"Life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality." -Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Following our arrival in New Orleans, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this trip would be one full of many beautiful things to see. The drive leaving the airport (which in most cities is not much more than freeways and honking vehicles) was bordered on both sides of the road by green vegetation, whose leaves met harmoniously with the sharp blue of an afternoon sky. In almost every direction you looked, you saw a horizon divided haphazardly—green below and blue above; a most welcomed sight after having spent too long in the predominately gray Los Angeles.
The entire trip to Grand Isle kept us on roads that wove through this green and blue. There was also, of course, the dark grey of the asphalt in front of us, the reds and whites and silvers of the various cars around us, and the uncomfortably brown waters of the rivers over which we passed. In the colors of Louisiana we found vibrancy; in its landscape, beauty.
Admittedly, the pleasant view that sped past my window, combined with the Fleetwood Mac that someone was playing through the Bluetooth was more than enough to lull me to sleep. There’s something about sitting in an airplane for five hours that really takes it out of you—all it takes is a comfortable seat and the voice of Stevie Nicks to knock you right out.
I awoke to the bouncing of our car as we pulled into the grass driveway of the house in which we’d be staying. I must’ve slept for about an hour in the backseat, but the first look at that yellow paint, the gold of the sand, and the blue of the ocean beyond got my senses back to working in a single moment. The house was beautiful. I shook off the sleep, immediately. Not long after, the drowsiness having completely gone from me, I began The Awakening.
Kate Chopin’s depiction of Edna Pontellier and the tears she cried on the very same beach where I now resided were a bit of a disruption to the trance-like response I had thus far taken to Louisiana. I mean…this woman is sad. In this area whose beauty I had been so impressed with, our first protagonist simply cannot seem to hold on to happiness. Wherever she grabs at it, it slips away eventually. In all honesty, The Awakening proved a pretty depressing read. I sat on the beach as I read; a situation that to me, as an English major born and bred in Southern California, is one of my happy places. And yet, I felt my heart ache in pity for Edna. She lives a luxurious life, surrounded by people who are mostly good to her, in lovely areas and homes. From an outside glance, it doesn’t seem that she has much reason to be so sad. But reading this book allowed me to see that beauty doesn’t lead to happiness. Public opinion would say that, yes, Grand Isle is a beautiful place that one should enjoy. But as a seasonal resident, Edna only grows increasingly dissatisfied. I tried to look through Edna Pontellier’s eyes, and form an understanding for people who hurt where others see no reason to. I tried to see unhappiness on Grand Isle.
Something tickled my leg, and my gaze shifted downwards. There, a swarm of small black bugs flitted around my feet. They landed on my shins—I shook them off. They buzzed around for a second, and they landed on my toes. I wiggled them off, and they flew up again, only to settle right back down. I grew irritated from the bugs, and stood up, having grown tired of the beach.
I began to walk down the path that led to the backyard of our house. The walk was a rather pleasant one. Someone had so kindly laid down a trail of carpeted mats, so that you could easily traverse the angry weeds and high grass that otherwise would have created a sturdy barrier between the civilized houses and the wild sea. As I made my way homeward, a pale yellow butterfly floated by me gracefully, fluttering lazily, as if it had all the time in the world to get where it needed to go. I smiled at the butterfly. In California, the butterflies are a sharp orange spotted with piercing black—they are Monarchs; beautiful, but so demanding of your attention. This yellow butterfly, however, demanded nothing of me. It flew by, so unassuming; in silent disinterest; fulfilling a niche while I fulfilled mine. I liked the butterfly; it filled me with the excitement of being somewhere different from home. I walked on, turning my head to follow the butterfly’s movement. But then I felt a worrying slap on my shin, and again my gaze was forced to snap down. An ugly-looking, spotted brown, grasshopper-like insect had so rudely run into me. I tried to step over it, but it jumped further along the path, landing still in front of me. I tried again to overpass him, but again he jumped, and stayed ahead. This irksome creature was demanding that my sight be indefinitely pointed towards the dirt, so that I might avoid any interaction with its pesky insectile body, which I hated. The little thing eventually hopped off into the high grass, and my path was again clear to walk without having to glue my eyes towards where I stepped. I looked back up, but the yellow butterfly had long-since gone.
With insects now prevalent in my mind, I sat inside the house and noticed that I was beginning to itch. I inspected my arm. The raised red circles of flesh had begun to rise on my body; so far only visible on my hands and wrists, but I suspected that it wouldn’t be long before the mosquitos snuck their way to my legs and feet. I lounged in a comfortable reclining chair, but couldn’t shake from my mind the itchiness, which I forever had to withhold relief from.
These less-than-pleasant encounters that I had somewhat sought out, while bothersome, were not sufficiently miserable for my impression of Grand Isle to be tainted. My discomforts were purely external, while Edna’s I realized, were the opposite. For me, these few days were a perfect start to our trip. I won’t ever forget getting to know my fellow Bookpackers through our conjoined efforts to cook a communal dinner, and group discussions of which Bachelorette candidate would be the one to end up with Hannah at the end of this season. The sound of the waves on the beach and the hospitality from our waitresses will forever leave in my mind an impression of contented relaxation. But having read Kate Chopin’s novel, and having tried to see things through her protagonist’s eyes, I have a new understanding for those who still cannot seem to be happy in a place that appears so paradise-like to everyone else. Beneath the surface level—beneath the yellow butterflies and crashing waves—there is a deeper aspect to our characters that demands to be cared for beyond external delights.
The Bookpackers course hopes to encourage and inspire empathy. The beginning of our trip is perfectly designed to instill this in our minds. Located on a beautiful island with lovely creatures and friendly faces, we read a novel of a woman who suffers against her depression in a life that is seemingly perfect. But Edna Pontellier reminds us that an external paradise is no cure for the unseen inner turmoil. We understand this now, and we proceed to New Orleans with kindness and gentleness, with the intention of not only admiring the outward beauty of the places we go and people we see, but also paying tribute to the cultures, the history, and the souls.