Literary Wives: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I’m happy to announce the addition of two new members of our group this month; TJ from My Book Strings and Eva from The Paperback Princess. We’re thrilled to have them join us! Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The first thing that struck me about this book is how accessible and modern-sounding it is for a book that was written over 115 years ago. I had to keep reminding myself it was published in 1899. (Only 21 years before Scott and Zelda get married. What completely different worlds. However, the traditional views of women were still going strong.)

Many of you have probably already either read this or have heard of it, so I’m not going to worry about spoilers here, or worry about explaining the plot, although the plot is pretty straight-forward… Married couple goes on vacation, wife meets unmarried man, they fall in love, become tortured with the fact that they can’t be together, woman ends her life.

It’s this last part that I had a problem with. Why does the woman always have to end her life? Is there really no other reason to live if you can’t be with the man you love? And it’s been done a few times before. I was hoping for a breakaway at the end; the two of them going off to Mexico together; or Edna running off alone with her husband’s money. Or at the very least, let the man kill himself instead of the woman.

Apart from that, I really enjoyed it. It was smart and sometimes funny, wasn’t drawn out too long, and it was an interesting setting. But most of all it felt timeless. Will there ever be a time when humans (men and women) don’t feel trapped by societal conventions? It might be easier now than it was then, but not everywhere and not for everyone.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

For me The Awakening really brings home the fact that women have been feeling trapped in their marriages since the beginning of time (well, I don’t know about the beginning of time, but I know it has been a while), and it seems as though writers have been writing about it for almost as long. Even male writers write about it. I know the book was controversial when it came out… was it more controversial because it was written by a woman?

More specifically, for the character in the book – Edna, that she felt more capable of ending her life than of leaving her marriage is a powerful statement. She saw no other way out;  because the laws and society made it so hard for a woman to leave a man without living in disgrace and/or living without her children, Edna felt like the only way out was death.

Conveniently, ending her life by drowning saves both her husband and children the shame of having a wife and mother who leaves them for another man. It makes me wonder just how many women in history suffered the same fate.

The only man here that doesn’t benefit from the way things ended is Robert who now has to live his life believing that Edna ended her life because of him.

But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!

A few further thoughts:

Mr. Pontellier was not a bad man; he seemed to care for his wife and children. But he held strict traditional beliefs about the role of husbands and wives. He truly couldn’t seem to understand that his wife might be unhappy, rather than just acting “mentally unbalanced” and possibly in need of a doctor.

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, that 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.

One thing The Awakening does is show that a marriage or husband doesn’t have to be terrible for the woman to feel trapped or oppressed by her situation. She still is not free.

In this quote, Edna does not yet realize why she feels the way she does…

An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish.

I noticed that Edna’s mothering abilities were called in to question a few times in the book, as though being a ‘bad’ mother and being a ‘bad’ wife were one in the same – that a wife would never consider leaving her husband, falling in love with someone else, or killing herself if she truly loved her children. Or if feeling indifferent toward your children is an indicator of immoral behaviour.

He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after the children, whose on earth was it?

She was fond of her children in an uneven impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart, she would sometimes forget them.. Their absence was a sort of relief, thought she did not admit this, even to herself.

She seemed to be okay until she fell in love with Robert, and then when he had to leave, and she realized that they couldn’t be together, she seemed to fall into a depression.

Robert’s going had in some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything. The conditions of her life were in no way changed, but her whole existence was dulled, like a faded garment which seems to be no longer worth wearing.

She had tried to forget him, realizing the inutility of remembering. But the thought of him was like an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her.

She felt no interest in anything about her.

She wanted something to happen – something, anything; she did not know what.

… all sense of reality had gone out of her life; she had abandoned herself to Fate, and awaited the consequences with indifference.

Another thing I wondered after reading this book is… were books like this written to be moral lessons or cautionary tales about following the ‘rules’, or were they written as a response to the unfairness of it all?

By all the 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.

The bird that would soar over above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.

