Spinning Through New Orleans

After much effort and back and forth and crazy weddings and stressful jobs, I finally managed to read The Awakening by Kate Chopin as part of my Classic Club Spin #9 . It is a very thin book, more of a novella, than a novel, but there were to many happenings for me to sit down and read, but I am finally done and I am glad this is one book off my forever expanding checklist.

Now for the book –

The book is set in turn of the century, southern United States, New Orleans to be exact. The novel begins with the introduction of the Pontellier family, Léonce is a successful businessman, who is caring affectionate, if at times a trifle socially too aware of his position in society and the need for appearances. Edna is his wife, who devotes her time between her family and her sketches, but feels a need for something more to satisfy the sensitivity of her soul. They have two children – young boys Etienne and Raoul. The books opens with the Pontellier family vacationing on Grand Isles and residing at a homestay managed by Madame Leburn, who has two sons – Robert and Victor. As the novel unfolds, we discover an evolution in the character of Edna – she is great friends with Adèle Ratignolle, who epitomizes the very core of 19th century womanhood, a great wife and a wonderful mother, she is constantly busy trying to make life more comfortable for her family. Though Edna really admires Adèle Ratignolle, she cannot herself believe that she can quite become like her friend. She tell her Madame Ratignolle that for her own children she “would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself”.  Soon Edna and Robert Laburn develop a friendly relationship that transitions into love for each other. Robert realizing the dead end nature of their relationship flees to Mexico under pretext of better career opportunity. Edna returns to her New Orleans and though she continues in her role of a wife and a mother, there are subtle changes in her character; she isolates herself from her former social circle, she takes up her sketching more seriously and refuses to attend her own sister’s wedding. The only two companions she seeks are Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, an eccentric pianist whom Edna had met at Grand Isle and who had fathomed the true relation between her and Robert. After some month pass, Léonce, travels to New York for business and the boys are sent to their grandmother during this period and it is during this period, Edna discovers the joy of being on one’s own and do things by herself. She is soon involved in a dalliance with Alcée Arobin, a wild man about town.  It is at this point Robert returns to town and though initially he is cold with Edna, he finally confesses his deep passionate love for her. However when Edna is called away to assist in Adèle Ratignolle with a difficult childbirth, Robert leaves, leaving a note that he is leaving forever because he loves her. This action, forces Edna to take certain decisions and act in a way to change her life directions once and for all.

I am not a particular fan of this kind of literature….the woman/man seeking fulfillment out of marriage kinds. They always seem to have the same theme, especially the ones written about the woman. Unhappy and dissatisfied with their lot, they seek some kind of happiness outside wedding vows with disastrous results. These books make me feel morbid and depressed and question the whole point of getting married or being in a relationship and all that. This book I must say was no different.  I saw no reason for Edna Pontellier to be dissatisfied with her life – she had married of her own choosing; that too to a man who was kind, caring and successful enough to provide her with all kinds of material comforts. She had two healthy children and a host of good, kind friends. There seemed to be hint of lack of sensitivity and artistic fulfillment in her life – music, books, art that make life rich, but that did not seem to be the core of her repining. She seemed to me to just plain bored, who like the attentions of a younger man and later gave herself to sexual pleasure with another man. The only time I could relate to her is when her husband was in New York and her children with Madame Pontellier, and she discovers the joy of doing things for herself. True, there is something absolutely delicious in having some precious moments of “me time”- I am guessing they are even more precious in the stifling 19th century society that demanded certain standards from a wife and a mother and therefore I could completely understand Edna’s joy in having her dinner dressed in a peignoir, reading Emerson till late etc. But outside of this one strain, I could not understand her at all. For no reason she wants to move into a smaller house all by herself – she gives no reason for her actions and gaily and cheerfully writes to her husband telling him of her decision. She seems to me completely utterly selfish through the book – under the cover of “being herself”, she does all manner of things without any regard for other’s feelings. She refuses to attend her sister’s wedding, because of she is missing Robert. While I understand the concept of loving and loosing someone, I cannot understand being absolutely blind to others who love you and to whom you matter. Her actions against Léonce I could not understand at all. Here is good kind man who tries everything in his power to make her happy and comfortable and she leaves his house without any regard to his position in the society or what he may feel. I am not even getting into her dalliance with Alcée Arobin – why she should choose infidelity towards her husband, that too with a man whom she cares nothing about, is nothing but an act of temporary irresponsible actions. Her final act of course was the final nail in the coffin – I understand, completely understand being abandoned, but you live on, because life is a gift and you have to live it; there are other people who love and care and for that love, one has the duty to not only live but flourish. This kind of sentimental namby-pamby a-la Madame Bovary is just nonsensical – as if that is the only road open to women after hysterical extra marital affairs!!!  I would any day lay my money on Hester Prynneis from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is more of a heroine for living and living with courage, virtue and dignity, than deciding for sentimental and so called sensitive ending, that showcase some form of artistic freedom!

This book has been hailed as one of the first feminist novels, because the woman lives or tries to live her life on her own terms. I am not sure I am at all in agreement with this school of thought – true a woman should be able to live her life exactly the way she chooses, but not at the cost of being selfish or hurting other. Before we are men or woman, we are humans and as humans we have to be cognizant of fellow feelings and sentiments. Living your life on your own terms is a great power, but in the words of a great man, with great power comes great responsibility. You are responsible for your conduct, towards yourself and others.

The redeeming feature of the book is the language- Ms. Chopin did not focus on frills and got to the very heart of the matter. But her words are simply beautiful, picturesque and haunting; here’s a sample “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” Or “But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult! The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” Lovely, soul searing language and a vivid description of New Orleans and Grand Isles makes this novel so much more readable.

