“One of these days,” she said, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think – try to determine what character of a woman I am; for candidly, I don’t know. By all those codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”
Yes, for shame, I have had a copy of The Awakening, a mere slip of a novella, growing dusty on my bookshelves for years. I have known of its reputation, its perceived importance, its place in the feminist canon and its place in the hearts of many and yet I have not read it. On occasion I might have lifted it from the shelf, I may have leafed through its pages and considered reading it, but I didn’t. Until now, that is. Finally I took the plunge, much as Edna Pontellier took the plunge but with less drastic consequences.
The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier (you might have guessed) a married woman living in a fairly limited society who ‘awakens’, that is to say she becomes aware of herself and her desires. Edna is a woman familiar with passion, who has experienced passion in various forms but no longer lives it. She associates with polite society, she is a good wife to her husband though not, it seems, the kind of mother he expects her to be. Her marriage was not formed from love but rather from pragmatism. Her husband won her through persistence and likes her to behave as he desires so that he can behave as he desires. Yet on a summer holiday Edna’s behaviour begins to change.
“Mr. Pontellier had been a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife. But her new and unexpected line of conduct completely bewildered him. It shocked him. Then her absolute disregard for her duties as a wife angered him. When Mr. Pontellier became rude, Edna grew insolent. She had resolved never to take another step backwards.”
Ah, yes. Isn’t it easy to be kind to people who behave exactly according to our own desires.
On a summer holiday Edna rediscovers her passion. It begins with a boy – Robert – who courts her, not entirely seriously, knowing she’s a married woman. Then there is music which awakens her soul. Then she discovers how to swim. A group of them, encouraged by Robert, swim out in the ocean late. Edna has never learned to swim, she has been trying to learn over the summer without success. Yet this night her body takes over and she swims out into the expanse of water:
“She turned herself seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.
Once she turned and looked toewards the shore, towards she people she had left there. She had not gone any great distance – that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.
A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land.”
Thus Edna is awakened. What follows is an exploration of her experience, the awakening of a woman to herself. There are no crashes, no dramatic scenes. Edna simply drifts towards a better understanding of herself and acts on her own desires rather than societal expectations or the expectations of those around her. She becomes unwomanly: selfish, disinterested in society and societal expectations, she abandons (though does not cease to love) her children, she takes up painting again and tries to earn a small living by it, she moves out of the family home and into a small home of her own. This last act her husband seeks to disguise, yet her intent is not disguisable. She is in love, not merely with Robert but with herself. She resolves to remain an awakened woman. There is no violence in this statement, yet her actions condemn her as a wicked woman.
When I began reading The Awakening I wasn’t moved by it; it is a short book, yet it moves slowly and calmly. The writing is beautiful and lush in places and pedestrian in others. Particularly in the beginning when the scene is set and Edna begins to awaken. Yet as Edna moves calmly forward, becoming a person living for the sake of herself (how selfish of a woman to put herself first) the book begins to grip. I found myself quietly gripped, quietly recognising as I imagine many women recognise, a part of my own experience. Edna does nothing terrible, yet she is perceived as terrible if not quite abhorrent in the sense that she could be safely brought back into the fold again if only sufficient pressure is brought to bear upon her by the people that surround her and, the ultimate weapon, if she only thinks of the children. As I read it occurred to me that there are strong parallels between The Awakening and the story of Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s brilliant The Vegetarian. In both books the women characters are possessed of an indifferent husband, a marriage not founded on love. In both books the women behave in a way which is an anathema to their society: in The Awakening’s case it is the rejection of a comfortable home and marriage, and a failure to helicopter parent; in the case of The Vegetarian it is an unwillingness to eat meat. In both cases the rejection isn’t, by many standards, particularly absurd though I believe in both cases in their particular societies both sets of behaviour would be unusual. But in both cases they deal with the idea of a woman pursuing her personal goals in a society which expects women to set them aside. It whetted my appetite to read The Vegetarian again, perhaps alongside The Awakening, to see how far the parallels extend.
The Awakening is a beautiful book, stirring and gently written, which absolutely deserves its reputation as a must read book. I was indifferent in the beginning – this, I find, is not necessarily a bad thing because most of my favourite things I was indifferent about in the beginning – but it slowly and gently and softly builds to become something entirely compelling, difficult to set aside. For a short book, which seems to cover such little ground, it conveys a multitude: the disparity in women’s and men’s lives, the extent to which women have to efface themselves just to be considered decent, the challenges of a marriage of convenience, the expectations of motherhood, the soft pressure of society, the brilliance of art and music in expressing something about our lives, its power to move us, the importance of self-fulfilment and the difficulties in its achievement. But most of all it is a story of a woman, Edna, who re-discovers passion and tries to figure out how to live her life for herself, and in this it succeeds beautifully.