* possible spoilers * I only read The Awakening from this collection, which is available on Project Gutenberg (sans introduction), but I hope to return* possible spoilers * I only read The Awakening from this collection, which is available on Project Gutenberg (sans introduction), but I hope to return to the short stories. The prose is elegant yet efficient, realism that doesn't mind being poetic or sarcastic (so I thought) at times. I don't think this novel represents reflects radical feminism ideas, either for the time or beyond, but I certainly get the impression it was unique for its time, throws dominant and limited views of women into question, and doesn't try to moralize about actions (infidelity) even the most progressive thinkers probably would have balked at. The latter is probably why the novel got widespread negative reviews at the time. Edna Pontellier, while she may seem in line with famous nineteenth-century adulterous women who commit suicide (thinking especially of Flaubert's Madame Bovary--which Chopin probably knew well and loved--and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina), stands as a unique and compelling character who, even if you don't feel sympathetic toward her or not (and one could argue that the narrator casts her either sympatheticlaly or unsympathetically), I think one can at least say she fits the great but tragic type, again of nineteenth-century fiction (thinking of Melville's Ahab or Hawthorne's Hester Prynne).
I appreciate the subtleties and nuances of the characters and events that unfold. I'm also intrigued by the fact that this may be the first nineteenth-century book I've read with more interesting female characters than male. Or at least one of the few. Even those that have a number of major female characters, they often seem to caricatured, unpleasant, or undeveloped. Edna's friends, Adèle Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, are as interesting as Edna, whereas none of the male characters--Edna's husband (Léonce), lovers (Robert and Alcée), Robert's brother (Vincent), Mr. Ratignolle, or Edna's children (barely described at all)--have much to offer in way of subtlety or je ne sais quoi Perhaps the only one I can think of is Dr. Mandelet, a congenial man who understands more than he lets on, and like Madamoiselle Reisz, seems the only one who wants to try to understand/befriend Edna without judging her or telling her what to do. Unfortunately, his role comes late and is a fairly minor one.
Other than the quality of prose and complexity of characters, the novel's depiction of Louisiana (New Orleans and Grand Isle) and Creole culture is compelling, giving the setting a life of its own. Thankfully, she doesn't include any dialect, but the dialogue is peppered with French phrases, and the narration with French nouns. Sometimes this annoys me, but I had a hard copy Modern Library College Edition which includes a list of the phrases and their meanings, and my Kindle helped with defining the nouns. According to Nina Baym's 1980 introduction in the Modern Library edition (quite dated now but useful for general purposes), before The Awakening, Chopin was known for her "local color" short stories, and that certainly comes out in the novel. (Baym discusses her other novel, At Fault, disparagingly, but as another story of infidelity, with the betrayed wife an alcoholic, it sounds rather intriguing to me.)
Not sure what to make of Chopin's use of race. There are a few "quandroons" and "mulattos" in the novel, most of whom are servants and barely characterized. The characters (and perhaps narration?) exhibit a somewhat condescending and casually racist attitude toward them. "Darkies" is used both by characters and the narrators. One could argue this is simply an accurate depiction of race relations in New Orleans, but it's hard not to read use of words such as "darkies" as a kind of dismissive attitude toward blacks, at best.
I'm interested in the disability implications of the novel. Is Edna "mad"? Clinically depressed? Or simply driven to desperation by sexist restrictions and repressive social norms? Or, as some twenty-first century readers have even responded, simply selfish? At times, Edna's husband wonders if she is mentally unbalanced because she acts outside his expectations, and I'm hesitant to "diagnose" a woman's behavior as mental illness simply because it goes outside of gendered norms. Yet, certain passages about Edna's deep sense of aloneness, unhappiness, and an incomprehensible dread or dissatisfaction with life, let alone the fact of her suicide, would seem to at least suggest some mental disorder, perhaps depression. I'm not sure if Chopin intended that--although based on her biography, it could be a reflection of her own mental struggles. According to Baym, she struggled with depression and ill health in the aftermath of her husband and mother's deaths years before publishing any of her writing. In fact, Baym implies that Chopin's writing career, which didn't begin until she was 36, began as a kind of therapy. Of course, there's been some confusion about Chopin's biography, shown by the fact that Baym (and a number of other places) cite her year of birth as 1851 (it's the year shown on her tombstone). However, the correct year appears to be 1850, as a French scholar has recently shown.
Finally, the title itself provokes contemplation. What is the "awakening" Edna comes into, given her suicide? If it's sexuality, is that implying that conscious female sexuality leads to death? Or only in a sexist society? Or is the awakening into Edna's sense of being in control of her own life, of not following what others say--her suicide the culmination of realizing that despite such control, her sense of disconnection will always fail to fulill her? Or is the awakening something more unnameable, perhaps related to a Kierkegaardian existential dread of freedom and choice, but that we cannot quite conceptualize? The title seems a positive one--"awakening" implies a movement from a passive, constrained state to a more active, unencumbered one--and yet no such epiphanic reading seems to apply. Which I think leaves us with an enigma, a mystery that much good fiction should leaves us with. ...more
A deaf stranger boards a steamboat with a mysterious trunk. During the course of the voyage, a number of odd characters will accost the passengers, stA deaf stranger boards a steamboat with a mysterious trunk. During the course of the voyage, a number of odd characters will accost the passengers, stealing their confidences (and money), defending the principles of trust and charity. Exposing the hypocrisies of a multitude of American "types" - the Southern gentleman, the Northern scholar, the avowed philanthropist, the rugged adventurer. He also manages to throw the notion of identity itself into question.
Interesting from a disability angle because two of the confidence man's disguises rely on disability (the deaf man and the crippled free black). Although one might think this reinforces the idea that those with disabilities fake their conditions for purposes of money or privileges, it does more to attack the supposed niceties of American virtue, and the way we respond to those in need. There's even a scene where a man with a limp tells the confidence man that although he received his disability through a random accident, he tells people that he is a veteran and received his injury during wartime, because no one will give him money for just being a random disabled person in need....more
Obviously Huxley was brilliant, and this book is filled with what were, at the time, brilliant predictions about the technological and social "advanceObviously Huxley was brilliant, and this book is filled with what were, at the time, brilliant predictions about the technological and social "advances" that were in development. But I have to say that, I do not share the widespread appreciation and praise people so often have for this book. It sits near the top of many "best books of all time" or "x # books you have to read before you die lists." I love dystopic fiction and Fahrenheit 451 was one of the first novels to really make me feel that "the top of my head had been blown off," to quote Dickinson.
But there's not a single likable or compelling character in this book, little to no plot, bare minimum of structure, organization, or stylistic flourish. The text is either big chunks of exposition, big chunks of description, or big chunks of dialogue, which make some sections extreme hard to plod through. In short, nothing I could really enjoy or hold on to, except the predictions of a bleak future if we don't change our ways.
The society that is depicted here is disturbing, at times making it painful to read about it, despite how "happy" and ordered it's supposed to be. And that of course was Huxley's intention. But without anything in the way of narrative elements to hold onto, I gritted my teeth through it mainly because of its iconic status. If it had been written by some unknown whose book I just happened to pick up, I probably would have given up on it halfway through, if not before.
This may have worked better as a satirical essay or something, but not as a novel....more