Both Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Marguerite Duras' The Lover address what happens when a woman searches for a way to leave her present life behind and seek a new one that may, or may not, be any better. In The Awakening, 28-year-old Edna Pontellier struggles for selfhood but does not have the strength to accept the ramifications of this possibility. In The Lover, the 15-year-old female narrator embraces self-awareness and uses her acquired strength to widen life's possibilities.
The Awakening takes place at the end of the 19th century, when the Western world was beginning to undergo major changes due to the Industrial Revolution and increased urbanization. Although women were beginning to envision a less-restrained future, they were still, for the most part, bound by tradition to be subservient to their husbands. Middle- and upper-class women were expected to stay at home as idle, decorative symbols of their husband's wealth -- entertaining friends and business associates and caring for children and their spouse's needs. They spent their other hours playing music and singing, visiting friends, or reflecting well on their husbands reputations in other ways. Despite the fact that women often brought a dowry to a marriage, wives were possessions.
At this time, the Suffragists had begun to stir the pot of equality, but the intended meal still had a bad taste in most people's mouths. When The Awakening was published, the reaction was mostly negative: "it is not a healthy book," "sex fiction," "the purport of the story can hardly be described in language fit for publication," "we are well satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death," "an essentially vulgar story," and "unhealthy introspective and morbid." (Culley, 146-52).
Similar to most women at this time, the main character of The Awakening, Edna Pontellier, is married to a businessman who loves her and their two children on his own terms. A serious, yet by no means an unpleasant or cruel individual, Leonce Pontellier has the typical expectations of most men of that time period. He is pleased to take care of Edna, as long as she fulfills her obligations as a wife and mother. They are not lovers or friends, but neither are they enemies. In usual marriage fashion, they live together with tolerance for the children and societal expectations. Yet there is something inside of Edna that wants to be released and makes her tears flow unexpectedly at times: "She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life. They seemed never before to have weighed much against the abundance of her husband's kindness and a uniform devotion which had come to be tacit and self-understood."
While on vacation, Edna meets Robert Lebrun, a man with whom she is able to share lively conversation and laughter. She begins to recognize what she has been missing in her past life and what, if anything, she has to look forward to in the years to come if remaining in her present situation. As her self-knowledge grows, she begins to disregard her husband's wishes and ignore her children. When Robert leaves for Mexico and Leonce for a long business trip, Edna has a brief affair and moves out of her house. For the first time, she has a taste of independence. "Every step she took toward relieving herself of obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual."
Her awakening to the reality of thought and sense, contains both joy and pain. Once again being able to feel, and now knowing firsthand both emotional and physical love, makes her excited to be alive once more. Yet, the joy is short lived and the pain too difficult to accept.
For the first time she recognized anew the symptoms of infatuation which she had felt incipiently as a child, as a girl in her earliest teens, and later as a young woman. The recognition did not lessen the reality, the poignancy of the revelation by any suggestion or promise of instability. The past was nothing to her; offered no lesson which she was willing to heed. The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate. The present alone was significant; was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded.
When Robert returns from Mexico, and the two rekindle their passion, he is the first to realize that he must say "good bye." Resolution is impossible. Unfortunately, Edna's independence proves to be her downfall. She realizes she must remain married, because divorce is unacceptable: It will only bring disgrace to everyone involved. Her place must continue with her husband and children. "When Mr. Pontellier learned of his wife's intention to abandon her home and take up her residence elsewhere, he immediately wrote her a letter of unqualified disapproval and remonstrance. She had given reasons which he was unwilling to acknowledge as adequate. He hoped she had not acted upon her rash impulse; and he begged her to consider first, foremost, and above all else, what people would say."
Now that she has awakened, however, she cannot return to her slumber and unknowing on earth. The only solution she sees is to end her life, which she does by swimming out into the sea until her strength gives out.
The 15-year-old French narrator of The Lover lives in IndoChina in the 1930s in an even more intolerable situation than Edna. However, three decades later, times and opportunities have begun to change for women. After the death of the narrator's father, her family becomes impoverished, and her mother is continually depressed and anxious due to the burdens placed on her to keep her children healthy. The narrator's older brother is a selfish, irresponsible brute whom the mother nevertheless favors. He controls and beats their gentler younger brother, whom the narrator loves dearly.
While crossing the Mekong River on a ferry, the fifteen-year-old narrator meets a wealthy, 27-year-old Chinese millionaire who drives around in a fancy limousine. He is fascinated by this alluring girl and falls in love with her. The girl, herself, is ready to bloom and try new experiences.
I know it's not clothes that make women beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams. I know the problem lies elsewhere and I only know it isn't where women think. I look at the women in the streets of Saigon. Some of them are very beautiful, very white ... they just save themselves up, save themselves up for Europe, for lovers, holidays in Italy ... They wait, these women. They dress just for the sake of dressing. They look at themselves. In the shade of their villas, they look at themselves for later on, they dream of romance.
The narrator's style of clothing when the two meet attests to her rising sexuality: a thin silk dress, high-heeled lame shoes, and a man's fedora that she wears because when she puts it on, "Suddenly I see myself as another ... available to all, available to all eyes." The Chinese man is entranced by this young woman who actually seduces him. He is surprised when she commands that he treat her as he has treated other women. The girl initiates the affair out of curiosity and the need for money, but as the situation progresses she comes to care for him in return.
Their relationship lasts about two years, although it is recognized that a lifetime pairing is futile. Despite the fact that relationships are freer than they were during the late 1800s, the Chinese culture does not condone a mixed marriage after a sexual relationship. He must obey his father's wishes and marry a Chinese girl he has yet to meet.
Despite her love for the man, the narrator's feelings are changeable and she remains in control of her emotions. When she is with her mother and brothers, she joins in their negative feelings toward him because of his minority status. The daughter loves her mother despite her severity because of her mother's support and what she has relinquished to fend for her family. At the same time, she resents her mother for exposing her children to her own unhappiness and for favoring her cruel and abusing elder son.
The mother's schemes to make money, including the purchase of some rice paddies, about which she receives the wrong information, unsurprisingly fail. However, somehow she manages to send her daughter to the elite French lycee in Saigon and eventually the Sorbonne in Paris. Desperate to escape poverty and for her children to succeed, the mother tries to maintain an environment of propriety in their household by retaining servants to make their meager meals and to sew her daughter's dresses.
Meanwhile, the young girl, by accepting her role as a sexual object, in turn takes control and…