Our next book, to be discussed the first Monday in August, is On Beauty by Zadie Smilth. Feel free to read along and join in the discussion!

50 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

  1. didibooksenglish says:

    This is one of my favorite books. I think suicide at that time would have been are only option. It was not allowed, not to mention she would have been putting herself in a very precarious situation, especially if the second man left her. We are women of the future so we should have problems with suicide as the only solution. Most women stayed in their loveless marriages and grew more and more unhappy. As women of this modern world we can see how much we’ve advanced, despite things not being totally perfect. However the modernity of The Awakening is truly special and should be read by all. I like the idea of this group. What is your next book?

    • Naomi says:

      It’s true… it’s hard to separate myself form my own world to imagine completely what it would have been like for Edna and others like her. The author was obviously going for reality as opposed to what she probably really wanted for her character.
      Next, we’re reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Have you read that one?

      • didibooksenglish says:

        Yes I have and wasn’t over the moon about it. Then I found out it is a retelling of Howard’s End. So I hope to read Howard’s End before embarking a second time into reading On Beauty. When are your reading it for?

      • Naomi says:

        It’s for August 7th.
        I didn’t realize it was a retelling of Howard’s End. I’ll have to keep that in mind…

      • Naomi says:

        You can add to the discussion when you’re back from your holiday! I’m actually going to be gone camping that week myself, but hope to pre-schedule my post and then comment when I get back.

  2. whatmeread says:

    I know she falls in love with Robert, but I’m not sure if I don’t think that this love was just a way of crystallizing what she already felt about her marriage but didn’t realize she felt. It does seem, though, that she has separated from Robert and that when he leaves her, she can’t see any way to go on. That, to me, was also disappointing, or more accurately, what I said in the review, that her decisions are still determined by her relationships with men. But it was 1899, after all.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, your review made me realize what I found frustrating about Edna’s story… it takes a man to bring on her “awakening”. And like TJ said in her review, this is another example of Edna’s passivity. Her direction seems to be swayed by the people in her life, mainly men, rather than by her own doing. Which is sad.

  3. The Paperback Princess says:

    Your post makes me want to sit and talk about this with you! Let’s have tea and discuss!


    I love the last question – was this book meant as a morality tale? That completely never occurred to me reading it and now I can’t decide where I fall on it! Written by a man, I would say “yes” without hesitation. But from a woman…maybe it was more an expression of her frustrations? I think I feel a Kate Chopin rabbit hole coming up…

    I wasn’t disappointed that that was the ending Chopin chose – although I love the ideas you threw out. I think at the time, that really was the only option. Maybe Chopin knew that having her heroine cheat on her husband so clearly would anger readers and so she sacrificed Edna to mollify them? Incredible now to think that there was less stigma around suicide than divorce!

    • Naomi says:

      If only we *could* sit and have tea.. 🙂

      You’re right… looking at it as a book written in 1899, suicide is the way to go. I really had to keep reminding myself when this book was written! I think it just made me angry that this was the only option, and I was thinking of other books like it (Anna Karrenina and Madame Bovary), which were both written by men. I guess I was hoping that a woman might be able to come up with something more hopeful, but obviously that wouldn’t have been realistic.

      I also tend to agree that, because the book was written by a woman, it was written in frustration of women’s roles, rather than as a cautionary tale. As a cautionary tale, I don’t think it would have been as controversial. Let me know if you go down that rabbit hole, and find out anything worth reporting on!

  4. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I agree with you that this book has a sense of timelessness. I loved it! I think this is a book that needs to be considered in its historical setting. Yes, it would have been nice to see Edna and Robert run off to Mexico, but at the time, that would not have really been an option, especially since I didn’t get the sense that Robert was prepared in any way to lead such an unconventional life. Like you, I wonder what Chopin’s message was, other than showing that not every woman is happy as wife and mother. She gave such a balanced portrayal of Madame Ratignol and Mademoiselle Reisz, who are such polar opposites, that I can’t say whether this was supposed to be a cautionary tale or a protest novel. Chopin started to lead a somewhat unconventional life after the death of her husband, so maybe this novella is just a natural result. Too bad it pretty much ruined her chances of continuing to be a successful writer.

