‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin was published in 1899. Considering its time period it is phenomenally insightful. Edna, a Victorian woman of privileged birth and marriage, becomes dissatisfied with her conservative life. The first line that caught my eye was on page 26: Edna “was not a woman given to confidences, a characteristic hitherto contrary to her nature. Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life — the outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions. That summer…she began to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her.” I reread this paragraph again and again. I had never felt my life put so clearly on paper. Many of us have felt the pressure to conform at one point or another, and usually awaken to the knowledge of a life half-lived. As the story unfolds, Edna casts off the restraints of Victorian society one step at a time–as if casting away her garments–until in the end, she stands naked “like some newborn creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (189).
The book begins with the words, “Get out! Escape! Free your mind!” (5) This is not an easy task, however, and Edna’s character struggles through all the ways society and family constrain us to conform. Edna finds power within herself to apostatize from everything society holds dear and in so doing, gains freedom:
“A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”(47)
Edna gains a freedom she cannot abandon. Her old life becomes a dark prison she would not rejoin. She was a progressive woman who was imprisoned by an archaic society. Nobody understood her reasons for defection and only questioned her sanity. Nobody, carefully controlled by the dominant paradigm of the time, would comprehend they existed as a fading ideal with little to no substance or reality. It is much easier to hold to an old and reliable system of beliefs than admit something may be wrong with long-held ideals. Is that not how society evolves, though? We must cast off the old and embrace the new. To cling to ancient beliefs prevents growth; without growth, one might as well be dead.
Literary scholars hail Kate Chopin as “among the first American authors to write truthfully about women’s hidden lives, about women’s sexuality, and about some of the complexities and contradictions in women’s relationships with their husbands” (http://www.katechopin.org ). Panned by critics upon its release it would enjoy a resurgence with the women’s movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. I found Kate’s book just as applicable today as a hundred years ago, or even a few decades ago–with one exception, we have the fortune of living in a world with fewer constraints. Independent thought and untraditional lifestyles are more the norm today than the exception. Many people today, however, are not too far removed from the stifling Victorian society of Kate Chopin’s time. Therefore, the book is timeless, in my opinion.