Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” was written in 1899. It’s the story of Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother, who falls in love with the son of a friend while on vacation in Grand Isle, Louisiana. When “The Awakening” was first published it sparked moral outrage and disturbed readers. Now it’s considered a feminist landmark. But in the late 1800’s, feminism had barely found its voice in the South. Edna’s desire to find her true self defied social conventions and she is literally swept her away on her journey of self-discovery. For our April Readers’ Review: Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”.

Guests

  • Jane Holmes Dixon Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington
  • Judith Warner author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" and "We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication" and a columnist for Time.com
  • E. Ethelbert Miller poet; director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, Board Chair of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Program Highlights

Kate Chopin’s turn-of-the-century novel “The Awakening” is our Readers’ Review book this month. With talk of the so-called war on women in this election year, it seems particularly relevant to return to this landmark feminist novel. Our guests discuss the book and its significance today.

The Word “Depression” Not Used In The Text

Though the novel deals with themes of depression, the actual term is not used in the text – possibly because, Miller muses, it just wasn’t part of the terminology at the time. Edna, the main character, is thrown in to a culture she isn’t familiar with. Up until she marries, she’s been used to a very Presbyterian-Protestant life. After her marriage, she goes to New Orleans and is exposed to the freer Creole culture. “They play a game that she doesn’t understand and that she can’t master,” Warner said.

“It Was Considered A Scandal”

The book, when it was first published, “was considered a scandal. It was absolutely rejected. It was considered vulgar. The writing was considered to be terrible,” Warner said. About ten years after Chopin’s death, people started recognizing its worth. “It wasn’t really valued and recognized as a feminist work until, of course, much later, until we had the vocabulary to see it that way. But I just wondered how much of the ending followed necessarily from the character or how much was it a structuring device that served some other purpose? And I don’t know,” Warner said.

Isolation

Edna, like many women who had few options in the past, felt isolation keenly. A caller who is a stay-at-home father pointed out that anyone who stays home with children primarily is at risk for feeling this kind of isolation today. “I love staying home with my son, but it is so alienating because mothers do not like to associate with me when I take my son places because there is just a social stigma about stay at home fathers. And so I just wanted to point out that it is something that has come to light for women and that’s a good thing, but I would like to see it sort of come to light more for men as well,” the caller said.

You can read the full transcript here.

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Kate Chopin's turn of the century novel "The Awakening" is our Readers' Review book this month. With talk of the so-called war on women in this election year, it seems particularly relevant to return to this landmark feminist novel. Joining me to talk about the book, the Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon, Judith Warner, she's author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" and E. Ethelbert Mille of Howard University and board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies. I hope you'll join us with your questions and comments. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your email to drshow@wamu.org, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning and welcome to all of you.

  • 11:07:58

    MS. JANE HOLMES DIXONGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:07:59

    MR. E. ETHELBERT MILLERGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:07:59

    MS. JUDITH WARNERGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:07:59

    REHMGood to see you. Ethelbert, is this the first time you've read this novel?

  • 11:08:06

    MILLERYes, this is the first time I've read this novel, but I look the context in which I read it in and I go back to last month when we lost Adrienne Rich and she affected...

  • 11:08:16

    REHMThe poet.

  • 11:08:16

    MILLER...my life. And her work, in terms of dealing with women, "Of Women Born," was a very important text. I look at it today in terms of the political climate, the discussion around Ann Romney and, you know, what happens with women who prefer to stay at home and raise their families, that's still an issue, it seems to be in our society. So the book is very timely for me. Back in the '70s, I had started a feminist press with my friend Barbara Berman and this was her favorite book. So...

  • 11:08:48

    REHMReally.

  • 11:08:48

    MILLER...so it's interesting that some of my friends -- they may not have shared it with me, but this was their favorite book.

  • 11:08:53

    REHMFirst time for you?

  • 11:08:55

    DIXONFirst time for me, Diane, yes.

  • 11:08:57

    REHMWhat'd you think?

  • 11:08:58

    DIXONOh, I thought it was wonderful. To be so perceptive, Kate Chopin, at this time of this -- the time in which she lived.

  • 11:09:09

    REHMThe era.

  • 11:09:10

    DIXONThe era in which she lived, it was, I thought, quite remarkable and I loved the way she put words together.

  • 11:09:17

    REHMJudith Warner, give us a brief rundown of this very short novel.

