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.
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.