Friday, September 19, 2008

Kate Chopin - The Awakening

An extraordinary novel, and an extraordinary character, Edna. I was flabbergasted by the ending. It is one that is the subject of much debate, I discover, googling after finishing the novel. This post is a spoiler if you haven’t read the novel, so if you don’t want to know the score look away now.

Edna, originally a staid product of her time and circumstance, gradually rebels and refuses to be bound by convention or propriety. In this, she is a wonderful example of liberation, particularly female liberation. Remember, this novel was written in 1891. In 1899, Hardy was writing Tess of the d’Urbervilles and creating, in Tess, a fateful character with whom I fell in love when I was young but whom I increasingly lose patience as I grow older for her resigned fatalism.

Edna, it seemed to me, was Tess re-born, a woman who fought back, who established her own life on her own terms. A beautiful creation. The novel is remarkably complex. I’ve just finished it – ten minutes ago – and it is still going through my head. There are many interesting things to say about its structure, but I’ll save them for another post. Here, I’m interested in the psychology. There’s no wonder this was such a controversial book in its day. It is the story of a freethinking radical and even today those are considered with suspicion. As it unfolded, the novel appeared to me to be a wonderful (not to mention prescient) example of existentialism in the positive aspect of the philosophy: that is, the owning of one’s self and one’s actions, the mastery of one’s own destiny, the understanding that, despite the fact we must love one another and live as a community, such closeness can only exist where there is harmony within oneself. Chopin describes Edna’s thoughts near the end:
She had said over and over to herself: "To-day it is Arobin [a lover]; to-morrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn't matter about Léonce Pontellier [her husband] -- but Raoul and Etienne! [her children]" She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adèle Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.

And, later:
There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.

This is powerful. It is difficult to admit to such emotions because they appear utterly self-centred, almost solipsistic, but there is a beautiful bravery in the way they are presented here. She has discovered herself. Unlike Tess, the victim, she has faced emotion, convention, morality, even nature, and decided on her own version of the truth. A true example of askesis, the process of self-discovery.

And yet, what happens? Within a page, beautiful, brave, vibrant Edna has gone the way of Tess. She drowns herself. The existentialism has turned from the positive message of hope that we know from 1940s Camus into the sullen, snarling version of it we know from later decades, a message of meaninglessness and nothingness. Far from mastering her own destiny, Edna succumbs.

This does not feel to me in any way a product of the story I have been reading, and it does not appear to be appropriate to the character of this woman. As I say, there appears to be a great deal of debate on this subject, and I look forward to reading more about it. I expect I shall come back to this.

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