  • 11:09:25

    WARNERI suppose it's kind of an emotional coming of age story. A young woman, a young mother who is living in a somewhat loveless marriage, I think that we can say bound by duty, bound by convention, who goes on vacation and who falls in love, basically, and who slowly has the dawning awareness, the awakening of coming into her own sexuality, her sensuality, her sense of herself as something more than a wife and mother or daughter. And who eventually tries in her own way, her own limited way, to break free of convention, have more of an independent emotional, certainly, sexual life. And who, in the end, can't carry it off and kills herself when she realizes that she can't make true on her fantasy of being with the man she loves.

  • 11:10:25

    REHMDo you know that I have talked with some people who are unsure as to whether she actually commits suicide?

  • 11:10:39

    WARNERI can see that. I was a little bit unsure as I was reading it myself. And I think, maybe it's meant to be ambiguous because that scene at the end, as she's submerging herself in the ocean, could go either way. It could be a moment of freedom. It could be a moment of dying. It seemed to me that it was more consistent with the themes of the book and maybe the time for her to die. But I think the argument could really be made either way. And that's one of the things that's curious and very interesting about this book.

  • 11:11:15

    REHMAlso interesting is if she does, in fact, commit suicide, this is truly a precursor then to Virginia Woolf's novel.

  • 11:11:27

    MILLERWell, I think it also raises a question of how we view suicide. You know, it's not, to me, romantic. You know, I look at, especially within the African-American community, you know, suicide is very high especially among African-American young men. So it's very serious. I think it's also very much a concern in terms of when we see women who -- Anna, I think she's suffering from depression.

  • 11:11:50

    REHMSure.

  • 11:11:50

    MILLERYou know, if you're crying, things of that...

  • 11:11:51

    REHMShe is.

  • 11:11:51

    MILLER...sort, I don't see the word depression being used in the text, but maybe that's because it wasn't part of the terminology at that time. You know, but today, you know, when you look at the symptoms, you know, crying, you know, throwing things. I mean, being sad, I mean, those are all the symptoms that I think we have to address. And so suicide becomes an (word?) for that and it's very dangerous.

  • 11:12:11

    REHMAnd she's separating herself from everything, everyone she's been connected to, Jane.

  • 11:12:20

    DIXONShe does and the sentence that I like "The outward existence which conforms the inward life, which questions." And it seems to me that's the dilemma that she's living in. She knows what she's supposed to do. However she's in a culture that's somewhat different from the culture she was born and raised in. She's been in Kentucky. She's been in Mississippi, but it was a very Presbyterian-Protestant life. And she marries this man and goes to New Orleans to this wonderful -- it sounds freer life there in the Creole culture. And so she's had a rather large shock into how folk live and how they talk and how they enjoy themselves.

  • 11:13:03

    REHMAnd indeed, that word Creole is used to designate an aristocratic life.

  • 11:13:12

    DIXONExactly. But it's, you know, she sees those folk as different from her and how that they are freer in their language and the things that they talk about, their enjoyment of life. Coming from a strict Presbyterian world that I grew up in, that really rang home with me, that it was a very different existence.

  • 11:13:35

    REHMHow did you see that culture shock?

  • 11:13:39

    WARNERThey play a game that she doesn't understand and that she can't master. She enters into this world where there is an expectation. There will be a certain level of flirtation, let's say, between men and women, but that won't go further. And there are rules that bind that flirtation that allow it to go just so far normally. But she doesn't understand that. So she feels more, in a sense, then she's supposed to feel. And she somehow can't keep it all balanced. She can't stick by the rules of the game and embrace them and understand them.

  • 11:14:11

    REHMTell me a little, Ethelbert, about your impressions of Robert Lebrun.

  • 11:14:20

    MILLERWell...

  • 11:14:20

    REHMThe young man she falls in love with.

  • 11:14:22

    MILLER...well, this is another thing in terms of, you know, perhaps rattling the cradle, so to speak. You know, this is a relationship between an older woman and a younger man. And it...

  • 11:14:31

    REHMShe wasn't that much older, was she?

  • 11:14:33

    DIXONWell, still...

  • 11:14:33

    REHM21, 22?

  • 11:14:34

    DIXONWell, right.

  • 11:14:36

    MILLERWell, but still, you know, if you're looking at the culture, you know, it is a younger man.

  • 11:14:41

    REHMYeah, he was about 18.

  • 11:14:43

    MILLERRight.

  • 11:14:44

    WARNERNo, he's 26.

  • 11:14:45

    REHMHe's 26. Well then, she's 28.

  • 11:14:46

    MILLERBut -- right, and he's also young in terms of his behavior.

  • 11:14:50

    REHMYeah, right, true.

