illustrated portrait of American author Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

Start Free Trial

Sandra M. Gilbert And Susan Gubar (Essay Date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20301

SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin’s Fantasy of Desire.” In No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, pp. 83-119. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

In the following essay, Gilbert and Gubar offer an overview of Chopin’s place in the intellectual climate of her time and examine the feminist vision of The Awakening.

The radiant Venus of antiquity, the foam-born Aphrodite, has not passed unscathed through the dreadful shades of the Middle Ages. Her dwelling is no longer Olympus, nor the shores of a perfumed archipelago. She has retired into the depths of a cavern, magnificent, it is true, but illumined by fires very different from those of benign Apollo.

—Charles Baudelaire, 1861

Then to me so lying awake a vision Came without sleep over the seas and touched me, Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I too, Full of the vision,

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite, Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled Shine as fire of sunset on western waters.

—A. C. Swinburne, 1865

I was born under the star of Aphrodite, Aphrodite who was also born on the sea, and when her star is in the ascendant, events are always propitious to me.

—Isadora Duncan, 1927

Swiftly re-light the flame, Aphrodite, holy name …

return, O holiest one, Venus whose name is kin

to venerate, venerator.

—H. D., 1945

Although the New Women imagined by Olive Schreiner and Charlotte Perkins Gilman either suffer from or repudiate the erotic, the relationship between late nineteenth-century feminism and female desire was by no means clear cut. To be sure, many suffragists recoiled from the free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull because of her unsavory reputation, but both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony emphatically endorsed her work for the vote in the early 1870s. Exclaimed Stanton, using the occasion to attack the prevailing double standard, “When the men who make laws for us in Washington can … declare themselves … unspotted from all the sins mentioned in the Decalogue, then we will demand that every woman who makes a constitutional argument on our platform shall be as chaste as Diana,” while Anthony wrote to Woodhull enthusiastically urging her to “Go ahead doing, bright, glorious, young and strong spirit,...

(This entire section contains 20301 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

and believe in the best love and hope and faith of S. B. Anthony.”1 Even more radically than Stanton and Anthony, however, some women in this period began not only to excuse or justify but to celebrate the transgressive sexuality of the “fallen woman.” For Kate Chopin, in fact, such a woman paradoxically became a resonant symbol of the same need for drastic social change that impelled Schreiner and Gilman in various ways to renounce erotic desire. Ultimately, Aphrodite, the goddess of love—not Mary, the mother of God—became Chopin’s ideal.

In February 1899, while The Awakening was still in press, Kate Chopin wrote a poem called “The Haunted Chamber,” in which a male speaker tells the tale “Of a fair, frail, passionate woman who fell.” Narrated in neat couplets, the story seems at first merely an item for masculine delectation, an after-dinner diversion:

It may have been false, it may have been true. That was nothing to me—it was less to you. But with bottle between us, and clouds of smoke From your last cigar, ’twas more of a joke Than a matter of sin or a matter of shame That a woman had fallen, and nothing to blame, So far as you or I could discover, But her beauty, her blood and an ardent lover.

But surprisingly, as the night wears on, the speaker, left alone with his thoughts, finds himself haunted by this fallen woman’s fate. When “the lights were low,” he confesses,

And the breeze came in with the moon’s pale glow The fair, faint voice of a woman, I heard. ’Twas but a wail, and it spoke no word. It rose from the depths of some infinite gloom And its tremulous anguish filled the room.2

Unspoken and unspeakable, the destiny of one lost lady symbolizes the wordless wail of every woman whose passion for self-fulfillment had been forbidden or forgotten.

That such forbidden passion was a major theme for Kate Chopin became clear to American readers two months later, when The Awakening —a novel that might be seen as a book-length vindication of the rights of women like the “fair, frail” heroine of “The Haunted Chamber" —was published. But the irony and urbanity of Chopin’s poem suggest that she was hardly prepared for the outrage that greeted her novel on the same subject. The novel “leaves one sick of human nature,” complained one critic; “the purport of the story can hardly be described in language fit for publication,” asserted another. Even Willa Cather, who admired Chopin’s art and was eventually to produce her own tales of lost ladies, deplored the fact that the author had “devoted so exquisite and sensitive … a style to so trite and sordid a theme.”3 Within a few months, the libraries of St. Louis, Missouri, Chopin’s native city, had banned the book; Chopin was shunned by a number of acquaintances; and, according to her biographer, Per Seyersted, she was refused membership in the St. Louis Fine Arts Club.4

At first the novelist attempted an insouciant self-defense:

Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. 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. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over and it was then too late.5

But as time passed, the wound to Chopin’s aesthetic morale became ever more painful. Her royalties from the book were minimal, and her third collection of short stories was rejected by The Awakening ’s publisher. The “moving procession of human energy,” the writer confided in a sorrowful essay entitled “A Reflection,” “has left me by the roadside!”6

Ironically, this daughter of a distinguished and pious Catholic family found herself in a position where her own authorial “torment” reflected the pain experienced by the heroine of “The Haunted Chamber.” At first a “conscientious mother” of six—indeed, according to her daughter, a model “Lady Bountiful” of the Louisiana neighborhood where she had settled for a while after her marriage—and later an “inconsolable” widow, Chopin had ventured into chambers haunted by the erotic, the illicit, the “sordid”.7 Yet though censorious reviewers and confused readers were shocked by what seemed to be her unprecedented boldness, this artist had been, from early in her career, a very different person from the decorous “Lady Bountiful” that the world believed her to be. Indeed, even as a feminist she had swerved significantly from the essentially puritanical creed that was espoused by many New Women and that would eventually become a central tenet of Gilman’s Herland.8

On her honeymoon, Chopin had quite fortuitously encountered one “Miss Clafflin” (sic). A sister of Victoria Woodhull, this “fussy, pretty, talkative little woman,” wrote Chopin in her diary, “entreated me not to fall into the useless degrading life of most married ladies—but to elevate my mind [and] I assured her I would do so.”9 Living in New Orleans, she had followed “Miss Clafflin’s” advice in her own way, adventurously exploring the city and taking notes on scenes that impressed her, attending the theater and the opera, and continuing her compendious reading during long summers at Grand Isle, the resort where The Awakening is set. By the time that, as a young widow, Chopin seriously embarked on literary projects, she had abandoned the Catholicism of her girlhood and become an acolyte of the “direct and simple” stories of Maupassant, whom she defined as “a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes.”10

Though such “escapes” also fascinated Olive Schreiner and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the ones envisioned by Chopin were in some ways more controversial. Despite its radical polemics, after all, Schreiner’s African Farm was morally acceptable enough to become a best-seller, and, though they were notably revolutionary, Gilman’s critical and creative works were not greeted with significant opprobrium. But The Awakening was almost universally excoriated or deprecated for more than three decades. Perhaps, however, that was because, unlike many of her female contemporaries, Chopin was aligned with a particularly sensational, largely male-dominated fin-de-siècle rhetoric, a rhetoric which explored, and often defended, what society defined as “damnation.”

Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis in 1851, three years after the publication of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, two years before the appearance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and six years before the publication of Aurora Leigh. In that year, Emily Dickinson was twenty-one, just returned from Mary Lyon’s Ladies Seminary at Mount Holyoke, where, already a rebel, she had refused to “accept Christ” during an evangelical revival, while Marian Evans, not yet George Eliot, had produced her translation of Strauss’s theologically revisionary Lebens Jesu (1846). As for male artists, just four years after Chopin’s birth, Walt Whitman was to bring out the first version of Leaves of Grass, a work whose sensual frankness and stylistic freedom made it at least as daring in 1855 as The Awakening was in 1899. By 1851, moreover, Richard Wagner’s epochal Tannhäuser, with its shocking depiction of a fiery Venusberg, had already had its premiere in Germany, and within little more than a decade it was to be performed in Paris, where it would be defended by Charles Baudelaire, whose own controversial masterwork, Les Fleurs du mal, had appeared in 1857.

It is relevant to review this history because Kate Chopin has often, especially in recent years, been detached from the rich intellectual fabric of the age that nurtured her. Originally seen by her most sympathetic critics as a “local colorist,” a purely American phenomenon like George Washington Cable or Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, she has lately been upgraded by even keener enthusiasts to a sort of feminist sociologist but still defined as an artist whose principal sources of energy were empirical observation and political theorizing. Paradoxically, however, in their dislike of the novel’s erotic boldness and their willful refusal to sympathize with Edna’s “unfocused yearning,” some of The Awakening ’s earliest reviewers came closer to understanding its content and origins.

The novel “is like one of Aubrey Beardsley’s hideous but haunting pictures with their disfiguring leer of sensuality,” declared a reviewer for the Los Angeles Sunday Times, for instance.11 Three decades later, the writer of the first full-length study of Kate Chopin elaborated upon this position. “The Awakening follows the current of erotic morbidity that flowed strongly through the literature of the last two decades of the nineteenth century,” observed Daniel Rankin, adding that Kate Chopin, in an attack “of the prevailing artistic vertigo,” had absorbed such diverse influences as Schopenhauer, Wagner, “the Russian novel,” and Maeterlinck, while sharing in “the mania for the exotic” that turned so many fin-desiècle imaginations toward femmes fatales like Haggard’s Ayesha, Wilde’s Salome, and Flaubert’s Salammbô.12 Rankin was thinking in terms that were just being explored in Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony, though his descriptive phrases, like those of the Los Angeles Times reviewer, had an emphatically negative moral cast. Beneath the judgmental surface, however, we can discern an accurate definition of who and what Kate Chopin was: a woman of the nineties, a writer of the fin de siècle.

What did it mean, though, to be a woman of letters during the fin de siècle, that era whose French label gives it a faintly sinister, voluptuously apocalyptic air?13 Superficially, at least, the phrase fin de siècle meant, for some literary women as for many literary men, a kind of drawing-room sophistication—smoking Turkish cigarettes, subscribing to The Yellow Book, reading (and translating) French fiction, all of which Chopin did, especially during the St. Louis years of her widowhood, which were also the years of her major literary activity. More integrally, the fin de siècle was associated with the artistic and intellectual rebels mentioned by Rankin and by Chopin’s early reviewers, with, that is, such figures as Beardsley and Wilde, and with their most significant precursors: Swinburne, Pater, Whitman, Wagner, Baudelaire. To such women as Chopin (along with Victoria Woodhull, Emma Goldman, and others), however, the second half of the nineteenth century had also offered the revolutionary concept of “free love,” an idea which in some ways qualified, and was sometimes at odds with, the even newer persona of the New Woman. In addition, as we have seen, to be a woman of the nineties meant to have come of age in a new kind of literary age, an era whose spirit was shared and shaped by significant female imaginations.

Like many of her contemporaries, Kate Chopin began quite early to read the works of such ancestresses as Austen, the Brontës, and Eliot. Early and late, moreover, she admired the writings of the iconoclastic George Sand, in honor of whom she evidently named her only daughter “Lélia.” In addition, she knew the works of American writers from Stowe to Jewett as well as those of British women from Barrett Browning to Schreiner, for she belonged to a circle in St. Louis where the writings of such figures were actively discussed.14 Like the fictions of so many women, however, her earliest full-length narrative—the 1890 novel At Fault —dramatizes its author’s ambivalent affiliation with the female literary tradition through a complex engagement with that most inescapable of women’s novels, Jane Eyre. Indeed, like Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, Eliot’s “The Lifted Veil,” and other female fictions, At Fault depends on crucial elements of the Jane Eyre plot: specifically, a husband helplessly shackled to a mentally “incompetent” wife (in this case an alcoholic rather than a madwoman), a “pure” woman who insists on the holiness of wedlock, a fire that destroys much of the husband’s property, and a providential death that happily resolves the unhappy triangle.15

Unfortunately, though, what had worked so well in 1847 for Charlotte Brontë, almost as well in 1856 for Barrett Browning, and comparatively well in 1859 for Eliot, helped the apprentice Chopin not at all. The splitting of her female protagonist into a sober and noble heroine, on the one hand, and a drunken ignoble double, on the other, seemed for Chopin actually to block the sort of feminist speculation such a strategy had energized in Brontë’s novel. Equally hampering were the Gothic elements of fire, murder, and providential death, which had given metaphorical intensity to Aurora Leigh and “The Lifted Veil” as well as to Jane Eyre. In the forties, Brontë had pioneeringly used such properties of mystery and melodrama to vitalize the theater of desire in which her heroine was a central actor. By the nineties, however, with femmes fatales and New Women making both social and literary history, it seemed specious to fracture the female protagonist.

