The Awakening: Between Feminism and the Fin-de-Siécle

Morris Dickstein

 

The dramatic ups and downs of Kate Chopin’s literary reputation make for a tale almost as good as any she wrote. Inspired by the subtle, ironic stories of Guy de Maupassant, some of which she read and translated in the late 1880s, she began writing short fiction – along with a novel, At Fault, which she published at her own expense in 1890. She had grown up in St. Louis but in the decade that followed she gained attention for her stories about the French Creole society of Louisiana, an almost closed world into which she had married. This was the heyday of “local color” writing, when regional authors, who were also pioneering realists, could place their stories in distinguished national magazines. Chopin published no less than eighteen stories in Vogue between 1893 and 1900. Collecting them in two well-received books, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), she enjoyed a growing literary reputation, only to lose it with the publication of her next novel, The Awakening, in 1899. Widely described as a Creole Madame Bovary, reviled for its sordid subject matter and seeming failure to condemn its adulterous heroine, The Awakening would sink from sight for more than half a century before being rediscovered – first in a handful of critical essays in the 1950s and 1960s, including an account by Edmund Wilson in his study of post-Civil War writing, Patriotic Gore (1962); then by a Norwegian literary scholar, Per Seyersted, who would both edit her work and write a biography; and finally by feminist critics of the 1970s who acclaimed her as a neglected precursor but differed on the import of her work.

After the novel’s toxic reception Chopin apparently lost much of her will to write. Responding to attacks on the book with a sarcastic retraction that distanced her from her unspeakable heroine, she wrote: “I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company.” This could refer by implication to Chopin herself, for it was she who had made “a mess of things,” at least in the eyes of reviewers. It suggests her concern that she herself would be “excluded from the company,” as indeed she was, at least until Seyersted, studying in America, brought together her collected writings in 1969.

Seyerstad’s landmark edition included the two volumes of stories that had brought her a measure of fame, the novel that transformed that fame into notoriety, and a large number of uncollected stories that added significantly to her legacy, including at least one unpublished story, “The Storm,” that was even more frank about sexuality than her novel. She died in 1904 and her literary career lasted only fourteen years, yet the recent Library of American edition that ratifies her place in the canon runs to over a thousand pages. This would be impressive for anyone; as the output of a recently widowed woman raising six children, it’s staggering, no matter how much household help she was able to afford. It certainly mattered that she was reasonable well off and never had to earn her living as a writer, but this in itself would not explain her impressive productivity or the exceptional quality of so much of the work she published.

Undoubtedly, Kate Chopin came from tough stock especially on her mother’s side, though it seems that all the men in the family were prone to die young. Born Kate O’Flaherty in St. Louis in 1850, to an Irish-American father and a part-Creole mother, Chopin lost her father in a railway disaster when she was five and grew up in a home with her widowed mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. The latter, the formidable Mme. Charleville, was a grande dame of pure Creole stock who died when Chopin was thirteen. Her striking stories and mores probably influenced the young girl as much as anything in her life, for they gave her access to a rich social tradition that she would eventually recover through her marriage.

Kate married a Creole, Oscar Chopin, in 1870 and moved with him to Louisiana, giving birth to six children in less than twelve years. (Her fecundity – and seeming contentment – has led some critics to liken her more to the maternal figure of Adéle Ratignolle than to the unhappy Edna Pontellier.) The first nine years of Chopin’s marriage were spent in New Orleans, where her husband worked as a cotton broker. But when his business failed they moved some three hundred miles to northwestern Louisiana, to a town with a single main street, in a region where he had family and owned some property. In her writing this sequence was reversed. The rural world became the setting for the early stories that made her moderately famous. They appeared in magazines like the Century, whose prudish but influential editor always gave her a hard time, and Vogue, which published the celebrated story of miscegenation, “Désirées’s Baby,” in 1893.

