I re-read books. Sometimes because they are assigned to me a second time. More often, it is to make sure I know everything my students might ask about. A few I’ve re-read because they were just S.O. G.O.O.D! (The Bronze Horseman Trilogy by Paullina Simons!) I know there are tons of books out there that I could be reading for the first time, but I know I’ll never get to all of them, and I know some books need to be re-read. Like Catcher in the Rye… you have to read that as an adolescent and then again as an adult. It completely changes how you relate to Holden, whether you want to be his best friend or murder his whiny ass.
I forced myself to re-read The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I don’t intend to teach it. I hated it the first time around. But it’s short, and I felt like I should try it again as an adult to see if it made any more sense to me.
It was assigned to me as summer reading in 1997 when I was 15. We also had to read Wuthering Heights and Fahrenheit 451 that summer. I can’t be totally sure, but I think I read Chopin first. I do know that I was in SoCal on my reward trip to Hollywood for doing well in my freshman year because mom wrote a note in the margins about a restaurant reservation. I think I read it before Bronte just because I’m not sure I would’ve finished it if I picked it up after meeting Heathcliff. My 15-year-old self (and my 36-year-old self) are forever taken by his Bryonic brooding.
Sidebar: I could write thousands of pages of how reading Wuthering Heights at 15 was one of the worst things I’ve ever done in terms of my relationships. I completely blame literature. That said, it is a masterclass in literary technique, and I have daydreams about adapting it to the screen because not one of the dozen film/TV makers who have tackled it have gotten it right.
It was before southern accents and green eyes got all my defenses up, so my hatred for Chopin’s work wasn’t due to its setting. Besides, I don’t really have a problem with Louisiana; it’s Alabama that’s cursed (except for that Waffle House bathroom where I conceived a child with John Ma… oh wait, don’t believe everything you read on the internet in 2002 and 2003… any time after that, sure. Internet = totally true). It was also before my own suicide attempt, so my contempt for Edna just giving up in the end came from a place without empathy.
Another sidebar: Southern accents and green eyes from Alabama are subjects for another time, but they’re connected in a way because of Robert’s “I love you, but I can’t be with you” nonsense and ruining myself with Heathcliff that same summer before letting other non-fiction people get a chance to do even more damage a few years later.
But re-reading The Awakening now, I feel remarkably similar about the whole novel. I’ve been in love and had that love returned in an incomplete way that left me feeling empty, like Edna and Robert. That’s not even what made me want to end my life, so I can’t stir much empathy for her there. I have a better understanding of feminism now, so I can appreciate her struggle to be a complete human unto herself, a concept which in the late 1800s would’ve been earth-shattering. In fact, I love A Doll’s House by Ibsen, which is set in the same time period and deals with that exact idea. I still don’t like Chopin’s take. I still think Edna swimming off into death is a stupid idea and a stupid ending. What point does that make? Is Edna so fragile that Robert loving her but telling her he won’t be with her is enough to end her life? Yeah, the prospect of divorce wouldn’t have suited either, but I picture her husband as a Torvald type who would keep up appearances outside of their home. He’d already made plans to do that to account for Edna moving house while he was away. And if it’s a true awakening to learn that she IS a complete human in her own right, then what a fucking WASTE to immediately end her new existence! FURY!
Okay, so I still hate The Awakening. I’ll never teach it because “Story of an Hour,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and A Doll’s House do a better job making what I assume its point is supposed to be. That said, as I’m in the middle of my own kind of awakening, I did find several passages that resonated because of their truth or beauty or both. I want to share them because they’re worth your time while the full novel is absolutely not worth it.
“A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,– the light which, showing the way, forbade it. At that early period it served but to bewilder her. It moved her to dreams, to thoughtfulness, to shadowy anguish which had overcome her the midnight when she had abandoned herself to tears. In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and around her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight–perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman. But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!” (17).
“[Mr. Pontellier] could see plainly that [Edna] was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside the fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (75).
“There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone in to strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested. There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why,–when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead, when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day, nor weave fancies to stir her pulses and warm her blood” (76).
“On rainy or melancholy days Edna went out and sought the society of friends she had made at Grand Isle. Or else she stayed indoors and nursed a mood with which she was becoming too familiar for her own comfort and peace of mind. It was not despair, but it seemed to her as if life were passing by, leaving its promise broken and unfulfilled. Yet there were days when she listened, was led on and deceived by fresh promises which her youth held out to her” (97).
This one is an exchange between Edna and Robert when he has come back from Mexico. “‘You are the embodiment of selfishness,’ [Edna] said. ‘You save yourself something–I don’t know what–but there is some selfish motive, and in sparing yourself you never consider for a moment what I think, or how I feel your neglect and indifference. I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly, but I have got into a habit of expressing myself. It doesn’t matter to me, and you may think me unwomanly if you like.’
‘No, I only think you cruel, as I said the other day. Maybe not intentionally cruel, but you seem to be forcing me into disclosures which can result in nothing, as if you would have me bare a wound for the pleasure of looking at it, without the intention or power of healing it’ [Robert replied]” (140).
There! Better than Cliff’s Notes (oh, I’ve aged myself! Spark Notes then!) Five quick Laura approved passages that are way better than the sum of the novel. And aren’t some of them a kick in the gut? :::vigorous nodding:::