  • 11:14:51

    MILLERYou know, I mean, that's how he's being described. So we can also tell you, emotionally young. And so that can be a thing in terms of looking at -- it seems that where having this relationship is infatuation, you know, not maybe necessarily the level at we would like to define it as, but definitely an attraction in terms of physical. I think that is surrounded by a lot of references to nature. And that reinforces this relationship.

  • 11:15:13

    MILLERIt's very romantic. I think it captures the time. It captures the culture. And I think that if you look at what, you know, sometimes we look for in men and women, we look for this character, we look for somebody that attracts us and we can't get them out of our mind and things of that sort. When we really get together with them, we really don't know what to do.

  • 11:15:31

    REHMWere you sympathetic to her?

  • 11:15:36

    MILLEROh, I was. I tell you, when I got to the point where she rips off her wedding ring and puts her foot in it, I said, oh, I know some parts of the country where this isn't going to be read.

  • 11:15:46

    REHMYeah, exactly.

  • 11:15:46

    MILLERBut, you know, that hit me as being so radical, you know. And then you say okay, when was this book written?

  • 11:15:54

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:15:54

    MILLERYou know, not just ripping off the -- but ripping off and putting a heel into it for like an emphasis, you know.

  • 11:16:00

    REHMWere you sympathetic to it?

  • 11:16:02

    WARNERI was not sympathetic to her and I felt very bad about that. I felt like a bad feminist and a bad person for not being sympathetic to her. But I found her really narcissistic and childish. You know, you're way more charitable than I was in thinking about her as depressed. That didn't dawn on me. She seemed to me to just have so much frustrated narcissism and be so kind of limited in her ability to think. She can feel to a great extent, but she doesn't seem to be...

  • 11:16:34

    REHMInteresting.

  • 11:16:35

    WARNER...all that capable of rational thought. And even in that depiction, I wondered, it's almost as though Kate Chopin is reprising all of the stereotypes, the dominant stereotypes about the nature of women that were dominant in her time and, of course, it lasted for a very long time afterward as well.

  • 11:16:53

    REHMWhat do you mean?

  • 11:16:54

    WARNERAll heart rather than brain. Women as grown children. It made me think even of the scene in the early season of "Mad Men" when Betty Draper goes to the psychoanalyst who then talks behind her back to her husband and says she's a child. And I think there's truth to that as well in the Betty Draper picture that we see, the portrait of this woman. So it reminded me of that and on the one hand, I'm sympathetic because these women are bound by the conditions of their lives, but on the other hand, I suppose, in a heroine, in a proto-feminist heroine, I would've liked to of seen something a little bit larger.

  • 11:17:32

    REHMJane.

  • 11:17:34

    DIXONI've been thinking since I read it again the other day, how well educated she was and what was open to her. My grandmother would have been maybe 10 years younger than this woman. And my grandmother's long dead and I was young when she died so I never talked to her about her education. But I think, you know, this women, my fantasy, where she probably went to some female academy, but did anybody every really challenge her to use her mind, to think...

  • 11:18:06

    REHMThat's a good question.

  • 11:18:07

    DIXON...to think about ideas, to be rational?

  • 11:18:10

    REHMBecause the expectations for her were that she would marry, she would serve...

  • 11:18:17

    DIXONRight.

  • 11:18:18

    REHM...her husband, she would take care of her children and that would be her life. The book we are talking about, Kate Chopin's, "The Awakening." I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org.

  • 11:20:04

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, we're talking this month for our Readers' Review about Kate Chopin's novel "The Awakening." It was written in 1899 yet it seems to reflect so many challenges that women face even now, being torn between dedication to family and yet creativity on their own on the outside.

  • 11:20:39

    REHMHere's a posting on Facebook from Susan and this really gets to me. She says, "I first read it right after I finished college when I was single. I was inspired by the way Edna took control of her life the only way she could. I read it again after I was married with children and I was appalled at Edna's selfishness. I wondered if Edna had somehow changed while the book was on the shelf. It's amazing how differently I saw her character as my life circumstances changed. It's still," she says, "one of my favorite novels." Judith.

  • 11:21:27

    WARNERI'm ashamed to admit and I'm ashamed because this doesn't fit my self-image, that I felt quite a bit the way this reader did. I felt, as a mother, that it was incredibly selfish -- because I did interpret that final scene as a suicide -- that to be committing suicide, to be abandoning her children was an incredibly selfish thing to do.

  • 11:21:49

    REHMSo it was not so much her intense concentration on this younger man, her frustration at not being able to be with him that bothered you so much as the ending of the book.

  • 11:22:10

    WARNERSo much as the choice that she made because she felt what she felt. She was entitled to feel her feelings, but it was the choice of what she did with those feelings.