    • Naomi says:

      I hope it was worth it to her to have written such a book. I think she would be happy about it now, at least, if she knew. 🙂
      You’re right, of course, that at the time, the suicide makes the most sense – I just found myself wishing otherwise. I guess that says something about how effective the book is! It felt very real.
      As for Madames Ratignolle and Reisz, I like what Eva says in the comment section of your post – about Chopin being “miles ahead of her contemporaries not pitting women against each other”.

  5. JacquiWine says:

    This book has been on my tbr pile for such a long time. In fact it has such a stellar reputation that I’m almost afraid to read it! I’ve only skimmed your review for now as I’d rather not know too much about it before diving in. Glad to see that you enjoyed it though.

  6. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    I read this in school (college I think?) ages ago and remember loving it. It seemed terribly romantic and sad and unfair and beautifully written. I wonder what I would think of it now that I’m a wife and a mother – I bet my reaction would be more complicated.

    • Naomi says:

      This is the first time for me. It would be interesting to hear if you find a difference! You should read it and let us know. 🙂

      • buriedinprint says:

        I read this in first-year university (NOT in English class, where few books by women made it to the syllabus) and remember thinking it was so wonderful because it dared to suggest that she deserved an “out” (as awful as those circumstances were – they were on her own terms). Maybe it *is* time for a reread after all! 🙂

  7. BookerTalk says:

    I find it interesting how attitudes towards this novella have changed over the years. Originally it was considered ‘sickening’ and ‘poisonous’ because of the way it depicted female sexuality and a woman who refused to be defined by a role as wife and mother. Now it’s considered a key text by feminist critics who see it as a depicting an impulse to struggle free from patriarchal and male oppression. I’m not entirely comfortable with that because what the book suggests is the only way Edna can be free is to kill herself

    • whisperinggums says:

      But isn’t it about the impulse, and the fact that in that place and time women had very little chance of following that impulse. I mean they possibly could and become pariahs but that most would not see that as a viable option, and what would they survive on. Edith Wharton explore some of this too, albeit in different ways.

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t like the suicide aspect of the story, either – I was really hoping for a different ending. But as many people have pointed out, that was the reality then. I still like to think I would have found other things to live for, even as an oppressed mother and wife. But that’s just me. It seemed to me that somewhere around the middle of the story, Edna became depressed. So, did she kill herself because she didn’t want to go on living the life she was living, or was it because she was depressed? Or are they the same thing?

  8. A Life in Books says:

    Your last question is such an interesting one. I have to admit that it had never occurred to me to read it as a moral response to adultery, perhaps that’s because of its title. I wonder if it would have been possible to get it published given the attitudes of the time without that ending.

    • Naomi says:

      Good question! I think it was Eva who suggested Chopin ended it the way she did to mollify the readers who were sure to be angered by the book. Which makes me wonder how she would really like to have ended it… or maybe she would have kept it the same?

  9. whisperinggums says:

    Great review Naomi, with some interesting comments. Regarding your early question about “Why does the woman always have to end her life? Is there really no other reason to live if you can’t be with the man you love?” I think we have to see it in terms of the the times. I’ve read this book twice but even the second time was quite a long time ago. However, was it simply not being with the man she loved that brought about her suicide but a bigger sense of feeling trapped.

    As for why it was written, knowing what I know about Chopin – I’ve read several of her short stories – I think she wrote in response to the unfairness of the times, particularly for women. She was about women’s powerlessness, and, usually, men’s powerfulness. That’s my take anyhow.

