I’ve finally gotten around to reading this book, in the original, without editorial intervention. It was worth it.
Kate Chopin wrote this story of female self-actualization back in the late 19th century, but it’s as applicable today as it was then. I think we all feel trapped by decisions we’ve made capriciously, and we all consider, even briefly, escape. The main character in this novel not only realizes that she has trapped herself, but she actively seeks to free herself. Her action, rather than just emotion and despair (a la Goethe), is what separates her from the herd.
Here’s the low-down: Edna is a woman, probably in her 30s or so, married to a successful financier and mother to two charming children. She summers on an island, probably to escape summer diseases in the city, New Orleans. One summer she acquires a friend, Robert. Although married women in this society frequently have male friends, Edna is an outsider, and she takes Robert’s attentions far too seriously. Apparently, he is similarly infatuated. Basking in Robert’s attention, Edna understands at last that she has discarded her youthful dreams and hopes and that her current life is unfulfilling. She takes small steps toward freeing herself, and Robert seems a willing accomplice for a while.
But Robert sees the hopelessness of such an infatuation: Edna is married, after all. Abruptly, Robert leaves the island and heads off to Mexico, presumably to seek his fortune. Edna is devastated. Even after she returns to town, her emotions are in turmoil. But loneliness actually proves helpful. She relearns who she is, reclaims the dreams of her youth, and abandons her husband and children. The author is careful with this last, making it seem tragic and irresponsible, yet ultimately unavoidable. By the last 20 pages, Edna is free.
... feel comfortable and at rest in the others presence. To Edna, Robert is her equal, a partner on the journey of ... a handsome, younger, Robert LeBrun. Robert and Edna stroll along the ocean arm in arm ... names Robert LeBrun. He helps her discover how much more life has to offer. At Grand Isle, the Pontellier summer retreat, Edna befriends ...
And then Robert returns. Edna says that she does not feel obligated by their mutual love; she says that she is an independent woman now who is not the property of any other person. But she’s lying. Her actions show that she is dependent on Robert, needy for his love and attention. I still can’t decide if the author created this break between words and behavior on purpose, or if she really intended us to believe that Edna was wholly independent.
In fact, the only weak part of the story, in my opinion, is that Edna does not take responsibility for her own awakening. She claims that Robert “awoke” her.
Edna does in the end devise a solution that proves her ultimate freedom and independence, and it is the only solution that works. But I won’t spoil it by writing it here.
The thing that makes this book so lovely is that it isn’t preachy. So many modern girl-power novels just sort of slam you over the head with the girls-first-and-men-suck mantra. This book is about Edna; it doesn’t purport to be about all women. It’s a very personal work, and the narrative hand is light. It leaves us, the readers, free to recognize the little bits of Edna in us all, and although the rest of us may not ultimately choose Edna’s course, it gives us hope that such freedom is possible, even after the fact.