The Awakening and Selected Short Stories
By Kate Chopin
Barnes and Noble Classics 2003, originally published in 1899
From my shelves
Kate Chopin is widely heralded as one of the first and most important feminist writers. Her stories met with great disapproval in her time due to her portrayal of miserable marriages and women who found the inner courage to search for something different. The first (and best-known) story in this collection is The Awakening. It revolves around Edna Pontellier, who lives an affluent life in New Orleans with her husband Leon and two small sons. As they vacation, she feels an increasing dissatisfaction with her life and her relationships. She slowly begins dismantling and rebuilding her life, hoping to find peace, a purpose, and perhaps even happiness.
There is no doubt that Chopin is an important writer. She wrote about women who were not content to be decorations on their husbands' arms in a time when such things were not to be spoken of. She captures the subtlety of depression and despair beautifully and is exceptionally talented at making the reader feel as if they are actually in a New Orleans mansion or vacationing by the shore. We can feel, though Edna's experiences, the haze of desire or complacency and the cold slap of harsh reality.
But Edna as a character is not particularly engaging. She is detached from her life and seems detached from the reader as a result. She can be impulsive at times and Chopin spends little time explaining her choices, leaving it up to the reader to conclude what they will. It's hard to know whether Chopin intended for her character to become a figurehead for women's rights. Many modern critics vilify Edna as selfish and inconsiderate or celebrate her as a woman who dared to break free of the restrictions of her time. Either way, Edna (and, it would appear, Chopin) don't seem to care about what you think. Both author and character found an outlet for the discontentment they felt about their lives - Chopin through her writing and Edna through her painting.
While I found the writing good and the characters interesting, I had trouble reading these stories all in a row. Chopin writes a very specific kind of story and things start to feel repetitive quickly. This is an author who truly understands the short story and, in many cases, the stories that take up the fewest pages are the ones that pack the greatest emotional punch. When you read Desiree's Baby or The Story of An Hour, it almost seems as if you can close the entire volume because you understand Chopin and her skill as a writer. This author is one who should not be missed in the cannon of American writers. Reading one single powerful story will give you insight into why she is important as a talented writer and as someone who spoke for women when they had no voice.