Arriving in Louisiana, I was captivated by the scene before me. I stared at the never-ending fields of lush greenery and pockets of swamp water, as if in a trance. This is a place to observe, think, and reflect, ideal for the setting of Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening.
The book is about a married woman, Edna Pontellier, as she finds her own freedom from a repressive home life, awakened by her love for another man during a trip to her husband’s (Mr. Pontellier’s) vacation home on Grand Isle. Grand Isle is a small vacation town on a narrow island overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. To explore the place where she found that self-awareness and fierce determination to follow her own path, we visited the island for the first few days of our trip.
The house we are living in overlooks the bay. Here is the view from the back porch.
A line of houses, all raised up far above the ground, stretch out for miles on either side of me. I think of Edna and Madame Ratignolle sitting side by side in the shade of the porch, fanning themselves and exchanging comments about the weather. It is a beautiful place for the women to observe from a distance. No wonder why Kate Chopin wrote this novel here; the scenery draws you in so much that you lose yourself in the view.
Inside, paintings of seagulls and fish and windy beaches and lighthouses line the wooden walls. On a stand by the kitchen, family pictures sit near wooden ornaments with words etched onto them. Here is one of them (on the left).
I think of the soirées in Madame Lebrun’s house on the Grand Isle, where everyone would gather after a long day and listen to Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano. There is a sense of community here. When we first arrived at the house, I thought the area was a little bit secluded; the only thing connecting the island to the mainland is a bridge. However, it is a little place of its own. The community isn’t brought together by loud and bustling streets, but rather by sunny mornings fishing for mackerels by the pier, lazy afternoons watching ships sail into the horizon, and late nights relaxing by the beach.
I walk down the stairs of the house, dragging my chair behind me. The grass and flowers tickle my feet as I walk on the small, unpaved trail leading to the beach. I don’t see any orange or lemon trees nearby as in the novel, but there are patches of yellow camomile dotting the small hill I am walking on. This is where the children in the novel must run about as their mothers watch them from afar. Although they have strict curfews, they have the freedom to roam around, look at the colored sheets of comic papers brought to them by Mr. Pontellier, and play duets on the piano. Mrs. Pontellier might not be there for her children often, but they are able to enjoy and explore Grand Isle on their own. There is this air of vibrancy.
I find a spot on the beach, staring off into the miles and miles of ocean water. The sun’s beams penetrate my back. Every once in a while, a line of pelicans fly by me. The warm, summer breeze blows my hair all over my face. Time isn’t measured by the ticks of a clock anymore; it’s measured by the ebb and flow of the waves. There is something so inviting about it, the way the water caresses you when you dip your toes in. It’s not cold; it’s warm enough that you want to keep walking forward until it covers your ankles, calves, knees.
I am reminded of the time Edna goes to swim by herself for the first time. It’s a moment of courage, of power. Stepping into the water, she “reaches out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” Her unaided strength might never overcome the moving force of the water or the attack of an unexpected shark, but she takes the chance, regardless. Looking into the distance, I see the never-ending stretch of the ocean and wonder if that is what ultimately gives Edna strength to listen to her heart. The openness of the scene must provoke her willingness to demonstrate vulnerability, something she has been repressing all of those years living as Mr. Pontellier’s wife. Being able to be vulnerable is difficult; it’s painfully uncomfortable, whether that be falling in love or asking a friend for help on something personal. However, it’s something we all need to practice, again and again, since being vulnerable what allows us to fully engage and connect.
The beaches here aren’t the same as they are back home in California. The waves don’t come forcefully, inching their way forward until gravity finally pulls them back into the ocean. The water is brownish from the swirling silt, and, from a distance, looks like a silk cloth adjusting to the breeze of the wind. Sitting on the sand and flipping through the pages, I realize this sense of urgency that always seizes me seems to have dissipated a little bit. City life is fast-paced and exciting, but that doesn’t mean the relaxed pace of life on the island is anything less. I have become more attuned to the scenery, the conversations, and the unfolding story of the book.
It’s time to head over to New Orleans. Before I turn back and go down the stairs to load the car, I cast one more glance back. The palm trees, the warm ocean breeze, the houses elevated far above the ground, the elegantly slanted roofs, the laughter at the beach. This is the perfect place for an awakening.