  • 11:22:20

    REHMDid you have the feeling that she was a very attractive and charming young woman, Ethelbert?

  • 11:22:27

    MILLERWell, the terminology in the book is that she's handsome. You know, she's not the person, I guess, you'd turn around two times to look for. I mean, that's the term that's used and so I felt that when you see her being attracted to other women, you know, in terms of them, I think that's very important. Because what you want to look at is the inner beauty, you know, and I think would tie back into her desire to be an artist and create beauty. So that's what I look at in terms of the relationship there.

  • 11:22:55

    REHMHere's a part of the book that I felt sort of condensed the entire experience. Edna Pontellier could not have told why wishing to go to the beach with Robert she should, in the first place, have declined, in the second place, have followed an obedience to one of the two contradictory impulses that impelled her. A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her, the light which showing the way, forbids it. At that early period, it served but to bewilder her. It moved her to dreams, to thoughtfulness, to the shadowy anguish which had overcome her, the midnight when she had abandoned herself to tears.

  • 11:23:58

    REHMIn short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of 28. Perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouch safe to any woman.

  • 11:24:40

    DIXONMy feelings about her were sadness. She had really no one to talk to. When she went to Adelle (sp?) she was getting the culture and she was getting the woman who lived into the role that she saw for her. That's where Adelle was. Remember the children, she said. She knew what was going on. And when she went to Madame Weiss, she was getting a carefree, you can live and be whatever you want to be.

  • 11:25:11

    REHMThe pianist.

  • 11:25:12

    DIXONThe pianist. She was getting that. So she was sort of between the two. The one person she might've gone to and didn't was the doctor who understood what was going on with her and said to her, on that walk back to the house, please come and talk to you. And she never went to him, but she -- my sadness was that there was really no one that she could talk to who could help her understand what she was going through.

  • 11:25:34

    REHMWhat she was going through.

  • 11:25:35

    DIXONWhat she was going through, right.

  • 11:25:36

    REHMAnd that would be why I tend to agree with Ethelbert that she was depressed. I felt that depression as a young mother confined to the house, confined by the strictures of society. I love my two children. I adore them, but nevertheless that kind of depression of loneliness, of isolation of lack of choice certainly affected me. So I could understand it of her.

  • 11:26:15

    MILLERYeah, where you could see this in recent literature, it would probably be Ntozake Shange's play "For Colored Girls," at the end of the play with Crystal and Beau Willie where, all of a sudden, you know, Crystal has children, Beau Willy calls the children to him, you know, he gets him up and he dangles them over the window. And, you know, he's asking, do you love me and she can't say anything and he drops the kids. But what does Ntozake say when they come back to that character? There was no air and this woman was suffocating.

  • 11:26:42

    MILLERAnd what happened, she had to find herself and defining herself as a person, not defined as a mother, you know, but who she was. And it was difficult. But I saw happening in that play -- and then what happened. You have Ntozake writing at the end, I've found god in myself and I loved her fiercely.

  • 11:27:00

    REHMYou know, the other literary piece this reminded me of was the play "The Doll's House" which I saw performed in brief not long ago at the Danish Embassy, the same kind of stifling within marriage that the young woman felt. But in that case, standing up and breaking out and breaking away and establishing a new life for herself. In this case, as you say, Judith, she takes a very different way out, deserting her children, leaving her life behind which was total tragedy.

  • 11:27:54

    WARNERWhat I kept wondering, though, was, I mean, this is a decision that the author made for her. The author decided that the book needed to close this way. And was that a necessity in order for the book to be published? Did we need -- was it necessary to have this character punished in a sense or would the book never have seen the light of day?

  • 11:28:16

    REHMAnd yet when it did, it was banned.

  • 11:28:19

    WARNERIt was considered a scandal. It was absolutely rejected. It was considered vulgar. The writing was considered to be terrible.

  • 11:28:27

    REHMAnd it wasn't until ten years after her death that somehow the book came to light and people recognized it for its literary worth.

  • 11:28:40

    WARNERAlthough it wasn't really valued and recognized as a feminist work until, of course, much later, I guess, until we had the vocabulary to see it that way. But I just wondered how much of the ending followed necessarily from the character or how much was it a structuring device that served some other purpose? And I don't know.

  • 11:29:00

    REHMJudith, how does Kate Chopin's book fit into your own writing when you wrote "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety?"

  • 11:29:14

    WARNERI was very surprised to find that women my age -- and I'm 46 now -- and I was gathering stories, impressions for this about ten years ago for "Perfect Madness" were feeling the kinds of feelings that you describe yourself having felt when you were a young mother because they didn't necessarily -- those feelings weren't a necessary part of their existence anymore. The world had presumably changed so much for us. We had supposedly many choices. We had all sorts of different roles that we could play and the best education possible when we talk about the limitations of a woman like Edna.

