The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

I read The Awakening for the first time my senior year of high school. It was required reading, but I was completely captivated. It was the first time I ever stayed up ridiculously late with a book, unable to put it down...I remember it was snowing...we had no power. I was curled up in a chair in the living room, blankets piled on, candles flickering...but Kate Chopin swept me a million miles away...summer...1899...Grand Isle. I could smell the salt air. Hear the waves crashing. Feel the sand beneath my feet. Because I was 17...romantic and idealistic...I strongly identified with Edna Pontellier. I felt so sorry for her...trapped in a loveless marriage. Expected to act in a certain way. Entirely without options...without control. I desperately wanted her to leave her husband and run away with Robert Lebrun. I cried when Robert left her; and in the end, I admired her decision...I saw her as strong and noble.

I remembered my experience with the book fondly, and several years later, I decided to read it again, expecting to enjoy it in exactly the same way. But by that time, life had knocked some of the romance and idealism out of me. I was surprised to discover that Edna no longer seemed heroic. Throughout my second reading, I saw her as weak and selfish. In the end, I was angry with her for what she had done to her husband and children. I believed the strong thing would have been to stay and endure. She simply quit.

I still loved the book, though...just in a different way. It became a measure of how I had changed over time. My memory of the first reading was like a pencil mark on a door frame...I could look at it and see how I'd grown.

When my book club was contemplating our July selection, The Awakening immediately came to mind. I knew there would be a lot to, selfishly, I wanted to read it again. It had been about seven years since the last time, and I was curious to see how I would feel this time around. I also wanted to know how my experiences compared to the experiences of other readers.

As soon as I began to read, it felt like I was stepping into a favorite pair of jeans...the soft, worn-in pair that fits just right. The world of the story was so familiar and comfortable. I read the first few chapters tentatively, waiting to see what kinds of feelings would surface...Would I be more sympathetic now or would I still feel angry with Edna??? the book wore on...I really felt very little.

This time my reading took on more of an evaluative/analytical quality. I read without any sense of urgency or hope because I remembered the story well. I felt emotionally detached but more mindfully engaged. I considered the changes in Edna more carefully. I looked for evidence that she tried to make it work. I thought more about the context in which Kate Chopin was working. Marveled at how modern it feels. Sought to understand what she was trying to say about people and the world in which she lived.

This time, I saw the conflict on a larger scale. It's about so much more than Edna's love for Robert...her yearning for something she can't have...her passionless marriage...even the societal expectations. What she goes through in The Awakening is timeless and fundamentally HUMAN. It's something we all experience during certain least to some extent. She becomes dissatisfied with her life and seeks to change it for the better. She begins to chase after happiness and believes she can find it...IF. IF she starts painting again...IF she moves out of the big house...IF she has Robert...She quickly tries to fill herself up with one thing after another, acting on every whim, doing what feels good, but nothing works for long. Her spirit is restless and insatiable. Nothing has meaning. Chopin explains, "There was no one thing in the world she desired. There was no human being she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone." Edna comes to see the world as a harsh and lonely place...She loses hope...She can't imagine life any other way.

This time, her decision at the end of the book felt like the only option. It wasn't brave or cowardly...strong or weak. It was unfortunate but inevitable. There was no other way it could have ended. This time, I didn't judge her at all.

Next time, who knows? I'm sure I'll see it differently. That's the brilliant thing about this's complex and intricate. It can be read on different levels...held up and examined from different angles and in different lights.

I don't often re-read books the quote at the top of the page states...there are too many books out there and not enough time...but this experience has inspired me to revisit some other old favorites soon...see what's new...

Up next...Ethan Frome.

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