This rural scene undoubtedly contracted her social horizon yet she absorbed it with the fascinated attention of a folklorist and anthropologist. Her ear for language and especially dialect brings to mind another rediscovered writer, Zora Neale Hurston. But it was her earlier experience of the urban Creole world of New Orleans, her intimate knowledge of its morals and manners, that formed the background for The Awakening, which created a tempest among reviewers and exploded the fame she had gained with her stories. Even the young Willa Cather, who would later write an equally subtle novel about an adulterous woman, A Lost Lady (1923), wondered why Chopin had “devoted so exquisite and sensitive, so well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme.” Yet this novel became the basis for her revived reputation today; it vaulted her among the American classics. Precisely those qualities of her book that scandalized readers then – her jaundiced portrayal of a conventional marriage, her explicit treatment of a woman’s sexual desires, and above all her insistence on a woman’s need for autonomy and independence – made it certain that her work would be seen today as ahead of its time. The Awakening is a classic example of how a writer in one age can speak more forcefully to another, when deep-seated assumptions have shifted and the world, in a sense, has managed to catch up with her.

“Times have changed,” as Cole Porter put it at the beginning of one of his most celebrated songs, the title number of his 1934 musical Anything Goes. It’s tempting to turn to Porter to illuminate the changing fortunes of Edna Pontellier, Chopin’s restless, ill-starred heroine: “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking/ Was thought of as something shocking,/ But now, God knows,/ Anything goes.” Porter even moves on to literature as an example of contemporary license: “Good authors too who once knew better words/ Now only use four-letter words/ Writing prose,/ Anything goes.” Of course there are no four-letter words in The Awakening, since it was published in 1899, but there are some striking four-letter ideas that cross the mind of a respectable wife and mother, twenty-eight years old, with two small children. Edna’s “awakening” is, at one level, an awakening to her own sensuality, something she had experienced in three separate infatuations before marrying a man who would enable her to set these feelings aside, presumably forever. “Her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident, in this respect resembling many other marriages which masquerade as the decrees of fate,” we are told. “It was in the midst of her secret great passion that she met him. He fell in love, as men are in the habit of doing, and pressed his suit with an earnestness and an ardor which left nothing to be desired.”

Before going on with this important passage, we might take notice of its tone: it is empathetic yet detached. It doesn’t descend to details, but gives an almost abstract summary of a relationship, foreshortening it into romantic cliché, as if to say, Isn’t this the way things happen? Don’t we amble through the solemn passages of our lives almost out of habit, with a head full of romantic illusions, as if sleepwalking? Chopin’s tone is slightly flippant. We see things from Edna’s point of view but the writer also aims to show how benighted she is, how conventional and willful and, as yet, immature. Her suitor’s ardor “left nothing to be desired” because, frankly, her desire has yet to be awakened; she does not desire him but is merely flattered by his attention to her. “He pleased her; his absolute devotion flattered her. She fancied there was a sympathy of thought and taste between them, in which fancy she was mistaken.”

In this last phrase the lightly ironic voice – concise, witty, condescending, and very French – gives way to the novel’s editorial voice, which tells us exactly how wrong Edna was, how naive. It also points to the gap between the conventionalities of romance, courtship, and marriage and the actualities of feeling, attraction, and a deeper, more satisfying compatibility. The ironic voice is heard throughout the novel whenever Chopin takes an inventory of the rituals of social intercourse and the patterns of self-delusion that contribute to them. Chopin always reports the social consensus, the chorus of received opinion, in this ironic voice, for example, the notion that women can find true happiness by devoting themselves entirely to husband and children.

Sometimes we can see the shift within a single passage. As Edna’s husband contemplates her discontent, “it sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself.” At this point Chopin sets her irony aside to voice her own judgment, which tells us what even Edna has so far failed to realize. “That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and casting aside the fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.” This notion of personal authenticity, apart from society, is radically modern, and Chopin feels obliged to deliver it directly, without the cover of the oblique, ironic voice.

Edna married Léonce not simply because he courted her but also because her Presbyterian family opposed the match so fiercely, because he is Catholic. But her rebellion against her family gave us an intimation of her willfulness, preparing us for her rebellion against her husband, her children, and the peculiar mores of Creole society. Edna is caught in a contradiction. Her early romantic crushes frightened and disoriented her, and she accepts the man who seems to enable her to put all this behind her: “As the devoted wife of a man who worshiped her, she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams.” She even grows fond of her husband and feels an intermittent but intense attachment to her children, to whom she has given birth in a haze of anaesthetized unawareness. But she has married into a culture that is in every way more sensuous than her own, a Mediterranean Catholic world that shocks her repeatedly with its frankness and complete lack of prudery.