  • 11:30:00

    WARNERAnd yet women were feeling a lot of that same depression and isolation and anxiety, uncertainty about who they were. Their sense of self could be derailed so easily in a sense by motherhood, at least certainly if they were home with their children. If they were working, I think that was much less the case.

  • 11:30:19

    REHMAnd the wonderful part now is that we talk about this openly, Jane.

  • 11:30:27

    DIXONAbsolutely, but I think many of your listeners know that you and I go back many, many...

  • 11:30:33

    REHMWay, way back.

  • 11:30:33

    DIXON...way back when we were both in the home with young children and found each other and a group of women with whom we could talk about these issues. We would meet at night in each other's living rooms and we would talk about whether we were bored, whether we were scared, what we were being called to do or not called to do. And that, for me, was one of the most important parts of my life is to have those of you that I could truly be honest with. I could say all of those things, know that you respected that and that you understood.

  • 11:31:11

    DIXONAnd so that's why I think I feel sadness for Edna because she did not have that. And, as I say, I took it very personally because that was so important to me coming out of a world where in many ways the expectations for me were somewhat the same as the expectations for Edna.

  • 11:31:27

    REHMAll right. I'd like to welcome listeners into the program to offer their own comments. Let's go first to St. Petersburg, Fla. Good morning, Rob. Thanks for joining us.

  • 11:31:45

    ROBGood morning, Diane. Thank you for having me on this show.

  • 11:31:47

    REHMSure.

  • 11:31:47

    ROBI love your show by the way.

  • 11:31:49

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:31:50

    ROBI'm a playwright and I live in St. Petersburg and I have rediscovered Kate Chopin's work recently when I adapted one of her short stories, "The Dream of an Hour" for a ten-minute play. I love "The Awakening," but I like her short stories more because she says everything so beautifully in her short stories about those struggles for women's independence and the women's search for freedom. And while I really, really find the ending of the novel "The Awakening" very depressing because I think Edna could have broken away like Nora in "The Doll's House" and had found a niche for herself.

  • 11:32:31

    ROBI think a lot of people don't even realize that Kate Chopin is a writer. 'Cause when I mentioned the writer to my playwriting group, no one had read her stuff before. So I'm hoping that people will be able to go out more and read more of Kate's stuff because she really speaks to the heart and the mind. And keep in mind, too, that women were chattel at the time she wrote the story.

  • 11:32:52

    REHMAbsolutely, absolutely. Rob, you make such good points and I, too, hope that people not only listening to this program, but talking among each other, will, in fact, turn to the short stores and this particular novel. There are an awful lot of people on the phone who some of whom have very, very strong feelings about Edna. Let's go to Marsha in Charlotte N.C. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:35

    MARSHAOh, good morning. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:33:37

    REHMSurely.

  • 11:33:38

    MARSHAI was just in New Orleans a few weeks ago for a wedding and I was touring some of the historic homes in New Orleans. And the tour guide had mentioned this book and said it was one of her favorites. So I just read it a few weeks ago. And as I was reading it, what kept appearing to me was that this woman was a manic depressive. I know it said in one part that she said, I was happy for reasons that I didn't know why and sometimes I was sad for reasons I didn't know why. And to me that sounds like such a classic case of being manic depressive.

  • 11:34:19

    REHMAnd of course, at that time, there would have been no way to treat manic depressive order. Before any of you responds, let me just remind our listeners, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jane, does that sound like manic depression to you?

  • 11:34:43

    DIXONI don't know enough about manic depression professionally to give an opinion. But I didn't -- I mean, I thought about that. But I just think she was -- felt so closed in, she had no options. And her feelings were fluctuating all over the place as she was beginning to come into herself and to be aware of who she was as Edna. Not daughter, not sister, not mother, not friend. So I didn't -- I rejected that when I thought about it.

  • 11:35:20

    REHMEthelbert.

  • 11:35:21

    MILLERBut we can go to Edna's husband, Leonce. He called the doctor, something must be wrong with her, you know. She's not listening to me. She must be sick, you know. I mean, now whether he wants to put the pressure -- he just wants to put something on as a label to say, okay, explain her behavior.

  • 11:35:37

    REHMYeah, that's a good point. What do you think, Judith?

