The Cocktail: Vieux Carré
This week’s cocktail is a little complex, but it’s authentic to the region of our book choice. I myself have never had this drink but I might have to order it this weekend. Vieux Carré directly translates to “old square” but is more commonly known as the French Quarter in New Orleans. First served at The Monteleone Hotel in 1939. And while our characters would not have sipped on this concoction, the drink and book alike are rich with French influence.
- 1 ounce rye whiskey
- 1 ounce Cognac
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 1 teaspoon Bénédictine D.O.M.
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Directions: Mix all ingredients in a double Old Fashioned glass over ice; stir.
The Book: The Awakening by Kate Chopin
My book decision this week is due in large part to International Women’s Day yesterday (March 8th). This somewhat autobiographical book explores provocative themes for 19th century women trapped in society’s expectations and Chopin raises the question a lot of women are still asking today; “Why can’t women have it all?”
I first read The Awakening my senior year of high school, and I hated it. It took me forever to read and I just didn’t connect with the text. I read it again my senior year of college and I fell in love with it. Rereading this book allowed me to see the progress I was able to make in four years. I came back to the story as whole different reader.
Our story begins in Grand Isle, a resort and getaway for the wealthy citizens of New Orleans. Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier are on holiday with their two sons. Léonce is a business man and work often takes priority over Edna and the boys. Incidentally, Edna begins to spend all her time with a friend. Adèle Ratignolle is the epitome of a 19th century woman. She is dainty and graceful, she tends to her children and genuinely enjoyed fulfilling her domestic duties. In fact, this sort of woman was fairly common at Grand Isle. Rich women with absent husbands happy to be doting wives and mothers. Much like the Stepford Wives, these women were almost mechanical in the way they lived life. And while Edna loved her children and her husband, she wasn’t quite as devoted as Adèle and the other women around her. There was something missing, she just didn’t know what yet.
Edna was an outsider in multiple ways. She was not as angelic and domestic as the other mothers but she was also not Creole. She married into the interesting mix of culture that combined the old south with vivid French influence. Edna’s distance from the culture is most noticeable in her prudent nature. While the Creole men and women weren’t afraid to speak about taboo subjects, Edna felt herself holding back and unable to posses whatever freedom those around her seemed to have.
It is through Adèle that Edna meets Robert Lebrun a handsome flirtatious man who would…get around as they say. Robert would choose a woman every summer, young or old, and lovingly shower her with attention her husband wasn’t giving her. I sort of see him as a Magic Mike of his time. Focused on instant gratification, emotionally unattached, but very charming. This particular summer Robert had his eye set on Edna. And so the flirtation begins. Edna finds his efforts annoying and in poor taste at first. But his constant flirtation eventually gets to her.
Through Robert and Adèle, Edna meets Madamoiselle Reisz. Reisz is unmarried, has no children, and is thus able to devote all her time and efforts to her music. She is a direct opposite of Adele purposely written to show the two sides of society. Edna is stuck between the two women, and the two identities. Madamoiselle Reisz is probably the most important person to the whole story because she is ultimately responsible for Edna’s sexual awakening.
Madamoiselle Reisz urges Edna to embrace her new feelings for Robert and then for another young bachelor who also devotes his time to married women. While Edna is at Grand Isle she begins to fall for Robert and Robert begins to truly fall for her. He becomes an emotional confidant. However, at the end of the summer holiday, the Pontelliers return to New Orleans and Robert is needed in Mexico. Léonce has business to do in New York as per usual, and once again, Edna is left alone. Edna meets the notorious Alcée Arobin, a charming and seductive bachelor. He and Edna become lovers while Léonce and Robert are away.
Edna’s relationship with Alcée is the most liberating for her. While Léonce and Robert are loving and doting, they have a certain control over her. There’s a power struggle. Edna controls her relationship with Alcée. It’s purely physical which becomes an important part of Edna’s change.
As Edna moves closer to the various men in her life, she moves further away from her domestic life. When her husband approaches her about it, she naturally continues to distance herself from her family. This awakening from her domestic life to her…physical life puts Edna is a tough position.
Edna is passionately in love with Robert but the two know they may never be together because Edna would be a ruined woman of society. Alcée has given Edna a physical satisfaction that also throws her outside the societal norms. And of course, Edna has children! As she struggles with what to do she begins to feel trapped. She begins to realize that there is no way to win. Whatever she chooses, she loses.
Society in the 19th century was tricky. A married woman may flirt with and entertain the thought of an affair but if she were to fully leave her husband, society would cast her out. Women had no true freedom. So Edna is trapped. In an effort to escape from her life, Edna decides to take a night swim. Chopin leaves the ending open and we are to assume that Edna was so miserable that she drowns herself in the ocean or turned into a fish. But she never returns to any of her lives.
This book is dense, but beautifully written and it is not the only story of its kind. There is an entire class of novels and short stories that show how women in society who decide to act upon their desires die at the end of the book. The argument is that women would rather die than be cast from society. To us 21st century ladies this must seem preposterous. But in fact, we too are influenced by society every day. And while we are able to pick and choose those influences without contemplating suicide in fear of being a social recluse, these influences are meant to mold us. On this day after International Women’s Day, I think it’s important that women know how powerful they are. While Edna and other characters were unable to fight the oppressive nature of society, we can. So do it for yourself, and all the women who couldn’t do it. Be strong and powerful. Change the world, just because you can.
sources: Vieux Carre