It was hard to fully appreciate The Awakening when I first read it, given to me by my sophomore-year English teacher to appease my rage against all the Hemingway we were assigned. It was one among a small stack of books from her home library—including titles by Henry James, Gloria Naylor, and Gabriel García Márquez—that would begin to make up the backbone of my own personal canon. But I read The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, first. Its back flap copy promised a feminist classic, and it sounded pretty sexy besides.
It was 2001. I was fifteen years old and neither mother nor wife (nor straight, though I didn’t realize it at the time). I understood The Awakening’s appeal in the abstract; I appreciated that, despite the seeming quaintness of its epiphany, its content was radical, even shocking for its era. But Edna’s suicide seemed, to my teenage self, as melodramatic as Romeo and Juliet’s. So what if Robert left her? Was that any reason to die?
Rereading The Awakening as an adult, I find that it’s nearly impossible to re-create that quick-to-judge adolescent frame of mind. Having marinated in the world of men for nearly two decades, I have a far better understanding of the depth and breadth of Edna’s suffering. When I read the book now, every male character—the resentful, petty husband; the philandering cad; the condescending doctor; the fickle man-child—induces a bowel-curdling rage. It occurs to the present-day me that a more just ending would have involved Edna drowning any of those men in the Gulf—maybe all of them—and then going to take a well-deserved swim.
Here is the story of a woman who begins to discover herself as a human being, as a sexual creature. Who realizes that while she would “give [her] life for [her] children,” she “wouldn’t give [herself],” a sentiment that people still find baffling, astonishing. A woman who stops referring to her drawing as dabbling and begins to think of herself as an artist. Who claims a little house all her own. Who directs the schedule of her days.
Think of the nap Edna takes at Madame Antoine’s: Is there any scene in literature more ecstatically real? How she takes pleasure in being in bed by herself, in feeling her own body. Her sleep, her metaphorical death, her rebirth. How she wakes up hours later, rested, comforted, listening to the distant murmur of voices. How she powders her face, eats ravenously, and emerges: a new woman into a new world.
But you can feel free without really being free. Most of us do. Like many stories of women’s lives, The Awakening is wreathed in anguish, shot through with sorrow and heartbreaking details: Edna watching a friend in childbirth. “With an inward agony, with a flaming, outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature, she witnessed the scene of torture.” The ways of Nature. How, throughout, the children act out the inevitable fates of their respective sexes in miniature. “A small band of [children] were lying on their stomachs on the floor looking at the colored sheets of the comic papers which Mr. Pontellier had brought down. The little Pontellier boys were permitting them to do so, and making their authority felt.” Making their authority felt. How she mourns when she learns to swim. “Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!” Think of the time I have lost.
I felt freer at fifteen than I do at thirty-two. Now I know better.
It is not hard to imagine that even if Edna had left her husband, taken up with Robert, and abandoned her children, she would have found new miseries. She gets an inkling of this just before Robert leaves her. She has to remind him, “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.”
Edna has discovered herself, but the world has not yet discovered her. She seems to know, even then, that there are always fresh sorrows in the wings for women, just waiting for their cue.
Many years after I first read The Awakening, I discovered that it was not Chopin’s only piece of fiction in which she explored themes of feminist epiphanies, of women waking up, gasping, beneath the burden of men’s mediocrity, their entitlement. In “The Story of an Hour”—originally published in Vogue as “The Dream of an Hour” five years before The Awakening scandalized the world—a woman is told by a family friend that her husband is listed among the dead in a train accident. When she goes to her room alone, she moves through her grief and into a kind of ecstatic, transcendent revelation. She realizes that she is now, “body and soul,” free.
There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature …
Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.
And then, just as she has catalogued the breadth and potential of her freedom, the intoxicating giddiness of it, her husband—not dead, not realizing he was thought to be dead—arrives home. The family friend tries to block him from her view, to avoid shock, but to no avail. “When the doctors came,” the story ends, “they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills.”
The dream of that hour was freedom—it was the waking that killed her. Once you have tasted freedom, Chopin seems to be showing us, its confiscation—or knowing that its confiscation is inevitable—is impossible to bear. You cannot survive it.
So: Edna’s suicide. My take on it as a teenager was that she was heartbroken that Robert had left, but now there are so many other, less simple ways for me to read it: That death is the only way to have things on her own terms. That she does not want to be forced to bring any more children into this world. That she does not believe she’ll be able to fight for herself in the future the way she is able to now. That she realizes her freedom is a kind of illusion, and always will be. Each option is grimmer than the last, and each is entirely plausible.
It is, with a modern eye, perhaps difficult to feel much sympathy for the ennui of an upper-class woman with every advantage in the world aside from her sex. But the cruelty of what is denied her is no small thing; a reminder, perhaps, of the ways in which the dimensions of women’s existences are flattened no matter their privilege.
Almost a hundred years after the 1899 publication of The Awakening, Dorothy Allison wrote in her memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure: “Women lose their lives not knowing they can do something different.” The only tragedy worse than Edna’s would have been a novel in which she lived and died never realizing she had another choice. For all her pain, she knew, albeit briefly, what it was to have her own days. She knew what it was to wake up.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the World Fantasy Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and was the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. In 2018, the New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as one of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.” Machado holds an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philadelphia with her wife.
From the book The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, to be published on June 18, 2019, by Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Carmen Maria Machado.