Virtual Read-Out: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Today I’m “reading out” from Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening, in honor of Banned Books Week. [Learn more about the Virtual Read-Out.] Sources vary as to the banning of this book, but ALA does list it on their list of banned classics. Its themes include the struggle of women to escape society’s intentions for us; the main character comes to hold some very unpopular views about the place of marriage, love, and childrearing in her own life. Here is my video read-out!

Thanks, Husband, for playing videographer. 🙂

Banned and Challenged Classics

I love lists of books. I especially love to note which books I’ve read, and which I want to read, on other people’s lists of best books, classic books, Books Everyone Should Read, and suchlike. This book is both timely (hello, Banned Books Week) and fun because it combines two concepts that make me interested in a book: that somebody is calling it a Classic, and that somebody thought it was too racy or thoughtful for people (especially little kids) to read. (This usually recommends a book to me, or at least piques my interest. I’m not weird, am I?)

So here are Banned and Challenged Classics according to the American Library Association. Again, my notations are:

Bold = I’ve read it
Italicized = I’ve started the book, but never finished
Neither = I haven’t picked it up.

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
9. 1984, by George Orwell
11. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
15. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
17. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
19. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
23. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
24. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
26. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
27. Native Son, by Richard Wright
28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
29. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
33. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
36. Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
38. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
40. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
45. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
48. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
49. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
50. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
53. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
55. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
57. Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron
64. Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence
66. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
67. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
73. Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs
74. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
75. Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence
80. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
84. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
88. An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser
97. Rabbit, Run, by John Updike

See, this is interesting: I think I have my highest percentage-read on this book, than of any of the lists I’ve reviewed here so far. (That, and a number of them make My List.) My personal reaction to this list is… wow, these are really excellent books. What a shame that anyone has tried to limit access to them. (And then there’s The Satanic Verses, which I really couldn’t get into. And Faulkner? Ugh, I couldn’t make any headway; although I was trying The Sound and the Fury, which I’ve since heard is not the best first-read.) That, and who the heck challenged The Call of the Wild??

Which books have you read off this list? Which ones are you itching to read? Any you aren’t attracted to?

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
I went into this one largely blind. I knew it was a classic, and I knew that its contemporary public found it obscene, even pornographic. But I didn’t know what to expect in the way of style or plot content.

So I’ll begin as if you’re in that same boat. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is set in England, in the years immediately following World War I. (I have found myself reading quite a few books, fiction and non, set in interwar Britain this year; I’m becoming pretty comfortable with this setting.) Our protagonist is a girl named Constance, who has a love affair as a teen while touring in France, but is called home when the war begins. She marries a young man named Clifford Chatterley while he’s on leave; the marriage does not appear to be particularly well thought through. Thus Connie becomes Lady Chatterley. When Clifford returns from the war, he first has to convalesce, and then they move together into his family seat, called Wragby – with Clifford paralyzed from the waist down, impotent, and wheelchair-bound.

To begin with, Connie had a larger, stronger personality than his. Now especially she is tied down, and in the dismal, closed-in environment that is Wragby, bordered by coal mines and their socially inferior, dirty, mean inhabitants. Clifford was arguably never fit to satisfy her, sexually, intellectually, or emotionally; his handicap now finishes that question.

In her malaise and misery, Connie takes a lover, briefly: Michaelis is a playwright, not really socially acceptable but moneyed, and therefore made semi-welcome at Wragby. This affair is not entirely satisfying, though, and following a particular sexual faux pas, Connie cuts him off.

For some time, then, she drags around Wragby, at first caring for Clifford dutifully, but eventually tiring and beginning to like him less. The main action of the book I shall try not to spoil for you, if you have managed to not know for this long. (I didn’t know, and had the pleasure of learning as I read.) But I will tell you that Clifford encourages Connie to get pregnant if she can, and assures her that he’ll acknowledge her child.

I found this book engrossing, after I got used to the style. Lawrence uses colons in odd ways, and with gusto, sprinkling them liberally. It took me a little while to get used to, and I continued to note his colons with amusement. More than punctuation, though, there is a sort of rolling rhythm to the narrative that I had to adjust to; it was lovely once I got going, but just different enough from what I’ve been reading lately to cause a change in pace. I wish I knew better how to Talk Lit and explain what I mean; I’m assuming there’s a term for the style; all I can say is, many classics or older novels have a style and a rhythm that I recognized here and that is different from modern releases.

The voice is third-person but shifts perspectives so that we see out from inside the heads of Connie and of her eponymous lover. There is dialect! I do like dialects, if I can understand them at all, and what they reflect; here, the dialects of various characters reflect social class, which is an important element of the book. One of the ongoing conflicts that Connie and Clifford experience is over social class; Clifford is accustomed to being one of the ruling class and assumes that that is as it should be, while Connie is a little more open-minded. There is discussion of socialism.

