Feminist Books: Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”

by Latina Fatale on 03/18/2011 · 13 comments

in Books, Feminism, Literature

Washed Away
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about influential books that have changed my life or have deeply touched me in some way. It was in my third year of college when I read one of the most thought provoking books that has had deep significance for me as a woman, Kate Chopin’s masterpiece The Awakening .

I haven’t read the book in years, but I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Throughout my life since I read the book years ago I have tried to explain why the book is so important to me to other people and it always seemed that people reacted negatively to what I was saying about the book, so I just eventually stopped telling people. But now I am at a certain stage in my life where I feel that it is time that I reclaim the book for myself again.

The storyline is simple and is highly influenced by the the era in which it was written, 1899. The book opens up with the main character, Edna, who belongs to a “high society” circle of people on vacation. Edna is married with children and her husband treats her as if she is a delicate and helpless child. During her time on vacation she meets a young man who she begins to fall for and who eventually decides to leave for Mexico.

As the story progresses, Edna becomes more and more independent and her husband as well as the family doctor become worried about her “melancholy” mood. Edna begins to paint, go out and do things for herself, begins to refuse visitors and return calls, and neglects household duties. She grows tired of being treated as an invalid and becomes disillusioned with the societal conventions of being a mother and wife that have been thrust upon her. Eventually she moves out of her house and into her own place.

One day her young lover returns from Mexico, only to leave unexpectedly after leaving her a note professing his love for her. Edna becomes seriously depressed, and the next day after thinking about her children she walks straight into the ocean- walking and walking and walking towards the horizon.

Throughout the years as I have told this story to people, many people have had so many violent reactions to my retelling of the story. It has been almost seven years since the last time that I told someone about this story when one of my former friends chastised me for loving a book where a woman killed herself over a man and left her children behind. People have had so many violent reactions to this book when I have told them about it, often getting upset that a woman killed herself because a man left her and quite frequently over the fact that the woman decided that she did not want to be a mother anymore and moved out of the house, leaving her family and children.

I feel that many people have missed the whole point of the book, being that many woman in the present and still to this day are forced into roles that society expects us to conform to. Sometimes we even believe that we may want something or that we like or need something merely because it is all we know and how society has influenced us to be often without our even realizing it. And then one day many of us just wake up and realize that we have lost a part of ourselves, or perhaps that we never even knew ourselves because we were too busy living up to society’s expectations as to who we should be. The fact that I seem to not be able to retell this story to many women without someone treating me as if I am a freak for loving a book where a woman would rather kill herself than be trapped in the role of mother and wife is proof alone that society’s expectations for the role of women are powerful indeed.

It was when I first read this book and also later when I read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, that I finally accepted the fact that perhaps I am a woman who never wants to be married or have children. It was a hard and confusing conclusion to come to, because I was so unsure as to if I really wanted children or if I only wanted children because that is what “we are supposed to do”. For many of us women who choose to be childless, every once in a while the “oh, you will eventually want them” begins to get under your skin and you sometimes begin to wonder what it is that you really want versus what society expects of you. The act of reading about a woman who came to the conclusion that she no longer wanted to be a mother or a wife and would rather kill herself than return to such a life was one of the most liberating experiences that I have ever experienced in my life.

As I sometimes sit and listen to women talk about their husbands and children, I am reminded of every time that I hear women talk about how they have no time for themselves or how they have to do most of the work at home and take care of the children. I don’t want to sound judgmental, but I often ask myself how many of the women are secretly frustrated with their lives or perhaps can’t imagine any other alternative.

I’m pretty sure that I am still the same woman who doesn’t want to get married or have children, but who knows what the future will bring as I get closer to the age of 40. Perhaps one day I will decide to have children, or perhaps will continue to remain childless. Two things are for certain: first, if I decide to not have children, The Awakening taught me a valuable lesson to embrace my nonconformity; and second, if I ever do decide to have children I need to be careful that my role as a mother, wife or lover doesn’t consume every aspect of myself so much that it effectively kills off any sense of my former self and the woman who I used to be.

