Monday, 27 April 2015

Review: 'The Awakening' by Kate Chopin

There are moments in your life where you're browsing through a bookstore and you find a book that you simple can't not buy. I had a moment like that when I found this copy of The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Not only is the cover stunning, but this book is also on my 100 Classics list.

Pub. Date: 2014
Publisher: Canongate
First published in 1899, this beautiful, brief novel so disturbed critics and the public that it was banished for decades afterward. Now widely read and admired, "The Awakening" has been hailed as an early vision of woman's emancipation. This sensuous book tells of a woman's abandonment of her family, her seduction, and her awakening to desires and passions that threatened to consumer her. 
Originally entitled "A Solitary Soul, " this portrait of twenty-eight-year-old Edna Pontellier is a landmark in American fiction, rooted firmly in the romantic tradition of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Here, a woman in search of self-discovery turns away from convention and society, and toward the primal, from convention and society, and toward the primal, irresistibly attracted to nature and the senses.
The Awakening is recognized as one of the earliest landmarks for feminist literature. Part of what made it special for its time was that it describes women's issues without being condescending about them. Chopin gets right to the heart of the issues for many women in her time and does so through beautiful prose. Even nowadays, a novel completely dedicated to a woman's spiritual growth, without it being a guide book or a 'how to be happy'-kind of manual, is rare. With The Awakening Chopin unconsciously opened the way for a lot of female authors to express themselves and express women's problems in their own right. Chopin was raised in a house with three generations of independent women: her widowed mother, her grand-mother and a great grand-mother. Herself widowed early in life with six children depending on her, it seems fate that Chopin wrote a novel such as The Awakening

Although the basic plot of The Awakening seems relatively straight-forward, there is a lot of intricacy in it. The idea of a woman awakening, realizing how restrained she is and how free she could be is hard to explain without sounding either over the top or melodramatic. The beauty of The Awakening lies in the fact that Edna's awakening is completely natural. The awareness that she gains of herself as an independent human being is one which most people nowadays can easily relate to. However, for her time it was something unusual to dedicate a whole novel to. I thought I'd share a beautiful passage with you which showcases Chopin's brilliant writing style.
'There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day.' p.144

As you may be able to gather from the passage above, Chopin's writing style is very descriptive while remaining realistic. The focus on the novel lies on human behaviour and how that shows the complexity of social hierarchy and relationships. As such, Chopin can't rely on telling the reader how her characters "feel". She has to show us. She does this by tapping into roles which everyone is familiar with, those of the mother and wife. She also brings in her own experiences of the Creole lifestyle, however, which adds a new layer of restriction onto her female character yet also allows for the reader to see two different cultures and their respective rules next to each other. On a side note, casting her characters as being descended from France allowed her to get away with her writing since she was describing characters and lifestyles that could be put aside as "foreign".

Censored after its release, The Awakening was considered immoral by many of its, predominantly male, critics due to its depiction of female sexuality and Edna's rejection of stereotypes. On the other hand, there were also positive reviews which hailed Chopin's novel as ground-breaking. I myself have always been interested in books which seem to cross this contemporary boundary  being considered right and wrong. On the one hand they highlight contemporary social issues and are commended for that, but on the other hand they cause a lot of furor and arguments. Especially the idea of a woman abandoning her husband and children was very controversial and led to a lot of discussion. The reason literature is so fascinating to me is exactly because of this quality that books have, to influence people, to change their minds and to inform them. The Awakening is one of those novels, one which can make its reader take a moment to really think and consider. And not just women. It is a novel for those who are alive and painfully aware of it.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

Chopin's The Awakening is a great novel in many different ways. Not only is it lyrically beautiful in its descriptions, it is interesting and engaging. Despite being written over a hundred years ago, some of the novel's topics are still relevant and fascinating. I'd recommend this to readers of realist fiction and women's fiction. 


  1. Ooooo sounds like a novel you have to really think about, even long after you have finished reading. Sounds like a good read. Thanks for sharing :)

    1. I definitely have been thinking about it and still am! Thanks for commenting :)

  2. That really is a great cover. I would have bought it too.

    1. The swirl of the shell really draws you in, doesn't it? Thanks for commenting :)

  3. That cover really is wonderful! Somehow I've managed to not read this book even though it has been lurking on my shelves for many years. I studied The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman at uni and every critical text either compared it to The Awakening or mentioned it in some way. If it's worth five universes I think I'd best get cracking and read it!

    1. I read The Yellow Wallpaper recently and although the texts are really different I can totally see why they'd be compared: they're both ground-breaking, for their time and now. Definitely give it a try! Thanks for commenting :)