Kate Chopin’s 1899 book feels like a classic I have never heard of before, poetic and lilting, sharp in its focus. Over one languid summer, Edna Pontellier wakes up to her life – marriage, motherhood – and a deep quiet dissatisfied listlessness begins to grow. This is a woman’s wakening, written in a mood that fills your bones as the summer heat pervades her soul.
Through short, poetic scenes, Chopin conveys Edna’s nature, her relationship with her husband, her quiet and stifled soul. There is a languorousness to the language, a listlessness that pervades the writing as much as it pervades the characters. The Awakening is a book of summer, oddly sensual in its simplicity. There is a sense of being on the edge: bordering on possibilities in the heat of the day. Courted by the devoted Robert Lebrun, captivated by the hazy sensations of summer, though Chopin’s rhythmic impressionistic writing Edna does not fling herself from her husband to another man, but into the project of herself.
Before Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, Chopin wrote this story of a woman discovering her need for a room of her own. Pushed by what happened during that summer break, it dawns on Edna the true extent of her psychological, social and sexual confinement, and the impact this will have on the rest of her life. It’s as if previously she has drifted, rudderless, from her father’s home to her husband’s. It is the tantalising promise, almost unthinken of, of another world during the hot summer that turns her to see her life in new eyes.
Chopin’s writing is beautiful: undulating, languid, effused with the same summer mood that strikes Edna. In a few, short formal paragraphs, Chopin relates Mr Pontellier’s return from the club one night: his drink, his winnings, his child-like ‘checking’ on the children to wake and disturb them, his subsequent waking and disturbing of Edna; and when she does not display what he deems to be the appropriate maternal care, his lecture on the role of a mother and wife. After this episode, Edna goes to the veranda, quietly, hopelessly cries to herself, then gathers herself back in. Their marriage, Edna’s constraints, the quiet awful weight of expectation has been perfectly, elegantly illustrated: the formal language, the repetition, the lack of dialogue – nothing is really spoken between them.
Edna’s awakening slowly filters into her consciousness and pervasively changes her soul and this book, too, slowly revealed itself to me. The rhythmic, sensuous language, slowly becoming more interior and less formal. Chopin reveals Edna’s character and capabilities to us as Edna discovers this in herself. Her own state of mind closely connected to the physical sensations of those summer days, and when she returns home to the city in New Orleans she slowly refuses to go back to the old routine. There is a trickling-in feeling, like with the sun finally warms your skin; and just when you think Edna is going to be burnt, she retreats back from the sun.
It is this poetic, lilting mood of The Awakening that captured me. I loved the languidness of the language matching Edna’s summer days, and it filtered into mine too. It’s a beautiful classic, a forgotten masterpiece, powerful and haunting.