Author: Kate Chopin (Missouri, United States)
Publishing Year: 1899
Genre: Self-discovery, Early feminism
My Rating: 4/5
The novel follows the protagonist Edna Pontellier in her journey of discovering herself as an individual, independent from her role as a wife and a mother. She contradicts conventions, her actions are bold, irresponsible and reckless as she tries to create a happier and more fulfilling life for herself. This novel, grasps the subtle and complex consciousness of Edna, her shifting emotions and unspoken cry for independence which materialises gradually. Edna does not fit in inside the roles defined for her as a devoted wife, a loving mother and household carer. She feels caged and gradually becomes rebellious. She learns to swim in the ocean, and this gives her a taste of freedom she yearns for.
The other two prominent female characters: Mrs. Ratignolle (the mother-woman) and Miss. Reisz (the pianist) represent the extremes of the spectrum of the life of women. Madame Ratignolle is the perfect 19th century woman who lives for her children and her husband. Kate chopin severely states, “They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” Miss Reisz, on the other hand, idolizes what Edna could have been if she grew older and separated from her family. She is an independent woman who is a genius at playing the piano, she understands the depths of music and its power to arouse the soul, lash at it, sway it and embrace it in passions. Madame Ratignolle is seen consistently warning Edna when she strays from expectations and reminding her of her duties, setting an ideal example and being a kindly friend. She is presented as a delicious example of the 19th century woman. Mademoiselle Reisz, on the other hand is a generally disagreeable and unpopular woman, who takes a special liking to Edna and encourages her without verbal persuasion to set herself free.
The book’s ambiguity embraces human existence in its true form. I could understand what Edna was feeling, I felt like I had been through the conflicting emotions that swayed through her, I could relate to the sexual passions that stirred her, I could understand her. But at the same time, I could not approve of what she does. I think that American authors such as Kate Chopin excellently capture the incongruities and subtleties of human existence, stripped of the view of ethical standards and conventions but it is the British authors like Charlotte Bronte who created characters better equipped to contend with these “awakenings”. I feel the novel lacked in its ability to deal with the situation and decide what to do, rather than be torn apart by the ravages of emotions. But at the same time, that is not what it set out to do. It is a tragic work of art that captures the psychology of the woman in question very astutely. The story is misty, it focuses on Edna’s feelings, thoughts and imaginations rather than having a concrete plot. The language is excellent, as if every word is chosen with such exquisite care and purpose– I relished it. It is moving, audacious and profound. Definitely a book I must re-read.