Review written by Anarela

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Maria Ortiz-Cintron March 18, 2011 at 3:31 pm

How funny that you should mention this particular book and author. Just a week ago, my 14 year old daughter came home and told me about this book. She was made aware of it by her French teacher, who just happens to be Chopin’s granddaughter!! How’s that for crazy! The teacher shared with the class a bit about the book, and my daughter came home eager to share it with me, knowing all too well, it seemed to be my kind of book!

I agree with you, I think most people are missing the point. It goes much more beyond committing suicide over a man and leaving her kids behind. THere’s a whole psychology behind her actions, and THAT is what I think merits our attention.

Thanks for sharing!

Reply

Latina Fatale March 18, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Amazing! What a thing, to have her grand-daughter! I try to remind people that this was during the 1800s when many women weren’t independent enough to be able to choose who to marry. This man treated her like a crippled bird!

Reply

BellaVidaLetty March 18, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Sounds like a great book about the severe consequences that come about when women don’t have choices/freedoms.

Thanks for sharing and standing behind your opinion.

I just watched two movies with similar issues. Possession 2002 w/Paltrow & Aaron Eckhart when they dig into the past of two poets and a love that could not be.

And the French film Leaving 2009 directed by Catherine Corsini about a woman who dedicated her life to raising kids and then goes back into career later in life.

luv this site.

Reply

Latina Fatale March 18, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Going to check these out, sounds great!

Reply

Chantilly Patiño March 18, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Anarela,

When I was young I had similar thoughts about children and marriage…not suicide or running away, but I always felt like I didn’t want to be trapped by a man and lose my independence. I also didn’t want children because I just couldn’t see the value, I wasn’t attached. I think that growing up in a house where my parents didn’t love each other, barely reacted to us children and divorced by the time I was 10 left me hopeless towards married life. I didn’t believe that there could be anything worth while in it for a strong, driven woman like me. “A man is a burden, controls you, treats you bad…having children sets it in stone…you can’t leave once you have them” I thought.

Once I met my husband, things changed. I realized that yes, it was true that men often use up all of your strength and become a burden…but love can make a man do strange things. My husband wasn’t exactly a feminist’s dream when I met him and I’ve still got a lot of work to do! ;) But I wouldn’t trade my married life for the single life….or trade being a parent. They make me whole…and make my spirit soar. But, yes…at times I do feel weighed down by my family. Cleaning up after my hubby after I’ve told him again and again…catering non-stop to a toddler and often doing most of everything alone. While men are beginning to change, most of the burdens of life are still put off on the wife and mother. Sexism continues and wife’s and mom’s try to find ways to cope every day…through outlets like blogging, chatting online, girl’s night out…your choice.

I love my hubby and he helps a lot (sometimes) but I feel he does take advantage because of the roles that he expects for men and women. Without trying (even subconsciously) men put much of the burden on our shoulders.

Reply

Latina Fatale March 18, 2011 at 3:55 pm

I

Reply

Latina Fatale March 18, 2011 at 3:54 pm

I have to head to work so I will write some more response later, but thanks for the comments ladies!

I think that what is so powerful about this book is that in that era it wasn’t her choice to have children.It was expected of a woman of her status, class, etc. I’m sure that there are many women around the world who have children and maybe it wasn’t there choice. Now, I take issue with some privileged, educated, middle class /upper class/ or rich woman who has kids and then just shirks her responsibilities. But the whole aspect of some women just being forced into marriage and motherhood because it is what society, culture, class expects of them becomes very problematic!

Reply

Chantilly Patiño March 18, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Great points about the era and expectations. I think many forget what things were like for women of past generations. We obviously need to spend more time getting educated about it…this book is just one example of how we can understand what life must have been like for a woman during that time. Just wondering…have you read “The Yellow Wallpaper”? It’s a short, but the first thing that popped into my head when you mentioned this topic.