I am glad to have read it, but I am not sure I will ever re-read it again. To me the only thing that came out of this novel was that in this genre of literature, Hester Prynneis so much more a stronger heroine, simply because she chooses life even at its lowest ebb!

17 thoughts on “Spinning Through New Orleans

  1. I loved the book. I understand your point of view but I just saw it from a different perspective. A nice husband, kids, routine, all these are great but people change and at some point they want something else from life. I sympathize with Edna – for what she represents, a woman who realizes the point in life where she is now doesn’t satisfy her anymore and a change is necessary.

    1. Delia …I am glad you enjoyed the book and am so in agreement with you; despite a perfect life, we may want a change…to break free. My only contention to that is, breaking free has its ups and downs…I cannot relate to giving up! You ride through the tough waters for calmer seas….I think this part more than anything else killed the book for me….But like I said, i do think the book had a lot of promise and there was much in its favor, but the end…well!!!

  2. It’s too bad you didn’t like the book much. I’m with the others in that I really like this one. I can understand your reservations. The thing is that Edna decided she wanted more from her life than being a wife and mother and spending her days taking care of other people. Her husband and her social milieu would never allow her to be anything else. She was trapped. There were no ups and downs and calmer seas ahead, there was only a tedious life of more of the same thing every day.

    1. I know Stefanie that many have liked the book and I am glad you and others liked the book. I can understand wanting more out of life and the feeling of being trapped, but I cannot understand giving up life and not trying to better it. I know what all of you are saying and I know its different strokes for different folks….but for me giving up on life is just sacrilegious!

      1. With respect, one of the great opportunities in literature is its ability to let us see through a window onto what is uncomfortable to us — rather than seeing through a window onto what we would also do. 🙂

      2. Corinne…Excellently put! I so agree with you. That is primarily the reason why I read this book, despite knowing that it’s premises is not the kind I usually like or read. It did help me see a a different world….however, I am not sure I liked this different world! 🙂

      3. Corinne, I think what you say is so true ………. literature not only allows us to see different approaches to life, but it allows us to hear and feel the thoughts and emotions of the people who live life a certain way, which is a very unique experience. However, I do think because of this and because of who each of us is, literature can evoke strong responses to actions of the characters. I don’t necessarily think it’s always that we want the character to behave as we do; we simply disagree with their choices, actions, etc. I think these responses are good things because they help us to form our own personal ideas about issues and therefore, to own our own thoughts. I love Cirtnecce’s responses to what she reads because they are often passionate and help me to appreciate what I read regardless of whether I agree with her or not. So for me, a strong response to a book is like food to a flower; not myopic at all but rather it helps me to grow as a reader.

      4. Thank You for the kind words Cleo! I am in complete alignment with you that what others thinks provide fodder for thought and that in itself helps me grow as a reader!

      5. @Cleo – All good points! 🙂 I didn’t mean I thought Cirtnecce expected characters to behave as she would. I was just making a passing comment on the value of seeing characters react as we would not. I agree that disliking a character’s reactions is a very (very) valid response to literature. I was just suggesting that this could be exactly how to see deeper into the work — to use that. A lot of people think the ending is perfect, while others are utterly appalled. I was merely pointing out that those enormous differences in reaction to a novel open up a lot of opportunity for reflection. I one hundred percent believe in recording our honest reactions to literature. That’s what I do too. It just seems Cirtnecce had a strong emotional reaction to this one (for reasons that make perfect sense to me), and I thought I’d point out that that could be a good thinking opportunity. Authors are probably often going for strong responses. 🙂

  3. It’s considered a feminist work because it showcased a woman who sought an identity beyond wife and mother, and at the time, very few understood what else any woman could possibly want from life.
    I understand your disappointment with Edna’s final decision and if this book were set in contemporary times, I’d likely agree with you. However, at the time it was written and published, and in the American South, especially, infidelity by a woman warranted such a punishment. I think it’s more a reflection of the sense of oppression Edna felt, the lack of freedom over the course of her life. This one choice, at least, she could control. I agree with your sentiments about Alcee. But again, I took it as an almost desperate assertion of her own free will.
    I read that the backlash against Chopin for this book -not the feminist theme or Edna’s extreme final act, but the notion that a woman could be so unhappy with a successful husband and healthy children that she would dare cheat- was so severe, she was ostracized in her community and vowed never to publish any of her work again. (She continued to write but never did publish again. Some of her other works were published post-humously by her family.)
    Personally, I think she was bold, if a bit naive, to publish this story in 1900 New Orleans. I’m sorry she didn’t live to see it hailed as the progressive and artful work that it is.

    1. I completely agree with you that Kate Chopin was very bold in writing this book! Late 19th century was hardly a time that would applaud anyone for upholding such values like woman as an independent individual with every right to make her own life decisions. It is very sad that Kate Chopin never wrote any more novels and stuck to short stories post publication of the novel. Her courage in writing something like this is indeed very praiseworthy and I am too sorry that she did not live to see this book’s eventual success. My angst as I mentioned is with Edna’s final choice…I know 19th century Southern America was not an easy place to live and having started down this road, she did feel oppressed about not having a choice! However Hester Pynnes also lived through ostracism in a far more conservative society of 16th century Puritan England, with a daughter born out of her illicit relationship; but she lives on, trying to deal with the curve balls thrown by the society to her and she triumphs in the end! This choice is not easy and not everybody has equal amount of strength to make those decisions, but I cannot help but feel, that life is important and to throw it away, simply eludes my understanding. Having said so much, I am really glad that you liked the book!

    1. Please do…like I said, it is a thin book and should not take too long! Also you may like the book like everybody here. Reading at the end of the day is very personal and how we each interpret the plot is basis our personal emotional and intellectual ethos!

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