of the Gulf of Mexico in mind, which I didn’t back in 1980 or so. Really, so many of the things we read as students really ought to be read again when we’re adults, with a wider experience of the world and humanity. I think I read this around the same time I read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” also something I’ve re-read in recent years. Both remind me it hasn’t been that long since I felt trapped by trying to play a role I thought other people expected me to play. I hope that instead of identifying with the ill-fated heroines of the late 19th-century, my daughter will see how unlike them she is and how much support she has to be her own person, but I also know that society still presents expectations that young women struggle to accept or reject, even if those parameters change.