Reply

Latina Fatale March 19, 2011 at 1:06 am

Interesting that you mention “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Chantilly, because that was just about what I was going to get started writing next! Funny! That was more or less from the same era. I think that it’s important to note that the era was important, when women were less independent. But then again, if you think about it, we also had women who had to marry for reasons other than love or choice in the 1950s and even now.I don’t know, it makes me wonder how much has changed since the late 1800s in many cases, especially with women who might not have a lot of resources.

One of my good friends is putting together a website for feminist mothers and in preparation we are doing a book study about feminism and motherhood by Adrienne Rich. She writes exactly about what you were talking about, sometimes feeling weighed down or overwhelmed over the responsibilities of the burden seeming to fall on her even when the men help. I try to understand this, but I honestly can’t relate. Not that I’m judging anyone or anything, but it just really makes me feel sad to hear that. I think that is one of the main reasons that I have not had children, because I see this happening to so many of the women who I love. I do have a very great man though who would probably take be a primary caregiver because he sometimes jokes that the roles are reversed and he has to do most of the housework, etc for me.

I think that this type of situation though that you mention of women bearing the brunt of the work is different than the character in Chopin’s book. She didn’t really have to even work, etc because of her upper class status. She just realized that she was forced into a marriage with a man who treated her like a child, and she had never even realized it. She just had an awakening. Of course there is something very selfish about it all, but also something very awe inspiring and liberating about it all. It’s of course great to read about it, but if one of my family members or close friends just gave up on her kids like that, I would be as pissed as hell. So I think that what is so amazing about the book is that it’s just great to see a woman having an awakening!

I’m so glad that this book has sparked such dialogue. I never would have imagined!!

Reply

Geoff March 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Whenever this debate comes up, I get kind of confused. Isn’t feminism about giving choices?

If you don’t want to get married and have kids, you should be able to and not face any external repercussions or judgment for not being that kind of person. Some women aren’t cut out to be wives and mothers, in the same way that (arguably more) men aren’t cut out to be husbands and fathers.

But doesn’t that also mean that if a woman chooses to get married and have kids, that her choice to do that is just as valid as the choice of a career woman to follow her own personal dreams?

No one should be forced into the role of wife and mother, but in the same way, no one should be shamed for a choice to become those same things.

(Love the blog. Keep it up.)

Reply

Latina Fatale March 19, 2011 at 1:14 am

Yes, Geoff, that’s exactly what feminism should be about. Women should be free to make their own decisions as to whether they should have children or not. But the unfortunate reality is that many women who don’t have children or get married are often chastised by society, and sometimes women who choose to have children and get married are treated the same way by women who don’t have children. It’s very unfortunate, indeed. In my post specifically, I’m not hating on anyone who chooses to have children. I just don’t want to have children at the moment, and I have been treated often like a freak, or as if it is a passing fad for me. As a feminist I also often see many women who are mothers lose a sense of themselves because perhaps they bear the burden of the responsibilities. But then again there are some women who love being the primary caregiver. I mean no judgment by it towards other people, and I am just talking about my particular case because I am one of those women who either wasn’t made to have children, or maybe I’m a woman who will have a stay at home daddy. I can’t really say though because I don’t have kids. In the case of the book, Chopin was just painting an extreme portrait of many women in the past and possibly in the present who perhaps didn’t choose motherhood and marriage. Perhaps the norms of society are so strong that they never even considered an alternative, and then they one day woke up and realized it. There have been many cases of women being depressed, put into mental institutions, etc. I ASSUME that this is something that happened in the past, but honestly I wouldn’t doubt that it might still be happening today.

Reply

Maria Ortiz-Cintron March 18, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Pardon me, in my haste, I failed to correctly identify my daughter’s French teacher as Ms. Chopin’s Great Granddaughter, not granddaughter. lol…I was thinking way faster than I was typing!!

Reply

Latina Fatale March 19, 2011 at 1:15 am

What a treat! Is she still your daughters teacher? If so, you should ask your daughter to drill her for all the details about her! xoxo

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: