Kate Chopin was from St. Louis and married a wealthy man from New Orleans. She lived in New Orleans and was soon a widow with six children. She supported her family by writing and lost her popularity, because of the scandalous nature of The Awakening. She died in 1905.
We discussed that Guy de Maupassant was an influence on her and she was an influence on many of the upcoming great authors of the 20th century. Her style is called "naturalism," which one member explained meant that the stories contain the hard parts of life, the seamy or gritty parts.
Eight of us brought many opinions about this short novel. There seemed to be a consensus in the group that those who had never read this before were really surprised by the ending. We didn't ask if people liked it, but everyone seemed to have really been caught up in it and had strong feelings about the story. I think everyone really liked it on many levels, if not all the way through.
We thought that the story was universal, that is, a story of awakening sexuality, of first real love, of disillusionment with the possibilities of the expectations put on the future and choices of women, of a broken heart, of the need to escape to try a different course and the despair over what seems to be a hopeless lot in life.
We commented that Edna had choices. She had some money independently from her husband. She could have chosen a life alone and perhaps would have had a fulfilling life that way, as her single older woman friend had. Is the choice for an independent, strong woman only a life alone?
The concept of Awakening, we agreed, encompassed physical, spiritual, moral and emotional awareness. Her movement away from her constricted life was gradual and as unstoppable as plate tectonics.
We disagreed as to whether or not Edna actually had sex with either of the two different men to whom she was attracted. Some of us thought she had not. Others thought she had.
We thought that Chopin did not let us know enough about the internal motives of the men in her book, but by leaving that information out, we could experience her frustration as if it were our own.
We discussed Edna's choices in the current concepts of mental health. Was she clinically depressed? Was she bipolar? Did she have postpartum depression? One member of our group said she recently read that postpartum depression can happen much after the child is born or even during pregnancy. We thought she was depressed and dissatisfied with many areas of her life. While some of these concepts may have applied in the real world to someone who made Edna's choices, we also agreed that she had fewer choices of a fulfilling life, even though her husband was wealthy, than most any American woman has today. We are happy to live in this time.
She seemed to be "property" to her husband, who was much older than she. We also thought she was so very young and immature, that she was just figuring out what her status in life really was.
Her statement that she loved her children, but would not die for them was in great contrast to the other mothers in her circle and even surprising to us, yet understandable.
We liked her foreshadowing the end with the beautiful description of learning to swim in the ocean. We thought the writing was lyrical.
We compared Edna to other heroines in other book club selections, such as from House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy and our main character in The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing...also from our upcoming book, Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.
Two or more of our group also read other short stories by Kate Chopin and also really liked the characters and the surprise endings. One person commented that short stories usually do have surprise endings.
We wondered if relationships with a lover are ultimately about power.
The Awakening remains an American Classic and will endure as a beautiful example of very early feminist literature.
Another fascinating book and discussion!
There were 10 of us. Most had not finished it. Not all planned to finish it, because of the length of the novel, while several planned to finish it. All liked parts of it. Some LOVED it all the way through. One had read it three times!
A little background:
Doris Lessing was born in 1919 in Kermanshah, Persia (Iran) and died in London last November. Her family moved to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, when she was little. She left her Catholic school when she was 14 to work and was self-educated by reading classics. She joined a Communist Book Club, married and moved to England. She married several times and had several children.
Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007 and was the eleventh woman and the oldest person ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy described her as "that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.” She received many other prizes for literature during her life.
The comments of our group reflected how far we got into the book and how much we liked/loved/were overwhelmed by it.
Around the time this autobiographical novel was published, people were saying that the “novel” as a literary form, was dead. This book is Lessing’s answer to that declaration. She invented a new style by telling the story of three women over years of angst, frustration, love, and growing wisdom. The “Notebooks” were the process Lessing and, the main character, Anna used to create the novel of the three interlocked women. The plot shifted from past to present and from notebook to notebook. Many in the group agreed that they had never read anything as good with describing the inner life of women and the analysis of relationships.
This novel is also about “The Writing Process,” “The Artist as a Narcissistic Person,” and “Political Issues,” we thought.
We found some of the attitudes very dated, yet often dead-on correct. One view surprised us was her attitude toward homosexual men. She wanted her daughter to be around a “real” man, yet the “real” men she chose as sex partners all mistreated her. We thought she would have been bored by a kind man.