  • 11:35:41

    WARNERI interpreted that more as being young. I mean, I think she was going through the kinds of ups and downs and turbulence that a lot of us go through when we're in our teens or very early 20s and everything is uncertain and there are a lot of new experiences. And I think a woman like Edna didn't have, again, that coming-of-age period built into her life. She married young, she had her children. So in a sense, I think a fair amount of her development just got pushed down the line.

  • 11:36:10

    MILLERYou know, but I would like to look at a group of people that might fit in here. I'm thinking of women who say, for example, might be American women in the Middle East in compounds, you know, where there's a different culture around them and maybe their husband goes off to work and they're isolated, you know. And...

  • 11:36:27

    REHMThat's how I felt.

  • 11:36:29

    MILLER...I'm just wondering about, you know, how do you deal with that? And keep in mind, we're talking about isolation, we're talking about solitude and sometimes people cannot deal with that the same way.

  • 11:36:39

    REHMI really would welcome the milkman because it was someone who came to the house. At the time, we had diaper delivery. I would be pleased to see the diaper man, the mailman, the milkman. Isolation is really key here. Edna had a certain amount of social life which, you know, my husband was working all the time. I had no car. I mean, this happens to a lot of people. It happened in 1899. It happened in 1960 and onward.

  • 11:37:26

    REHMWe're going to take a short break here and when we come back, more of your calls for Jane Holmes Dixon, Judith Warner, E. Ethelbert Miller, as we talk about Kate Chopin's book "The Awakening."

  • 11:40:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. We had a great laugh during the break here because I was talking about being happy to see the mailman, the milk man, the diaper man. And, Jane Dixon, what did you say?

  • 11:40:23

    DIXONI said that one day I invited the plumber to stay and have a sandwich with me.

  • 11:40:29

    REHMI love it.

  • 11:40:30

    DIXONHe was very nice. He talked to me. And indeed, we sat at the kitchen table and had a sandwich. And that night when I was telling my husband about that, that's when he had his awakening, said, I think you better start thinking about your life or something to that. But the huge shock for him and for me, but this man was very nice. And, you know what, he paid attention to me. He took me seriously.

  • 11:40:53

    REHMYeah, that's the interesting part. What did Léonce do?

  • 11:40:57

    MILLERWell, you know, first of all, you know, after calling the doctor, that doesn't work out. And then after Edna moves out of the house, you know, he has to save face because, you know, you're dealing with...

  • 11:41:06

    REHMShe moves out of the house.

  • 11:41:07

    MILLERRight. Well, and, you know, and what happens she moves out and the whole thing is what is the neighbors gonna think, you know. I think he's more concerned, same way as he sees her as property, you know, he's looking at, okay, do I suffer a loss here publicly in terms of his image.

  • 11:41:22

    REHMJane, at one point, and this is really the beginning of her understanding and taking control, she decides she's going to learn to swim. Jane, read that for us.

  • 11:41:40

    DIXON"Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women, in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. But a certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water, unless there was a hand nearby that might reach out and reassure her. But that night, she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child who of a sudden realizes its powers and walks for the first time alone boldly and with overconfidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water."

  • 11:42:28

    DIXON"A feeling of exaltation overtook her as if some power of significant import had given her soul. She grew daring and reckless overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out where no woman had swum before. Her outlook for achievement was a subject of wonder, applause and admiration. Each one congratulated himself that his special teachings had accomplished this desired end. How easy it is, she thought. It is nothing, she said aloud. Why did I not discover before that it was nothing? Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby. She would not join the groups in their sports and bouts, but intoxicated with her newly conquered power, she swam out alone."

  • 11:43:15

    DIXON"She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the expanse of water meeting and melting with the moonlight sky conveyed to her excited fantasy. As she swam, she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself. Once she turned and looked toward the shore, toward the people she had left there, she had not gone any great distance, that is what would've been a great distance for an experienced swimmer, but to her unaccustomed vision, the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome."

  • 11:43:57

    DIXON"A quick vision of death smote her soul and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land."

  • 11:44:10

    REHMReally quite a passage.

  • 11:44:15

    WARNERAnd it makes you think differently about the ending as well. What did the ocean represent? A terrifying sort of possibility, a possibility that could go either way.

  • 11:44:26

    REHMShe had a choice in that water to regain the land or to continue to move on. Let's go to Ellensburg, Wash. Good morning, Ellahana (sp?) .

  • 11:44:44

    ELLAHANAGood morning. I read "The Awakening" for my women's studies class at Perdue. And I found it to be a very confusing novel that did not speak to my understanding of women's liberation or the suffrage movement that was happening at that same time. So it felt a little anachronistic for me.

  • 11:45:15

    REHMCan you say a little more about what you mean?

