One of those embarrassing pictures of my youth held hostage by the Internet featured The Awakening. My senior year of high school, I posted a series of selfies (before selfies were cool, of course) of my reaction to Kate Chopin’s classic to that early social network, Friendster. Mildly pleased at first, then bored, then scandalized and confused, and finally, empowered and satisfied.
Years later, when I went through my internet photo purge preceding my first year of teaching, I contacted Friendster and asked them to take down the pictures. I had long forgotten my email and password, and I needed their help. They asked for pictures of my driver’s license and other personal information to confirm my identity. Too much work, I thought, mostly because I didn’t have access to a scanner. I crossed my fingers and hoped my students wouldn’t find those pictures and turn me into a meme.
They didn’t. And now Friendster is dead, and I assume, so are my pictures. Alas. I did actually like those goofy selfies.
The Awakening has slipped into my life at infrequent intervals: first during my senior year, then during a college class on feminist literature, then as the literary analysis piece for my ELAR teacher certification test. Now that I am a wife, a mother, and a teacher, I think of it constantly. Particularly, I think of this passage, the one that stuck with me the longest after high school, and consequentially, the one that showed up on my teacher certification test:
“It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define to his own satisfaction or any one else’s wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. It was something which he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without subsequent regret and ample atonement.
If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother’s arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up, wipe the water out of his eyes and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing. Tots as they were, they pulled together and stood their ground in childish battles with doubled fists and uplifted voices, which usually prevailed against the other mother-tots. The quadroon nurse was looked upon as a huge encumbrance, only good to button up waists and panties and to brush and part hair; since it seemed to be a law of society that hair must be parted and brushed.
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were 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.”
When I was a child, my mother would mourn for my future husband, saying I was too strong-willed to be a good Indian wife. When I decided to become a teacher, my friends and family questioned me, wondering aloud whether I was nurturing and gentle enough for the field. When I became pregnant, I worried for 9 months that I couldn’t be like my Facebook friends who had transformed into Chopin’s “mother-woman.”
But it is because of Kate Chopin and Edna Pontellier that I learned that I did not have to lose myself to be a good wife, mother, or teacher. I love and find joy in my husband, daughter, and students, but I do not worship them or see them as infallible. (Although I must admit, my daughter is a toddler and I am fully enjoying these adorable years before she becomes an awkward, intolerable adolescent.) I have a life outside of them, and that is OK. In fact, I find that my ability to set boundaries allows me to be more fulfilled in my roles as wife, mother, and teacher.
This is why fiction is important. It shows us possibilities, allows us to see what we can be, especially when the people around us do not. Through fiction, we can imagine solutions and make them a reality. Were it not for Kate Chopin, my struggle to maintain my individuality and identity through marriage, motherhood, and employment would have been much greater than it has been. Edna Pontellier’s story may not have ended perfectly, but through her I was able to create a better story for myself. Stories have that power.
If one of my students digs through Google Images and stumbles across my selfies from years ago, I won’t be ashamed. That was the moment that a book sowed seeds of strength within me, and of that I am proud. I may look like a doofus, though. Alas, even the most empowered women can’t change those awkward adolescent years.
Title: The Awakening
Author: Kate Chopin
Category: Literature; Feminist literature
What it’s about: Edna Pontellier struggles to maintain her individuality in a society that insists that a woman’s identity should be limited to her duties as wife and mother.
The C for Chopin image is part of my new project, AlphaLit Books. I am currently featuring women writers for each letter of the alphabet. I will be posting these on Instagram using the hashtag #alphalitbooks. Let me know if you have ideas for writers that I can feature!