Whether the heroine was Haggard’s Ayesha or Schreiner’s Lyndall, events that seemed as “sad and mad and bad” as one of Chopin’s reviewers called Edna Pontellier’s fate occurred precisely because the mad rebellious woman and the sane submissive woman were now really inhabitants of the same body, and their life-and-death struggle took place not in an attic or a parlor but in the troubled female consciousness.16 Yet that struggle, often an essential subject of literature by women, must be not only analyzed but rendered, as Chopin had learned from Brontë and other literary foremothers. After the failure of At Fault, therefore, she evidently realized that her most pressing task was to learn how to narrate a modern female psychomachia without actually dividing the female personality into two warring selves.

In their different ways, of course, writers like Haggard and Schreiner confronted the same problem, as they set out to record the adventures of the femme fatale or of the New Woman. On the one hand, despite her Medusan powers, the sweetly beautiful but fatal Ayesha has been angelically loyal to her Kallikrates for a millennium, and though she is shown from the first to be belligerent in her relations with other women, she is only gradually revealed to be mad, monstrous, murderous in her relations with all of male culture, and only at the very end of the novel, when she “devolves” into a creature “no larger than a monkey,” is her ontological identity revealed. On the other hand, though Schreiner’s New Womanly Lyndall is a more complex figure than many late nineteenth-century femmes fatales, she is characterized through a reversal of the dramatic denouement that reveals Ayesha’s “true” self. At first, she is seen as strange and rebellious, but later, especially in her angelic death scenes, she becomes a noble victim. Moreover, whether or not New Women consistently used this dramatic pattern to explore their heroines’ psychic development, they tended to resort to discursive debates among their characters, a major strategy of Schreiner’s; they tended, that is, to tell rather than show the meaning of the conflicts their heroines experienced.17

To Chopin, however, such solutions were plainly unacceptable. Inheriting Charlotte Brontë’s feminist passion, she also inherited a sense of dramatic coherence comparable to Brontë’s, an equally intense poetic energy, and a similar commitment to narrative urgency. At the same time, Chopin preferred a disinterested Flaubertian voice to an impassioned Brontë-esque or Dickensian one. Her version of the feminist psychomachia, therefore, would have to have both the fierce vitality of Jane Eyre and the scrupulous restraint of Madame Bovary. But how could she negotiate the passage from the clumsily derivative At Fault to such a paradoxical romance? To put the question another way, how could she move, as a woman writer, from the often melodramatic or sentimental conventions that shaped even the most “realistic” nineteenth-century novels to the more elliptical structures of twentieth-century fiction?

At first, for Chopin, “local color” writing offered both a mode and a manner that could mediate between the literary forms she had inherited and those she had begun to envision. Like such American contemporaries as Grace King and Constance Woolson, Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman—the last two of whom she particularly admired—she could work in what seemed to be a minor, understated (and therefore “ladylike”) mode which nevertheless allowed her to explore a number of subversive themes.18 Because the “local color” writer is in a sense a sort of ethnologist or cultural anthropologist, the recounting of tales based on idiosyncratic customs, folk character, and regional behavior could help her to narrate fictions with the almost scientific detachment of Chekhov, Maupassant, and Flaubert. More important, by reporting odd practices that were part of a region’s “local color,” she could even tell what would ordinarily be shocking stories without fear of the moral outrage that a more “mainstream” work like The Awakening would evoke. Finally, by detaching herself from a specific set of customs she could learn to detach herself from all customs. Like so many other regionalists—among male authors, for instance, Twain, Yeats, and Joyce, and, among women, especially Freeman and, as we shall later show, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather—she could move from theorizing about a particular subcultural group to theorizing about culture itself.

Modest as they may seem, some of Chopin’s stories suggest the ways in which large issues had always been implicit in what conservative critics approvingly called her “delightful sketches.”19 With its triangle of upper-class heroine, lower-class heroine, and upper-class lover, for instance, “At the ‘Cadian Ball” (1892) dramatizes the hierarchies that structure even so apparently simple a society as that of “La Côte Joyeuse,” for the local farm girl—Calixta—has ultimately to watch her well-born sweetheart—Alcée—pledge his allegiance to Clarisse, his aristocratic fiancée (CW [The Complete Works of Kate Chopin ] 1:219-27). Recounting a man’s repudiation of a young wife whom he believes to have black origins, “Desirée’s Baby” (1893) goes further and interrogates the arbitrary race distinctions that could divide man from wife, child from parent, in such a culture (CW 1:240-45). “At Chênière Caminada” (1894), set at the summer resort that was to play so crucial a part in The Awakening, and “Nég Creol” (1897), set in a very different New Orleans from the quartier inhabited by either Edna Pontellier or Kate Chopin herself, offer poignant portraits of southern ladies from the sympathetically delineated point of view of working-class men—one white, one black—into whose consciousness a decorous lady like Chopin herself might not have been expected to enter (CW 1:309-18 and 505-10).

Perhaps even more radically, “The Story of an Hour” (1894), “Athenaïse” (1896), and “The Storm” (comp. 1899) question the very institution of marriage. “The Story of an Hour” records a wife’s sense of liberation and ecstasy on hearing a false report of her husband’s death (CW 1:352-54); “Athenaïse” explores the rebellious feelings of a runaway bride (CW 1:426-54); and “The Storm” dramatizes a brief but volcanic—indeed, proto-Lawrentian—sexual encounter between Calixta and Alcée, the lovers who were separated by class lines in “At the ‘Cadian Ball’” (CW 2:596-96). Similarly, “Lilacs” (1896) movingly delineates the love between two strikingly dissimilar women—a nun and a kind of courtesan—and protests the social rules which would condemn such a relationship (CW 1:355-65). In all these pieces, although Chopin appears to begin by setting herself a comparatively limited narrative task, she ultimately confronts large, even (as in “Desireée”s Baby, “The Storm,” and “Lilacs” ) deeply “improper” social questions to which many fin-de-siècle artists were coming from other directions.

In an important essay on “The Decadent and the New Woman,” Linda Dowling has suggested that both these turn-of-the-century intellectual “types” shared the “fundamental desire of the fin de siècle avant garde: the dream of living beyond culture, the dream of pastoral.”20 To say this, however, is to say that artists like Beardsley and Wilde, with literary goals quite distinct from Chopin’s, had also begun to speculate on the nature of culture as well as on the nature of nature itself—on the nature, that is, of what is beyond or beneath culture. As Holbrook Jackson put it in 1913, “the intellectual, imaginative and spiritual activities of the Eighteen Nineties [were] concerned mainly with the idea of social life or, if you will, of culture … it was a time when people went about frankly and cheerfully endeavoring to solve the question ‘How to Live.’”21 Confronting such questions through her quasi-anthropological work as a local colorist, Chopin must also have been influenced by the kinds of related speculations she would have encountered in French literature and in The Yellow Book as well as in the New Woman fictions of Schreiner or, indeed, of such other contemporaries as George Egerton and Sarah Grand.

Of course, however, as they fantasized “living beyond culture,” two such different beings as the decadent and the New Woman yearned toward drastically different versions of the revitalized natural world that Dowling calls “pastoral.” The New Woman, for instance, frequently dreamed of a transfigured society where both “sex distinction” and the “sex-passion” had dissolved away.22 As Schreiner put it in one of her “allegories,” in the highest heaven sex “does not exist,” and as Gilman sought to demonstrate in Herland, the most intense sexual pleasure derives, at least for women, from an erotics of the maternal.23 In the words of one British suffragist, “How can we [women] possibly be Freewomen if, like the majority of men, we become the slaves of our lower appetites?”24 Such male artists as Beardsley and Wilde, however, envisioned a society transfigured not beyond but through homosexual or heterosexual eroticism. What Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) called “the new Hedonism,“ wrote the critic and author Grant Allen in 1894, would repudiate “the asceticism that deadens the senses,” and do so specifically through a revitalizing of the erotic which would return men and women to the Eden of polymorphous perversity from which Protestant morality, with its threats of “damnation,” had cast them out.25

Because Chopin had come to cultural theory through a figurative as well as a literal subscription to The Yellow Book, and through both the antipuritanical traditions of French literature and the scrupulously empirical observations of literary anthropology, she was disinclined even to try to imagine a de-eroticized pastoral Eden. Rather, she dreamed of a specifically sexual culture beyond culture, a sensual Eden whose heroine’s motto might be defined by a passage from one of Victoria Woodhull’s most famous speeches of the mid-century: “I will love whom I may … I will love as long or as short a period as I can…. I will change this love when [conditions] indicate that it ought to be changed; and … neither you nor any law you can make shall deter me.”26

At the same time, Chopin must have seen that the erotic pastoralism which both she and Woodhull were inclined to espouse usually involved either a misogynistic exploitation of the female, as in the brilliant pornographic text which Aubrey Beardsley first published with the title Under the Hill and which later appeared as Venus and Tannhäuser, or in a misogynistic revulsion against the female, as in Haggard’s She or Wilde’s Salome.27 From the sardonic extreme unction Flaubert as narrator intones over the corpse of Emma Bovary to the pornographic Black Masses of Aleister Crowley and his prurient celebrations of Venus as “Daughter of Lust” and “Sister of shame,” the French and decadent writers alike used the erotic image of woman to annihilate culture through blasphemy and to picture a world whose sexual energy arose specifically from its sacrilegious concentration on the female, its self-nauseating worship of Venus’s hellish and adorable flesh.28 Without denying or deriding the erotic, as so many New Women tended to do, Chopin strove to purify it of such decadent misogyny.

But in formulating her feminist dream of a sexual culture beyond culture, Chopin—like Woodhull before her and Gilman after her—was aligning herself with a strain of nineteenth-century thinking about eroticism that, although historians have tended to ignore or repress its existence, was real and vivid in its time. As Peter Gay has recently argued, the now notorious views of the British doctor William Acton have been mistakenly taken to represent a monolithic Victorian notion of female sexuality. “The majority of women (happily for them) are not much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind,” wrote Acton in 1857, adding that the “married woman has no wish to be treated on the footing of a mistress.”29 But in fact, as Gay demonstrates throughout The Education of the Senses, a female capacity for sexual desire and pleasure—a capacity assumed by both the theories of Woodhull and the fiction of Chopin—was, if not taken for granted, at least affirmed by many of these women’s contemporaries.

“I have come to the conclusion,” wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1881, “that the first great work to be accomplished for women is to revolutionize the dogma that sex is a crime, marriage a defilement and maternity a bane,” and in 1883 she complained that “Walt Whitman seems to understand everything in nature but woman … he speaks as if the female must be forced to the creative act, apparently ignorant of the great natural fact that a healthy woman has as much passion as a man.”30 In the same vein, the medical pioneer Elizabeth Blackwell declared in 1884 that the “physical pleasure which attends the caresses of love is a rich endowment of humanity, granted by a beneficent Creative power.”31 More empirically, in 1892 one Dr. Clelia Mosher undertook to survey some four dozen American women about their sexual reactions, and, as Gay reports her results, “More than a third of [her] respondents claimed that they reached orgasm ‘always’ or ‘usually.’”32

But, as we have seen, even in the seventies Victoria Woodhull had become both mystical and explicit about erotic pleasure. “In a perfected sexuality shall continuous life be found,” she exclaimed at a Spiritualists’ Camp Meeting in Vineland, New Jersey, adding that “I never had sexual intercourse with any man of whom I am ashamed to stand side by side before the world with the act … if I want sexual intercourse with one hundred men I shall have it. . . . And this sexual intercourse business may as well be discussed now, and discussed until you are so familiar with your sexual organs that a reference to them will no longer make the blush mount to your face any more than a reference to any other part of your body.”33

As if elaborating on Woodhull’s assertions, the British sexologist Edward Carpenter insisted in the first edition of his widely read Love’s Coming of Age that “Sex is the allegory of love in the physical world.” In fact, he remarked, “the state of enforced celibacy in which vast numbers of women live to-day [should] be looked upon as a national wrong, almost as grievous as that of prostitution.” And, anticipating—perhaps, indeed, influencing—Kate Chopin’s celebration of Edna Pontellier’s “splendid body,” he fulminated that the Victorian prudery which kept nakedness “religiously covered, smothered away from the rush of the great purifying life of Nature” was itself a cause of prurience, for “Sexual embraces [should] receive the benison of Dame Nature, in whose presence alone, under the burning sun or the high canopy of the stars … their meaning can be fully understood.”34 Following Carpenter’s lead, moreover, his friend and disciple Havelock Ellis was soon to develop a theory of female sexuality which defined woman’s eroticism (in terms that strikingly prefigure the recent arguments of such French feminists as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray) as “more massive and more diffuse than male sexuality.”35

