Sparrow's Reviews > The Awakening

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
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's review
Mar 08, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: classic-or-cannonical, needs-a-sassy-gay-friend-real-bad, audio, reviewed
Recommended for: Kelly
Read from March 23 to 30, 2013 , read count: 3

In a hearing I observed once, the husband testified that he had tried to have his wife served with his petition for divorce in the Costco parking lot. The wife went running across the parking lot to avoid service, and her eight- and ten-year-old kids ran after her, dodging traffic and jumping into the wife’s car as it screeched out of the parking spot. The husband filmed them on his iPhone, shouting, “You’ve been served! You’ve been served!”

The judge commented that it was troubling to watch a video of the kids running through a dangerous parking lot and asked the woman why she ran. The woman replied, “I don’t believe in divorce, your honor.”

The judge said, “Well, ma’am, it’s not like the Easter Bunny: it exists.”

There is that point in a woman’s life when she wakes up suspecting that the fairy tales she grew up with were not telling the whole story, that there is life beyond the sunset at the end of the movie and that life is not easier than life before the sunset. And, there are any number of stories in which that anvil falls on a character’s head. Tolstoy writes the cautionary morality-tale version in Anna Karenina, Flaubert writes the pastoral tragedy version in Madame Bovary, and Elizabeth Gilbert writes the self-involved douche version in Eat Pray Love, to name a few. But, then, The Awakening. This one is my favorite. This is the beautiful one.

For example, there is this:

"Do you know Mademoiselle Reisz?" she asked irrelevantly.

"The pianist? I know her by sight. I've heard her play."

"She says queer things sometimes in a bantering way that you don't notice at the time and you find yourself thinking about afterward."

"For instance?"

"Well, for instance, when I left her to-day, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. `The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.'”

All the women in this book are birds: clucking hens, sheltering their brood; decorative birds in cages; and Edna growing wings and trying to fly away. I love the image of women as birds because I think it is so vivid in showing a woman’s disconnect with society. Just the image of a bird in a cage is something out of place, confined where it should be free. It is unwelcome and unnatural out of the cage, but unable to leave. The movie Moulin Rouge uses the image, too. Where Ewan McGreggor’s character is the traditional Orpheus, whose gift is his song, Nicole Kidman’s is the woman as a bird. “Oh, we will,” she says to her own pet bird, “We will fly, fly away from here!” I don’t know where this metaphor originated (sirens?) or how it became what it is in these stories, but I think it is poignant.

(view spoiler)

I care about people’s relationships a lot. Probably too much at times. Relationships seem like these delicate, mysterious aliens to me, and we should whisper around them so we don’t scare them away. That is one of the main reasons I hate weddings – because so often you have this new, fragile relationship, and what do people decide to do to it? Smash it with the sledgehammer of planning a giant event that symbolizes the most bitter and painful emotional vulnerabilities of everyone in the general vicinity. The relationship might be beautiful and strong going into a wedding, but after getting piled with the emotional baggage of the families and friends involved, it is something else entirely. It is just off the rack, but threadbare already from wear and strain.

And a marriage, a wedding, is not a relationship. A marriage is a contract. A wedding is an event. A divorce is a dissolution of a contract. A relationship is something else. A relationship exists or doesn’t exist outside of any events or licensing. Sometimes a wedding is too heavy for a relationship to bear, and sometimes a marriage is too heavy for it. It often looks to me, when people get engaged, like they are trying to subscribe to a certain type of relationship and the engagement is the subscription form. But, as far as I can tell, relationships are wild and can’t be subscribed. And, nobody knows how strong they are but the people in the relationship, and sometimes not even them.

But, also, if you are Edna, if you are living your life, going along, and then you suddenly realize that you are not living your life, but that you are in some kind of costume and acting in a play: devastation. None of your relationships exist, but the people around you have relationships with the character you played. And there is no going back. You've already betrayed them, and you didn't even know it, and they've already betrayed you by not realizing you weren't you. When you start realizing who you are, there is too much momentum to turn around. You are already out of the cage and flying away, whether your wings are strong or weak, whether the wind is for you or against you.

In Kate Chopin’s world, I think, divorce was like the Easter Bunny, like the sunset that a woman could swim towards but not see beyond. The end of this story, to me, is a rejection of that world, which held nothing for Edna. It is a demand for something else. It is sad, yes, because it is appalling that there was nothing for her, but it is not wrong or unfair, I think. While I do not think the story is cautionary to women, I do think it is cautionary to the world. It says, what you hold for us, with your rigid, gendered propriety and your cages, is not enough. We are more, so the world needs to be more.

And I think it has become more. I think, as a woman, that while I was funneled toward Edna’s sad, empty life, I have been able to reject it, strong wings or not, and decide to be a real girl with real relationships, not just the meaningless façade of engagement and marriage and divorce. There are other options now because of books like this. It is not easy or perfect, but it is something real, something that exists.
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Reading Progress

50.0% ""It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier's mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world."" 2 comments
02/05/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

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Dolors I need to reread this book,I'm afraid I didn't understand Edna's motivations back then when I first read this novel years ago. Maybe too young? Probably not focused.
And your review oozes with wisdom and understanding Sparrow. I think it won't be the last time I read it. Brilliant job.

