Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Room of One's Own

Current book: The Awakening
Pages read: 43 - 93

Before I even start, I have to take a moment to mark an occasion: I'm halfway through the list! Finishing My Antonia means that I'm done with 50 books and have another 50 to go. It took a year and a half, but there was a four-month break in there when I was teaching school, so I guess I've got a year and a bit to go. Woo?

The Awakening is the story of 28-year-old Louisiana native Edna Pontellier. She's married to Léonce Pontellier, a successful businessman, and they have two children. They are vacationing at Grand Isle, off the coast of Louisiana, for the summer. Edna and the children stay at Grand Isle all the time, and Léonce comes out on the weekends, in the fine summer tradition of people with too much money. Edna spends much of her time with Robert Lebrun, a young man who has summered at Grand Isle for years, and, each year, takes a Platonic, but courtly-love-esque interest in one of the women there. His interest is tolerated because no one takes it seriously, and he often pays this attention of his to a married woman. This summer, that woman is Edna. She is sensitive, however, and has the capacity to take his interest the wrong way. One day, in mid-August, he takes her to another island for the day, and they have a beautiful idyll, away from all the cares of society. (And no, nothing untoward happens. Don't pretend you weren't thinking it.) The next day, he leaves for business in Mexico, and Edna is bereft, though she tries hard not to show it.

Plot-wise, there's not a lot going on, but there are immense and important things happening with Edna's character. She is a woman of great depth and an ambiguity that speaks, to me, very highly of Chopin's ability to create realistic characters. Edna has convinced herself that she's happily married, since Léonce is a good man and an attentive husband, but she does not love him or feel any passion for him. She has convinced herself that she loves her children, but finds their presence stressful, and does not show them affection except when it suits her. (Léonce does not think she is a good mother, and compares her unfavorably to the women he sees around him who dote upon their offspring. His description of the children, however, makes Edna's method of parenting seem the successful one, since he points out to himself that the Pontellier children, when they take a fall, simply get up and brush themselves off, rather than bursting into tears and running for their mother. I can get behind that, Léonce. You should, too.) She has also convinced herself that she fits into her society and functions within it. On the surface, this is true. On a deeper level, however, she finds herself longing for solitude, taking herself apart from the others and engaging in contemplation of things in which they evince no interest. She stays out all night one night, looking at the moon and stars. She revels at the feel of the ocean's water on her skin in the dark, and the feeling of the waves pulling at her when she swims. If anyone shares these feelings, it seems only to be Robert. Léonce will have none of it.

Edna has ambiguity mostly in her relationship with her children. There is an implication that she is somewhat self-absorbed, and it's possible that her tendency to ignore her children when it suits her is damaging to her relationship with them. At the same time, though, she shows an interest in herself and her own life that is nothing short of admirable in comparison to the other women at Grand Isle who are obsessed with nothing so much as their own offspring, and seem to define themselves only by their roles as mothers and wives. There's also some ambiguity in Edna's dramatic need for solitude. Sometimes it seems just that - dramatic, and therefore, again, self-indulgent. But mostly it is as though her real soul, her true nature, is screaming to get out, to leap from within the boundaries that have been placed on it by society and let her be who she really is.

Things will happen because of the fact that society cannot allow this to occur. They will not be good.

1 comment:

  1. Haven't read the book, but I plan to based on your recommendation. What about her disinterest in maintaining her "social persona"? That will definitely get her criticized by the other ladies. And if they can't directly get her for that, the next easiest target is her skills, or lack thereof, as a mother. And what about propriety??? (GASP!)



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