This is a post participating in Allie’s Victorian Celebration, hosted at A Literary Odyssey.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) has been celebrated as the story of a woman breaking free from convention and society’s expectations, but my reading of the novel doesn’t give Edna Pontellier such credit. Chopin originally titled her novel A Solitary Soul, which describes the central conflict far better than the official title, requested by her publisher. Throughout The Awakening, Edna strives to be what her friend Mademoiselle Riesz calls “a brave soul – the soul that dares and defies” (86). Chopin’s original title would have better called attention to this endeavor, rather than the actual title which is less ambiguous about Edna’s success (or failure).
As the introductory essay in my copy points out, a lot of the personal awakening Edna experiences is not actually a progression to something new, to idealized self-actualization, but a reversion to childhood impulses and a refusal to assume responsibility for anyone or anything but her own desires. Chopin is intensely aware of the tension between evolution and reversion and thus, her overarching metaphor is that of circularity – the circularity of past, present, and future:
“For the first time she [Edna] recognized 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 lessen 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” (61).
Throughout the course of the novel, Edna becomes increasingly childlike in her inability to reflect on past experiences and contemplate future consequences for her actions. The meanings of “forward” and “backward” become all tangled up until their meanings reverse. Consider a circle. It is a line, formed in such a way that the line can be drawn in either direction. For Edna, “forward” into acceptance of adult responsibilities becomes “backward,” and a retreat into adolescence and the new awakening of sexual desires becomes advancement:
“Mr. Pontellier had been a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife. But her new and unexpected line of conduct completely bewildered him. It shocked him. Then her absolute disregard for her duties as a wife angered him. When Mr. Pontellier became rude, Edna grew insolent. She had resolved never to take another step backward” (76).
In the midst of her growing readiness to do as she likes in the search for personal fulfillment, Edna seems unwilling to hear anything that might contradict her new understanding of self-actualization. She gradually withdraws from her friend Madame Ratignolle because of her pregnancy (symbolizing familial responsibility) and unwanted perception (“‘In some way you seem to me like a child, Edna. You seem to act without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary in this life’” (130).)
Edna is, in many ways, defined in opposition to the people around her. Her husband is not abusive, nor particularly demanding, but Edna’s relationship to him is created largely through duty and responsibility. She does not love Mr. Pontellier, and had no illusions of love when she married him because it made her family unhappy. Through her friendship with Madame Ratignolle, Edna is forced to observe a stark contrast:
“Mr. Ratignolle was one of those men who are called the salt of the earth. His cheerfulness was unbounded, and it was matched by his goodness of heart, his broad charity, and common sense. He and his wife spoke English with an accent which was only discernible through its un-English emphasis and a certain carefulness and deliberation. Edna’s husband spoke English with no accent whatsoever. The Ratignolles understood each other perfectly. If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union” (75).
On Grand Isle, the island on which these wealthy families spend their summer holiday before returning to their winter homes in New Orleans, there is a curious mix of named and unnamed individuals. Members of Edna’s society are named, but her association with them is also accompanied by the constant background presence of “the little black girl,” “the lady in black,” and “the lovers.” These are but archetypes, representing sorts of people rather than individuals. An entire category of people are represented by one example, their presence pointing out to readers what Edna isn’t: Edna isn’t a servant, working for the betterment of others; Edna isn’t a religious woman, finding responsibility and comfort in a church setting; Edna isn’t happily and publicly in love. The Awakening is a book of contrasts, truth demonstrated through opposition –as Chopin wrote, “The sudden and brief flare of the match emphasized the darkness for a while” (59).
Despite the fact that I read Edna’s choices as juvenile and immature, rather than as a true awakening (as in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover), I enjoyed The Awakening immensely and spent most of my time reveling in the pure sensuous delight of Chopin’s language. All of the senses are continuously stimulated as the author describes music, food, clothing, the feel of different fabrics, cigar smoke and the perfume of flowers, and moonlight. One brief paragraph, unimportant to the arch of the plot (and made all the more striking for being so), is a beautiful example of Chopin’s ability to caress all five senses:
“It was misty, with heavy, lowering atmosphere, one afternoon, when Edna climbed the stairs to the pianist’s apartments under the roof. Her clothes were dripping with moisture. She felt chilled and pinched as she entered the room. Mademoiselle was poking at a rusty stove that smoked a little and warmed the room indifferently. She was endeavoring to heat a pot of chocolate on the stove. The room looked cheerless and dingy to Edna as she entered. A bust of Beethoven, covered with a hood of dust, scowled at her from the mantelpiece” (106).
Posture, too, is important. Compare, for example, the rigidity of Edna’s father’s posture with that of Mademoiselle Riesz: “Before her pencil he sat rigid and unflinching, as he had faced the cannon’s mouth in days gone by. He resented the intrusion of the children, who gaped with wondering eyes at him, sitting so stiff up there in their mother’s bright atelier. When they drew near he motioned them away with an expressive action of the foot, loath to disturb the fixed lines of his countenance, his arms, or his rigid shoulders (92); “She sat low at the instrument, and the lines of her body settled into ungraceful curves and angles that gave it an appearance of deformity” (86). One of these characters represents the confining bonds of societal expectations and responsibility to one’s family. The other is a musician whose art has the potential to awaken “strange new voices.” Can you guess which is which?
The matter-of-fact tone of the novel is, at times, extremely funny. For example: “[The cake] was pronounced a great success – excellent if it had only contained a little less vanilla or a little more sugar, if it had been frozen a degree harder, and if the salt might have been kept out of portions of it” (33). However, despite its funny moments, this isn’t a funny book. Aside from a few witticisms, the narrative seems distanced and impassive. Its matter-of-fact tone presents actions and thoughts emotionlessly, without analysis or justification. Actions simply happen; thoughts simply are. It’s like watching Edna through a microscope, an odd feeling for a limited-omniscient book that reveals some internal monologue. Readers know what Edna is thinking, but rarely how she feels about it, or if her emotion is revealed, we have difficulty connecting to it.
If you haven’t read The Awakening, I’d encourage you to try it, and as I mentioned, it makes a great comparison piece to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It was also the first American South-themed book I’ve read in a long while – too many English books lately! In contrast to English Victorian sexual politics, The Awakening expresses a very different ideal. Its exquisite use of language makes the novel’s prose even more sensuous than its plot!
One final digression: my edition (Bantam Classic) has a fabulous introduction by Marilynne Robinson. Normally, I would regret reading an introduction containing spoilers, as this one does, but not in this case; the essay was meandering but marvelously written, pointing out what details I should pay attention to as I begin to read. Not knowing what to expect with this book, it was nice to have some guidance as to what description and events are of special importance later. The excellence of Robinson’s writing was also a firm reminder that I simply must read her novels, and soon!
Things I’m reading:
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
A Journal of Theomusicology (Black Sacred Music, Vol. 8, No. 1), Jon Michael Spencer, ed.
God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson
God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson