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.