This is not a feminist book. This was also not a book about women versus men. Anna was always looking for love. None of the characters were sympathetic, except one middle class Communist leader. All the rest seemed arrogant, smug, unkind and self-centered. It is hard to create a character who is unsympathetic, but Lessing succeeded.
Regarding Communism, during the 30’s, it really resonated with people, because it was idealistic. There was a sense of creating a new and better world. Later Anna (Lessing) thought it was easier to talk about Communism with people who had left the Communist party once they became disillusioned and the horrible reality surfaced.
The relationship between Anna and Molly was supportive and competitive.
The earlier story about Anna’s life in Africa during WWII, seemed the most novelistic and the most visual. She described the beauty of the landscape and the unforgettable, hypocritical people. The scene with the insects and butterflies and birds was beautiful, but warlike. It was juxtaposed with the need to kill pigeons for dinner. The scenes of killing the pigeons were violent. We found the story of George, who had a child with an African woman, very compelling and tragic in that he could not raise his son due to the strict separation of the races.
Some of us thought this book was about power. We talked about how times have changed for women, that women can be “captains of power,” and that women who have power can be as bad as the men who have power. Even though a woman can be president, the Western world still has the man’s zeitgeist.
We thought this book was surprisingly candid about bodily functions and found that interesting, maybe dead-on correct, yet still too much information.
We discussed her lover, the doctor with the frigid wife, and we thought that maybe his wife was frigid, because he was a bad lover. His wife was perfect for him, because she was beautiful, kept a perfect home and had four sons. Lessing made us feel sorry for him, because, like his wife, he had also never really had satisfying sex.
The quote from the 18th century French writer, Madame de Stael, was mentioned, that “Life is a choice between boredom and suffering.” One member thought that applied to Anna’s difficulties.
Lessing dealt with suicide twice in the novel, once when Thomas shot himself and survived to become a blind, manipulative, Oedipal character and another time when Anna realized that suicide could be as easy as unknowingly walking to a high window and finding oneself leaping out without being aware until it was too late.
Anna and Molly both went to the same psychiatrist, the German “Mother Sugar.” We thought Mother Sugar was unhelpful. She never led Anna to see her pattern of destructive relationships.
Since many of us had not yet finished the book, we asked those who had about the “Golden Notebook.” Almost to the very end, that color of notebook had never been mentioned. The other notebooks focused on different aspects of Anna’s life: love, work, accounting for purchases, inner thoughts, politics and dreams. The Golden Notebook was purchased on a whim and became a synthesis notebook, where she attempted to combine all the parts of her world and include her current lover, Saul, who had multiple personalities. Together they had no boundaries and Anna found herself acting as insane as Saul. She understood that he had to leave her life, because her only grounding to a normal life was through her daughter. She could not have Saul near her daughter. As much as she loved her daughter, we agreed that she was not a good mother.
The Golden Notebook dissolved into a dream world of scenes of flying and movie-like surreal events as Anna came to some conclusions about what she had learned over the years. The scenes broke up, just as Anna was breaking up. When Anna tried to synthesize her life instead of compartmentalizing it, it turned to mush; it became crazy!
Someone asked, “Well, what is the book really about?” This is what we thought:
It is a book about growing older. The stories from Africa were from a time when Anna/Lessing were younger. In her quest to create her life, to find a love and to create art, she recorded her impressions in the notebooks. At the end of the book she came to these conclusions as she talks with Saul, her last lover. “Everything is cracking up,” she says. She tells him that even though he is dealing with chaos now that he will eventually become a very gentle, wise, kind man. Anna says, “Well, we know there are a few of them, marvelous, mature, wise people…and how did they get that way? Well, we know don’t we. Every bloody one of them’s got a history of emotional crime…you simply don’t get to be wise, mature, etc., unless you’ve been a raving cannibal for 30 years or so.”
One member of our group thought that reading all those classics made this novel Lessing’s version of War and Peace, or in her case,” War and Insanity.”
Another member of our group commented that even though Anna/Lessing was attempting to be independent, she was still “needing” a man. Our member thought that was the times (the 50s), that nothing really was black and white. One can be for woman’s freedom and still be dependent on men. Our needs, wants, etc. can be in conflict many times—that’s the human condition!
The Golden Notebook is a modern classic.
