I’d like to be Hermione Granger, but I’m worried I’m more Edna Pontellier

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.

Here’s my first one!

So, I know in my About page I said that this blog was going to be mostly classics, but I just have to make my first post about one of my favorite books of all time.

The World According to Garp by John Irving.

I first read this book the summer before my junior year of high school as part of a summer reading assignment. Usually in high school, the books that students are assigned to read tend to be what they think of as outdated, long-winded books that they will either forget completely two minutes after the test, or simply neglect to read completely. At the time, I wrote to my teacher, “We simply cannot relate to these supposedly great literary works, and instead many of us turn to low-quality teen fiction that is filled with the sort of gossip and issues we can connect with on a surface level.” I anticipated suffering through the typical, irrelevant, dull droning that I had come to expect when doing school reading when I serendipitously discovered Garp. The book is about thirty-five years old, but the themes are timeless.

There is a certain universal quality present in this novel, which details the life of one particular boy, T.S. Garp, from the time of his highly unusual conception in 1943 to the time of his premature death thirty-three years later. Given this time frame, the reader can really get to know Garp and all of his strange idiosyncrasies, and eventually come to love him. Garp is born of an avid feminist named Jenny Fields, who, wanting a baby but not wanting a man, gets pregnant by copulating with a brain-damaged, dying soldier in a hospital where she worked. She raises Garp in her own strange fashion, and, likely due to a lack of instruction from his asexual mother, Garp goes through puberty and enters adulthood with some pretty peculiar notions about sex. From his first erotic experience in which he wonders whether condoms need to be refrigerated to extramarital affairs with babysitters, Garp is sexually (and otherwise) strange through and through. However, the novel isn’t just about Garp’s sexual escapades. It is about social justice and activism, feminism, self-discovery, making mistakes, and a man (and his family’s) journey through life. It is alternately tragic and hilarious, outrageous and outraging, and it details beautifully the complications of the human experience. The freak literary coincidences that mark John Irving’s work combined with a sense of realism make this book a unique kind of storytelling. Readers really feel like they know Garp and the whole cast of outrageous social outcast characters because they are all dynamic, human, real. As Jillsy the cleaning lady says in it, “A book feels true when it’s true. A book’s true when you can say, ‘Yeah! That’s just how damn people behave all the time. Then you know it’s true.'”

This one’s worth a read for anybody, and it also happens to be one of the most accessible of Irving’s work. There’s also a roughly 90-minute movie version with Robin Williams and John Lithgow, which is not bad, but doesn’t come even close to doing justice to the book, so if you’re still not sold and want to run a risk-free trial, watch the movie, and then imagine it about 1000 times better, and then go read this book.

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