By Claire Vaye Watkins
- Published Feb. 5, 2020 Updated Feb. 27, 2020 (NYTimes.com)
Early in “The Awakening” — Kate Chopin’s great feminist novel of identity and self-consciousness, which still throbs with relevance more than 120 years after its publication — the heroine’s husband picks a fight. He has spent the evening at a casino and now it’s approaching midnight, but the card game has left Léonce “in high spirits, and very talkative.” He wakes his wife to gossip but she answers him sleepily, “with little half utterances.” Spurned, and still intent on rousing her, Léonce manufactures a fever for their sleeping son. When Edna dares doubt this, Léonce calls her a bad mother. She springs out of bed to check, while Léonce — no longer worried, if he ever actually was — enjoys his cigar. Soon, Mr. Pontellier is fast asleep, but “Mrs. Pontellier was by that time thoroughly awake.”
Awake to what? After the fight, Edna moves out to the balcony and weeps profusely: “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish.”
Whatever it is, it is indescribable, unfamiliar, vague. Yet also partly named: oppression, anguish. Edna edges into the uncharted territory of her own consciousness. She is beckoned — like Eve, like the women convened at Seneca Falls decades before, like Betty Friedan and Audre Lorde decades later, like Claudia Rankine today — to “use language to mark the unmarked.”
Awakening as a metaphor for accessing not only the unfamiliar part of one’s consciousness but the buried truth of our society has exploded into the mainstream thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement. On Jan. 9, 2016, in Baton Rouge — not so far from the novel’s setting of Grand Isle (or what’s left of Grand Isle after so many superstorms) — the activist DeRay Mckesson was arrested while protesting the extrajudicial execution of Alton Sterling by the police. Mckesson broadcast his arrest on Periscope, where viewers around the world watched him handcuffed by the police in a T-shirt reading “#StayWoke,” the millennial iteration of an adage that has bolstered the black community’s freedom fight since the black labor movement of the 1940s, as Kashana Cauley explored in The Believer. Historically, the phrase stay woke, Cauley wrote, “acknowledged that being black meant navigating the gaps between the accepted narrative of normality in America and our own lives.”
Innovative grammatical constructions like “stay woke” and “wokeness” powerfully evoke the ongoing struggle for justice embodied in Black Lives Matter and the movements that came before it, as well as those that followed, including the reinvigorated women’s movement and the swell of activism on the American left working for visibility, participation and self-determination of marginalized people at all levels of civic life. The echoes between this moment and the expanded consciousness represented by “The Awakening” reverberate so loudly they have been recently satirized by the poet Juliana Gray as “The Awokening.” At the risk of engaging in the kind of appropriation and dilution Cauley finds rightfully tiresome, today’s wokeness has a kindred spirit in “The Awakening.” Both emphasize omnipresent, if latent, wisdom.
Novels are neither recipes nor advice columns, yet it seems useful — at this moment when feminism yearns to outgrow its divisive metaphors, to correct for its hypocrisies and moral failings, and to resist cynical corporate co-opting that seeks to turn the movement into a marketing tool — to re-examine the transformation underway in a foundational book like “The Awakening.” Feminism endures when it embraces consciousness both within and without, becoming a cooperative struggle for justice across categories, what Kimberlé Crenshaw termed “intersectionality.” With this in mind, it seems to me urgent to read “The Awakening,” a bible of consciousness-raising for so many, and notice: What wakes us up?
In June 1899, a review of “The Awakening” in The Morning Times of Washington, D.C., concluded that “the agency of the ‘awakening’ is a man, Robert Le Brun.” In fact, as generations of readers have observed, the agent of Edna’s awakening is Edna herself: her body, her friends, her art, her time in nature. Edna’s awakening begins outdoors, an escape from the structures of patriarchy into the unbuilt landscapes of the sensual, sublime and the supernatural. Edna swims in the gulf, languishes in a hammock, escapes to the balcony, where “there was no sound abroad except the hooting of an old owl in the top of a water-oak, and the everlasting voice of the sea.”
She finds her own everlasting voice within spaces of sisterhood. Edna’s female friendships are fountains of encouragement for her artistic ambition, as well as sites of confession. Sitting by the sea with her uninhibited Creole friend, Madame Ratignolle, Edna can admit, if only to herself, her maternal ambivalence: “She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way.” Edna knows she is “not a mother-woman” like her radiant and ever-pregnant friend, not “some sensuous Madonna.” If Edna is not a Madonna then by patriarchy’s binary she must be a whore. So be it, Edna all but says, flinging herself into a breathless flirtation with Robert.