  • 11:45:20

    ELLAHANAWell, in the 1890s, we have a huge movement for women's organization. We have the YMCA is being formed. A lot of women are bringing in book clubs into their own homes, so it seems to me like the extreme isolation that the main character goes through is not common to what's happening in that era.

  • 11:45:49

    REHMWhat do you think, Judith?

  • 11:45:50

    WARNERI think that what this listener is saying is very true and very interesting. And I have to admit that I was thinking -- recently I was reading the new book by Elisabeth Badinter on motherhood which came out in France a couple of years ago, it's coming out here. And she says a lot about motherhood in France, giving the sense that there are other options, that there have always been historically other options for women. She's looking back to the 18th century and saying that there was a tradition that women were able to have lives of their own. They were able to have emotional and intellectual lives of their own.

  • 11:46:30

    WARNERAnd here we have a character who is in this funny Franco-American context and you think that she could have had other choices, even with her lack of formal education, that there were other problems she could've taken even while remaining in the structure of her marriage.

  • 11:46:48

    REHMHere's an email from Anne who says, "I believe the ending to be unambiguous and the character commits suicide thereby achieving freedom. The tragedy is that death was the only manner in which she could do so. Readers' discomfort at clearly identifying the end is suicide demonstrates how uncomfortable we are with her choice."

  • 11:47:23

    MILLERTwo things, one, for your caller, I think we also have to look at our country in terms of regions. Movements are not always the same, like we're dealing with the south. Okay. So when you look at, you know, women in the south, it's completely different from, say, women in New England. So even though it might be the same era...

  • 11:47:39

    REHMTrue, true.

  • 11:47:39

    MILLER...we have to look at that. Then I think, you know, that's a very important point there. In terms of this ending, I think it gets back to a word we haven't used in our discussion. We've made no reference to adultery. I think that when you have something like this taking place, you will sometimes punish the character by the end. If you don't do that, then you're saying, okay, adultery is nice and everyone goes to heaven. No. I think if you're gonna have this taking place in the book and you're gonna resolve it some way, the person has to die.

  • 11:48:17

    REHMBut there is no act of adultery.

  • 11:48:22

    MILLERIt hints at it. This hints at it. It's just like, okay, Léonce is like, okay, well, you're seeing my wife and...

  • 11:48:29

    REHMRight.

  • 11:48:29

    MILLER...you must just be looking at her. Someone would say there's this hint of this, like she's attractive.

  • 11:48:35

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:48:35

    MILLERIt's almost like Jimmy Carter lusting in his mind, you know what I'm saying.

  • 11:48:37

    REHMRight, right.

  • 11:48:38

    MILLERYou know, so that's enough to lose an election.

  • 11:48:41

    REHMYeah, yeah.

  • 11:48:43

    WARNERMy impression that there was out and out adultery not with Robert, but with the...

  • 11:48:47

    MILLERRight.

  • 11:48:47

    WARNER...I'll say (unintelligible) .

  • 11:48:49

    REHMRight.

  • 11:48:49

    WARNERThe man about town.

  • 11:48:51

    MILLERRight.

  • 11:48:51

    REHMYeah, the man about town who actually, you know, is so, I don't know, nothing.

  • 11:49:00

    MILLERBut he just needs to be there.

  • 11:49:01

    REHMHe needs to be there. Now, the persons who do not show up clearly are the servants.

  • 11:49:10

    MILLEROh, this is the colorization, you know. What happens, the Native Americans and Westerns, you know, they're there. Or, you know, like how we sometimes see the Asian enemy, they just fall out of trees. You don't see them. And what happens is this is another statement in terms of how we could look at the literature. The servants are there. But they're there in terms of providing for their society. Okay. Now, we could read this in terms of what are the black people doing, but I don't expect us to do that. That's not her book. Okay. But the way she does capture it does tell us about her lifestyle.

  • 11:49:45

    DIXONI totally agree with that. I mean, this is, what, 1899 in the deep south. And persons of color were there to serve. Not much interest was given to their thoughts or their feelings or their life as long as they were there to do what they were being asked to do. It sounds as if she had some connection with the older woman who was going to move into the little house with her.

  • 11:50:11

    REHMQuite right, yeah.

  • 11:50:13

    DIXONBut we never really know her.

  • 11:50:15

    REHMAll right. To St. Cloud, Fla. Good morning, Andrew.

  • 11:50:20

    ANDREWHi Diane.

  • 11:50:21

    REHMHi.

  • 11:50:21

    ANDREWI just wanted to make a comment. As you've been talking, you were discussing about how mothers traditionally feel alienated and sort of that loss of personality when they have a child. I'm a stay at home father. I work for many years and now my wife is working and I'm staying at home with our son.