Sharing the views of all these thinkers, Chopin dreamed of yet a third version of pastoral, a sacramental rather than sacrilegious garden of earthly delights, a culture beyond culture whose energy would arise from the liberation and celebration of female desire. And she insisted that this Eden should be ruled by a Venus who would be as free and regal as Beardsley’s (or Crowley’s) was degraded and whimsical. But her vision of such a goddess surely gained its strength from the same movement toward theological revision that not only fostered the theories of J. J. Bachofen and Jane Ellen Harrison but also inspired The Woman’s Bible produced by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others, along with Florence Nightingale’s hope for a “female Christ” and Mary Baker Eddy’s argument that because “the ideal woman corresponds to Life and to Love … we have not as much authority for considering God masculine as we have for considering Him feminine.”36 Even more specifically, Chopin’s visionary eroticism was energized by the same impulse that led Victoria Woodhull to speculate “that the long-lost Garden of Eden is the human body” and Woodhull’s acolyte Laura Cuppy Smith to characterize the free love advocate, during her appearance at Vineland, as “The Redeemer,” and “virtue and respectability as the two thieves on the cross.”37 Finally, Chopin’s sense of the goddess’s sacramental sensuality may have been fortified not just by the fervent radicalism of Woodhull and her disciples but also by the radical eroticism of Walt Whitman, an eroticism that Chopin and others clearly saw as transcending the tendency toward misogyny to which Stanton objected.38

Equally important, however, was the revisionary female aesthetic that Chopin constructed as, in striving to imagine the healthy eroticism of a culture beyond culture, she searched through the myths she had inherited from patriarchal civilization itself. For in reexamining such myths she began, if only half-consciously and tentatively, to create a narrative structure in which she might coherently dramatize the female psychomachia that was her central subject, a structure that would prove more viable than the unwieldy literary frameworks upon which so many other New Women depended. As her son sketched it in 1899, not long after the publication of The Awakening, the room in which Chopin worked was emblematic of her philosophical as well as literary goals. “There were hardly any ornamentations in it,” her biographer tells us, “apart from a few paintings on the wall and a candle and a naked Venus on the bookshelf.”39 Abandoning both the religion in which she had been raised and the nineteenth-century literary conventions she had learned, Chopin evidently understood her own desire to revitalize and vindicate the pagan presence of the goddess of love.

Toward the end of The Awakening there is a dinner party scene which has been ignored by many critics though it has fascinated and puzzled a few. On the verge of leaving her husband’s house for a nearby cottage that she hopes will become both a spiritual and material room of her own, Edna Pontellier has invited a “select” group of friends to join her at a birthday dinner which will also be a celebration of her departure from one household and her entrance into another. Splendid in gold satin and lace “the color of her skin,” she presides over an equally splendid table, which is similarly decked in “pale yellow satin,” lit by “wax candles in massive brass candelabra,” and heaped with “full, fragrant roses.”40 More strikingly still, “the ordinary stiff dining chairs” have been “discarded for the occasion and replaced by the most commodious and luxurious which could be collected throughout the house” while “before each guest [stands] a tiny glass that [sparkles] like a garnet gem,” containing a magical-looking cocktail.

Enthroned at the head of the table, Edna herself appears equally magical, for there is “something in her attitude, in her whole appearance, which [suggests] the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone.” At the same time, however—even in the midst of triumphant merrymaking which climaxes in one of the women guests weaving a pagan garland of roses to crown the dark curls of the handsome young man beside her—we are told that Edna feels an “old ennui overtaking her … a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed” (chap. 30). Ranging as it does from sumptuous feasting to secret sadness, from gorgeousness to gloom, the dinner party chapter is, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff observes, “one of the longest sustained episodes in the novel.”41

Perhaps it is because so many contemporary critics would agree with Lawrence Thornton’s description of The Awakening as a “political romance”42 that so few have paid close attention to this scene. Though in the past few decades The Awakening has become one of the most frequently analyzed American novels, writers about the book commonly describe Edna’s party as just one more occasion on which Chopin’s half-mad housewife experiences “unfocused yearning” for romantic transfiguration or social liberation.43 Yet, besides occupying an exceptionally long and elaborate chapter in a novel of economical, obliquely rendered episodes, Edna’s dinner party constitutes an extraordinarily complex literary structure. What does it mean, after all, when the narrator of this apparently “realistic” work suddenly calls her heroine “the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone”? The vocabulary of such a description seems more appropriate to a fantasy or a fairy tale, and yet this mysterious definition seems also to evoke the narrator’s next perception of the “chill breath” her queenly heroine feels, together with Edna’s equally mysterious sense of “acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one.” Who or what, indeed, is the oddly vague “beloved one”? And why, finally, does the enigmatically wise Made—moiselle Reisz take her leave of Edna with a French sentence—“Bonne nuit, ma reine, soyez sage”—that seems to confirm our feeling that this magical hostess is clothed in a paradoxical veil of power and vulnerability?

As a speculative explanation of these puzzles, we will argue that The Awakening is a female fiction which both draws upon and revises fin-de-siècle hedonism to propose a feminist myth of Aphrodite/Venus as an alternative to the patriarchal western myth of Jesus. In the novel’s unfolding of this implicit myth, the dinner party scene is of crucial importance, for here, as she presides over a Swinburnian Last Supper, Edna Pontellier (if only for a moment) “becomes” the powerful goddess of love and art into whose shape she was first “born” in the gulf near Grand Isle and in whose image she will be suicidally borne back into the sea at the novel’s end. Thus when Victor, the darkhaired young man who was ritually garlanded at the climax of the feast, tells his friend Mariequita that “Venus rising from the foam could have presented no more entrancing a spectacle than Mrs. Pontellier, blazing with beauty and diamonds at the head of the board,” he is speaking what is in some sense the truth about Kate Chopin’s heroine.

To see The Awakening in these terms is not, of course, to deny that it is also the work most critics have thought it is: a “Creole Bovary,” a feminist “critique of the identity of ‘mother—women,’” “a New Orleans version of the familiar transcendentalist fable of the soul’s emergence, or ‘lapse’ into life,” “a eulogy on sex and a muted elegy on the female condition,” a turn-of-the-century “existentialist” epiphany, and “a tough—minded critique of the Victorian myths of love.”44 Taken together, all these definitions of the novel suggest the range of political, moral, and philosophical concerns on which Chopin meditates throughout this brief but sophisticated work. What unifies these often divergent matters, however, is the way in which, for all its surface realism, The Awakening is allusively organized by Kate Chopin’s half-secret fantasy of the second coming of Aphrodite.

To be sure, Chopin’s “Creole Bovary” has always been understood to be, like its French precursor, a novel that both uses fantasy and comments upon that genre in order to establish the character of its heroine and the nature of her character. But many critics see such fantasies as, like Emma Bovary’s, symptoms of inadequacy, of an “over—idealization of love” and a “susceptibility to romantic codes.” People like Edna Pontellier and Emma Bovary, wrote Willa Cather in 1899, “are the spoil of the poets, the Iphigenias of sentiment.” Edna’s commitment to fantasy, concludes Cynthia Griffin Wolff in a somewhat extreme summary of this position, is the ultimate mark of the “schizoid” personality which causes her “disintegration.”45 We will show, however, that the details of desire which the text of The Awakening records ultimately shape themselves into a tale of romantic transfiguration that not only uses and comments upon fantasy but actually becomes a fantasy, albeit a shadowy one. Both seriously and ironically, this work of Kate Chopin’s demonstrates, from a female point of view, just what would “really” happen to a mortal, turn-of-the-century woman who tried to claim for herself the erotic freedom owned by the classical queen of love.

We will argue, moreover, that to see this novel as such a shadowy fantasy or fantasy manqúe is to begin to explain a number of qualities that have puzzled its detractors as well as its admirers: its odd short chapters, its ambiguous lyricism (what Cather called its “flexible iridescent style”), its editorial restraint, its use of recurrent images and refrains, its implicit or explicit allusions to writers like Whitman, Swinburne, and Flaubert, and its air of moral indeterminacy. In addition, we will suggest that to see The Awakening as such a fantasy is to begin to grasp the purpose of some of the scenes in the book that have always appeared problematic. Finally, we will show that, in creating this generically equivocal fantasy, Kate Chopin was working in a mode of mingled naturalism and symbolism analogous to the one explored by her near contemporary George Moore and his younger countryman James Joyce. Learned from such varied continental precursors as Turgenev and Maupassant, this artful combination of surface and symbol evolved through Moore’s The Untilled Field (1903) and Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) to a culmination in Ulysses (1922). But Kate Chopin in America, inheriting the same tradition and similar techniques, also began to explore the mythic radiance which might at any moment flash through ordinary reality. As a woman writer, however, she saw such epiphanies from a feminine point of view and in what we would call feminist terms. Indeed, the next literary women to employ comparable modes would be such modernists as May Sinclair, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and even at times Willa Cather herself—and they too, in particular Woolf, would often use these techniques to articulate new visions of the feminine.

Appropriately enough, Kate Chopin’s portrait of Aphrodite as a “Creole Bovary” begins and ends at a seaside resort, on the margin between nature and culture, where a leisured or, anyway, a lucky few may be given the chance to witness the birth of erotic power in the foam. But to start with, despite the nearness of the sea and the incessant sound of its “seductive” voice, Chopin offers scenes that are determinedly realistic, low—key, landbound. In addition, as if briefly acknowledging Flaubert’s influence, she opens her novel about a woman’s fateful transformation by examining her heroine from a stolid male perspective. Madame Bovary, of course, begins with a brief summary of Charles Bovary’s history, including a description of the way Emma Roualt appears to the bovine but passionate young physician whom she will soon marry. Similarly, the author—omniscient of the first chapter of The Awakening emphasizes the point of view of Edna Pontellier’s conventional husband, Léonce.

Like Madame Bovary’s husband-to-be, who at one point gazes at Emma as she stands beneath a parasol which colors “the white skin of her face with shifting reflections” (13), Mr. Pontellier watches from a porch of the main building of Madame Lebrun’s Grand Isle summer colony as “a white sunshade [advances] at a snail’s pace from the beach” with his wife Edna and her friend Robert Lebrun strolling “beneath its pink-lined shelter” (chap. 1). In both cases, the woman appears first as an object, and Edna, whether she “is” herself or the walking sunshade that contains her, is presented as she seems to Léonce: valuable, even treasured, but nevertheless, a thing to be guarded rather than a person to be heard or heeded. Even this early in her novel, however, and even while acknowledging her debt to Flaubert, Chopin swerves from him by emphasizing this last point. For where the French novelist creates sympathy for Charles with his devastating portrait of the first Madame Bovary, a skinny, pimpled Jocasta who is not only old enough to be the young doctor’s mother but had been chosen for him by his mother, Chopin immediately characterizes Léonce as an impatient businessman who scrutinizes his wife for sunburn “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (chap. 1).

Most of The Awakening is told from Edna’s perspective, with occasional editorial interpolations from the narrator, but despite its unrepresentative point of view and its air of almost impressionistic improvisation, this opening chapter constitutes a surprisingly complete introduction to the problems and personae of the novel. As an overture, in fact, it includes many of the major leitmotifs of the work to follow: symbolic objects (houses, clothing, jewelry, food); symbolic activities (piano playing, swimming, housecleaning, gambling); symbolic figures, both human and inhuman (the birds, the lady in black, the twins, Edna and Robert, Mr. Pontellier, Madame Lebrun); symbolic places (the Gulf, the beach, the city, the summer colony on Grand Isle), and crucial relationships (husbands and wives, mothers and children).

First encountered here, most of these ultimately extraordinary elements appear as vividly physical as objects in a painting by Renoir or Seurat. It is only as one scene dissolves into another, as the narrative point of view gradually enters Edna’s strengthening consciousness, and as objects and activities insistently recur, like parts of a protracted dream, that they gain what eventually becomes an almost uncanny significance. Porches and pianos, mothers and children, skirts and sunshades—these are the props of domesticity, the key properties of what in the nineteenth century was called “woman’s sphere,” and it is in this sphere, on the edge of a blue gulf, that Edna Pontellier is securely caged when she first appears in the novel that will tell her story. In a larger sense, however, she is confined in what is not only literally a “woman’s sphere” but also, symbolically speaking, a Woman’s House, a place to which, in civilized as in primitive cultures, women are ritually consigned at crucial times in their lives.46 Here, therefore, every object and figure has both a practical domestic function and a female symbolic significance.