This cultural difference is essential to the novel; it makes Edna’s story something larger than a personal clash of passion and morals. Edna is a Protestant, an “American,” and something of a puritan in a French Catholic society. She is “self-contained,” reserved, where the Creoles are open and affectionate. Kate Chopin, when she moved to New Orleans, was by no means as much of an outsider as Edna, for even in St. Louis she had grown up among Creole matriarchs like Mme. Charleville, drinking in Creole lore. But as Edna’s friend Adéle tells Robert Lebrun, who has been flirting with her, “she is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously.”º

Every summer on Grand Isle, where the well-to-do Creole families take refuge from fetid, swampy heat of the city, Robert pays court to one of the ladies staying at his mother’s resort. Robert does this in the light spirit of a blagueur, even a bit of a clown, with no intention of a summer affair, let alone a serious relationship. But without knowing how deeply unfulfilled she is, she does take him seriously, and eventually he takes her seriously as well. The suppressed undercurrent in Edna is romantic, not lightly affectionate. As a Protestant concerned about the state of her soul, she’s a believer in what Keats called “the holiness of the heart’s affections.” Her sojourn at the shore, surrounded by sun and sea, women and children, food and music, has awakened feelings long suppressed, along with others she never knew she had. The summer at Grand Isle, along with Robert’s attentions, have had the effect on her that reading romances had on Emma Bovary: they’ve stirred up the passionate soul that slumbered within.

The resulting events are both triumphant and tragic, triumphant because they tell they story of someone emerging from a fog of routine and social convention to discover who she really is, but also tragic because as she comes into her own she finds no real outlet – not in marriage, where she feels possessed by another’s will; not in motherhood because the claims of her children, she feels, keep her soul in bondage; not with Robert, with whom she first falls in love, because although he reciprocates her feelings, he cannot allow himself the freedom they confer on her; and certainly not with her actual lover, the practiced roué Alcée Arobin, who awakens her sexually but can offer only the poisoned chalice of sex without love, sensuality unaccompanied by feeling. After they first sleep together she feels “neither shame nor remorse,” which no doubt doomed the novel in the eyes of many contemporary readers. Instead, “there was a dull pang of regret because it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her, because it was not love which had held this cup of life to her lips.”

The man who loves her won’t sleep with her, because she is another man’s wife; yet for the man who does sleep with her, who has glimpsed and cultivated her “latent sensuality,” she feels no love. The result is a kind of despair that might remind us of the dead-end desperation of Lily Bart near the conclusion of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. This leads both these women to an ambiguous, half-voluntary act of suicide. It is tempting to think of the triumphant side of the book under its ultimate title, The Awakening, while Kate Chopin’s working title, “A Solitary Soul,” points to the character’s cul-de-sac, her story’s delicately tragic denouement.

It’s worthwhile looking more closely at the two sides of this Janus-faced book, a work full of resonant dichotomies, such as the town and the shore, or the Protestant-Catholic divide already mentioned. But we can also enfold this in the much-discussed question of whether Kate Chopin was a feminist and whether The Awakening should be read as a feminist novel. The Awakening was rediscovered in the 1970s not simply as a fine but forgotten novel but as a neglected feminist text, along with Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston too was a famous figure in her own time, even more widely recognized than Chopin in hers. After the publication of her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942, her picture graced the cover of the Saturday Review. But she ended up working as a maid, dying in 1960 in poverty and total obscurity, buried in an unmarked grave, only to be rediscovered with the revival of feminism in the 1970s when black women writers like Alice Walker singled her out as their model.

Besides the near-total disappearance and abrupt rediscovery of their authors, there are other revealing parallels between The Awakening and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Both are daringly sexy novels centering on women who, after initial intimations of their own erotic nature, find themselves trapped in marriages in which they are little more than a man’s possession. Both break out of these marriages to lay claim not simply to sensual gratification but to something larger, their personhood, their autonomy. In this respect, both novels bring to mind the work of D. H. Lawrence, as Edmund Wilson noted about Chopin as early as 1962. For Lawrence, more than most writers, saw sexual liberation not as an end in itself but, especially for women, as the passage toward full humanity, the route through which we make deep connections that bring out something intrinsic about our nature. In her review of The Awakening, Willa Cather castigated this as “the over-idealization of love,” and saw women as its tragic victims. They “really expect the passion of love to fill and gratify every need of life, whereas nature only intended that it should meet one of many demands. . . . They have staked everything on one hand, and they lose.”