    • Naomi says:

      I think my question about why the woman always has to end her life is just my frustration about the fact that, yes, the woman *is* the one who always has to make the sacrifices (whether she chooses to live or to die). I do have a hard time trying to keep my head in the past, though, when thinking about the book! 🙂

      It makes sense that Chopin wrote the book out of unfairness to women. But I couldn’t help but wonder if different authors have different motives for killing off the heroine. Why did Tolstoy kill off Anna? Why did Flaubert kill off Madame Bovary? Is that always the obvious ending to a story about adulteresses, or is there more to it than that? That sounds like a giant rabbit hole! To start, I think I would like to read some of Chopin’s short stories… and maybe more about her – I bet she was an interesting woman!
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment! 🙂

      • whisperinggums says:

        Yes, do read some of her stories. They vary a lot, some very grim. I’ve written up several on my blog with links to the online versions. You ask some good questions.

        I do think you g gave to keep your head firmly in the times. Suicide would be ridiculous now, unless the circumstances were extraordinary, but perhaps it’s partly these writers showing the dire effects on women that societal attitudes regarding women and their options have slowly turned around? Isn’t that what the best writers do? Hold a mirror up to ourselves and our society… Some with the hope of effecting change? It sounds like you fear your rabbit hole will lead to other ideas about attitudes to women, ideas which agree that this was women’s only option, or ideas which agree that women can’t survive without men, or ideas suggesting these women are flawed and this is their due, but I’d be surprised if, overall, that’s what most of these writers were saying. However, I haven’t read enough to really argue the case. I’d have to read these books again for example.

      • Naomi says:

        Yes, I agree. I think that’s the best thing about this book, and I’m glad that it was written!

        I think the biggest fear I have about the rabbit hole is how much time it would take to really explore all those questions properly. 🙂

  10. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel says:

    Awakening has been on my TBR for so long. I should read it soon. (Oh my! The TBR). I actually have a recommendation for you for the Literary Wives feature. I recently read Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane republished by Persephone Books and it was an interesting aspect on marriage. Young wife, old man etc. It started off as a Jane Eyre meets Anna Karenina kind of vibe and it offers loads to discuss about.

  11. The Cue Card says:

    It does sound pretty modern a story. I wonder if the author was influenced in the ending by Anna Karenina hmm. Or not. Just the woman always dies! I did see TJ’s review as well. I think I’d like to read it. and might join you for On Beauty. cheers.

  12. Geoff W says:

    I want to re-read this as part of my re-read all the books from High School quest to see if they have more impact now. I remember it being pretty dramatic for us because she killed herself.

    • Naomi says:

      I have a similar list, but The Awakening was not one of the books I read in High School. I feel confident that I’ll like most of them more than I did then!

  13. Elena says:

    This is one of my favourite novels ever, and you just nailed how I feel about it, Naomi: “It’s this last part that I had a problem with. Why does the woman always have to end her life?” I first read it when I was in my very early 20’s and I already knew that marrige and kids would feel like hell for me. This book gave me the opportunity to acknowledge that and be OK with it. No need to die for such ideas in the 21st century. Now that I’m nearing my 30’s, I plan to read it to remind myself that no matter how many times I get asked when I’m marrying my long-time partner, or when we’re having children, it’s OK to rebel against it (and be slightly rude about the ‘None of our business’ part).

    • Naomi says:

      I love that this book helped you feel okay about your own decisions about marriage and children.
      I know I’m supposed to judge it by the times it was written in, but it still makes me mad that she felt like she had to kill herself! It makes me glad to be alive now and not then, even though there are many other aspects of the world then that I think I would like. 🙂

  14. Grab the Lapels says:

    I know one reason everyone says English majors have to read Shakespeare is because all writers after him are influenced by him. It sounds to me like The Awakening fits squarely into the tragedy genre. Perhaps the author was trying to stick with a classic writing tradition? There can’t be messy gray areas. Everything ends in a funeral or a marriage, according to the master. Maybe that’s why I don’t like Shakespeare…

  15. madamebibilophile says:

    Great review 🙂 I read this years ago & you’ve made me realise I’m long overdue for a re-read of it. I remember also finding the ending really frustrating – it would be interesting to see what I make of it now!

    • Naomi says:

      So many of you read this years ago. It makes me wonder how your perception of it would change over time…
      I’m glad I’m not the only one who was frustrated by the ending!

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