The larger theme, however, is a body-vs-mind question. In her youth, Connie and her sister Hilda were stimulated by the intellect of the young men they loved, and Connie continues to share activities of the mind with Clifford at least through the first half of the book. He becomes a fairly successful author, and she assists him in writing stories that make money but are not “important.” Clifford has several old friends – “the cronies” – who come by and have discussions, occasionally including Connie. As the story goes on, though, she finds that stimulating her mind is not enough; she needs to live a physical life, too, and Clifford could never offer her that.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover reminded me very much of Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. All three describe industry and its workings as if they are characters, animate. In this case, the local coal mines, which Clifford owns and becomes increasingly interested and involved in managing, are a force almost of nature. Their dirt and noise dominate Wragby and depress Connie; work in the coal mines defines several generations of men, and the threat that the mines will close is part of the terror and change of the new post-war England.

This was a beautiful book and I enjoyed it. Connie’s uncomfortable, unfulfilled position and struggle to find herself reminded me, in turn, of Katie Chopin’s The Awakening. It’s an important story to tell, and to read. It’s beautifully written.

But, you ask, what about the SEX?! Okay, I’ll tell you. First of all, the “obscene” and “pornographic” nature of this book is said to have diminished over time, but I still raised my eyebrows several times. There is very frank discussion of body parts, orgasms, and the various ways of achieving them; characters name their genitalia and call them by various terms not considered polite. Despite our new and jaded comfort with sex this is not a PG-rated book. But I thought it was well-done and fairly realistic, and I found several scenes of sexual frankness between lovers who really didn’t know each other very well, that suggest an openness we still haven’t entirely achieved.

Perhaps more shocking to me than the sex talk was the talk of affairs and illegitimate children. Not only Clifford, but Connie’s father, and various well-meaning bystanders comment on Connie not looking very healthy or happy, and recommend that she take a lover, even have a child by another man – they suggest this to her, even occasionally to him. It is taken fairly matter-of-factly. This, to me, was more outlandish than the sex. It’s not hard to see why the 1920’s world rejected this book as inappropriate; it’s still being challenged today all over the country. But as usual in dealing with banned books, I say let the individual decide. If you don’t like reading about body parts, steer clear. But this is a fine book, and you’d be missing something.

Gone with the Wind part 4 (ch. 31-47)

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Follow the Great Gone with the Wind Readalong at The Heroine’s Bookshelf. Today we discuss part 4. [Edit: tomorrow the discussion will continue at the HB blog. Please check back!]

Part 4 of Gone With the Wind brings more troubles Scarlett’s way. Good old Will – whom we couldn’t have lived without – brings her the latest bad news: the new powers of the South are trying to take Tara from the O’Haras by taxing them beyond their means. That is, former overseers, Yankees, carpetbaggers, and the social class that Scarlett used to turn her nose up at. Scarlett is visited by the Slattery girl who she feels killed her mother (Emmie Slattery had typhoid, and Ellen went to nurse her, caught it, and died); her new (former overseer) husband intends to buy Tara. This is one of the greater threats that Scarlett has encountered to date. As Gerald, her Irish father, predicted, Scarlett is finally learning to value the land as much he did.

In her distress, Scarlett runs to Ashley’s side, and begs him to run away with her. She again forces a confession of love from him, and a passionate kiss, but again he balks at leaving Melanie and baby Beau. He’s not brave enough to go with her, and/or, he’s too honorable. My personal reaction is impatience with the concept of honor and bravery over practicality; but this is not conceptual honor we’re talking about here. Ashley has a very real wife and baby who very truly need him, and his love for Scarlett is irrelevant. If he didn’t have the desire (or courage) to marry her in the first place, well, it’s too late now. I think he’s right about that, even though he is sort of pathetically spineless. Sorry, all of you who think Ashley is dreamy; I have trouble respecting his wishy-washiness. At least he knows it, though…

Scarlett’s next move, in desperation, is to dress herself up and throw herself at Rhett Butler’s feet. It’s a ploy that almost works, even though she has to play it in the jailhouse, as Rhett has been arrested for stealing the Confederate treasury. But he rejects her, and she grasps at a straw: her younger sister’s lifelong suitor, Frank Kennedy, is powerless under her charms and marries her when she bats an eye. He turns out to have less money than she expected, though (I’m reminded of Moll Flanders…), and she turns an entrepreneurial hand.

If you’ve been following along at all, it won’t surprise you that Scarlett turns out to be a damn fine businesswoman. She can be ruthless with her competition, dishonest, manipulative, and not shy to use her “charms” to attract business; she has a good head for numbers, and coldly acts in the best interests of those numbers. She’s cleaning up, but also struggling with labor issues. Freed slaves? Irishmen? Prison convicts? All the while, Frank is steaming at home over his wife’s headstrong behavior, which brings disrespect upon him in those oh-so-respectable circles Atlanta society is struggling to rebuild. Scarlett has another baby. Her father dies. She is sending money to Tara, now that she’s doing well, and she has succeeded in saving the farm… Will marries Suellen, even though it was Carreen that he loved, all to save the farm. But oh, the irony, that she’s saved Tara only to be kept away from it by her work in Atlanta.

