One day at the office, I saw a sticky note pinned to my friend’s cubicle wall. It read, “Only a life lived for oneself, is a life worthwhile.” Although, this quote contradicts what Einstein once said about living for others, it reminded me why a classic I read recently is still relevant today.

Book: The Awakening

Author: Kate Chopin

Publisher: Dover Thrift Editions, 1899

Genre: Fiction

The Awakening by Kate Chopin is a quintessence of early feminist fiction. Published in 1899, it is a story revolving around personal and sexual freedom for women. This book is an eye-opener for anyone living like an imposter, pressured by society to suppress their individuality. It is especially relevant for women, as even today, it is often taken for granted that a young woman’s priority must be marriage and having children.

The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is a somewhat well-to-do married woman. Her husband is a jovial businessman, who is occasionally rude to her. They have two children. One summer, she begins to see her position in the universe as a human being. She starts becoming aware of the recurring oppression of her outwardly-ideal and inwardly-stifling marriage, instead of dismissing it. Her will awakens into resistance with the help of a series of triggers including her new found fascination with romantic melodies, a passion for swimming in the sea, and her blossoming desire for a charming man named Robert Lebrun. She goes on a journey of solitude and self-realization. She starts to eschew false relationships, ideas and other limitations, as she uncompromisingly follows her own heart. She begins to reject the limiting roles of a housewife and a mother as she awakens to her sense of self.

Something that really drew me in as a reader is the treatment of the theme of solitude and how it is essential to creativity and self-expression. Edna’s hunger for liberation makes her travel on an unusual path that is solitary to say the least. She wants to be completely independent, relinquishing a comfortable life in exchange for freedom. What I admire about this book is how liberation and solitude are two things tied so close together. If you live in a society where solitude is stigmatized, you will be constantly surrounded by people, and your importance will be determined by the role that you play in their lives. Attached to that role are expectations. None of the expectations and duties laid out for Edna is particularly out-of-line for her time and place. The problem is the set of patriarchal assumptions behind these narrow expectations, that go as far as assuming that a woman who deviates from her prescribed gender role needs medical attention.

What I like about Edna is how unwavering her resolve is. She knows what she wants, and does not settle for less. Till the very end she kept me guessing – Will she relinquish her independence for the sake of her children? Or will she go ahead and chase her dreams, living for herself alone?

One moment that makes this book stand out is when Edna says to one of her closest friends,

I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.

 

This book has a fairly large set of negative reviews, which is frustrating but not surprising. Any book that is about a woman’s tenacious drive towards her own success and happiness after a lifetime of legal oppression, is bound to be labelled selfish by some, even in this day. Some readers are, no doubt, bothered by Edna’s abandonment of her children. I hope they didn’t fail to see that her husband is equally responsible for abandoning their children. He limits his role as a father to performing minor tasks like buying them bonbons, peanuts and gifts. He also lectures his wife on how they should be raised without playing an active role in raising them.

The novel reaches a pivotal point when Edna says,

The years that are gone seem like dreams-if one might go on sleeping and dreaming-but to wake up and find-oh! well! Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.

 

The Awakening is not preachy and is written from Edna’s unique point of view. Although it doesn’t speak on behalf of every woman, it can speak to every woman going through even a fragment of what Edna experiences. It is about adultery without being sexual. Although it may have been deemed scandalous in the nineteenth century, it wouldn’t feel so to a reader in the twenty-first century. On the contrary, there is a beauty and innocence in the way this story unfolds.

The ending made me ask myself a few questions – Does freedom have a cost, and if so how much are we willing to pay? Can a person be happy while being a part of any system? Is separating ourselves from the system all it takes to be free of oppression? Can we ever be completely free as we continue to exist in this world, succeeding in eschewing every single thing that holds us back? In Kate Chopin’s time, probably not. But in this day, my hopes are high. This book will stay in your mind, reminding you that perhaps it is better to wake up, after all.

Author’s note: The hours I spent on this delicious book were all worth it. I am eternally grateful to my Goodreads friend Emma for suggesting The Awakening to me. This book, had an effect on me akin to that of The Colour Purple, another early feminist masterpiece. It made me stronger in my resolve to be conscious of my choices, in a patriarchal society that still rewards women for sacrifices, and demonizes them for selfishness.

Featured Image Credit: A still from the audio book

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