Eight of us discussed House of Mirth and all seemed to really like it a great deal. We agreed that the writing was wonderful and many quotes were shared that pointed out Edith Wharton's fabulous writing style.
Our discussion leader came with a noted biography of Edith Wharton written by Louis Auchincloss, which she passed around so we could see photos of Edith, her home, her husband, her friends and her style of living. Edith Wharton was born a few blocks from Teddy Roosevelt and was of the same incredibly wealthy class of Americans as Teddy Roosevelt. She lived most of her life abroad, (One aside comment was that she may have had to, because her books put her class in a bad light.) During World War I she was involved with raising money from her wealthy friends to aid Belgian refugees and other needed charities. She received the French Legion of Honor for her good works during that war.
She started writing as a child. Her education was through tutors. Her first major publication was House of Mirth, which made her world famous. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence. She also wrote travel books and books on interior decoration, that are discussed as major influences in that art. A major influence on her work was from her good friend, Henry James. Regarding her knowledge of decorating, we discussed that her descriptions of the world her characters inhabit, made it seem real, that her stories about about the interiors they inhabit and about their own interiors such as the secret lives of their worries, loves, emotions, disappointments, hubris, and despair.
She had an appropriate marriage with someone from her class of the very wealthy, but it was an unhappy one. Her husband died after a mental breakdown. She had one affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist, who was the great love of her life. Edith Wharton died at the age of 75.
Before we started discussing the novel, Milena also shared with us a photo of a famous tableau which was the inspiration for the tableau in the novel. We reviewed that a tableau was a popular entertainment during the 1800s where people attending a large ball or party would dress up to match exactly a famous painting, often depicting nymphs and sprites cavorting through the woods. In this tableau the famous woman in the photo was a wearing practically see-through gown and it was considered scandalous. This was a time of corsets and long dresses where even an ankle was considered seductive. We could see how our main character Lily crossed the line if that is the way she dressed in the tableau in the House of Mirth. We also thought that not only did she bare her body, but in the novel her soul was bared to us.
One member talked about Lily Bart's similarity to Anna Karenina, who also sabotaged her future with impulsive and also carefully planned decisions. We talked of the tragic ending and how many books written in that era, about woman going against the societal rules, often ended tragically. The Awakening by Kate Chopin was also mentioned as an example. We also talked about the double standard for women. Men can gamble and go into debt, but women cannot, in some cases, even gamble. Men can openly have affairs and keep mistresses, but women cannot. Men were in power in the real world, but women were not. There is one rule for men, one rule for married women and another for single women.
The vicious machinations among the women our heroine had to deal with, were compared to Machiavelli.
We talked about the weak men in the novel. Selden was one who came to understand and perhaps love Lily, but would not step forward to help save her from her self-destruction.
We ultimately liked Rosedale, because he was a pragmatist and truly understood the reality of Lily's dilemma, even though he would also not "save" her at the end, because doing so might jeopardize his own social climbing aspirations. We thought Edith Wharton captured the rampant anti-Semitism of the time and noted that even though Rosedale might never be" truly accepted in society," he would be allowed to attend functions and help make money for the "In Crowd."
We noted that Lily Bart needed guidance, especially from her mother, who had long since passed. She did, however, not follow guidance offered her which might have saved her as she spiraled down.
We talked about this being a "Determinist Novel," which ultimately means the dark reality of the big fish eating all the little fish. Poor Lily didn't have a chance surrounded by the sharks of her social milieu.
We discussed Carrie Fisher, who had a symbiotic relationship with the ultra-rich, providing them "happily" with service and therefore being allowed to attend "In" events and therefore be supported. We wondered if it is still the same for the very rich today. Several people offered examples that led us to believe that such relationships are still common with the very rich. We mentioned the Vanity Fair and New York Times social pages which mention the top of society and their gatherings and marriages, etc.
We discussed the difference between the ultra-rich of that era and the ultra-rich of today. Several of us thought that the differences between the 1% and an the rest was much worse then, as compared to today, because there was no true middle class at the time.
We talked of Lily's innocence, but not all agreed that she was innocent. Perhaps she was in denial, or pretending to not understand the consequences of her behavior, gambling, incurring debt from an older man who had ulterior motives and Lily's being a diversion for ladies who wished to dally with men who were not their husbands. Every "innocent" choice led in an escalating pace to her downfall.
