Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has been heralded as a pioneering feminist novel since its publication in 1899. Set in the oppressive environment of the postbellum American South, the plot centres around Edna Pontellier (a respectable young mother and wife) and her struggle to achieve sexual and personal emancipation. Edna is a brilliantly written character, joining the likes of Jane Eyre amongst the heroines of protofeminism. Breaking through the passive role appointed to her by society, Edna not only acknowledges her dreams and desires but also has the strength and courage to act on them. It is, in its most simple form, the story of a woman discovering her own identity independent of her husband and children. It’s also a heart wrenching love story, or almost-love story.
Enter Robert Lebrun.
After a painstaking year of friendship and building sexual tension, Robert and Edna confess their love for each other near the end of the novel. It’s dramatic and passionate and primes the reader for the satisfying resolution of a union. Edna sits on Robert’s porch alone, restless, and decides: to hell with the consequences, she will finally spend the night with him and finally, finally embark on the affair they have both secretly longed for, for so long. She marches into the house ‘with the intoxication of expectancy’ and then—
She finds him gone. The house is empty. Nothing but an eight word note remains: “I love you. Goodbye — because I love you.” (p. 124)
This is so shocking because it occurs at the climax of the novel — right at the moment when Edna and Robert’s romance comes the closest to fulfilment and fruition. The reader feels cheated, the happy ending is snatched away. But why? Initially, I blamed Robert, obviously, him being a man and all. Men! And their flighty non-committal bullshit! And then, oh god, I realised that during the exchange between the two of them confessing their mutual romantic feelings, Edna pretty much tells him flat out that she will never marry him: “I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours.’ I should laugh at you both.” (p.119) Edna admits here that even if Robert is the love of her life, she will never marry him because she does not want to be tied down; she wants to remain a free spirit, untethered by expectations or feelings both from and towards a man. Robert’s decision to leave shortly after hearing this is because he knows that he will never have Edna, at least not in the way he really wants — not only because of societal expectations (her being a married woman and mother), but also because she will never give herself fully (“Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself (…) for anyone.”) (p.53).
Edna will never belong to anyone other than herself. Robert ultimately knows this, I think; knows that his dreams of marriage and a family would only serve to limit and restrict her independence, her growing interests, passions, and desires to explore and experience and break free from oppressive social constraints. He can’t bring himself to dim or deaden her dreams, or to deprive her of the kind of life she she wants, so he leaves. At the height of her self-actualisation, he leaves. He loves her in this moment—infinitely—for who she is, for who she wants to be; but he knows all too well: that by not wanting to be anyone’s anything, she will never be his, either.
Thinking about my teenage self. Thinking about the death of dreams and selfhood in adolescence, wherein women become partly conventional and partly legend; when their sense of reality is sapped and they begin to exist, function, perform — not for themselves but for a growing, persistent awareness of everyone else: when autonomy and freedom is given away and set aside at the very brink of its actualisation and allure.
Most women, without access to resources and education, cannot change their lives, so interwoven with their very existence are the systems that oppress them. All they can do past a certain point is to merely wish, hope, dream for change… Reduced to magical thinking, lamenting on lost opportunities and stolen potential — what once was, what might have been — whilst constantly having to face the reality of what they are; of who they’ve become: “fire, tears, wit, taste, and martyred ambition.”
(That last line is from an angry Adrienne Rich poem, ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law’, a tribute to “women whose dreams have been aborted and whose very beings have been thwarted and silenced.”)
Some days I just really miss my grandpa. He was the most humble, gentle, and kindest man I’ve ever known. Being from a working class family in London, when he came to Nottingham to do his PhD he was sneered at for not having come through Oxford or Cambridge. He went on to win a Nobel prize anyway. Despite the brilliance of his mind and the reverence of his peers — travelling around the globe to give speeches and lectures — at home he preferred to keep in the background, only contributing to conversation when he had something important to add, or, when my grandma – matriarchal and catholic and always speaking her mind – had to be told to “put a sock in it, Jean.”
He had a dry sense of humour – not really one for jokes or comedy, but prone to the occasional deadpan one liner: “What was the most romantic thing you ever did for granny?” “Marry her.”
I saw him get angry maybe once in my life. He was sensitive. Observant. Neurotic – something I think stemmed from having been separated from his mother at a young age during the war. He was always fixated on something. His mind was constantly working, constantly thinking. He would take apart electronic gadgets just to see how they were assembled so he could later make his own (and improve/adjust accordingly). He was the most determined person I’ve ever met. Failed his eleven plus exam and was advised not to pursue science. Pursued it anyway, became a professor of Physics, built rockets in his spare time, taught himself three languages, got his piloting license in his forties. Nothing stopped him once he’d set his mind on something.
I remember asking him once, how did it feel, knowing the impact MRI had — has — every single day; what did it feel like to indirectly help so many people etc, and, in keeping with the very essence of his nature (this perfectly summarises his personality and who he was), he thought about his answer very carefully before slowly replying something to the effect of: “for every success of MRI, there’s the patient for who it marks the beginning of the end” (in which the scan discovered some incurable, advanced, aggressive tumour for which prognosis was poor to non existent) “so I think about them too.” Literally nothing sums up my grandpa more than that answer: downplaying his incredible achievements by choosing to focus on the sobering reality.
He loved physics. Almost as much as he loved being a grandpa. He loved raspberry picking and making his own jam at home. When we were little, he loved freaking us out with that detachable thumb trick. He made us hot cocoa every night before bed. His stories of choice were educational but always first hand and personal; of the East End, Devon, of bomb shelters and doodlebugs. An air of quiet, dignified respect followed him – you couldn’t help but be in awe of him – and yet, he was the most unassuming person. The most consistent man in my life. I will always miss him.