The self-abnegating “mother—women” who seem “to prevail that summer at Grand Isle” (chap. 4), the mutually absorbed young lovers who always appear in the neighborhood of the sepulchrally religious lady in black, Edna’s own children trailed by their omnipresent quadroon nurse with her “faraway meditative air,” imperious Mademoiselle Reisz in her “rusty black lace” (chap. 9), the Farival twins “always clad in the virgin’s colors” (chap. 9), the skirt-dancing little girl in black tulle, even Edna herself sharing out her husband’s gift of friandises—all seem like faintly grotesque variations on the figures from La Vie d’une femme who appear in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853): the young girl, the bride, the mother, the widow. That the pension in which all these women have gathered is ruled by the pretty widow Madame Lebrun, who sews and oversees in a light airy room with a view at the top of the house, seems quite appropriate. At the same time, however, it seems equally appropriate that the novel opens with the comical curse of the caged parrot—“Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi!”— and with the information that this bird also speaks “a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking bird that hung on the other side of the door” (chap. 1). For these birds together prefigure both Edna’s restlessness and her irony, her awakening desire for freedom and her sardonic sense that freedom may ultimately be meaningless, as well as what the world sees as the incomprehensibility of the language in which she struggles to tell the tale of her desire.

Before these problems are fully stated, however, Chopin begins to explore her heroine’s summer of discontent through a series of “realistic” interactions between Edna and her husband. Indeed, though the technique of these exchanges may be derived in part from French writers like Flaubert and Maupassant, the scenes themselves are most thematically indebted to the female literary tradition in English of which Kate Chopin was also an ambivalent heiress. Thus, depicting Léonce’s casual self-absorption and Edna’s mild rebelliousness, the narrator of The Awakening at first seems primarily concerned to represent with Austenian delicacy a marriage on the edge of (George) Eliotian fissures. Pontellier is not, of course, either a Casaubon or a Grandcourt, but that seems to be Chopin’s revisionary point. As she depicts his imperiousness in swift understated domestic episodes—the scene in chapter three when he wakes Edna and the children, for instance, or his offhand gifts of money and friandises—Chopin shows that he, too, is possessed by the possessive male will which speaks differently but equally in the tyrannical husbands of Middlemarch (1871-72) and Daniel Deronda (1876).

At the novel’s start, therefore, Edna’s “awakening” is both domestic and prosaic. Like Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolyn Harleth, she awakens from the romantic dreams of girlhood first to find herself a married woman and then to find that the meaning of marriage is quite different from what she had supposed. Like another nineteenth-century heroine, Emily Brontë’s Catherine Earnshaw Linton, she experiences what Chopin calls “an indescribable oppression” which seems to come at least in part from her sense of herself as, in Brontë’s words, “the wife of a stranger; an exile, and outcast … from what had been [her] world.” For when, like the subject of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, she rose to “His Requirements” and took on “the honorable work of Woman and of Wife,” she seems to have accepted a confinement that excludes all visions of “Amplitude and Awe.”47

For George Eliot’s comparatively docile Dorothea and her chastened Gwendolyn, even for Emily Brontë’s more satanically ambitious Catherine, such a recognition of domestic entrapment, along with its corollary spiritual diminution, is the product of a long process of social reconciliation that must ultimately end in these heroines accepting their own comparative powerlessness. For Edna, however, whose author is struggling both to reinscribe and to revise the insights of her precursors, this maritally induced recognition of “her position in the universe as a human being, and … her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (chap. 6) presages a more complicated, more metaphysical awakening to the visionary intimations both of her own self-hood and her own sexuality.

To be sure, once she has left her husband’s bed to sit on the porch and listen to “the everlasting voice of the sea,” Edna has already, like Eliot’s and Brontë’s heroines, acquired what her author ironically calls “more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman” (chap. 6). But, like Emily Dickinson, Chopin seeks to record not only the body’s rebellion at confinement but the soul’s “moments of Escape” (J.512), along with the visions of power that empower such escapes. In addition, because she is a fiction writer, she wants to create a narrative that will enact those visions. After Edna’s first prosaic discoveries of spiritual uneasiness, therefore, her “awakenings” become increasingly fantastic and poetic, stirrings of the imagination’s desire for “Amplitude” and “Awe” rather than protests of the reason against unreasonable constraint.

Paradoxically, it is just Edna’s realistic awakenings to domestic confinement and her domestic confinement itself which make possible these later, more visionary awakenings. Specifically, Edna awakens to the possibilities as well as the problems of “her position in the universe” because she has come to spend the summer in what is both literally and figuratively a female colony, a sort of Herland. For Madame Lebrun’s pension on Grand Isle is very much a woman’s place, not only because it is owned by a woman and dominated by “mother-women” but also because, as in many summer colonies, its principal inhabitants are actually women and children whose husbands and fathers visit only on weekends. It is no doubt for this reason that, as Chopin observes, “that summer at Grand Isle [Edna] had begun to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her” (chap. 7) and had begun to do so under “the influence,” first, of the sensual Adèle Ratignolle and, later, of the more severe Mademoiselle Reisz.

From the eighteenth century on, middle-class women’s culture has often been fragmented by the relegation of each wife to a separate household, by the scattering of such households to genteel suburbs, and by the rituals of politeness that codified interchanges between the ladies of these separate households.48 While husbands joined together in a public community of men, women were isolated in private parlors or used, as Thorstein Veblen observed, in stylized public appearances, as conspicuous consumers to signify their husbands’ wealth.49 Only a few situations, most notably the girls’ school and the summer hotel, offered the isolated lady any real chance to participate in a community of women. And, as The Awakening shows, for married women of Edna Pontellier’s age and class, the communal household of the vacation hotel provided a unique opportunity to live closely with other women and to learn from them.50 Our use of the word “colony” is, therefore, deliberately ambiguous. For if a summer colony like Madame Lebrun’s pension is a place where women have been colonized—that is, confined by the men who possess them—it is also a place where women have established an encampment of their own, an outpost of the dream queendom that Charlotte Perkins Gilman was eventually to imagine in Herland.

Finally, then, Nancy Cott’s punning use of the phrase “the Bonds of Womanhood” is also useful here.51 For in the close—knit summer colony locks become links: bonds in the negative sense of “fetters” gradually give way to bonds in the positive sense of “ties.” This transformation of bondage into bonding makes it possible for both Adèle Ratignolle, the “mother-woman,” and her antithesis, Mademoiselle Reisz, the spinster-artist, to facilitate Edna’s passage into the metaphorically divine sexuality that is her fated and unique identity. Responding to Adèle’s questions and caresses in chapter seven, for instance, Edna begins to comprehend the quest for significant desire that has shaped her life. Similarly, responding in chapter nine to the implicit challenge posed by Mademoiselle Reisz’s music, Edna becomes conscious that “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her … body.”

The oceanic imagery embedded in Chopin’s description of Edna’s response to Mademoiselle Reisz’s music is neither casual nor coincidental; rather, it suggests yet another agency through which Madame Lebrun’s predominately female summer colony on Grand Isle awakens this Creole Bovary. For Chopin’s Aphrodite, like Hesiod’s, is born from the sea, and born because the colony where she comes to consciousness is situated, like so many places that are significant for women, outside culture, beyond the limits and limitations of the cities where men make history, on one of those magical shores that mark the margin where nature and culture intersect. Here power can flow from outside, from the timelessness or from, in Mircea Eliade’s phrase, the “Great Time” that is free of historical constraints,52 and here, therefore, the sea can speak in a seductive voice, “never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation” (chap. 6).

It is important, then, that not only Edna’s silent dialogues with Mademoiselle Reisz but also her confessional conversations with Adèle Ratignolle incorporate sea imagery. Reconstructing her first childhood sense of selfhood for Adèle, Edna remembers “a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean” in which as a little girl she “threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water” (chap. 7). Just as significantly, she speculates that, as she journeyed through this seemingly endless, uncontained and uncontainable grass, she was most likely “running away from prayers, from the Presbyterian service, read in a spirit of gloom by my father that chills me yet to think of.” She was fleeing, that is, the interdictions of patriarchal culture, especially of patriarchal theology, and running into the wild openness of nature. Even so early, the story implies, her search for an alternative theology, or at least for an alternative mythology, had begun. In the summer of her awakening on Grand Isle that quest is extended into the more formalized process of learning to swim.

Edna’s education in swimming is, of course, symbolic, representing both a positive political lesson in staying afloat and an ambiguously valuable sentimental education in the consequences of getting in over your head. More important, however, is the fact that swimming immerses Edna in an other element—an element, indeed, of otherness—in whose baptismal embrace she is renewed, reborn. That Chopin wants to emphasize this aspect of Edna’s learning process is made clear by the magical occasion on which her heroine’s first independent swim takes place. Following Mademoiselle Reisz’s evocative concert, “someone, perhaps it was Robert [Edna’s lover-to-be], thought of a bath at that mystic hour and under that mystic moon.” Appropriately, then, on this night which sits “lightly upon the sea and land,” this night when “the white light of the moon [has] fallen upon the world like the mystery and softness of sleep” (chap. 10), the previously timid Edna begins for the first time to swim, feeling “as if some power of significant import had been given her” and aspiring “to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” Her new strength and her new ambition are fostered by the traditionally female mythic associations of moonlight and water, as well as by the romantic attendance of Robert Lebrun and the erotically “heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near.”

At the same time, Chopin’s description of the waves breaking on the beach “in little foamy crests … like slow white serpents” suggests that Edna is swimming not only with new powers but into a kind of alternative paradise, one that depends upon deliberate inversions of conventional theological images, while the author’s frequent reminders that this sea is a Gulf reinforce our sense that its waters are at least as metaphysical as those of, say, the Golfo Placido in Conrad’s Nostromo (1904). Thus, even more important than Edna’s swim are both its narrative and its aesthetic consequences, twin textual transformations that energize the rest of Chopin’s novel. In swimming away from the beach where her prosaic husband watches and waits, Edna drifts away from the shore of her old life, where she had lingered for twenty-eight years, powerless and reticent. As she swims, she struggles not only toward a female paradise but out of one kind of novel—the work of nineteenth-century “realism” she had previously inhabited—and into a new kind of work, a mythic/metaphysical romance that elaborates her female fantasy of paradisal fulfillment.

In a sense these textual transformations can be seen as merely playful fantasies expressed by Robert and Edna as part of a “realistically” rendered flirtation. When closely analyzed, though, they must be understood to have a metaphorical intensity far keener than what would appear to be their mimetic function, and through such intensity they create a ghostly subtextual narrative which persists with imagistic insistence from Edna’s baptismal swimming scene in chapter ten through her last, suicidal swim in chapter thirty-nine. For when Edna says “I wonder if any night on earth will ever again be like this one,” she is beginning to place herself in a tale that comes poetically “true.” Her dialogue with Robert, as the two return from the moonlit Gulf, outlines the first premises of this story. “It is like a night in a dream,” she says. “The people about me are like some uncanny, half-human beings. There must be spirits abroad tonight” (chap. 10). Robert’s reply elaborates upon this idea. “It is the twenty-eighth of August,” he observes, and then explains:

On the twenty-eighth of August, at the hour of midnight, and if the moon is shining—the moon must be shining—a spirit that has haunted these shores for ages rises up from the Gulf. With its own penetrating vision the spirit seeks some one mortal worthy to hold him company, worthy of being exalted for a few hours into realms of the semicelestials. His search has always hitherto been fruitless, and he has sunk back, disheartened, into the sea. But tonight he found Mrs. Pontellier. Perhaps he will never wholly release her from the spell. Perhaps she will never again suffer a poor, unworthy earthling to walk in the shadow of her divine presence.

[chap. 10]

Fanciful as it seems, this mutual fantasy of Edna’s and Robert’s is associated both with a change in their relationship and with a change in Edna. Sitting on the porch in the moonlight, the two fall into an erotic silence that seems to be a consequence of the fiction they have jointly created: “No multitude of words could have been more significant than those moments of silence, or more pregnant with the first-felt throbbings of desire” (chap. 10). And the next day, when Edna awakens from her night of transformative dreaming, she finds herself “blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility” (chap. 12).

The scenes that follow—Edna’s awakening of Robert (chap. 12), their voyage (again, chap. 12) to the Chênìere Caminada, their attendance at church (chap. 13), Edna’s nap at Madame Antoine’s cottage (again, chap. 13), and their return to Grand Isle (chap. 14)—constitute a miniature fable of further transformation, a sort of wistful adult fairy tale that lies at the heart of this desirous but ultimately sardonic fantasy for adult women. Journeying across the gulf to Mass on the nearby island called Chênìere Caminada—the island of live oaks—Edna and Robert find themselves in the surreal company of the lovers, the lady in black, and a barefooted Spanish girl, Robert’s sometime girlfriend, with the allegorically theological name of Mariequita.53

Yet, despite this society, Edna feels as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been “loosening” (chap. 12), and together with Robert she meditates on “pirate gold” and on yet another voyage, this one to the legendary island of “Grande Terre,” where they will “climb up the hill to the old fort and look at the little wriggling gold snakes and watch the lizards sun themselves.” When she finally arrives at the “quaint little Gothic church of Our Lady of Lourdes,” therefore, she is overcome by “a feeling of oppression and drowsiness.” Like Mariequita, the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes is named for the wrong goddess; and Edna struggles, as she did when “running away from prayers” through the Kentucky meadow, to escape its “stifling atmosphere … and reach the open air.”