By emphasizing alternatives to love like intellect, art, and work, Cather, then a hard-working journalist, may see herself as more of a feminist than Kate Chopin. Should the claims of sex and love be seen as an expression of feminism, or the kind of radical Freudianism that came into vogue in the 1960s with Lawrentian writers like Norman O. Brown, prophets of sexual liberation? Is erotic independence a feminist issue or is it – as feminists have often suggested – yet another male stratagem to make women more sexually available?

In her introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Awakening, the feminist literary scholar Nina Baym points out that though “a contemporary reader may well be inclined to understand Edna’s sexual emancipation as a feminist issue, . . . such a reading would be somewhat anachronistic.” Those who supported women’s rights in that period, she says, “were more likely to perceive sexual freedom as freedom from sex” – that is, freedom from male domination – “than freedom through sex. What they wanted for women was the right to say no, rather than the right to say yes whenever and wherever they pleased.” Hence, Baym concludes that “The Awakening is best characterized not so much as a feminist work but as an individual and indecisive meditation on feminist themes.”

I would put this somewhat differently: One of the reasons the novel, like Their Eyes Were Watching God, feels so contemporary is that it is more feminist by today’s standards than by those of the period when it was written. Then the focus, understandably, was on a woman’s rights, since especially under the Code Napoléon in Louisiana, she had none – or very few legal or economic rights. All her property belonged to her husband, and in case of divorce she had no claim even to the custody of her children. Chopin, however, like a post-Freudian or post-Lawrentian – The Awakening was exactly contemporary with Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams – reached for something else: autonomy, agency, a woman’s need to be in touch with and in control of her own body. In story after story, Chopin described the effects of passion – the brooding physical fixation, the irrationality, the obsession with the love object – that were often thought to be the province of highly sexed males. No writer is better at conveying the disruptive force of such passion, its power to dissolve the constraints of convention, solemn commitment, and rational deliberation.

Among the most brilliant features of The Awakening are the analogues that Chopin sets up for showing us the effects of this irresistible force. They are not simply metaphors but actual experiences that trigger Edna’s awakening. Always to some degree self-absorbed, Edna is less swayed by her dealings with other people than by her immersion in swimming and in music, which become the novel’s organizing leitmotifs. In the Wagnerian, fin-de-siécle world of The Awakening, passion is a form of dissolution, an erasure of boundaries closely akin to death. Edna’s awakening begins not only at the seaside but in the water itself. When she suddenly learns to swim, she achieves an exhilarating control over her body, for perhaps the first time, but also feels enveloped in a sensual medium alive with intimations of death. In an early sentence repeated verbatim at the end of the book, just before her death by drowning, Chopin writes, from Edna’s viewpoint: “The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

Chopin’s 1932 biographer, Daniel S. Rankin, was a Roman Catholic priest who was virtually the only critic to take notice of her in the first half of the twentieth century. Rankin’s work has been mocked by modern scholars for his evident disapproval of “the current of erotic morbidity” he saw in her novel. Like Chopin’s contemporaries he preferred the stories to the longer work, which he found “exotic in setting, morbid in theme, erotic in motivation.” Yet it is hard to dismiss the influence of Wagner, Maeterlinck, and d’Annunzio on Chopin’s romantic associations of love and death, especially in a novel that prominently quotes Swinburne. Rankin stresses Chopin’s wide reading and extensive musical culture, especially after her return to St. Louis as a widow in 1884, where she was introduced into an advanced circle of freethinking women. Edna feels superior to the wives immured in tradition-bound Creole families. She turns away from the marriage of the Ratignolles as “the fusion of two beings into one.” In her glimpses of their “domestic harmony,” she sees little more than “an appalling and hopeless ennui,” a “colorless existence” and “blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life’s delirium.” She looks instead for some déréglement de tous les sens, a leap into the unknown.

Even more than through her swimming, Edna experiences such sensations in music, which is the other great incitement to passion in The Awakening. When Mlle. Reisz, the pianist, plays Chopin, she is sure only Edna can fully respond. And she does.

 

The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. . . .

 

She waited for the material pictures which she thought would gather and blaze before her imagination. She waited in vain. She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her.

