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I Survived The Awakening

I've finished reading Kate Chopin's classic novel The Awakening, and though it was intense, I am not left with the same soul-sick feeling I had after reading Nedjma's brutal novel The Almond: The Sexual Awakening of a Muslim Woman. The latter is a story about a sane woman who is traumatized and worn down by sexual and emotional abuse until she gives up on romantic love. It's a story that one could imagine happening to just about anyone, given the same life experiences. "There but for the grace of God..."

Kate Chopin's The Awakening, on the other hand, is about the "awakening" of a mental illness in a woman whose troubles cannot be as clearly traced to specific wounds inflicted upon her from the outside. A singular instance of abuse is absent, though the story certainly hints at a repressive childhood grounded in patriarchal religious fundamentalism. The main character, Edna, sets off on a course of destruction when she jumps at the first available means of escape from her father's household--marriage to a man she likes but does not love.

Although Edna finds herself in a society of privilege, leisure, and social freedom, she does not integrate successfully and feels lost and restricted by her own unexamined repression, which she has carried into her married life. Throughout the novel, nature (which is ultimately inescapable) is portrayed as beautiful and enchanting but also deadly and cruel--human nature not excepted. The pleasant Creole lifestyle Edna shares with her new family and friends rests grotesquely upon the system of American slavery and its continuing postwar legacy of racial servitude, which the author continuously points out to the reader, as if to remind us how easy it is to dehumanize and compartmentalize. But Edna does not think deeply about this or any social issue at all; all her curiosity, pain, and longing focus inward, on what she naively thinks is both a personal flaw and a core part of her identity--mad crushes on hotties. She obsesses over her own proclivity to obsess.

The Awakening, written over a hundred years ago, gives the most accurate, poignant, and revelatory portrait of what it feels like to be a teenager that I have ever read. I've read many celebrated depictions of adolescence, including The Outsiders, written by a teen, and stories by Joyce Carol Oates (one of my favorite authors). But The Outsiders sounds just like, well, a story written by a teenager from inside her own neurological fog. It is the naivety it seeks to describe. And I feel that Oates writes teenagers exactly the way you would expect an observant adult to write them. One's perspective is too close, and the other's is too far.

Kate Chopin absolutely nails it with her angsty, self-obsessed, impulsive, hyper-charged character Edna. She puts thoughts, feelings, and experiences of teenage consciousness that are inexplicable into words. She does this so well that I had lightning-flash memories of having the exact same kinds of surreal sensations, confused thoughts, and uncontrollable feelings as Edna--experiences I had already forgotten as an adult, because I had never been able to capture them in words as elegantly as Chopin does, from multiple angles--from inside, outside, and close to the skin.

[Side note: I am listening to NPR's All Songs Considered live stream as I type this, and Nirvana's "In Bloom" just came on like it had exploded out of my psyche. It's like... it's like... ugh, Nevermind!]

The problem is, Edna is not 17 years old. She is a 28-year-old wife and mother having what probably would have been labeled a "regression" in her time, and also a severe case of what we would now call manic and depressive episodes. Edna is NUTS. And though her friends and family recognize it--her husband seeks medical attention for her, and her best friend encourages her to always be supervised by another adult--they do not manage to successfully treat, or even manage, Edna's condition.

It's a chilling ride through luscious, Edenic landscapes in the head of a woman spiraling toward the ultimate picture of insanity: stripped naked outdoors, committing suicide so as not to lose her "true self" as defined by the archetypal characteristics of adolescence.

Chopin certainly points out social wrongs along the way--married women suffering in various ways from their inability to control the timing and frequency of childbirth; racial oppression; religious fundamentalism. But Edna's demons come from within as well as without. It's a hot mess of a tragedy without a particular villain to hang.

I enjoyed reading The Awakening (though it helps that I went in knowing the title was not primarily a reference to pleasure or enlightenment), and it ironically made me feel better about myself. I remember the shame and horror of being an awkward, mentally undeveloped teenager--and Chopin has provided a striking portrayal of my own teenage self, reified in a stunningly beautiful work of literature. Also, it was a comfort to contrast my 28-year-old self with Edna's. If I ever questioned my "adulting" skills at that age, I was still worlds ahead of poor Edna in terms of emotional health and maturity.

Then again, I had thrown off my own chains of religious oppression in my actual teens--without having to marry an older man or anyone else--and I've benefited all my fertile years from effective birth control.

After finishing Chopin's classic novel, I feel "awakened" to deeper self-knowledge, to various social issues, and to a renewed gratitude for the luxuries of living in the 21st century.


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