American author Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis on Feb. 8, 1850, 141 years before me, to the day. She became, I think by accident, one of the forerunners of feminist literature.
Her most famous work, The Awakening, is a short, glittering, and interrogative novel that feels like music. The chapters span about two pages each, and end like Edmund Spenser’s sonnets: with a few extra rhythmic feet, ebbing out. Themed around one sensitive woman’s journey to independence and infidelity, The Awakening ends with her suicide by drowning.
I began the reading journey with the main character, Mrs. Edna Pontellier, on firm, if uninteresting, ground. I ended the journey feeling washed out to sea. I floundered in the wake of a true work of art, mystified, horrified, and unable to go to sleep.
Edna begins as a conventional woman, submissive to her dutiful-though-distant husband. After becoming infatuated with another man, she undergoes a series of changes: the awakening—or, you might say, the breakdown. She abandons all her usual habits of visiting neighbors, takes up drawing and painting full time, and moves away from her house while her husband is away on business. She does all this with a bewildering mechanicalness: “Conditions would some way adjust themselves, she felt; but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.” After Edna’s lover proves his character by refusing her advances (despite his mutual love), she drowns herself.
It would be foolish and brutish of me to dismiss the novel with the same condemnation it met upon its publication. In the edition I was reading, Marilynne Robinson wrote in the introduction, “To explore alienation and self-destructiveness is not to set about making converts to them. … The appropriate question to ask about Edna Pontellier is not whether her behavior is justified, but what is revealed in it.”
The sad story The Awakening tells makes me probe new areas of my own heart and mind, and begin to understand the subtlety and complexity of human decisions regarding marriage. I will be married in four months and am just starting to learn the marriage lessons, mostly by rumor: the forfeiture of independence, for instance, inherent in the pressured situation of intimate living.
Edna, like most human beings, was not interested in being owned. She wanted free reign. She pursued whichever company, romance, and habitat made her feel the most individual and lively. “I don’t want anything but my own way,” she says. “That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices others—but no matter. …”
Just this week my pastor preached out of 1 Corinthians on marriage and celibacy: “When you put that ring on your finger,” he said, “your relationship to yourself dramatically changes.”
During our marriage counseling, one point stuck to me harder than all the others. The Bible tells older women to teach the younger how to love their husbands. Infatuation comes natural to a woman. Love must be taught. How Edna Pontellier would have shuddered at the Scriptures, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God with your body.” And, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”
The Awakening has been on my to-read list for a long time. I knew the premise and the tragic end before I began reading. I love stories that unfold the heart of a woman—an impossible task, but an attempt fascinating to observe. I kept my usual custom of writing my name inside the front cover, along with a short message that rooted my reading in time:
“December 21st, 2013. This book is a gift from my true love, Jonathan Boes. His love is a love I don’t ever want to wake up from.”