Everything that happens after Edna leaves the church further implies that she has abandoned the suffocation of traditional Christian (that is, patriarchal) theology for the rituals of an alternative (female and feminist) religion. Attended by Robert, she strolls across the “low, drowsy island,” stopping once, almost ceremonially, to drink water that a “mild-faced Acadian” is drawing from a well. At “Madame Antoine’s cot,” again almost ceremonially, she undresses, bathes, and lies down “in the very center of [a] high, white bed,” where, like a revisionary Sleeping Beauty, she sleeps for almost a whole day. When she awakens, for perhaps the most crucial time in this novel of perpetual “awakening,” she wonders, as if she were a female Rip Van Winkle. “How many years have I slept? … The whole island seems changed. A new race of beings must have sprung up … and when did our people from Grand Isle disappear from the earth?” (chap. 13).

Again, almost ritually, Edna bathes, and then she eats what appear to be two sacramental meals. First, she enters a room where she finds that though “no one was there … there was a cloth spread upon the table that stood against the wall, and a cover was laid for one, with a crusty brown loaf and a bottle of wine beside the plate.” She bites “a piece from the brown loaf, tearing it with strong, white teeth,” and drinks some of the wine. Then, after this solitary communion, she dines à deux with Robert, who serves her “no mean repast.” Finally, as the sun sets, she and Robert sit reverently at the feet of fat matriarchal Madame Antoine, who tells them “legends of the Baratarians and the sea,” so that, as the moon rises, Edna imagines she can hear “the whispering voices of dead men and the click of muffled gold” (chap. 13).

Having bathed, slept, feasted, communed, and received quasi-religious instruction, Edna seems to have entered a fictive world, a realm of gold where extraordinary myths are real and ordinary reality is merely mythical. Yet of course the pagan paradise into which she has been initiated is quite incompatible with the postulates of gentility and Christianity by which her “real” world lives. Metaphorically speaking, Edna has become Aphrodite, or at least an ephebe of that goddess. But what can be—must be—her fate? Shadowing her earlier “realism” with the subtextual romance she has developed in these chapters of swimming and boating, sleeping and eating, Chopin devotes the rest of her novel to examining with alternate sadness and sardonic verve the sequence of oppressions and exaltations that she imagines would have befallen any late-nineteenth-century woman who experienced such a fantastic transformation. If Aphrodite, or at least Phaedra, were reborn as a fin-de-siècle New Orleans housewife, says Chopin, Edna Pontellier’s fate would be her fate.54

The rest of The Awakening is primarily a logical elaboration of the consequences of Edna’s mythic metamorphosis. Having awakened to her “true” self—that is, to an apparently more authentic way of formulating her identity—Edna begins “daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (chap. 19). Yet as the episodes on the Chênière Caminada reveal, neither she nor her author are eschewing fictions and fantasies altogether. Rather, Chopin has allowed the moon, the sea, the female summer colony, and Madame Antoine to recreate Edna Pontellier as a quasi-mythic character in search of a story that can accommodate her and her power. That such a tale will be both hard to find and hard to tell, however, is revealed almost at once by Robert Lebrun’s abrupt departure from Grand Isle. Though he is the would-be lover of a newly incarnated goddess, he experiences himself as Hippolytus to Edna’s Phaedra, Tristan to her Isolde, even Léon to her Emma, and thus he conscientiously strives to do what is both morally and fictionally “right,” assuming that because he is a “good” man and not a seducer, the traditional plot in which he imagines himself enmeshed now calls for renunciation.

By the end of the novel, Edna will have created a different story, one in which she would have Robert play Adonis to her Aphrodite: “no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not,” she will declare that, like the Queen of Love, “I give myself where I choose” (chap. 36), as if dramatizing Victoria Woodhull’s assertion that “I will love whom I may [and] neither you nor any law you can make shall deter me.” But in chapter fifteen, as Chopin’s heroine struggles toward such a new project, she finds herself incapable of proposing any serious plot alternatives. She does notice, though, that Robert has announced his plans “in a high voice and with a lofty air [like] some gentlemen on the stage.” Perhaps for this reason, she retires to her cottage to tell her children a story which she does not—evidently cannot—end, so that “instead of soothing, it excited them … [and] she left them in heated argument, speculating about the conclusion of the tale” (chap. 15).

The tale of Edna’s own life moves just as haltingly to its strange conclusion. As she gradually becomes aware that she is “seeking herself and finding herself,” she attempts with increasing intensity to discard, deny, and even destroy the social conventions by which she has lived: her wedding ring, her “reception day,” even her “charming home” that has been so well-stocked with Mr. Pontellier’s “household gods.” Yet though she stamps on her ring, “striving to crush it, … her small boot heel [does] not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet” (chap. 14). And though she plots to move out of her big house on Esplanade Street into a smaller cottage nearby, a home of her own which she fictionalizes as the “Pigeon House,” her husband counters with a fiction of his own “concerning the remodeling of his home, changes which he had long contemplated, and which he desired carried forward during his temporary absence” (chap. 32).

Edna’s painting, her gambling, and her visits to the races, as well as her relationships with Mademoiselle Reisz and Adèle Ratignolle, with the Flaubertian Alcée Arobin (clearly a sort of Rodolphe) and his friends Mr. and Mrs. High-camp, constitute similar efforts at revisionary self-definition. Painting, for instance, lets her try to recreate both her present and her past in more satisfactory forms. Mademoiselle Reisz brings her closer to Robert, and to the oceanic passions and poetic ideas that had inspired her feelings for him from the first. Adèle Ratignolle reinforces her sense of the “blind contentment” implicit in the sequestered domesticity she has rejected (chap. 18). Her trips to the racetrack remind her of the freedom of her Kentucky childhood, when the “race-horse was a friend and intimate associate” (chap. 25), a spirit like herself, let loose in illimitable fields. And her rapidly developing sexual relationship with Arobin acts “like a narcotic upon her,” offering her a “cup of life” (chap. 28) that drugs and drains her awakening egotism even while her choice to drink it manifests the new freedom she is trying to taste.

Yet none of these activities or relationships succeeds in yielding an open space in the plot where Edna finds herself. In fact, precisely because her entanglements have a social reality that gives them plausibility as therapeutic possibilities, none is equal to the intensity of what is by now quite clearly Edna’s metaphysical desire, the desire that has transformed her and torn her away from her ordinary life into an extraordinary state where she has become, as Chopin’s original title for the novel put it, “a solitary soul.” Stranded in this state, having been visited by the Holy Ghost of the allegorically resonant “Gulf,” who rarely vouchsafes so much “ponderous” wisdom “to any woman,” she can only struggle to make her own persuasive fictions, like the story she tells at a party about “a woman who paddled away with her lover one night in a pirogue and never came back. They were lost amid the Baratarian Islands, and no one ever heard of them or found trace of them from that day to this” (chap. 23).

As Edna eventually realizes, even such a fiction betrays desire into the banalities of conventional romance, so that ultimately her dinner party in chapter thirty is the best, the most authentically self-defining, “story” she can tell. Here she actually enacts the part of the person she has metaphorically become: “the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone.” Yet, as the sadness which shadows this scene implies, in the context of the alternative theology through which Chopin mythologizes this “solitary” heroine’s life, the story of Edna’s dinner party is the tale of a Last Supper, a final transformation of will and desire into bread and wine, flesh and blood, before the “regal woman’s” inevitable crucifixion by a culture in which a regenerated Aphrodite has no viable role. More specifically, it is a Last Supper that precedes Edna’s betrayal by a plot that sets both Adèle Ratignolle, the “mother-woman,” and Robert Lebrun, the stereotypical lover, against her. In one way or another, each of these characters will remind her of her instrumentality—Adèle, exhausted by childbirth, whispering that she must “think of the children,” and Robert passionately envisioning a transaction in which Mr. Pontellier might “set” Edna “free” to belong to him (chap. 36).

Finally, therefore, Chopin’s heroine can think of only one way “to elude them,” to become absolutely herself, and that is through her much—debated last swim. Once again, however, our interpretation of this denouement depends on our understanding of the mythic subtextual narrative that enriches it. Certainly if we see Edna’s decision to swim into the sea’s “abysses of solitude” as simply a “realistic” action, we are likely to disapprove of it, to consider it, as a number of critics have, “a defeat and a regression, rooted in a self-annihilating instinct, in a romantic incapacity to accommodate … to the limitations of reality.”55 But, if we attend to the metaphoric patterns of Chopin’s novel, Edna’s last swim may not seem to be a suicide—that is, a death—at all, or, if it is a death, it is a death associated with a resurrection, a sort of pagan female Good Friday that promises an Aphroditean Easter. In fact, because of the way it is presented, Edna’s supposed suicide enacts not a refusal to accept the limitations of reality but a subversive questioning of the limitations of both reality and “realism.” For, swimming away from the white beach of Grand Isle, from the empty summer colony and the oppressive imperatives of marriage and maternity, Edna swims, as the novel’s last sentences tell us, not into death but back into her own life, back into the imaginative openness of her childhood.

It is notable, in this regard, that in depicting Edna’s last swim Chopin swerved from precursors like Flaubert and Pierre Louÿs and also charted a very different path from the ones chosen by such contemporaries as Haggard and Schreiner or such a descendant as Edith Wharton. All these writers not only show the desirous Aphroditean woman dead but actually linger over the details of her mortification. Flaubert, for instance, follows his censorious extreme unction with horrifying visions of Emma’s dead mouth “like a black hole at the bottom of her face,” pouring forth “black liquid … as if she were vomiting” (241-42). In Aphrodite, Louÿs undercuts his Chrysis’s triumphant epiphany as Aphrodite with a ghastly picture of her corpse, a “thread of blood” flowing from one “diaphanous nostril” and “some emerald-colored spots … softly [tinting] the relaxed belly.”56 And as we have seen, Haggard emphasizes the bestial horror into which his Venus/Persephone “devolves” as she dies.

Similarly, even though Schreiner and Wharton are far gentler with their heroines, both linger with a certain necrophiliac interest over their protagonists’ lovely remains. After Lyndall expires—narcissistically studying herself in a mirror—Schreiner comments that the “dead face that the glass reflected was a thing of marvellous beauty and tranquillity,” while in The House of Mirth, brooding on the dead “semblance of Lily Bart” (who is in any case, as we shall later show, a less Aphroditean woman than any of these other heroines), Wharton imagines Lily’s “estranged and tranquil face” definitively motionless and thereby, through that motionlessness, offering her watching lover “the word which made all clear.”57 By contrast, Chopin never allows Edna Pontellier to become fixed, immobilized. Neither perfected nor corrupted, she is swimming when we last see her; nor does she ever, in Dickinson’s words, “Stop for Death.” To be sure, we are told that “her arms and legs were growing tired,” that “exhaustion was pressing upon and overpowering her” (chap. 39). It is clear enough that both reality and “realism” will contain her by fatiguing and drowning her. Yet Chopin seems determined to redeem Edna through a regeneration of myth.

Thus, as she enters the water for her last swim, this transformed heroine finally divests herself of “the unpleasant, pricking garments” of her old life as a “real” woman—a wife, mother, and mistress—and stands “naked under the sky … like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.” Together, her ceremonial nakedness, the paradoxically unknown familiarity of the world she is entering, and the “foamy wavelets [that curl and coil] like serpents about her ankles” (chap. 39) tell us that she is journeying not just toward rebirth but toward a genre that intends to propose new realities for women by providing new mythic paradigms through which women’s lives can be understood. Even in the last sentences of Chopin’s novel, Edna Pontellier is still moving. And how, after all, do we know that she ever dies? What critics have called her “suicide” is simply our interpretation of her motion, our “realistic” idea about the direction in which she is swimming. Yet as Chopin’s last words—incorporating a memory from Edna’s childhood—tell us, that direction is toward the mythic, the pagan, the aphrodisiac. “There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.” Defeated, even crucified by the “reality” of nineteenth-century New Orleans, Chopin’s resurrected Venus may be returning to Cyprus or Cythera.58

This reading of The Awakening is, of course, hyperbolic, so that it is certainly not intended to displace those interpretations which honor the text’s more obvious aims. Rather, it is meant to suggest the tension between realistic and mythic aesthetic strategies that complicates Chopin’s brilliant novel. More, it is meant to underscore the literary history as well as the poetical significance of the goddess Aphrodite in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Finally, it is intended to clarify the dialectical relationship into which Chopin, as an innovative feminist mythmaker, entered not only with ancestresses like the Brontës, Dickinson, and Eliot but also with such crucial male precursors as Flaubert, Whitman, and Swinburne.

