Literary “Awakenings.”

February 25, 2010

When I first lifted The Awakening and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin from its dusty repose on my bookshelf, I recalled a glimpse from a discussion a fellow student at college was having about feminist literary works. In the midst of describing the extent of her background in this context, she mentioned something to the effect of: “… and of course I’ve read The Awakening…”

Since then, an inward attack always descends upon me whenever I look in its direction, and I am plagued by worthlessness. This book, clearly, is a very basic and necessary ingredient in western feminist literature, and I have no business even considering myself cognizant of a term such as “feminist fiction” without swallowing the classic whole.

It’s well on it’s way down, and is so far proving to be rather palatable…

˜

There’s something very bookishly inspiring about setting forth to read a book that is so shrouded in the tradition of literature. It’s survival through the passage of time, no doubt, lends it credibility. When I referred to it’s “regimented rendition of reality” in my last post, I was talking about its strict adherence to realism. This, also, I feel, enhances its value. To be considered relevant in an age where we indulge ourselves with so much poetic license, is impressive. The rigid realism of Chopin’s day was like being handed an extremely fine-pointed chisel with which she had to painstakingly whittle away for hours before reaching any poignancy or connection in her prose. There’s no shortcut – no magical realism, no staggered or disjointed narrative that she may have used to move, inspire or even disturb her reader.

There is just perfectly logical, sequential description:

“Mr. Pontellier wore eye-glasses. He was a man of  forty, of medium height and rather slender build; he stooped a little. His hair was brown and straight, parted on one side. His beard was neatly and closely trimmed.”

Not discounting the fact that this is a very preliminary description of one of her most central characters, it does serve to reflect the almost mathematical, detached tone of description. I want to make it clear, though, that this is in no way meant to belittle or underestimate the intricacies of this piece of work. It’s remarkable that Chopin can start with such cool portraiture and fluidly weave scenes, narrative progression and tone into such resonating meaning.

But its true you have to look and listen for that resonance:

“…where she [Mrs. Pontellier] sat down in the wicker chair and began to rock gently to and fro. It was then past midnight. The cottages were all dark. A single faint light gleamed out from the hallway of the house. There was no sound abroad except the hooting of an old owl in the top of  a water-oak, and the everlasting voice of the sea, that was not uplifted at that hour. It broke like a mournful lullaby upon the night.”

Chopin deftly and quietly changes a scene, and from within simply structured, eloquently succinct sentences, a feeling, in this case haunting, desolate loneliness, seems to waft up from the print.

˜

I’ve been reading “The Awakening” in short bursts over the last week. In fact I would have gone much further if the excitement of starting this blog and putting my thoughts “out there” hadn’t completely consumed me over the last few days. But thus far, I’ve really enjoyed the way Chopin slowly peels away the layers of habit and social conformity, to reveal a solidly materializing self-awareness in her principal (female) character. I have to include just one last excerpt in this post, because I love the way she draws attention to the very form and physical presence of a woman:

“Edna, left alone in the little side room, loosened her clothes, removing the greater part of them. She bathed her face, her neck and arms in the basin that stood between the windows. She took off her shoes and stockings and stretched herself in the very center of the high, white bed. How luxurious it felt to rest thus in a strange, quaint bed, with its sweet country odor of laurel lingering about the sheets and mattress! She stretched her long limbs that ached a little. She ran her fingers through her loosened hair for a while. She looked at her round arms as she held them straight up and rubbed them one after the other, observing closely, as if it were something she saw for the first time, the fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh.”

____________

[. Postscript

Apart from just enjoying the sheer descriptiveness of her prose, its the very apparent basic-ness of it that I am relishing. That’s what I meant when I said “bookishly inspiring.” I’ve loved reading the book at a time when all around me is tranquil – either late at night with a shaft of narrow light enhancing the old-style print, or early in the day with the first strong cup of coffee as a lubricating companion, kind of giving the literary buzz an extra kick. I keep digging my nose into the covers from time to time, to get that heady, mellow scent of aging. I’m looking forward to frequenting a nearby cafe with just some water, strong coffee, and solitude to thoroughly immerse myself in the rest of this old-style narrative. ].

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One Response to “Literary “Awakenings.””

  1. ahad Says:

    I remember being made to read this at a time when i considered myself a “sympathizer of feminist ideals” (which, ironically sounds so condescending). Suffice it to say, it left me tingling at the time. Now I just sigh at the amount of time, I used to once have for words. Will not rain on your parade though, enjoy:’)


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