How many years have I slept?
On the cover page the following sentence caught my eye: "Written nearly one hundred years ago, THE AWAKENING is the compelling story of an extraordinary modern woman struggling against the constraints of marriage and motherhood, and slowly discovering the power of her own sexuality" (Avon Books). And truthfully, yes, that does sum everything up into a nice tidy bow. The novel is primarily about Edna Pontellier a woman in a loveless marriage. Edna wakes up from her half dead sleep once she embraces the emotions she didn't know she could even express. Edna embodies the classical tale of the Phoenix: she is completely reborn.
The courage Chopin possessed to write this one hundred years ago is extraordinary. This is a feminist novel without being negative towards men. More than that, she explores feminine psyche in such a way that this novel could have been written in our time. But clearly, as the introductory page indicates, it was written nearly (now over) one hundred years ago. I can see why it was banned from libraries and schools. Edna, our protagonist, stands out from the rest of the Creole characters. Unlike the other women, she is not particularly attached to her children. She loves them of course, but she doesn't dote on them as the mothers (like Madame Ratignolle), nor does she seem to believe that the world revolves around her husband. On the contrary, Edna feels a longing she cannot explain. A belief that there is something more out there than just this. Psychologically this extensively of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Everyone else is so quick to diagnose her without even wanting to listen to what she wants! Though we cannot be for certain (since it is merely implied but not stated), it appears that Edna also displays symptoms of depression.
Edna goes through a complete metamorphosis with her character. Her deconstruction begins by getting over her fear of swimming. There is such a beautiful scene with her swimming in the ocean after a party in the evening, with other people swimming and watching her. She keeps swimming until it frightens her how far she has ventured and she returns elated to her husband (who of course only says she didn't really go that far out). The turning point happens later when Robert (another man) returns with her and wishes her a good night and for the first time in YEARS she "felt pregnant with the first-felt throbbings of desire" (51). It is here that Edna AWAKENS from her half awake-half dead going-through-the-motions life. It is after this scene that her husband and people begin to notice a difference within her.
There are so many memorable scenes in this novel. What I enjoyed the most was seeing Edna's growth as an individual. Instead of doing wifely duties of visiting with her husbands' client's wives, she chose to go to the horse races and gamble (and win). She painted and committed herself to reading more and educating herself. She sold her paintings for money. She bought her own small abode (the pigeon house). She firmly established herself as an independent, career-oriented full person. She loved her children, but felt more at piece when they were gone. There is something to be said about that in my opinion. Not all women, Ms. Chopin may have been saying, should aspire to only be mothers. Why can't women enjoy themselves?
I won't spoil the ending but let me just say that it is very fitting. Even though it is the end of the novel Chopin leaves the readers thinking that Edna's life is just now beginning. Some will disagree, and that's what makes it so powerful. There is an implied ending, but truly we - as only students of literature - will never know for sure.