If we once again compare Chopin’s novel to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, we can see that where the French writer censures what he considers the destructive, even nihilistic power of the female imagination, Chopin honors what is positive in that power, never copying Flaubert (the way Cather and others thought she did) but always responding to him. For Flaubert, water is, as D. L. Demorest noted in 1931, the “symbol of Venus the delectable” (as it is for Chopin), but this means in Flaubert’s case that throughout Madame Bovary “images of fluidity” dissolve and resolve to “evoke all that is disastrous in love.” Emma’s girlish sentimentality, for example, is represented in what the writer himself called “milky oceans of books about castles and troubadours” while the final horror of her imagination pours as black liquid, a sort of morbid ink, from her dead mouth, as if she were vomiting the essential fluid which had inscribed the romantic fictions that killed her and would eventually destroy her uxorious husband.59

Such Flaubertian images slowly filter the idea of the fluid female imagination—the idea, that is, of female fluency—through what Jean-Paul Sartre called “a realism more spiteful than detached,” and it is possible to speculate that they are general defensive strategies against the developing cultural power of women as well as specific defenses by which Flaubert armored himself against Louise Colet, a woman of letters on whom he felt helplessly dependent, strategies, to quote Sartre again, “in the diplomacy of Flaubert with regard to this pertinacious poetess.”60 Whatever the source of Flaubert’s anxieties, however, Chopin defends herself and other literary women vigorously against such Flaubertian defenses, for she consistently revises his negative images of female “fluency” to present not a spitefully “realistic” but a metaphysically lyric version of the seductive mazes of the sea from which her Aphrodite is born, substituting the valorizations of myth and fantasy for the devaluations of “realism.”

In this revisionary struggle, Chopin was aided by aesthetic strategies learned from other male precursors. From Whitman and Swinburne, for instance, she learned to imagine the sea the way she did—as, implicitly, “a great sweet mother” uttering “the low and delicious word ‘death’” even while rocking her heroine in life—giving “billowy drowse.”61 In a sense, in fact, her Edna Pontellier is as much a cousin of the twenty-eight-year-old “twenty-ninth bather” in Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as she is a niece of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. “Handsome and richly dressed,” like Whitman’s woman, Edna has had “twenty-eight years of womanly life, and all so lonesome,” hiding “aft the blinds of the window,” and now, “dancing and laughing,” she comes along the beach to bathe in the waters of life. Yet again, much as she had learned from Whitman, Chopin departs from him to create a woman who does not enter the sea to “seize fast” to twenty-eight young men but rather to seize and hold fast to herself. Similarly, she revises Swinburne to create an ocean that is not simply an other—a “fair, green-girdled mother”—but also a version of self, intricately veined with “mazes of inward contemplation” and sacramental precisely because emblematic of such subjectivity.62

Because of this last gesture, the sea of Chopin’s Awakening has much in common with the mystically voluptuous ocean Emily Dickinson imagines in the love poem “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” (J.249). For when Dickinson exclaims “Rowing in Eden, / Ah! the Sea! / Might I but moor / Tonight in thee!” she is imagining an ocean of erotic energy that will transform and transport her, an ocean that exists for her and in some sense is her. More, in identifying this sea with Eden, she is revising the vocabulary of traditional Christian theology so as to force it to accommodate the urgency of female desire. Such a revision is exactly the one that Chopin performed throughout The Awakening. Thus where the extreme unction that Flaubert intones over the corpse of Emma Bovary functions as a final exorcism of the ferocity of the imagining and desirous woman, Chopin’s redefined sacraments of bread and wine or crimson cocktails function, like Dickinson’s, to vindicate female desire in yet another way. For in creating a heroine as free as Aphrodite, a “regal woman” who “stands alone” and gives herself where she “pleases,” Chopin was taking an important step in the historical female struggle both to imagine an independently desirous female self and to envision a deity who would rule and represent a strong female community, a woman’s colony transformed into a woman’s country.

To be sure, as we suggested in the discussion of She, men from Wagner (in Tannhäuser) to Baudelaire (writing on Wagner), Swinburne (in “Laus Veneris,” “Sapphics,” and by implication his version of “Phaedra”), William Morris (in “The Hill of Venus”), Beardsley (in Venus and Tannhäuser), and Pierre Louÿs (in Aphrodite and Songs of Bilitis) had begun, almost obsessively, to dramatize encounters with the goddess of love, who in the past, as Paul Friedrich notes in his study of The Meaning of Aphrodite, had often been “avoided” by poets and scholars because they found her female erotic autonomy both “alarming” and “alluring.”63 But for the most part these aesthetically revolutionary nineteenth-century artists used Aphrodite in the same way Haggard used Ayesha and Flaubert used Emma Bovary—to objectify new fears about female power.

Wagner’s Tannhäuser, for instance, only escapes damnation—after he has sung of his “unquenchable” longing for the “honeyed fascination” of Venus—when the saintly Elizabeth sacrifices herself to save his soul; Swinburne’s Tannhäuser, imprisoned in the Venusberg, feels himself to be confined in “the sea’s panting mouth of dry desire” and knows that “sudden serpents hiss across [his Venus’s] hair”; Morris’s hero sees his Venus as “a curse unto the sons of men” and falls from her embrace into “a night whereof no tongue can tell”; Beardsley’s Tannhäuser is first attired, at the Venusberg, in a “dear little coat of pigeon rose silk that hung loosely about his hips, and showed off the jut of his behind to perfection” and then “as a woman,” in a costume in which, with humiliating irony, he “looked like a Goddess.”64 For Chopin, however, as for such feminist descendants as Isadora Duncan and H. D., Aphrodite/Venus became a radiant symbol of the liberation of desire that turn-of-the-century women had begun to allow themselves to desire.

The source of Aphrodite’s significance for this revisionary company of women is not hard to discern. Neither primarily wife (like Hera), mother (like Demeter), nor daughter (like Athena), Aphrodite is, and has her erotic energy, for herself. As Friedrich observes, moreover, all her essential characteristics—her connections with birds and water, her affinity for young mortal men, her nakedness, her goldenness, and even her liminality, as well as her erotic sophistication—empower her in one way or another.65 Her dove- or swan-drawn chariot enables her to travel between earth and sky, while her sea-birth places her between earth and sea. Naked yet immortal, she moves with ease between natural and supernatural, human and inhuman, nature and culture. Golden and decked in gold, she is associated with sunset and sunrise, the liminal hours of awakening or drowsing that mediate between night and day, dream and reality.

Appropriately, then, Aphrodite is the patron goddess of Sappho, whom Virginia Woolf called “the supreme head of song” and whose lyric imagination was fostered by unique erotic freedom.66 And because this goddess became a crucial image of female divinity during the fin de siècle, Kate Chopin made her a model for a “regal,” sea-born, gold-clad, bird-haunted woman whose desire for freedom, and for a younger man, edged her (first) out of a large patriarchal mansion into a small female cottage and (then) across the shadowline that separates the clothing of culture from the nakedness of nature. Violent though it was, after all, the origin of the queen of love might have seemed compelling to a protofeminist like Chopin. According to Hesiod, Aphrodite was born when the father god Ouranos was castrated by his son Kronos at the behest of the mother goddess Gaia: after his torn-off genitals were cast into the sea, “shining white aphros, / ‘foam’ arose from the flesh of the god, and in this a girl / came into being … a revered and beautiful goddess.”67

It is no coincidence that Kate Chopin imagined her Venus rising from the foam of a ceremonial dinner party in 1899, the same year that another American artist, Isadora Duncan, was beginning to dance the dances of Aphrodite in London salons while the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, who would soon recover the matriarchal origins of ancient Greek religion, chanted Greek lyrics in the background. The daughter of a “bold-minded St. Louis Irish girl about the same age as … Kate Chopin,” Duncan had always been affected by her own birth “under the star of Aphrodite,” and later she was to sit “for days before the Primavera, the famous painting of Botticelli,” and create a dance

in which I endeavored to realise the soft and marvelous movements emanating from it; the soft undulation of the flower-covered earth, the circle of nymphs and the flight of the Zephyrs, all assembling about the central figure, half Aphrodite, half madonna, who indicates the procreation of spring in one significant gesture.

Musing on the “sweet, half-seen pagan life, where Aphrodite gleamed through the form of the gracious but more tender Mother of Christ,” this prophetess of the beauty of female nakedness was struggling, as Chopin had, to see the power of the pagan through the constraints of the Christian and the triumph of the female through the power of the pagan.68 She was striving, as H. D. later would, to “relight the flame” of “Aphrodite, holy name,” and of “Venus, whose name is kin / / to venerate, / venerator.”69 And she was laboring, as Chopin had, to define the indefinable mythic essence of “a familiar world that [she] had never known.”

Like Chopin’s and H. D.’s, too, Duncan’s revisionary program marked an apex of feminist confidence in the erotic authority of Aphrodite. But even as these artists sought to reimagine the ancient powers of the queen of love, some women who were their contemporaries or descendants had begun to reiterate the old feminine (and feminist) mistrust of female sensuality. By the nineties, for instance, that once “terrible syren” Victoria Woodhull was righteously denying that she had ever advocated free love, and by 1920 a dark and bitter vision of Venus appeared at the center of Willa Cather’s “Coming Aphrodite!”70 In part a retelling of Louÿs’s Aphrodite, this brilliantly ironic tale also so intensively subverts the allusive terms of The Awakening that it might almost be considered an extension of Cather’s earlier censorious review of Chopin’s novel.71 Specifically, Cather’s story portrays an ambitious Illinois farm girl named Edna Bowers who, along with studying “Sapho” [sic] and “Mademoiselle de Maupin” (30), has resolved to become a great actress-singer called “Eden Bower”—a name drawn from Christina Rossetti’s equally censorious Victorian poem about Eve’s sinfulness and from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s frightening vision of Lilith and the serpent dominating “Eden Bower” in a poem of that title.72

Willful and wily, Edna/Eden has casually stepped outside ordinary social confinement and made herself erotically independent. When Cather’s story begins, she is being kept (entirely for her own convenience and in the furtherance of her career) by a handily absent Chicago millionaire in a New York apartment next door to a studio occupied by Don Hedger, a struggling painter. Tracing the stages of their romance, Cather splits Chopin’s erotic and artistic Edna into two characters: the metaphysically awakened painter, who falls in love with Eden by peering at her through a hole in the wall of his closet, and the physically awakened Eden, whom he watches while, like a latterday Isadora, she exercises naked before a mirror until, like both Edna and Isadora, she takes on a mythic radiance. Thus, at the tale’s intensest, Hedger thinks of her body “as never having been clad, or as having worn the stuffs and dyes of all the centuries but his own.” And “for him [Eden has] no geographical associations unless with Crete, or Alexandria, or Veronese’s Venice. She [is] the immortal conception, the perennial theme” (22).

Throughout the tale, however, Cather hints that when this unclothed Aphrodite ceases to be paradigmatic and becomes personal, or, to put it differently, when she refuses to be merely an artwork—a “conception” or a “theme”—and asserts herself as an autonomous being, she becomes not an embodiment of Eden but a troublesome and anti—Edenic Eve. Early on, for instance, she threatens Hedger’s masculinity by scorning his allegorically phallic bulldog “Caesar” (who does, in fact, “seize her” and is in return seized and silenced by his master, who is himself seized by desire). Later, when Hedger tells an extravagant story about a sexually voracious Aztec princess who gelds a captive prince and destroys a series of lovers, we understand the fable to be a monitory one: the power of female desire may be castrating, even murderous. Finally, therefore, Cather separates Hedger and Eden with the suggestion that Eden’s desirousness also implies a greed that would ruin the career of Hedger, the “true” artist. And indeed, by the end of the tale this anti—Edenic Eve’s ambition has led to a death of the soul even more terrible than the dissolution Cather associated with Edna Pontellier’s erotic dreams.

