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Basic Humanity 101

The Awakening - Kate Chopin

There are a few books all authors should read, and a few that all humans should read, whether a reader or writer. The Awakening falls into the second category.


I've read this book 4 times now, twice for Literature courses, once for my own entertainment, but the first time was as a requirement to get a date. It wasn't a spoken "read this or else" sort of thing, but I knew the only way the date would happen was if I buckled down and read this piece of classic American lit. It just so happened that the date was with the girl I would marry several years later, the mother of my two children.


I can see why this was a requirement. I approve, and I hope my daughter will take similar steps when she gets older to filter out potential suitors.


I haven't found many books where you can get a personal study, an examination of gender roles, a feminist critique, and a pretty hardcore post-colonialist viewpoint, all rolled up in less than 200 pages. Edna Pontellier wants be treated like a person, complete with individual rights, dreams, and ambitions. Unfortunately, she's a wife and mother in Creole-dominated New Orleans during the late 1800's, where she is a novelty at best and property of her husband the rest of the time. She decides to be a person anyway. Shit goes down. I'm not going to say anything else about the plot, because it's short and you should read it.


I've encountered numerous people, particularly in academia, who've said flat out that they don't like this book. That's okay, I'm glad they read it. I'll admit the first time I read it was difficult, and I greatly disliked the ending because it went against much of my personal philosophy. But then I read it again, this time to better understand what was in front of me, and tried to put aside my prejudices. Each reading since has been easier and more interesting. What I will say is that the tragedy of Chopin's work is not that her characters are denied individuality by an unjust system, but that the entire work is still judged by that system. Every time someone says, "I don't see why Edna couldn't just be happy with her awesome life, she must just have been spoiled," I want to respond with, "No one else in the story understood why, either. Perhaps that means that we still have a problem, hmm?"


That's the scary thing about The Awakening: it is still relevant. For every time someone is cast into an inescapable role by their gender, race, sexuality, or social class, there are still those who say they don't understand what the big deal is. After all, why not accept what life hands us and be content? Because we're human. Chopin's Edna cannot accept being either novelty or property. She longs to be alive.