For this post, I’m actually picking out a proper classic. (Not Harry Potter, although I am a HUGE fan.)
The Awakening by Kate Chopin.
Published in 1899, this novel was groundbreaking for its time, both for its concentration on female social issues and its prefiguring of modernism. It centers on Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother living in Creole Lousiana but struggling with both roles. Edna suffers from what Betty Friedan would later call “the problem with no name.” Despite having a decent marriage and two young children, she is unfulfilled. She idolizes and befriends the local social outcast, Madamoiselle Reisz, whose gifted piano playing moves Edna to tears the first time she hears it. Madamoiselle Reisz stands in as one end of the spectrum of womanhood: independent, empowered, but isolated from society. Edna’s friend Adele Ratignolle represents the other end: constantly pregnant, endlessly maternal, loving, and dutiful. Adele’s most famous phrase is “Think of the children.” As the book goes on, Edna moves further and further from the Adele ideal as she contemplates her place in the universe and begins to ponder what she wants rather than what she has to do. To complicate matters more, she falls in love with Roger LeBrun, a local man, who seems to care for her too, but then flees to Mexico when a relationship seems to be forming. When Edna’s husband leaves on a business trip, she embarks on a brief affair with the well-known philanderer Alcee Arobin, but then abandons it. She ceases to accept visitors and cook meals, much to her husband’s chagrin and bewilderment. In the end, Robert returns and confesses his love to Edna, and her struggle climaxes as she is torn between her desire and her responsibility to her children.
I won’t spoil the ending here, since I’m hoping that someone will read this post and pick up the book, and nobody is going to do that if I Snape-kills-Dumbledore all over it. The reason this book is so intense and also somewhat frightening is because for the younger generations, it forces us to realize the lives our mothers may have had to give up to be our mothers. As a young person coming up on adulthood, it scares me now more than ever, because it illuminates what we might be giving up in the future if we make certain choices. However, the novel is not all doom and gloom. It is empowering, enlightening, often clever, and always beautifully worded. The naturalist style makes it sort of like a less depressing Ethan Frome, and the modernist southern-based writing looks forward to Faulkner. Chopin gives silent women a voice about 70 years before anyone was really listening, and the novel is still relevant today, especially for young women looking toward their futures, but also as a beacon of solidarity for all of us that feel like we’re trying to fit into molds we might just not be made for.
This book is only something like a hundred pages long, and it’ll be readily available in any local library, around 5 bucks at Barnes & Noble, and probably free or close to it on Kindle, so there’s no excuse for not reading this one. If nothing else, it’ll give you the chance to brag about your classic literature repertoire.