Now a major international star, scheduled to sing in an operatic version of Louÿ’s Aphrodite, Eden has learned that Hedger, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years, has become an originatory figure, “decidedly an influence in art,” and it is plain that he has become this by freeing himself from her influence. As she drives off in her luxurious car, her face turns

hard and settled, like a plaster cast; so a sail, that has been filled by a strong breeze, behaves when the wind suddenly dies. Tomorrow night the wind would blow again, and this mask would be the golden face of Aphrodite. But a “big” career takes its toll, even with the best of luck.


Cather’s point seems clear enough: as in Louÿs’s novel and as in Hedger’s fable of “The Forty Lovers of the Queen,” female erotic autonomy, symbolized by the golden nakedness of Aphrodite, is doomed to rigidify, not only repelling any lover unlucky enough to remain captive but also reifying the shining queen of love herself. As D. G. Rossetti said of Lilith in his “Eden Bower,” it might be said of this Eden Bower that “Not a drop of her blood was human, / But she was made like a soft sweet woman.”73

There is no doubt that Willa Cather had a number of personal motives for imagining a story like “Coming, Aphrodite!” which reinterprets Aphrodite so bitterly, motives that probably included both a deep distrust of heterosexual desire and a covert identification with the closeted (male) artist who admires and desires the naked girl next door.74 If we look at the tale as a revisionary critique of The Awakening, however, we can see that the creator of Edna/Eden Bower(s) is withdrawing unsympathetically from Chopin’s Edna at least in part because that earlier Aphrodite had to swim away from the solid ground of patriarchal reality and die into what was no more than a myth of erotic power. As Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna, the artist “must possess the courageous soul. . . . The brave soul. The soul that dares and defies” (chap. 21), but Edna, naked and defeated on the beach, is haunted by a bird with a broken wing, “reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water” (chap. 38).

Given her own anxieties, Cather must have needed to clarify this problem for herself; and, after all, her ambivalence toward female eroticism was representatively female even while it had personal origins. More, hers were worries that accurately, if paradoxically, summarized Chopin’s own wounded reaction to the hostile reviews The Awakening received. Thus Cather implicitly decides in “Coming, Aphrodite!” that Edna Pontellier cannot be an artist because she is desirous. Art, which requires courage and demands survival, must be left to the (male) Hedgers of this world, who hedge their bets by renouncing desire and protecting themselves against women with a snarling canine Caesar. Yet, as Chopin understood, it is precisely because she is desirous that Edna becomes an artist in the first place, and her art, as at her dinner party, is as much an art of eroticism as it is a “pure” aesthetic activity.

Despite Woodhull’s recantation and Cather’s skepticism, however, Chopin was not the last feminist to revise patriarchal visions of Aphrodite/ Venus. Just two decades after the publication of The Awakening, Amy Lowell produced in “Venus Transiens” a love poem to her companion, Ada Russell, which reinvented the image of the goddess of love as an homage to her beloved:

Tell me, Was Venus more beautiful Than you are, When she topped The crinkled waves, Drifting shoreward On her plaited shell?75

And more than a half century after Chopin’s controversial novel appeared, Muriel Rukeyser clarified at least one strand of the feminist rebelliousness that impelled the fin-de-siècle writer’s vision of the second coming of Aphrodite, drawing explicitly upon Hesiod’s account of the inception of the goddess to write in “The Birth of Venus” that the queen of love was “born in a / tidal wave of the father’s overthrow, / the old rule killed and its mutilated sex.”76

Yet these feminist visions of Aphroditean empowerment were by no means universal. So recent a writer as Anne Sexton, for instance, could see no way to free herself from the problems that Cather had outlined. In a posthumous volume, Words for Dr. Y., her daughter Linda Gray Sexton printed a piece called “To Like, To Love” in which the poet addresses “Aphrodite, / my Cape Town lady / my mother, my daughter” and admits that, though “I dream you Nordic and six foot tall, / I dream you masked and blood-mouthed,” and in the end “you start to cry, / you fall down into a huddle, / you are sick … // because you are no one.”77 For women, striving to liberate desire, there was evidently a key moment of Aphroditean rebirth—the neo-Swinburnian moment when Edna enthroned herself in gold satin at the head of a fictive dinner table and Isadora Duncan theatrically brooded before Botticelli’s Primavera— and then, as Virginia Woolf wrote of the erotic in a slightly different context, “the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over—the moment.”78 “Realism,” implies Cather, may be more than a fictional mode; it may in fact reflect a social reality in which the golden Aphrodite is no more than a metal mask.

A number of male writers, too, became increasingly contemptuous of the ancient goddess of love in these years. Most notably—where such precursors as Wagner, Swinburne, Baudelaire, and even the satiric Beardsley had at least expressed a kind of anxious respect for what they saw as Venus’s horrific powers—D. H. Lawrence had his hero, Rupert Birkin, scornfully declare in Women in Love (1920) that “Aphrodite is born in the first spasm of universal dissolution” (chap. 14); and Lawrence’s persistent portrayals of the “seething electric female ecstasy” of desire that intermittently afflicts characters from Ursula (in The Rainbow [1915]) and Gudrun (in Women in Love) to Kate (in The Plumed Serpert [1926]) embody references to the “shining white aphros,” or “foam” out of which the erotic goddess arose.79 By the end of his life, moreover, Lawrence had transformed the classical deity into a figure of fun. Railing in Pansies (1929) against “The modern Circedom,” he asked

What does she want, volcanic Venus? as she goes fuming round? What does she want? She says she wants a lover, but don’t you believe her. . . .

and he added sardonically

How are we going to appease her, maiden and mother now a volcano of rage? I tell you, the penis won’t do it.80

At the same time, however, it is significant that among recent poets it was a male artist, Wallace Stevens, who produced one of the most celebratory lyrics about the desire implicit in The Awakening ’s allusive structure. Stevens’s vision may have been facilitated by his freedom from the anxieties that serious identification with a mythic female entails for a woman (as both Chopin and Cather, in their different ways, discovered), and it may also have been fostered by his espousal of a philosophy of existential hedonism which neither Wagner nor Swinburne nor Lawrence would ever have shared. In any case, whatever the reason, when, in “The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage” (1919), Stevens’s “discontent” goddess, “Tired of the salty harbors,” embarks, like Edna Pontellier, on her first voyage out, the twentieth-century poet imagines the kind of second coming of Aphrodite for which Chopin’s novel had earlier implicitly yearned. The paltry nude’s journey, Stevens insists,

… is meagre play In the scurry and water-shine As her heels foam— Not as when the goldener nude Of a later day

Will go, like the centre of sea-green pomp, In an intenser calm, Scullion of fate, Across the spick torrent, ceaselessly, Upon her irretrievable way.81

Still, because Chopin was a woman writer, her fantasized Aphrodite was at least as different from Stevens’s “goldener nude” as Stevens’s goddess was from, say, Lawrence’s “Volcanic Venus.” Chopin, after all, painfully dreamed a surrogate self into the ancient divinity’s sacred nakedness. Imagining (even if failing to achieve) transformation, the erotically awakened author of The Awakening was haunted in the chamber of the realism she had inherited by her longing for a redemptive Aphrodite, who would go “like the centre of sea-green pomp” into a future of different myths and mythic difference.


EPIGRAPHS: Baudelaire, “Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon Press, 1964), pp. 122-23; Swinburne, “Sapphics,” in The Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (Philadelphia: David McKay, n.d.), pp. 82-83; Duncan, My Life (New York: Liveright, 1927), p. 10; H. D., “Tribute to the Angels,” Collected Poems, 1912-1944, ed. Louis L. Martz (New York: New Directions, 1983), p. 554.

1. Both quoted in Sachs, “The Terrible Siren,” pp. 78-80, 80-81.

2. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted, with a foreword by Edmund Wilson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), p. 733. Further references to works by Chopin (except The Awakening) will be to this edition, and page numbers will be included in the text, preceded by the citation CW.

3. Reviews of The Awakening in The Mirror 9 (May 4, 1899), The Providence Sunday Journal (June 4, 1899), and (by Cather) in The Pittsburgh Leader (July 8, 1899) are all included in Margaret Culley, ed., The Awakening: A Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), pp. 146, 149, 153.

4. See Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, and Baton Rouge: Louisiana State. University Press, 1969), p. 175.

5. Quoted in Seyersted, p. 176.

6. Quoted in Seyersted, p. 181.

7. See Cather, as quoted in Culley, p. 153.

8. For useful analyses of the distinctions between nineteenth- and twentieth-century feminist attitudes toward female sexuality, see Cott, pp. 41-49, 150-52. Although Cott argues that “Schreiner was also a prophetess of women’s sexual release" (p. 41), she adduces statements by a number of early twentieth-century feminists whose radical advocacy of women’s “sex rights” aligned their views more nearly with those of Woodhull or Chopin.

9. See Seyersted, p. 33. Seyersted declares that “It was apparently Victoria [Woodhull] that Kate Chopin met,” but by the early seventies Woodhull had long been defining herself as “Mrs. Woodhull,” whereas her sister, Tennessee Claflin (also known as “Tennie C. Claflin”), went by the name “Miss Claflin.” In addition, Tennessee Claflin was always described as “fussy, pretty, talkative,” while Woodhull appears to have had a more majestic and commanding presence. For further details about the differences (and similarities) between the notorious sisters, see Sachs, passim.

10. Quoted in Seyersted, p. 51.

11. Review in The Los Angeles Sunday Times (June 25, 1899), quoted in Culley, p. 152.

12. Daniel S. Rankin, Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932), p. 175.

13. The equation of fin de siècle with fin du globe is wittily made in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: “‘Fin de siécle,’ murmured Sir Henry. ‘Fin du globe,’ answered his hostess. ‘I wish it were fin du globe,’ said Dorian with a sigh. ‘Life is a great disappointment.’” (The Writings of Oscar Wilde, 3:326.)

14. On Chopin’s reading, see Seyersted, passim, but especially pp. 25 (for her reading of Austen and Charlotte Brontë, among others), 63 (for her familiarity with “Whitman, Flaubert, Zola, Swinburne, and Wilde”), 52 and 101 (for her admiration of Jewett and Freeman), and 206 (for her familiarity with The Yellow Book).

15. At Fault is included in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 2:741-880.

16. For “sad and mad and bad,” see the review from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 20, 1899), quoted in Culley, p. 149.

17. On the New Woman novel, see chap. 2 of this volume as well as Showalter, A Literature of Their Own, pp. 182-239; and Lloyd Fernando, New Women in the Late Victorian Novel, passim.

18. For a discussion of Chopin’s involvement in “local color” writing, see Seyersted, pp. 80-83; although, as we have noted, Chopin did admire Jewett and Freeman, Seyersted cites an interview with Daniel Rankin in observing that “she refused to be considered a local colorist and resented being compared as such to [George Washington] Cable and Grace King” (p. 83).

19. On Chopin’s “delightful sketches,” see the review from the Chicago Times-Herald (June 1, 1899), quoted in Culley, p. 149. For an incisive analysis of one aspect of the social criticism formulated in Chopin’s sketches, see Anna Shannon Elfenbein, Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable, Grace King, Kate Chopin (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988), pp. 117-57.

20. Linda Dowling, “The Decadent and the New Woman in the 1890’s,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 33:4 (March 1979): 450.

21. Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century, with an intro. by Karl Beckson (1913; New York: Capricorn, 1966), pp. 29-30.

22. For “sex-distinction,” see Schreiner, Stories, Dreams, and Allegories [London: 1924], pp. 156-59; Carpenter discusses “the sex-passion” (with approval) in chap. 1 of Love’s Coming of Age.

23. Schreiner, Stories, pp. 156-59; but on Schreiner’s attitude toward sexuality, see also Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society, p. 167: “Influenced both by [Havelock] Ellis and Edward Carpenter, with both of whom she was on close personal relations, Schreiner’s work was clearly within the feminist radical tradition which, while recognising ‘inherent differences’ dictated by reproductive divisions and hence the rationale of separate functions, stressed the importance of female eroticism in its own (not male) terms.”

24. Kathryn Oliver, writing in The Freewoman (Feb. 25, 1912, p. 252), quoted in Weeks, p. 164.

25. Grant Allen, “The New Hedonism,” Fortnightly Review (March 1894), quoted in Jackson, p. 28. The “new Hedonism,” declares Allen, “was to recreate life, and to save it from [a] harsh, uncomely Puritanism.”

