Old School Sundays: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

It’s a common plot point: domestic woman leaves her dispassionate life behind to pursue self-gratification, spiritual fulfillment. Eat, Pray, Love and other stories may have spawned a revival of these tales of transcendence, but the originator of this notion was Kate Chopin, and her wonderful novel, The Awakening.

Of course the 1890s was not an optimal time for female self-actualization; thus, Chopin took great risks in composing her story. I first read this book in an American Studies class. I fell in love with the imagery, the symbolism, and strong thematic components. But more than anything else, it was the slow, dawning of epiphany that shook Edna Pontellier’s core that truly moved me.

Octavian → in Objects

In the beginning of chapter seven, the narrator describes Ms. Pontellier:

“Mrs. Pontellier was not a woman given to confidences, a characteristic hitherto contrary to her nature. Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life–that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (Chopin, 26).

I was initially drawn to this passage, because it seemed as though Chopin was not only describing her protagonist, but she was also describing me. But now I recognize this to be the work of a clever writer. As readers we’re supposed to identify with the characters. We’re supposed to feel like we’re reading about ourselves. A good writer will design such a universal protagonist so every person who ever lived can in some ways, relate.

It’s too bad that Edna Pontellier’s spiritual quest didn’t end as happily as say, the woman in Under the Tuscan Sun, but she is still  to be commended for surrendering to that inner inkling that begs us to reach for more.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Old School Sundays: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

  1. “A good writer will design such a universal protagonist so every person who ever lived can in some ways, relate.”—Excellent point. When I’m drafting a character, I have to stop and ask, “Will others relate to this? Is this too far out from the mainstream?” Hopefully we find the right combination of traits to make each character relate-able, or at least partially so.

    • It can be tough to do, but I think it’s important. I think the root of it all is familiarity. In some ways, it’s easier to do than to try and create the “perfect” character–because there really is no such thing. Everyone wants to read about someone who’s flawed, but it’s more real. So I always keep that in mind when developing my characters.

  2. Interesting!
    Somewhere in the midst of my revision, I realized that my protagonist, even though he’s a guy, and stronger than I, both outwardly and inwardly, is in many ways ‘me.’ An angry me sometimes, but still me.
    By extension then, as your post shows me, I can hope that since my characters are partly me, that others will be able to relate to them as well. Will not the universal protagonist also be a writer’s description of herself?
    Some good insights here.

    • Wow, yes! I feel the EXACT same way. My protagonist is male (we really need to trade manuscripts) and yes, along the way I’ve discovered he’s partially (if not fully) the male version of myself. And like you, angrier! So weird. I honestly believe that every character we write (major or minor) in some ways contains a piece of ourselves.

  3. It’s eerie when you (the reader) slip into the character’s life without realizing it. I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t. I am one of those readers who suffers right along with the character. Oh the torture. When I read Madame Bovary I was miserable.

  4. I always learn something new from your observations!

  5. Firestarter

    I loved this short story – and have a copy that I will re-read. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. My all-time favorite television show is/was Northern Exposure. Fabulous, intelligent writing. Vibrant characters, spot-on dialogue, metaphors-a-plenty. I’ve wanted to see Mad Men and, like you, have heard good things about it. Alas (sort of), no cable. Maybe it’s my age, but The Big Bang Theory doesn’t do it for me. CC loves it. For me, there seems a lot of sex-discussion for the sake of sex-discussion/viewer titillation. I’m glad you’re addressing TV writing. The average viewer takes it for granted, I think. Toward the end of my art studies, I dabbled in film/filmmaking. Learned a lot that I applied to writing … and vice versa. Some of the short films I made were more like visual poems, leaving a lot for the viewer to bring to it. Great topic here!

    • Hey Terri–I think you responded under the wrong post! 🙂
      I’ve never seen Northern Exposure, but I’m always interested in shows that represent good writing. You should definitely try out Mad Men if you ever get the chance. It really is a fabulous show. It flawlessly captures the the 1960s, and the all various shifts that take place during the decade.

      I can definitely see how art/film can be applied to writing. After all it’s all storytelling. That’s interesting that you dabbled in film for some time. I’ve seen films like the ones you’re describing…like poems. They always evoked a response in me.

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