January 21, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 11: The Awakening


the awakeningTitle: The Awakening

Author: Kate Chopin

First published: 1899

Page count: 214

First line: A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez-vous en! Allez-vous en! Sapristi! That’s all right!”

The Awakening has been swimming around in my brain since I read it, a few days ago, most of it on a train journey and the rest the next morning, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. There is a danger it could slip from my mind, from my reading memory, and become just another finished book, but I don’t want it to. It’s a powerful thing, and I read most of it in a state of mild disappointment, and what I enjoyed about it most of all was the point at which it made me sit up and realise that I’d underestimated it. But still I’m left with a strange feeling of resentment towards the book, or its writer, that they didn’t let me know earlier how good it was, that it was going to get better.

Of course I knew it was supposed to be good – the book appeared in a lovely looking new Canongate edition in the UK last year, and booky people online were all aflame with it – but I wanted the writing to tell me that, too. I wanted to feel I was in good hands. And the underlinings and scrawls in my copy show that, for quite a while, that wasn’t the case.

The setting on the Louisiana coast and New Orleans didn’t really sit well with me – give me Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic rather than this transplanted Whartonian sensibility – and the prissiness of some of the writing didn’t seem to fit with the modernist gesture of the abrupt, numbered sections. There were words I had to look up, and while looking up new words in the dictionary is one of my great joys in life, these often left me depressed (a “quadroon”: “A person who is one quarter negro”; “befurbelowed”: “done up with some kind of flounce or ruffle”). When I read sections like this—

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight – perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman”

—I felt like a ponderous weight was descending on my soul, too, and perhaps more of a weight than the… Yes, anyway. I read The House of Mirth for the first time a couple of years ago, and while I was reading this book I felt there was a chasm between the deftness with which Wharton etched in the details of Lily Bart’s social predicament, and the maundering unhappiness of that of Edna Pontellier.

For those of you who haven’t read it, The Awakening is about this unhappily married, unhappily childed woman – this “Creole Bovary” as Willa Cather had it – who tries to find self-expression in artistic pursuits, and in romantic infatuation and adultery.

For those of you who haven’t read it, please go and read it, now, so that I can carry on this post without spoiling it for you!

Have you gone away and read it? Good, then I shall continue.

(Which is a way of saying: the remainder of the post shall probably contain spoilers!)

Elaine Showalter in her A Jury of Her Peers calls The Awakening “the first novel by an American woman that was completely successful in aesthetic terms” and though I can’t concur with that “completely” it is certainly a brilliant achievement, and in fact it does something that The House of Mirth doesn’t, or can’t (and if The House of Mirth, published just six years after The Awakening isn’t more completely successful in aesthetic terms then I’ll thank you for explaining how) – it proceeds, and develops, and ends organically.

By this I mean that the narrative develops seemingly according to the psychological make-up of the central character, rather than the thematic or dramatic concerns of the author. What happens to Edna in The Awakening – and in total contrast to Lily in The House of Mirth – absolutely cannot be predicted from the situation in which Chopin sets and frames her. She works her own way out.

Of course, the idea of a character creating their own fate, independent of their author, is a nonsense, but that is why what Chopin’s choppy, unfocused, defiantly unprogrammatic narrative style does is so crucial. The book is demonstrably uncertain about its protagonist – it introduces her by stealth, first of all as “a white sunshade that was advancing at a snail’s pace from the beach” towards the dull-as-dishwater Mr. Pontellier, who is in fact the first character we meet, and the first through whose eyes we see the world of the story.

Even once Edna is established as the true subject and focus of the story, she is treated, or treats us, capriciously. The sections are short, then long. Sometimes the text holds her at arm’s length, sometimes it crowds her and slips into her consciousness. It is rather like a grown person of a certain age holding a packet of biscuits in the kitchen, placing it now three feet from their squinting eyes, now a matter of inches, in a futile attempt to read the ingredients.

(A reminder not to read on if you’ve not read the book: you’ve been warned twice now and I shan’t be held accountable!)

However, all of this indeterminacy, this inconstancy, this dithering on the part of Chopin is what creates the conditions for the marvellous – the formally marvellous – ending to the novella, where Edna simply shrugs off the concerns of the author and of the reader and of her other family members, just as she shrugs off her clothes, to stand free and untrammeled on the beach—

How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.

—and then step into the inviting waves and swim out into the chill night waters of the Gulf. She shrugs everything off, even the awful desire of the reader to know for certain that she drowns out there. You want her to be subject even to your need for closure? You cad! That is for her to know, not us.

Yet, paradoxically, this great ending – and it’s the ending that makes this a great novella—works, or works for me, precisely because I didn’t think the author (didn’t think the character) had it in her. All those rather fey invocations of the sea earlier in the book—

the everlasting voice of the sea, that was not uplifted at that soft hour. It broke like a mournful lullaby upon the night.

the voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses or solitude; to lose itself in inward contemplation”

—if I had been more impressed by them, I might have paid more mind to them, and so been less caught unawares by the ending. Strange paradox – that if the book was ‘better written’, it wouldn’t work so well. The Awakening, published 116 years ago, feels just modern enough that I expect it to be more like the books that have come after it, that have happily played in the novelistic spaces it opened by force, and to its author’s cost—Chopin was so dismayed by its reception she essentially stopped writing, or at least allowed it to form the far limit of her ambitions.

But it is as it is, and I wouldn’t have it other: and perhaps – and I’ll bear this in mind as I continue with this project – this is the book that thus far most successfully epitomises what the novella might be, as a form. A strange unique creature, standing unhappily out against the literary fashions – a sort of tragic form, a grand anomaly, that shrugs off convention, like Edna shrugs off her clothes and then her bathing suit, “unpleasant, pricking garments”.


Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.