Book number two for 2013 is The Awakening and Selected Stories by Kate Chopin. I came to Chopin the way most people do, by reading "The Story of an Hour" multiple times in school. A professor of mine who taught the short story went on a bit of a rant about how much he did not think The Awakening was worth reading and so I avoided it for a long time. But it is a classic, and is one of the first big feminist novels, so I dove in. Plus it had been denounced at publication for being too erotic so that also pulled me in.
Edna Pontellier is a young woman, not very satisfied with her marriage or motherhood. She spends her summer at a large resort off the Gulf of Mexico with other well-to-do families and there begins to realize that there is a world outside of her marriage. She is determined to take her life into her own hands, and goes about arranging her life as she pleases. The consequences of her actions bear down upon her heavily, but once her eyes are open to a new way of living she cannot go back.
"She had all her life long been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles. They belonged to her and were her own, and she entertained the conviction that she had a right to them and that they concerned no one but herself."
The writing is beautiful, evoking ghost stories and paralleled to Jesus Christ even, which is explained in the introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert of this edition. Instead of betrayal by a friend, it is society that betrays Edna, and she rises above it, called on by a higher power. Gilbert posits that Edna's story is the retelling of Aphrodite/Venus, set in contrast to the Jesus Christ story.
I've seen this book get a lot of flak because Edna basically leaves her kids behind (at their loving grandmother's) to forward her own life. Frankly I think that is a shame. Edna is laid out as "not a mother-woman." She tries to keep up the emotions that society expects her to have of her children, and she does love them in her way, but she cannot be one of the women "who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels." Not all of us women are born to be mothers, and Edna did not have any choice in the matter. She did the best she could but she did not have to sacrifice her spirit just because she had children.
I have to say that I don't quite understand my English Professor's dislike of this book. But then again, he really liked Moby Dick. For me, The Awakening was a wonderful read, and should be taught just as much in schools.
The selected works were also very good, but frankly I was reading for The Awakening. "The Story of an Hour" remains one of my all time favorite short stories, just under three pages and perfect.