I was assigned Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) twice in college, once in American Literature II out of a big Norton anthology, and later in a class on Southern fiction writers. This was, I now know, the period just after the novel’s “rediscovery,” its reclamation by feminist critics from the dismissive label of “local color,” so lots of teachers were assigning it and discovering how it worked in class.
Why Kate Chopin, with her fiction about New Orleans, was a regionalist, a “local color” writer, while Gustave Flaubert, with his fiction about rural Normandy, was not, is a mystery to me.
I poke at Flaubert because The Awakening is a first-rate example of an American trying to “do” Flaubert, in fact the purest example I know. Long-time, and I hope medium-time, and surely even a few short-time readers of Wuthering Expectations know that I am not referring to the adultery plots of these novels but to questions of style. Kate Chopin understood the style of Flaubert, and most importantly understood it the way I understand it.
Chopin tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a Kentucky girl who has married into New Orleans society. Now she is 28 and something is off. She has never thought of herself as an especially good wife or mother, not compared to some of the women in her circle. But as the novel begins, something else happens. The wives are at the beach, on a Gulf Coast island, accompanied by idle young men from respectable families, which is not a violation of New Orleans mores, but is trouble for Pontellier, who is an outsider.
Out on these islands, away from her husband, at the side of a young rake, something happens to Pontellier, the awakening of the title. In Chapter 13, it is literal, the aftermath of a long nap.
She was very hungry. No one was there. But there was a cloth spread upon the table that stood against the wall, and a cover was laid for one, with a crusty brown loaf and a bottle of wine beside the plate. Edna bit a piece from the brown loaf, tearing it with her strong, white teeth. She poured some of the wine into the glass and drank it down. Then she went softly out of doors, and plucking an orange from the low-hanging bough of a tree, threw it at Robert, who did not know she was awake and up.
An illumination broke over his whole face when he saw her and joined her under the orange tree.
“How many years have I slept?” she inquired.
It is as if Pontellier is passing through a religious initiation, in which she is, symbolically, Eve – that orange, or perhaps she is joining the Freemasons. All of this looks more symbolically blatant on re-reading. Edna makes a series of decisions that declare her independence from her conventional role; the later adulterous affair is merely a symptom, as is drinking a beer by herself.
She rummaged in the larder and brought forth a slice of “Gruyère” and some crackers. She opened a bottle of beer which she found in the icebox. (Ch. 24)
For some reason that bit has stuck with me for twenty-five years, perhaps because it involves cheese.
No one understands what has happened to Pontellier.
“Has she,” asked the Doctor, with a smile, “has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women – super-spiritual superior being? My wife has been telling me about them.” (Ch. 22)
No, not that. Still, this cannot end well. What room does Edna have to move, to do anything on her own?
That is more or less the novel I saw the first time I read it. The first layer.