After Gerald’s death, Scarlett connives to bring Ashley to Atlanta, to work for her. Melanie enters Scarlett’s social circle again, and they live in tense harmony in two houses back-to-back. Rhett Butler turns back up, and he and Scarlett play their usual game: Butler lent Scarlett money after he got out of jail (not even requiring that she prostitute herself, how generous) and now points out that she has broken the conditions of the loan by employing and therefore “helping” Ashley. There is some question about where Frank goes late at night.

And now comes the crescendo. Part 4 builds to one horrifying sequence of events. Scarlett has taken to traveling alone, at night, through the bad part of town, and one night is attacked by two men (one black, one white) who try to rape her. Big Sam (remember him? the head field hand from Tara) rescues her. The men back home, meaning Ashley and Frank, take off and leave Scarlett with Melanie, which she takes as an affront. But it turns out the truth is worse: they are secretly members of the Ku Klux Klan, and have set out to kill her attackers. The Yankee soldiers interrogate the women looking for the Klansmen, and Rhett is the hero of the day: he constructs an elaborate scene of fiction in which the men have been out at a whorehouse all night long. They have killed Scarlett’s attackers, and they get away with it (although at the price of publicly declaring the whoring, which is disrespectful to the wives, Melanie included). But Frank has been killed.

This is where I begin to be really conflicted. On the one hand: Scarlett has been attacked. Two men try to rape her. Her tribal menfolk set out to avenge this attack. I’m emotionally behind them at this point, even though it’s outside the realm of law-and-justice which I do believe in. This part doesn’t read as particularly racist; the two attackers represent both races and apparently receive an equal fate, based on being rapists, not being black or white. But, this is the KKK doing the work. Emotionally, as a reader who’s come to love and cheer for (even in my moments of exasperation) Melanie, Ashley, Scarlett, and Rhett, I’m pleased when they get away with murder, literally. But wait! The Ku Klux Klan killing people in the middle of the night, without benefit of trial, and getting away with it? This is most certainly NOT something that I stand behind.

I think I see what Mitchell is doing here. She has painted these upstanding, moral, white Southern gentlemen, who feel the need to go out and protect their women from rape and abuse. Again, this is easy to get behind. But then she sort of gently blurs these positive portrayals in with the Klan. And I know very different things about the Klan, and I don’t get behind them. This is some kind of propaganda. Shame on you, MM, for making me sympathize. Midnight lynchings = bad.

Here’s another difficult concept from the same passage: Scarlett blames herself, and the town mostly seems to blame Scarlett, for Frank’s death. She was out late at night, alone, in the bad part of town, and she was the victim of an attempted rape, thereby forcing him to go out shooting strangers in the dark, which not surprisingly got him killed. She killed him! She asked for it, and she got what she asked for! And then he died! Her fault!

UGH! The concept of a women ever “asking for” rape or attack is disgusting, and I hope no intelligent person subscribes to it (although I fear that some people still do). And no less, Atlanta’s theory supposes that not only did Scarlett bring rape upon herself, but that she left Frank no choice but to go out on midnight rides for justice, thereby putting himself in harm’s way. I don’t think this follows any better than the asking-for-it theory. Scarlett didn’t want Frank out running after rapists in the dark; we can see very clearly that what she wants most is for him to stay home and comfort her, and make her feel safe with his presence.

So, I had some difficulties with this sequence. I look forward to your responses, too.

But, okay, to get back to the story: the newly widowed Scarlett finally receives the proposition that I, for one, have been waiting for for oh, almost 800 pages. Rhett Butler is in the right position to catch her between husbands (as he says), and they come to an agreement: love is not necessarily present, but they can live happily together, and Scarlett will keep Tara and want for nothing. She will have as big a diamond ring as she pleases. All of this does come true; but, what’s this? Rhett seems to regret his ruling against love as part of the equation. I am holding out hope for some real honest-to-goodness romance at some point in this book…

But as part 4 closes, there’s another question hanging in the air, too. We’ve met Belle Watling a few times, and she’s a decidedly sympathetic character. The madam whose house cleared Ashley et al of murder, and who donated money anonymously to help the Confederate soldiers during the war, and who apparently is supported in part by Rhett Butler, has a child away at school somewhere: a son. And Rhett tells Scarlett he has a child away at school in New Orleans: his ward. Now, I see the foreshadowing. These two children are one, but who is the father of Rhett’s ward in New Orleans?

Part 4 ends with Rhett and Scarlett honeymooning in that very place, so I expect to find out soon. I hope for happiness, prosperity, a quiet settling down. I hope for love and romance, and an answer to my questions about the boy. I feel pretty certain I won’t get them all, though; this book is far too much about heartache and reality to give me all these happy endings. What’s next for Scarlett?

And how did YOU react to the Klan? And come on, y’all, a woman never “asks for” rape.

%d bloggers like this: