Like many high school students, my son is given a list of books to read over the summer. He always complains no matter the selections. Sometimes, both because I'm interested and because I feel like it might motivate him if he can discuss a book with me, I'll read a title he is assigned. Last summer one of the three books on his list was The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Set in late 19th-century New Orleans and published in 1899, it is the story of an unfulfilled wife and mother who seeks love and passion outside of her family life. Dismissed as morbid, vulgar, and disagreeable when it was released, it is now widely recognized as a landmark in American literature.
In the beginning, probably in mid-July, my son and I bonded over the fact that we both found the story to be very, very slow. Within just a few chapters he was ready to give up. I wanted to set a good example and keep on going, but every night instead of picking up the book off the floor beside my bed and reading, I would find something else to do—usually involving Netflix or my Iphone. Part of my problem, I quickly realized, was laziness. I had become so used to the instant gratification of the internet and to the passive comfort of swiping through photos and watching tv shows and movies on demand that I didn't have the "muscle" to pay attention to words on the page, to put them together to create a vision of what was happening in my mind and I was feeling in my soul.
Around mid-August, I thought to myself, I have to read this book. And slowly 10 pages a night turned to 20 and then more. I was getting used to the language and the pace. The story was creeping up on me and resonating.
Midway through Chapter 19, Chopin writes:
"It sometimes entered Mr. Pontelier's mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world."
That fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world? That could be our clothing, our makeup, our Instagram feeds, the choices we make to please others, the feelings we edit before sharing because we fear the that the full truth will be judged poorly.
And then at the end of the same chapter:
"There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why,—when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day; nor weave fancies to stir her pulses and warm her blood."
Edna Pontellier was deeply depressed. She could not even pretend to be happy. She felt trapped in a life that didn't suit her within a society that couldn't understand her. While women in this country have many more options now than they did in the late nineteenth century, our full stories still often remain hidden. Chopin could have been writing about me or any number of women I know today—complicated women who struggle to figure out how to be true to their inner longings while, at the same time, lead productive, generous lives. Women who are uncomfortable wearing the garment of a "fictitious self" created by society's expectations. Women who deeply feel a broad range or emotions, some of them quite dark. Women who are reluctant to admit that the partner and children they love are not everything they need.
Just yesterday my son saw The Awakening in my hands again and exclaimed.. "Why are you looking at that book again? Do you actually think it was good? Yes. I think it was good. Yes, I'm glad I read it. Today I started poking around the internet to learn more about Chopin and found The Kate Chopin International Society, a rich resource. This passage from Norwegian author Per Seyersted's 1969 book Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, further piqued my interest:
Kate Chopin "broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardly fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman's submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman's urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom."
The complexities of truth and the complications of freedom: that is a lot to think about. This curiosity rising in me reminds me that reading a novel can be like a meditation, a slowing down to reach a deeper place. It is a rhythmic, quiet process that can put us in touch with parts of ourselves that have been laying dormant within.