August 15, 2008

Review: The Awakening

The Awakening
by Kate Chopin

"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."

This radiantly beautiful quote exactly expresses how I feel while I'm swimming. The choice of words perfectly describe my own experience. When I am underwater I feel comfortable with myself. I feel encased in silk, graceful as a ballerina. Because there is no noise I feel alone even if I am in a public pool with 100 strangers. To me it is like heaven. But in the case of The Awakening, the sea represents some intangible vastness that is equally seductive: autonomy. I believe that it is a dream that every person shares, whether outwardly or just within their heart. Whenever life throws you a curve ball do you just wish you could run off somewhere and start a new life? Or even just get a breather for a few brief moments? As a mother I can state truthfully that I have the occasional fantasy of a private deserted island.

What this book has drawn from my soul is an appreciation of expressive prose in defining something my heart longs for at times. But there is a repulsion within me at the same time. We cannot truly have autonomy without isolating ourselves, pushing those around us away. You cannot be an individual and connected to someone else at the same time. Edna Pontellier discovers this over the course of the novel. SparkNotes interprets Edna's final act as a realisation that she is truly alone in her awakening, that she is embracing her independence to the fullest extent; and maybe the experts at SparkNotes know better than I based on the context of Kate Chopin's views that she expressed freely during her lifetime. But I was left with a different impression. Edna's realisation to me was that she cannot truly possess herself as she wants because what she really wants is to be possessed by someone else of her own choosing and within her own rules. The problem with this idea is that the person who is under her rule is then possessed by her and loses his own autonomy. There is a double standard in this arrangement. Total autonomy means a total separation from everyone else. It means living completely selfishly. Edna's awakening is lauded by some as revolutionary but what it really is is self-centered, thoughtless, and ultimately unbearable.

Let me be clear. I loved this book. Rich and beautiful it is. But I will see it with my own eyes; the eyes of a woman who understands the implications of an independent life in a world full of people. No one really wants to be alone for the rest of their life.


Mercy's Maid said...

I loved this book. Thanks for the review.

Eloise said...

I agree about the self-centred aspect of Edna's awakening, it was what I disliked about her character - and I'm glad it's not just me that sees that about her. Great review.

J.Danger said...

That is definitely an interesting take. I remembering out in the grey when I finished it last time. I do love it though.

Trish said...

Beautiful review Petunia. I read this last summer and kind of felt the same way that you did versus how Sparknotes explains it. Ultimately, I felt sorry for Edna. The writing is beautiful, though. I really enjoy Chopin's short stories as well.

C. B. James said...

I ended up reading this book twice in graduate school. I'm with you on how self-centered the heroine is. Her independent life comes at a high price for those around her.

But we all read the ending as a suicide, as I recall. A high price for the heroine as well.