Regarding the pace, it seemed at first that the progression of the story was slow. It seemed nothing of huge consequence was happening, that we were watching the idle diversions of the idle rich, when suddenly we realized we were caught with Lily in a tragedy. It seems similar to the analogy of the frog in a bucket of water over a low fire. The frog doesn't notice until it is fatally overcome by the heat. In some ways it felt like a horror story. As we started to realize there was no way out for Lily, we were frantic with frustration and some of us were ultimately in tears.
We discussed some of the class differences and blindness of Lily and others of her world, who had no idea how "the others" lived. We felt sad when Lily realized that her almost thoughtless act of generosity saved a working woman from scandal and that woman found a man who loved her and accepted her in spite of the working woman's mistakes.
We talked about how the pace of the downward rush picked up after the incident at the yacht. We were impressed with Lily's strength under duress and that she took the moral high road in many of her choices. She didn't use the letters to blackmail her way out of her own undeserved scandal as other characters in the novel would.
We noted that today people can discuss their emotions, but then the norm then was to keep those feelings hidden, "stiff upper lip" style. F. Scott Fitzgerald noted that in his writings that nothing is open, nothing is said directly. While talking of other authors we are reading, we noticed many are from this generation. Perhaps someone would like to do a timeline to see the overlap and similar influences of these writers on each other.
Although the title "House of Mirth" has a reference in the book, it is also found in the Bible in Ecclesiastics, "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the House of Mirth." Once you understand what it is all really about, it is hard to be happy and in the moment. The reality is just too very sad.
We discussed the reference to Caliban and Miranda from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Caliban is the monstrous giant with evil intensions from a barbaric place. Other characters were discussed. Many of us thought the early possible love matches for Lily were also boring and oafish, but some did not. It was pointed out that Percy wore galoshes! It just wasn't Done in polite society. It was repellent to Lily.
So, Lily was shallow. Lily was vain. Lily was beautiful and used her beauty, yet she took the high road morally. She never betrayed a friend or stranger. She gained in wisdom as her world melted around her. We were expecting too much from her. She wanted the life she felt entitled to, but didn't want to make the required bargain. As Gerty said of the tragic end, "It is a blessing." Many of us can get weepy just thinking about it.
Edith Wharton nailed her wealthy, American, shallow, ignorant world in this work. Living in France in a world of her own choosing was better. Hurray Edith! You escaped!
Do you crave to find a new funny novel? Well, this is it! So you've read all the "Girl" series, Dragon Tattoo, ...Played with Fire and Kicked the Hornet's Nest....and you've read other Swedish authors and liked their dark, violent mysteries....and you've heard that Swedes and other Nordic people don't have a finely tuned sense of humor.....Well, that is Wrong! This book proves that a Swedish author not only can make you laugh out loud, but will amaze you with his satire and insight of the deadly world of international politics.
Some of you may be familiar with the German folk character of Til Eulenspiegal, the simple country man who does everything wrong and comes out smelling like roses every time! Well, that archetype is our 100-Year-Old Man, except, one who accidentally throughout his long life has single-handedly brought about all the major world events to be as they are and he still ends up rich, happy and gets the girl.
Think an accidental cartoon Road Runner, always escaping, and having his enemies love him....the ones who survive :>
The glow of this rollicking story will stay with you and you will recommend this to your friends. It will make you wish that you had the courage to live your life exactly as you want and still have it all turn out well! Most of us have to deal with reality by compromising. Not our 100-Year-Old Man!
Place this book on hold now!
We started out discussing the writing style of David Talbot. Three of us mentioned it was difficult to track at times and maybe more editing could have helped that. One pointed out that most of it was based on interviews Talbot had done with participants and observers of these events. The rest thought there was no problem with the writing at all and that the book was gripping and the details based on the extensive research filled gaps we didn't know we had in our own knowledge, which was based on news or books written right at the time. We all felt we understood San Francisco better and many shared their own experiences and knowledge which expanded on the book's information.
Our personal stories included antiwar events, taking a coyote to schools to talk about protecting the wilderness and experimenting with new life styles.
We thought the author cared about his topics. One noted a review which mentioned frustration that Talbot did not include women's history and its forward movement at the time. Another mentioned that the 60s were a sexist time and we all agreed. I thought he did focus on a few major female leaders who arose at that time and loved the details about those lives such as Dianne Feinstein.