But Robert is far from the sole object of Edna’s desire. Their liaison eschews monogamy in more ways than the obvious infidelity, taking as lovers the moon, the gulf and its spirits. In the moonlit sea Edna “walks for the first time alone, boldly and with overconfidence” into the gulf, where swimming alone is “as if some power of significant import had been given to control the working of her body and soul.” Solitude is essential to Edna’s realization that she has never truly had control of her body and soul. (The novel’s original title was “A Solitary Soul.”) Among Edna’s more defiant moments is when she refuses to budge from her hammock, despite paternalistic reprimand from both Robert and Léonce, who each insist on chaperoning, as if in shifts. Edna’s will blazes up even in this tiny, hanging room of her own, as Virginia Woolf would famously phrase it nearly 30 years later. Within the silent sanctuary of the hammock, gulf spirits whisper to Edna. By the next morning she has devised a way to be alone with Robert. Chopin’s novel of awakenings and unapologetic erotic trespass is in full swing.
Upon her return home to New Orleans, Edna trades the social minutiae expected of upper-crust Victorian white women — receiving callers and returning their calls — for painting, walking, gambling, dinner parties, brandy, anger, aloneness and sex. She shucks off tradition and patriarchal expectations in favor of art, music, nature and her bosom friends. These open her up, invite her to consider her self, her desires. One friend offers the tattoo-worthy wisdom that “the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” Is Edna such a bird? This is the novel’s central question, one it refuses to answer definitively. Chopin gives Edna the freedom to feel and yet not know herself. The women in the novel draw forth Edna’s intuition — they take the sensual and braid it with the intellectual. Eventually, the body and the mind are one for Edna.
“The Awakening” is a book that reads you. Chopin does not tell her readers what to think. Unlike Flaubert, Chopin declines to explicitly condemn her heroine. Critics were especially unsettled by this. Many interpreted Chopin’s refusal to judge Edna as the author’s oversight, and took it as an open invitation to do so themselves. This gendered knee-jerk critical stance that assumes less intentionality for works made by women is a phenomenon that persists today. Especially transgressive was Edna’s candor about her maternal ambivalence, the acuity with which Chopin articulated the fearsome dynamism of the mother’s bond with her children: “She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart, she would sometimes forget them.” This scandalized — and continues to scandalize — readers because the freedom of temporarily forgetting your children is to find free space in your mind, for yourself, for painting, stories, ideas or orgasm. To forget your children and remember yourself was a revolutionary act and still is.
Edna Pontellier does what she wants with her body — she has good sex at least three times in the book. But the more revolutionary act is the desire that precedes the sex. Edna, awakened by the natural world, invited by art and sisterhood to be wholly alive, begins to notice what she wants, rather than what her male-dominated society wants her to want. Edna’s desire is the mechanism of her deprogramming. The heroine’s sensual experience is also spiritual, and political. Political intuition begins not in a classroom but far before, with bodily sensation, as Sara Ahmed argues in her incendiary manifesto “Living a Feminist Life”: “Feminism can begin with a body, a body in touch with a world.” A body in touch with a world feels oppression like a flame, and recoils. For gaslit people — women, nonbinary and queer people, people of color — people who exist in the gaps Cauley describes between the accepted narrative of American normal and their own experience, pleasure and sensation are not frivolous or narcissistic but an essential reorientation. The epiphany follows the urge. Feeling her own feelings, thinking her own thoughts, Edna recalibrates her compass to point not to the torture of patriarchy but to her own pleasure, a new north.
Like Edna, Kate Chopin did what she wanted with her mind, whatever the cost, and it cost her almost everything. In 1899 “The Awakening” earned her a piddling $102 in royalties, about $3,000 in today’s money. Shortly after its publication the now unequivocally classic novel fell out of print. Chopin’s next book contract was canceled. Chopin died at age 54 from a brain hemorrhage after a long, hot day spent at the St. Louis World’s Fair with her son. Her publishing career lasted about 14 years. And yet she established herself among the foremothers of 20th-century literature and feminist thought. She showed us that patriarchy’s prison can kill you slow or kill you fast, and how to feel your way out of it. She admired Guy de Maupassant as “a man who had escaped from tradition and authority,” and we will forever argue whether Edna is allowed this escape, whether she shows us not the way but a way to get free. As for Chopin, there is no doubt that she was free on the page, free to let her mind unfurl. None of this is accident or folly, not caprice nor diary. She knew what she was doing. She was swimming farther than she had ever swum before.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS is the author of the story collection “Battleborn” and the novel “Gold Fame Citrus.” This essay is adapted from her introduction to “The Awakening: And Other Stories,” forthcoming from Penguin Classics.
(Contributed by Michael Kelly, H.W.)