Sparrow Thank you! The first time I read it, I was in high school, and I thought it was a bitter, stingy old book. I didn't get it. I thought that if Edna didn't have a fairy tale ending, it was through some fault of hers, not through a fault in the fairy tale. But, then, I read it again after college, and I fell in love with it. I think that life outside of fairy tales is much more wonderful, but it is less tidy.

But, maybe there is something helpful about the fairy tale idea when people are younger. Maybe? Like, maybe we need a short-term goal to shoot for, rather than taking in the idea that life is always just going to be one insurmountable obstacle after another? Ultimately, I feel more prepared, though, when I think of it as an endless series of insurmountable obstacles.

Anyway, definitely worth the reread.

message 3: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! I don't like birthdays for the reasons you state you don't like weddings. Well, I don't like my birthday. Other people's can be okay. I like cake. :)

But I do like weddings. Maybe because it's an event that seems far removed from me, like a bar mitzvah, something that can't happen to me in the stressful form I see happen with some others. And, I like the cake.

Sparrow Haha. I don't like cake very much, so I don't even have that to redeem birthdays and weddings. I love birthdays, as log as there's not a big event made out of them.

message 5: by Tamara (new) - added it

Tamara Beautiful, beautiful review, Sparrow. I haven't read the book, but your review makes me want to! I especially love this part, "And there is no going back. You've already betrayed them, and you didn't even know it, and they've already betrayed you by not realizing you weren't you. When you start realizing who you are, there is too much momentum to turn around. You are already out of the cage and flying away, whether your wings are strong or weak, whether the wind is for you or against you." SO lovely.

Sparrow Thank you! It's a really, really beautiful book. It's impossible to do it justice.

Dolors Ha, Sparrow! Wisdom oozing from your words again. I don't know what it is, maybe the idealized idea of life, or naïvete, or simply lack of broadened views, but when one is young it's easier to categorize and simplify things.
That's what makes rereading books such an intriguing experience. The books remain the same but we do not (thinking of a conversation I had with a friend about Doris Lessing's The golden notebook" and discussing how experience changed the perception of the book completely)

message 8: by Mary Jo (new) - added it

Mary Jo Cee Here is another book I must read this summer, after your exquisite review. I will sit in the rocker by the parrot cages and feed sunflower seeds to them at the end of every chapter.

Weddings rock in my world; funerals not so much.

Sparrow Thanks, you guys! Good luck with the read/reread!

Bonnie Jean This was a beautiful review. I really disliked The Awakening when I read it in college, but I am not entirely sure that it is the fault of the book. I was an English major, and by pure chance, the lineup of classes I took that semester had me reading Madame Bovary, The Coquette, Daisy Miller, The Awakening, and Anna Karenina, among other things, all in the same semester, and as a result I became really and truly sick of the Oppressed Woman Who Dies storyline. Thanks to your wonderful review, I'm inspired to give this one another try. :)

Sparrow It is a troubling theme, right? I kind of wanted to have some more developed thoughts about it, but I feel pretty ambivalent about it. Like, on the one hand, I totally get it. It's like that part in Eddie Izzard Dressed to Kill when he is talking about the Anglican church's approach to religion as "Cake or DEATH." "Oh, I'll take cake, please." I can find the clip when I'm not at work anymore.

Anyway, even though my own life isn't even an example of this, I can see how it is hard to think of a woman's life as anything but "Happily Ever After OR DEATH!!"

But, at the same time, my life really isn't an example of that, nor have I ever seen an example of Happily Ever After, especially not one in marriage, so it's funny that the mental block about it makes so much sense to me.

Nenia *the flagrant liberal* Campbell I love your sassy-gay-best-friend shelf. It made me smile.

Sparrow ha! Thanks!

Sylvia I liked your review much better than the book. Your writing has energy and great insights. Chopin's storytelling is tentative and too relaxed. I did love the passage you highlighted--a rare instance of beauty in an otherwise bland book.

Sparrow Thank you! I didn't like it my first time, but every time after has been wonderful. TWSS.

message 16: by Sylvia (last edited Aug 20, 2014 06:47PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Sylvia We discussed it this evening and a participant said the same thing. He'd read it 13 years ago and didn't care for it, but upon reading it a second time, thought it was wonderful. He loved the way it unfolded and thought the symbolism was strong. Oh well, maybe I'll read it again in a few years and change my mind.

Sparrow Yeah, that was my experience. I hope you like it later!

Connor I couldn't agree more. I read this in high school unprepared to have it stick with me for years to come. While my classmates argued that Edna is an idiot and the book is stupid, I sat there frustrated. This woman ended her life because the only place she felt free of the boundaries and restrictions of society was embraced within the arms of the ocean and sinking to her death. How they all refused and were incapable of understanding her rationale is beyond me. I read this book often when I need guidance in life. The prose is absolutely gorgeous and the book contains messages that I will carry with me forever.

message 19: by Lis (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lis Great review of an unforgettable book, thank you Sparrow

Sparrow Thanks!

message 21: by Domino88 (new)

Domino88 What a great and eloquent review Sparrow!

Sparrow Thank you!

Ashley Vayal What an amazing review, Sparrow! You were able to put into words my strong emotions toward this book. There is much to learn from it!

Sparrow Thanks so much! It's wonderful.

message 25: by Jane (new)

Jane thanks for the review , will take a look at this book now

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