Awakenings, Large and Small

Poppies in Helsinki's Winter Garden
Poppies in Helsinki’s Winter Garden

The state of wakening consciousness isn’t always welcome, even though it is a routine occurrence in our lives. But beyond the awakening brought on by alarm clocks, there are others—spiritual, emotional, sexual awakenings—that have far-reaching consequences, some that can be enormously beneficial (regime change) and some that can wind up in disaster (regime change).

An awakening—a conscious sense of awareness—can come on gradually (daylight filtering into a room) or be a sudden shock to the system (the loud, annoying alarm you can’t ignore). A significant person comes into, or leaves your life; you visit a place so different from home that you feel noticeably foreign, even invisible, in it; an event causes you take notice in ways you never have. Your senses are sharpened, your emotions heightened, time stops, then races. You walk through the world, aware in an entirely new way.

Whatever the cause, life changes dramatically after an awakening. You know you can no longer go on living the way you have. You have to make a choice, a big one, and you are afraid of letting go of the safe and familiar place you inhabit. That’s an awakening.

Kate Chopin, author of The Awakening
Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, was considered controversial (it was outright banned in places) when it was first published in 1899. In the novel, Edna Pontellier, a 28-year-old wife and mother of two young boys, experiences a complex, growing awareness of desires that are forbidden to a young married woman in the tight-knit turn-of-the-century southern Louisiana society where she resides. More than anything, she wants to be happy, and to be happy, she needs to be free of what is expected of her as a woman of her times. Edna’s awakening ultimately has devastating consequences.

I’ve come back to the book several times over the course of my life. The first time, I was a college student and the beauty of Chopin’s writing took my breath away. Edna’s story appealed to my sense of romance, and danger. I read it again as a young mother, and recently reread it just to enjoy being in the places of Chopin’s novel: Grand Isle, Louisiana and New Orleans more than a century ago.

In the intervening years since the novel was written, women have gained many more choices than Edna Pontellier ever had. Feminism arrived on the scene in my girlhood, and when I graduated from college in the early 80’s, the world was my oyster in almost every way. And yet….

And yet…. As I was poised to make choices about ‘who I wanted to be,’ thoughts of Edna came to mind. She had a doting husband who was a great provider, she didn’t need to work, she had a nice house, lovely vacations on Grand Isle. Yet she was completely miserable and in her desire for personal happiness, she caused a great deal of unhappiness to all around her.

Still, through everything, I wanted her to be happy and was sad at the tragic consequences of her dream. I wondered if I could be happy with a life like hers. A world without a lot of choices for women (sometimes choice is a burden), a really quiet life in the south with only books for company, a doting rich Southern husband….hmm. What would I have done in a life like that? Perhaps the same thing she wound up doing. Wondering about Edna’s life will bring me back to more readings of The Awakening, I am sure.

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