Book Review: “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin

Cover: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ("Dover Thrift Editions")

“It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”

Reading “The Awakening” now, it’s easy to see why polite society shunned the book when it was published back in 1899. The main character, Edna Pontellier, is part of that very society when the novel begins. She’s a wife, married to a businessman on the rise in New Orlean’s Creole community. She’s a mother too, an affectionate one, but distant, perhaps, and not fully engaged.

While summering on the coast, Edna develops an infatuation with a younger man. We think it may blossom into an affair, but it doesn’t. Instead, it frays that “garment” of convention, leading Edna to ponder what she wants in life and, moreso, to pursue it.

The rest of the book follows Edna as she tries to determine who she is, as opposed to who society has shaped her to be. It’s not a seamless process. Edna isn’t a saint or an activist; she sets up a studio and neglects it, has lazy days, times when she feels stuck and frustrated. But deliberately, she puts down the things that aren’t hers and tries to creates a space of her own, as best she can.

It proves to be a lonely space, prompting the book’s famous ending. But this sincere, likely doomed attempt makes the book a feminist statement, one that still feels unsettling today. As a reader, I can’t grasp the time in which this was written, and as a dude, I am insulated from the frustration coursing through Edna’s every action, a frustration that surely reverberates today. But “The Awakening” conjures this in plain, beautiful language, evoking a feeling that is still fresh and relevant.