As the figure of the artist in the novel, with no personal commitments, no steady domicile, and a nasty, anti-social personality, Reisz is set off against the “mother-woman,” Adéle Ratignolle, who lives in her own sensual heat of perfect domestic union, almost perpetually pregnant and utterly devoted to her husband and children – the very conditions that appall Edna. Even before she is drawn to her male suitors, Edna’s awakening begins with her crush on these two women, who become her confidantes in an intimacy that gives her access to her own dormant desires, her inner being. Yet for all her closeness to these partly symbolic, partly cautionary figures, Edna is not self-effacing enough to devote herself to her family or talented enough to commit herself to art, though she haphazardly tries to pursue both. As a result, her awakening, instead of rendering her more fully alive, in touch with herself and in control, turns her into the “Solitary Soul,” living in a kind of affectless stupor, a nameless malaise, and finally drifting towards death, which Chopin depicts as both a defeat and a consummation. Leaving her clothes behind on the shore, Edna achieves a watery dissolution that fulfils at least her need to escape. The conservative Creole society around her, in which she remains a foreigner, has been surprisingly tolerant of her waywardness. But her thwarted passions, up against the demands of her own children and the limitations of the men in her life, have led her inexorably to this point.

There is much to be said for the feminist reading of Kate Chopin’s work. Edna’s strongest relationships are with women. Few writers of Chopin’s era gave such a forceful, single-minded critique of the institution of marriage as a form of domination and, potentially, a loss of freedom. Almost uniquely, she made the burdens of motherhood part of that critique. Where the feminists of her time were concerned with women’s rights, including suffrage and the ownership of property, she deliberately chose to tell the story of a privileged woman with few economic concerns, who had the luxury of searching for inner fulfilment. This is one more reason why the novel seems so much of our time.

In one of her best tales, “The Story of an Hour,” Chopin offers us what is in some ways a three-page anticipation of the novel. It centers on a woman with a “heart” condition whose husband supposedly dies in a train wreck, as Chopin’s own father did. Friends and family give her the news very delicately, for fear of inducing a fatal attack. She withdraws to her room where she gradually grows euphoric, feeling somehow liberated, as if her life, her freedom, had unexpectedly been handed back to her. “She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’ . . . Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.” From now on “there would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.” She looks forward to “a long procession of years that would belong to her absolutely.” Instead, her husband walks through the door – he had never actually been aboard the train – and she dies of what the world sees as an attack of joy, a different kind of blow to her heart. Her brief dream of freedom, which surprised even herself, had been annulled.

Feminist critics seem on solid ground when they deal with the “Awakening” side of the novel, the sense of coming into one’s own, as when Edna’s husband perceives that “she was not herself,” but cannot see that “she was becoming herself.” But they go astray in seeing the “Solitary Soul” aspect of the novel as the climax of this autonomy, the form taken by Edna’s emancipation. She dies more in confusion and unhappiness than in self-knowledge. She does make a mess of things, as Kate Chopin sarcastically remarked in her retraction letter.

Chopin never remarried after her husband’s death, and some feminist critics read this back into the novel as Edna’s rejection of men. According to Emily Toth, Chopin’s most assiduous biographer, “even the trio of men cannot meet all of Edna’s needs. She wants something more, something she cannot even name in her thoughts before her last swim. . . . The Awakening can be read as a cautionary tale about the promises of men.” Perhaps it can be read that way, but should it? It seems perverse to turn Edna’s powerful attraction to men into a cautionary tale about their inadequacies, though her husband and lovers each show their limitations in the course of the novel, above all their failure to understand her or take her needs into account. Toth turns her final unhappiness, her blockage and sense of futility, into a triumphant assertion of independence.

Chopin shows how Edna, like the heartsick heroine of “The Story of an Hour,” reaches for independence yet fails to find it. Instead she slips into the watery medium in which she first asserted her strength but now finds only an ambiguous and heartbreaking dissolution. Edna is neither an exemplary victim nor a role model for women. She is rather the figure of the solitary soul: the inheritor of the romantic tradition, perhaps a case of what Cather called “the over-idealization of love,” caught in the contradictions between desire and self-fulfilment on one hand, social convention on the other, a theme that would be avidly developed by twentieth-century writers beginning with Freud and D. H. Lawrence. If The Awakening was a harbinger of modern feminism, it was also a forerunner of The House of Mirth, Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Main Street, A Lost Lady, Civilization and Its Discontents, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, works that gave flesh and blood to a similar clash of values.

 

 

This essay was delivered as the Rodrigue Lecture in Louisiana literature at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on 11 November 2004.

 

 

 

 

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