A Quill Pen

The Awakening
by Kate Chopin

July 2004 book review
by Collie Collier

Chopin writes of a time and sensibility I've never known. She obviously has a keen eye for detail and loves the region and the people she writes of. Her writing is sensuous and beautiful, like a sweet-scented, velvety magnolia blossom dimly perceived in the dusk. Still, I am heartily glad I can appreciate her artistry from the safe distance of over a century of cultural maturation concerning race and gender.

Art as social warning

Due to the public reaction to her short story The Awakening, she was pretty much shut out of polite society. Think about that -- in 1899, her story of a woman who preferred suicide to being smothered by husband, children, and society, was tragically unacceptable.

I'm reminded of the wonderfully acerbic Oscar Wilde (another who suffered greatly for society's sins), who said, "The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame."

This is not to say all the ills she writes of (perceived or non-conscious) are somehow today magically cured, of course. We don't publicly believe women are inherently illogical any more, with utterly incomprehensible minds, or that their sole useful ability is to serve as servants, breeders, and housekeepers for White men.

We don't publicly believe differently colored skin should be the rational basis for hierarchies of power and possession, or that there really are genetically different "races" of humankind, and mingling them will tragically "taint" Whiteness -- or even that there is such a category.

Publicly we're all very polite and rational about it. Private beliefs, unfortunately, are another matter entirely.

Art as social reflection

I think that's part of the reason Chopin's writing, while of a different time and sensibility, is being rediscovered (to great acclaim) today. Completely aside from the lyricism of her writing, there is an eerie resonance to the small quotidian tragedies of abusive power she so poignantly describes.

I'm fortunate in not having directly experienced the particular abuses she describes almost casually in her stories. I was born in a different era, after all. Still, I can see subtle replicas of them all around me.

As a society, we no longer simply force women to stay within the house and bear children, by refusing them the ability to get any job but tutor or nanny -- but we can quietly, insidiously make sure those women who produce their own incomes, or who wish for more from life than just caretaker for children and husband, shall feel guilty about doing so.

It is a keenly perceptive mirror which her writing holds up to us, and it's disturbingly easy to see ourselves there, if we're willing to be equally as honest as she. Chopin's pen is like a stiletto -- it's so sharp you don't realize you've been stabbed by painful reality, and so vividly beautiful you could easily miss the wound.

However, she has such a light touch I'm not even sure she realized this in her earlier stories. She is so precisely sensitive to certain sensibilities that it's hard to tell if she's unaware of the often humiliating social assumptions she describes -- or if she is in reality directing a light, delicate derision upon their patent nonsense.

Art as awareness of self

I'm pretty sure she's well aware of it in her later stories, however, considering she herself was a victim of societal expectations after the publication of The Awakening. Indeed, its theme -- a woman in the process of awakening to Self -- runs through all the stories in this collection.

Not all of the women manage to make it through the entire process, however, and like her, none of them emerge unscathed. As Mrs. Pontellier, the heroine of the title story, comes to understand, those uncertain times when the light of self-realization begins to dawn are:

...vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!

A wise woman who has already suffered societal ostracism prophetically tells Mrs. Pontellier,

The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.

Indeed, it would appear over two thirds of Chopin's heroines cannot bear up under the deforming weight of tradition and crushing prejudice. These poor souls end up, at best, conformist puppets of society's expectations -- a sad spectacle indeed.

And yet, those few heroines who do manage to fly do not seem to mourn at all what they have lost or left behind. It is not easy to become one's true self, of course, or to successfully cast aside the warped and distorting mask worn for societal approval.

However, to these heroines it is better by far to know the real truth of who they are, than to remain a corrupted version of what they could have been. True, some of their triumphant flights are as beautifully final as Icarus' famous fall -- but as one of them notes,

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 heroine of The Story of an Hour puts it particularly poignantly. Told of the death of her not-unkind husband, she must struggle with what she recognizes as a sudden, highly inappropriate but undeniable joy -- a fierce awareness she is finally completely free to be who she truly is:

There would be no one to live for her in those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.

It is that, I think, which Chopin felt most keenly. It does not matter if stifling social convention is meant "for your own good" -- to trample the spirit of another is always criminal.

I think she'd sympathize strongly with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- another who struggled against the cruel immorality of imposed conformism -- and I think she'd agree in particular with this quote from him:

[O]ne has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. ... Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

Art as social memory

There's a lamentable tendency for the uninformed or the simple to believe in some imaginary "Golden Age," when life was somehow more 'true' or 'moral' or 'pure,' when 'women were really women, and men were really men.' It's my hopeful belief most rational people know better than that, but I can certainly understand the wistful desire to live in a beautiful, simple Disneyworld instead of the real world -- I've felt it myself on occasion.

However, what worries me are those poor people who really do sincerely believe it was better then -- despite proof to the contrary! In effect, they've made up their minds and they don't want to be confused with facts. Those people worry me -- I don't want them somehow convincing others of their delusions.

That's why I'm pleased to hear Chopin's writing is enjoying a revival. Like many societies, the one she describes, and lived in, appeared graceful and lovely on the surface. It's hard to show that and yet also reveal the unpleasant, demeaning underside -- and still, somehow she does.

She writes with lyric, brutal honesty of what happens to the psyches of intelligent people crushed into society's restrictive molds for race and gender. She writes of what she knows; of what she saw and lived. I believe her writing will help us remember: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Reader Comments

13.06.04: George's thoughts

Thank you. Interesting read. I know nothing about the book or author, but your description of her writing style makes her seem intriguing.

21.06.04: Lou's thoughts

I am also pleased to know that we live in a culture where things are less rigid and less likely to simply force people to do as society says they must, or to discard them. That is another thing that stories like this show; we have made changes, there are things that are better, and there are positive things happening in an often very dismaying and negative world.

You're right that it can be hard to find these things described, particularly about times that have become obscured by the patina of remembrance and wrapped in the shroud of nostalgia. It's good that the bad has been saved along with the good.

It may also make it easier for us to think about ourselves; do we do these things? Not exactly... but as you said, we're made to feel bad or guilty for it. Why is that? How do we stop it? What drives it?

Guilt and shame are some of the simplest and easiest means of ensuring social conformity. After all, if you believe doing something is disgusting or taboo, you are far less likely to try it.

The only way I know to stop perpetuating stifling social conformity is to refuse to engage in rituals which help force people to participate in it (such as malicious gossip), and to knowingly choose not to conform, if conforming would degrade the human spirit.

When I say 'knowingly,' I mean to do so with the full understanding there will be many who will find your lack of conformity disturbing or frightening, and will do their level best to persuade or force you to behave according to their expectations.

Your article reminds me of something that has been irritating me: the word "race" used to describe people; forms that ask me to state my "race" and won't let me simply write "human." It may sound like nit-picky political correctness, but I'd like to see that word not used that way any more. If you must categorize, categorize on ethnicity rather than "race." If they'd use "breed" as they do with animals, people would realize how horrible it really is.

Interestingly, many scientists no longer use the term "race" when describing the various human ethnicities, since they can't find any physical evidence for any disparate, non-inter-breeding strains of humankind.

Biologically a "race" is, after all, a taxonomic group that is a division of a species, and which usually arises as a consequence of geographical isolation within a species. There are no viable groups of humans which cannot interbreed with other humans. Ergo, there is only one "race" of humankind.

Thanks for the feedback! ;)

22.06.04: Sarah's thoughts

I read that in college! Loved it!

29.06.04: Minna's thoughts

I thought the book was very interesting. It's amazing that things that no one would even think twice about today were considered so far out there when Kate Chopin lived.