I’m working with a bunch of students this summer. One of these students is a voracious reader, so I asked her if she wanted to read a book together. Although she’s only just going into high school, she has a list of books she wants to read to prepare her for AP English Literature in a few years. I selected Chopin’s Awakening from that list. The student and I have both finished reading, and we’ve had several conversations using The Awakening, its plots, and its themes as a springboard for discussion. Here are some reflections.
I chose The Awakening because I knew it was a feminist work. I came to realize this year – particularly during the second semester – that the 8th grade girls I teach would benefit from more feminist influences in their lives. In my first two years teaching at a coed school, I’ve been disheartened by the way many boys treat the girls. But more than that, it saddens me that so many girls don’t realize that they deserve to be treated better, think they have to put up with this treatment to avoid social consequences, or feel powerless to do anything about the way they’re treated. Reading The Awakening with a young woman heading into freshman year gave me an opportunity to explore this issue.
Our first conversation dealt with how trapped Edna Pontellier felt in her marriage. My student commented that Edna didn’t really seem to like her husband or her children very much and that she should pursue something that makes her happy. I asked my student if Edna had any responsibility to her family, if it was okay to simply leave them so that she could be happy. This obviously presented a dilemma – the choice between doing what’s right for yourself and what’s right for your family – that was only amplified by the realities that women faced in the late 19th century. We broadened our conversation to include the current day: Do women now still feel the same pressures that Edna felt? And what responsibilities does a wife in 2017 have to her family? This led us down a particularly interesting path as we talked about the expectations that my student has faced in school. I wondered if she felt like teachers treated her differently because of her sex. I noted that many educators worry that girls are discouraged (implicitly, if not explicitly) from excelling in math and science. Interestingly, my student commented that she saw differing expectations arising from individual character and behavior rather than from sex. For example, she thought that teachers tended to expect better behavior from those who tended to behave better. Her impression is that teachers seem content when certain students (who, in her experience, are always boys) can simply be in class without causing any major disruptions. With a student like her, however, a comparatively minor infraction would be met with a stronger reaction because she so infrequently does anything warranting discipline. Curiously, given her opinion that differing expectations did not derive primarily from sex, she expressed her frustration that girls who swore, for example, met far harsher consequences than boys who swore.
When we talked after finishing the book, my student expressed her displeasure with the ending. Displeasure, actually, may not be a strong enough word. She hated the ending! I asked why, and she told me that she thought Edna’s decision to just walk into the ocean and drown to be a stupid one. Additionally, the ending apparently caught her by surprise, which only added to her negative reaction. I told her that I saw the ending coming. Edna seemed trapped, I told her, and in the late 19th century, Edna did not have a way to escape. Suicide, though tragic, was Edna’s only way to escape her miserable situation. My student suggested that Edna run away with Robert, but she conceded that Robert’s departure made this unlikely. Although we eventually agreed that death probably was Edna’s only escape, my student still characterized Edna’s suicide as stupid. Interestingly, the ending colored my student’s entire opinion of the book. She seemed to quite enjoy it the first time we talked, but upon finishing the book, she could not get past her distaste for the ending.
Altogether, I think this first book discussion went well. We talked as much about our own lives as we did about The Awakening, and I’m entirely satisfied with that. My hope is that by reading this book together and talking about it without delving too deeply into the sorts of literary analysis she does in school, we can contemplate some important issues, have meaningful conversations, and enjoy ourselves. She’s agreed to read another book with me, which we have not yet selected, and I’m excited to see where our conversations lead.