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#AmReading The Awakening by Kate Chopin (with Safety Gear)

I have just read the introduction (by Marilynne Robinson in this edition) and first few chapters of Kate Chopin's The Awakening. I am immediately reminded of Nedjma's The Almond: The Sexual Awakening of a Muslim Woman, published only about a decade ago.

Although The Almond was written over a century after The Awakening, I read The Almond first. I still remember the sting of reaching the last page and despairing of finding the kind of mind-body-spirit enlightenment implied by the positive word "awakening." I thought a better word might be "disillusionment." Or perhaps, at best, "disenchantment."

It is the story of a girl sexually abused in an oppressive culture, who escapes that culture only to carry the burden of her unhealed trauma into unfamiliar territory, where she wanders compulsively and blindly through (to her) a social wilderness without form, vulnerable and easily victimized. She regresses to her childhood before the trauma, attempts to rediscover her sexual self, suffers new trauma, and finally gives up on sexuality, love, and happiness entirely.

Ouch!

I was expecting some kind of awakening to pleasure based on the cover of the book and found myself whip-lashed into a story of pain awakening to deeper pain.

It left a lasting impression on me.

So I thought it was very, very good--insofar as it moved me, showed me an example of a world less familiar to me, and made me think about it and remember it for years afterward--even though I did not enjoy reading the book in the least.

As a woman who did escape a sexually oppressive and abusive culture (of particularly authoritarian Roman Catholicism)--granted, without suffering the kind of trauma personally that Nedjma's character did--and found friends and lovers in early adulthood who graced my life with healing, loving, healthy expressions of sexuality--I felt, after reading The Almond, like someone who had crossed a perilous river and reached the shore, only to look back and see a companion drown.

Ophelia in the Thistles by Georges Jules Victor Clairin

This time around, I'm wise to the old trick presented by the word "Awakening" in the title of a book dealing with an oppressed woman's sexuality. Based on the introduction and heavy foreshadowing presented in the early chapters of Chopin's novel, I've been spoilered enough to see where this story is going.

Let's see, we have a girl with a naturally high sex drive who lives in an oppressive culture that acts like a pressure cooker, turning a normal human impulse into a consumptive obsession.

She escapes that culture and ends up with the first man who lavishes her with sexual and romantic attention, even though she doesn't know him well. Of course, it doesn't work out happily ever after.

She feels lost in her new environment, where people seem to act so freely that she loses her senses of moral and individual orientation. She cannot even be sure about how she feels, or why, or what she remembers from her own past. She is disoriented with her relative freedom, lacking the lifelong cultural competence with which to navigate her new society. She feels out of place, inadequate, and confused.

Meanwhile, her sexual desires stay repressed, because unlike her new friends, she did not marry for love, and she is not comfortable enough to joke about sex, talk freely about sex, or express herself in safe, playful ways. Although she has escaped her oppressors, she has carried the repression into her new life and has not successfully integrated with a different way of living.

She is distressed, frustrated, and vulnerable as a kitten in a paper sailboat.

Sounds familiar.

I'm going to keep reading, because it's all about the exquisite details of how the story is told, not just what happens. But I'm definitely putting on my emotional scuba suit this time.

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