  • 11:50:39

    REHMGood for you.

  • 11:50:39

    ANDREWAnd I just wanted to say, you know, in some ways I almost feel like for men it's worse, that loss of identity, because society raised me saying that I should be the provider for my family. And I love staying home with my son, but it is so alienating because mothers do not like to associate with me when I take my son places because there is just a social stigma about stay at home fathers. And so I just wanted to point out that it is something that has come to light for women and that's a good thing, but I would like to see it sort of come to light more for men as well.

  • 11:51:16

    REHMSure. And I would wish for you that you could somehow establish some relationships if not with other stay-at-home fathers to establish those relationships with stay-at-home mothers.

  • 11:51:37

    MILLERWell, this is "The Awakening" part two, you know...

  • 11:51:39

    REHMYeah, right, right.

  • 11:51:41

    MILLER...which we can see exactly...

  • 11:51:42

    REHMAre you gonna write that?

  • 11:51:43

    MILLERI think I've been living that.

  • 11:51:44

    REHMYeah, I think you've been living that. All right. And good luck to you. Let's go to Winston-Salem, N.C. Good morning, William.

  • 11:51:57

    WILLIAMYes, my question is I remember when we read this many years ago and whatever in class and whatever. We studied Kate Chopin and I understand she had a rather, especially in her early life, rather strict, vigorous, Catholic background. And I wonder if some of these writings was in rebellion somewhat to that, because she seemed to favor the French style more than some of the American style, you know. And I was also thinking about last month's book, Frank McCourt and "Angela's Ashes"...

  • 11:52:31

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:52:31

    WILLIAM...how his mother, not as much, but kinda rebelled in some ways. But I just wonder if your guests could elaborate any on that.

  • 11:52:40

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. What do you think, Judith?

  • 11:52:44

    WARNERI think that's very, very interesting. I think -- I'm not sure that she has more sympathy for the French way of doing things. I think that there's a sense of American innocence and French corruption, and American innocence not maybe being up to handling that corruption. There certainly is rebellion. She describes the rebellion against religion. Although she describes it as being against her own background which the character's background is not Catholic. But she describes that strongly and regretfully at the same time.

  • 11:53:14

    REHMJudith Warner and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Durwood, Md. Good morning, Ruby.

  • 11:53:24

    RUBYGood morning, Diane. This is such a timely book, even though it's a classic. And I remember I got my introduction to it in the late '70s by my sister who was ahead of me. And when I went off to college, she said, sister, you gotta get with the program, and she gave me a whole group of books, and this was one of them. And so I am moved to read it again. But my comment and what I was really struck with listening this morning is how everything old is new again, that we're still -- the reactions of Jane and Judith and Ethelbert and you, together there's such a broad range of emotions and feelings that this book evokes.

  • 11:54:14

    RUBYAnd I think that women today still have -- we really have a hard time sometimes being really compassionate and empathic for choices that we may not make or may be afraid to make and -- or feelings that other women may have and express that are on more of the dark side. And I think sometimes we today are having a hard time getting together and being able to disagree and to not judge and to be supportive and helpful to each other.

  • 11:55:03

    DIXONWell, you're so right about the taking the time to do that. Diane and I were blessed in those days. We were able to stay at home during that time. And so when we met at night, we had done all the things we had been expected to do during the day. And the other women who met with us were not working outside the home at the time either. Things had to change for us when we did move outside the home. But it was an enormous gift to my life.

  • 11:55:30

    DIXONAnd I do think about women today who are working outside and working inside the home and when they have time to do this for themselves. I think it's very important. And I hope that women and men who are staying at home, what a gift -- the caller who was talking about staying at home with his children, what a gift you're giving to your children that they get to know you.

  • 11:55:50

    REHMAnd the whole idea that staying with children being at home is not work is perhaps the silliest comment I've heard in a long time. Of course Hilary Rosen went on to talk about economics and that made the whole thing different. Jane Holmes Dixon, Judith Warner, E. Ethelbert Miller, what a great discussion. Thank you.

  • 11:56:22

    MILLERThank you.

  • 11:56:22

    DIXONThank you.

  • 11:56:22

    WARNERThank you.

  • 11:56:24

    REHMAnd as you all know, there was no winner in the Pulitzer Prize category for fiction this year. So we've decided to choose one that was short-listed, Denis Johnson's novella "Train Dreams" for our next Readers' Review. It's a portrait of the American west in the first half of the 20th century. So I hope you'll join me for that discussion on Wednesday, May 23. Again, Denis Johnson's novella "Train Dreams." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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