It seems that I am an unsympathetic reader in terms of feminism. My cousin, a well-read graduate in English literature, informed me that many of her male peers in undergraduate courses also disliked the tortoise-like pace of The Awakening by Kate Chopin.
So: I read like a frat boy – or a hipster, depending on which male archetype populated your undergraduate English classes.
The protagonist is annoying, the plot is slow-moving, and the finale is the only part of this book that captured my attention. I can appreciate that this is a profound insight into the plight of the Victorian woman, torn between obligations imposed on her by society and the budding desire to search for herself.
And you know what? Not much has changed. Elizabeth Gilbert explores the same issues in Eat, Pray, Love.
Hints of the female struggle with depression, mental illness, “ennui” permeate The Awakening; so do Chopin’s seemingly meaningless domestic details. Mrs. Pontellier is a New Orleans society woman who is vacationing in the Grand Isles with her husband and two young sons for the summer. There she meets a young man, Robert Lebrun. Her husband doesn’t seem to be alarmed by the increasing amounts of time his wife spends with the bachelor – maybe that’s the point, or part of it anyway – but both are warned in turn by a mutual friend and society lady, Madame Ratignolle (incidentally, my favorite character for her inherent good sense) against their feelings. The story continues after the Pontellier family returns to New Orleans, and chronicles the “awakening” of Mrs. Pontellier. She pursues freedom of thought, decision-making, and occupation – she refuses to fall into her routines of old that “kept up appearances” and begins to paint. Her husband leaves on a business trip, and she chooses to spend her time with questionable young men who have attached themselves to her.
I can appreciate the value of a character like this, who was written and created by a woman, while at the same time growing impatient at what has become a cliched approach to feminist literature. Why must this woman attach herself to varying degrees of hopeless men? Why can’t she be strong on her own merits? Is pulling a suicidal Juliet move really the epitome of the feminine struggle? Live for others or kill yourself trying? I call bullshit. Strong women can and should be written, but I have no patience for ones who claim to be stifled and overpowered by a male-dominated society, then in turn allow themselves to be manipulated through some weakness for affection from insidious men.
Or maybe I just read like a dude. Whatever.