26. See Schneir, Feminism, p. 154.

27. Venus and Tannhäuser is included in Beckson, ed. Aesthetes, pp. 9-46.

28. In his portrayal of the extreme unction administered to Emma Bovary, Flaubert describes the priest stroking oil “upon the eyes that had so coveted all worldly goods … upon the nostrils that had been so greedy of the warm breeze … Upon the mouth that had spoken lies … upon the hands that had taken delight in the texture of sensuality … upon the soles of the feet, so swift when she had hastened to satisfy her desires.” See Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, ed. and with a substantially new translation by Paul de Man (New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1965), p. 237. Further references will be to this edition, and page numbers will be included in the text. For Aleister Crowley, see “Ode to Venus Callipyge” and other poems, in Crowley, White Stains, ed. John Symonds (London: Duckworth, 1973; first published in 1898 “in an edition of 100 copies, most of which were destroyed in 1924 by H. M. Customs”), p. 50 and passim.

29. Acton (1857, 1865), quoted in Gay, Education of the Senses, p. 153.

30. Stanton, in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, As Revealed in Her Letters, Diary and Reminiscences, ed. Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch, 2 vols. (1922) 2:183, 210; quoted in Gay, Education of the Senses, p. 119.

31. Blackwell, in The Human Element in Sex: Being a Medical Inquiry into the Relation of Sexual Physiology to Sexual Morality (1884, 1894), p. 14; quoted in Gay, Education of the Senses, p. 159.

32. Mosher’s survey is discussed in Gay, Education of the Senses, p. 136. Gay also cites a range of other European and American authorities who affirmed the reality of female eroticism: he quotes, for instance, the “eminent Scottish gynecologist, J. Matthews Duncan” as believing that “in women desire and pleasure are in every case present, or are in every case called forth by the proper stimulants” (Education of the Senses, p. 135); he notes that the French doctor Auguste Debay thought “women’s ‘sexual system’ is more ‘extensive’ than the man’s; her imagination is livelier, her sensitivity greater. Hence she ‘trembles, shudders under the amorous embrace and savors pleasure during the whole time that sexual excitement lasts’” (Gay, Education of the Senses, p. 151); and he cites the assertion of the American sociologist Lester Ward that “All desires are alike before nature—, equally pure, equally respectable. . . . Nature knows no shame. She affects no modesty” (Gay, Education of the Senses, p. 131).

33. Woodhull is quoted in Sachs, pp. 219, 222-23. For further discussion of the “free love” movement in the nineteenth-century United States, see Hal D. Sears, The Sex Radicals: Free Love in Victorian America (Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977), and Taylor Stoehr, Free Love in America: A Documentary History (New York: AMS Press, 1979).

34. Carpenter, Love’s Coming of Age, pp. 26, 9, 22.

35. “More massive and diffuse”; this characterization of Ellis’s belief is from Paul Robinson’s excellent chapter on the sexologist in Robinson, The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters and Virginia Johnson (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 18; significantly (though Robinson does not note this) the concept echoes Auguste Debay’s beliefs, as they are reported by Gay (see note 28, above). For the theories of Cixous and Irigaray, see, for example, Cixous in Cixous and Clement, The Newly Born Woman, p. 94: “Women have almost everything to write … about the infinite and mobile complexity of their becoming erotic … [about] woman’s body with a thousand and one fiery hearths” and Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (French ed., 1977; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 28: “woman has sex organs more or less everywhere. She finds pleasure almost anywhere” (emphasis Irigaray’s).

36. Eddy, Science and Health, p. 517.

37. Both quoted in Sachs, pp. 273 and 219.

38. Dowling observes that though “Whitman and ‘Whitmania’ … are scarcely mentioned in New Woman fiction, [they] were … persistently invoked … to explain the New Woman phenomenon” for “not only had the poet of ‘barbaric yawp’ hymned the new primitivism sought by the decadent spirit, he had promised simultaneously that sex … would be the means by which conventional culture would be transcended” (Dowling, pp. 451-52).

39. Seyersted, p. 62.

40. The Awakening, chap. 30; since there are so many different editions of this novel, all references will be to chapter numbers and will be given in the text.

41. Wolff, “Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin’s Awakening,American Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1973): 463.

42. Thornton, “The Awakening: A Political Romance,” American Literature 52 (March 1980): 51.

43. Ibid., p. 64. Even those writers who analyze the feast more sympathetically tend to be perfunctory, bewildered, or both in their treatment of the event. Bernard J. Koloski, for instance, the first critic to identify the lines from Swinburne quoted by one of the dinner guests, reads the scene entirely in terms of those lines as Edna’s Swinburnian “Song Before Death” (see Koloski, “The Swinburne Lines in The Awakening,American Literature 45 [1974]: 608-10). Only Seyersted, still Chopin’s most perceptive critic, defines the party as “a sensuous feast with subtle overtones of a ritual for Eros” (Seyersted, p. 157).

44. Cather, review of The Awakening, in Culley, pp. 153-55; Helen Taylor, Introduction to The Awakening (London: The Women’s Press, 1978), p. xviii; Warner Berthoff, The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884-1919 (New York: Free Press, 1965), p. 89; Seyersted, p. 161; Stanley Kauffman, “The Really Lost Generation,” The New Republic 155 (Dec. 3, 1966): 22, 37-38; Otis B. Wheeler, “The Five Awakenings of Edna Pontellier,” The Southern Review 11 (1975): 118-28.

45. Thornton, p. 51; Cather (in Culley), p. 154; Wolff, pp. 453-54.

46. See, for instance, “Feminine Secret Societies,” in Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries: The Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities, trans. Philip Mairet (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967), pp. 214-18.

47. Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. William M. Sale, Jr. (New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1972), p. 107; J.732, in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas Johnson, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1955). Further references will be to this edition, and poem numbers will be included in the text, preceded by J.

48. For an essay which explores the paradoxically positive aspects of the privatized world of nineteenth-century women, see Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1 (Autumn 1975): 1-29.

49. See Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899; New York: Modern Library, 1931), passim, but especially chap. 3 (“Conspicuous Leisure”), 4 (“Conspicuous Consumption”), 6 (“Pecuniary Canons of Taste”), and 7 (“Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture”).

50. For a more ambivalent depiction of the American vacation hotel, see the first five chapters of Edith Wharton, The Buccaneers (New York: Appleton, 1938), and our discussion of Wharton’s own attitude, chap. 5 of this volume, p. 129.

51. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

52. On “Great Time,” see Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series 46 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954).

53. Although we are suggesting that “Mariequita” or “little Mary” evokes just the theological orthodoxy from which Edna will seek to flee, in a discussion of Balzac’s “The Girl with the Golden Eyes,” Shoshana Felman claims that “Mariquita” [sic] is a Spanish slang term for an effeminate man, a point which (if it has relevance here) would certainly complicate Chopin’s erotic plot; see Shoshana Felman, “Rereading Femininity,” Yale French Studies 62 (1981): 30-31.

54. Besides Chopin’s overt and covert allusions to the power of Aphrodite, there are, of course, several other echoes of the Phaedra story in The Awakening, notably the seaside setting of much of the novel, the passion of an older married woman for a single younger man, and the suicide of the heroine.

55. Suzanne Wolkenfeld, “Edna’s Suicide: The Problem of the One and the Many,” in Culley, p. 220.

56. Collected Works of Pierre Louÿs (1896; New York: Shakespeare House, 1951), p. 178.

57. Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm, p. 271; Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905; New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 338, 342.

58. The crucifixion imagery at the end of The Awakening may be subtly reinforced by the fact that, when Edna encounters Victor at the beginning of chapter 39, the young man is hammering nails into the porch: “I walked up from the wharf … and heard the hammering,” she says.

59. D. L. Demorest, [“Structures of Imagery in Madame Bovary”], in the Norton Critical Madame Bovary, p. 280; Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet (March 3, 1852), ibid., p. 311.

60. Sartre, [“Flaubert and Madame Bovary: Outline of a New Method”], in Norton Critical Madame Bovary, p. 303; ibid., note 3.

61. See Swinburne, “The Triumph of Time,” l. 257; Whitman, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” l. 168, and “Song of Myself,” ll. 452, 199-224; and Swinburne, “The Triumph of Time,” l. 265. Portions of this last poem do, however, foreshadow the denouement of The Awakening: disappointed in love, the speaker dreams of a suicide by drowning, and imagines himself first casting off his clothes and then being reborn in the sea:

This woven raiment of nights and days, Were it once cast off and unwound from me, Naked and glad would I walk in thy ways, Alive and aware of thy ways and thee; Clear of the whole world, hidden at home, Clothed with the green and crowned with the foam, A pulse of the life of thy straits and bays, A vein in the heart of the streams of the sea. [281-88]

62. For a more extensive (and slightly different) discussion of Chopin’s use of Whitmanesque imagery, see Elizabeth Balkman House, “The Awakening; Kate Chopin’s ‘Endlessly Rocking’ Cycle,” Ball State University Forum 20:2 (1979): 53-58.

63. Friedrich, The Meaning of Aphrodite (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 1.

64. Wagner, Tannhäuser, Paris version (1861), trans. Peggie Cochrane (London: The Decca Record Co., 1971), Act 2; Swinburne, “Laus Veneris,” in The Poetry of Swinburne, with an intro. by Ernest Rhys (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), pp. 13, 16; Morris, “The Hill of Venus,” in The Collected Works of William Morris, with an intro. by his daughter May Morris, vol. 6, The Earthly Paradise: A Poem IV (London and New York: Longmans Green, 1911), pp. 295, 303; Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser in Aesthetes, pp. 37, 46.

65. Friedrich, passim, but esp. pp. 33-35, 132-48.

66. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929), p. 69. For further discussion of Sappho’s freedom, see also Woolf, “A Society,” in Monday or Tuesday (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1921), and pp. 224-25 in this volume.

67. Theogony, in The Poems of Hesiod, trans. with intro. and comments by R. M. Frazer (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983), p. 36.

68. On Harrison and Duncan, see Jill Silverman, “Introduction to ‘Andre Levinson on Isadora Duncan,’” Ballet Review 6:4 (1977-78): 4. Silverman notes that Harrison also “guided the young dancer through the Greek collections at the British Museum,” and adds that “Harrison’s … glorification of matriarchal structures in archaic Greece … undoubtedly influenced the early development of Duncan’s art.” On Duncan’s mother and Chopin, see Elizabeth Kendall, “Before the World Began,” Ballet Review 6:4 (1977-78): 24. For Duncan on Aphrodite, see My Life, pp. 113-14.

69. The passage from H. D. that we have cited here is, of course, a late one, but its celebratory tone is prefigured by the tone of a number of earlier references to the goddess; see, for instance, “Fragment Forty-one” (from Heliodora, 1924), with its invocation of “Aphrodite, shameless and radiant” (Collected Poems, p. 182), and “Songs from Cyprus” (in Red Roses for Bronze, 1931), with its characterization of Aphrodite as “her who nurtures, / who imperils all” (Collected Poems, p. 281).

70. On Woodhull’s recantation, see Sachs, p. 294, quoting Woodhull’s claim in 1880 that she “has been most unrighteously associated with what is known by the name of Free Love. No viler aspersion was ever uttered. No greater outrage could be inflicted on a woman.”

71. “Coming, Aphrodite!” in Cather, Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920; New York: Vintage, 1975). Further references will be to this edition, and page numbers will be included in the text. This story also exists in a somewhat bowdlerized version which was published as “Coming, Eden Bower!” in the Smart Set (August 1920). For a detailed study of variants between these two texts, see the appendix to Uncle Valentine and Other Short Stories: Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1929, ed. Bernice Slote (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973). Perhaps the two most significant changes are the title change and the change in the opera that Eden Bower stars in: in the Smart Set version, she sings Clytemnestra in Straus’s Elektra, while in the book version she sings Aphrodite in Erlanger’s Aphrodite, based on Louÿs’s novel. Both changes suggest Cather’s consciousness of the erotic centrality of Aphrodite in the story she really wanted to write. For further background information, see Slote’s introduction to Uncle Valentine, pp. xxi-xxii.

72. C. Rossetti, “Eve,” in The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, ed. and intro. by R. W. Crump (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), 1:156-59; D. G. Rossetti, “Eden Bower,” in The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Ellis and Scrutton, 1886), 1:308-14.

73. D. G. Rossetti, p. 308.

74. On Cather’s sexual ambivalence, see James Woodress, Willa Cather (New York: Pegasus, 1970), pp. 86-87, 91-94, and Sharon O’Brien, Willa Cather: Emerging Voice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), chap. 6, “Divine Femininity and Unnatural Love,” pp. 117-46.

75. Lowell, “Venus Transiens,” in The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell, with an intro. by Louis Unterm-eyer (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, The Riverside Press, 1955), p. 210.

76. Rukeyser, “The Birth of Venus,” in Rukeyser, Body of Waking (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 44.

77. Sexton, Words for Dr. Y., ed. Linda Gray Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), pp. 38-39.

78. Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953), p. 47.

79. For a characterization of female desire that Lawrence also very likely uses to represent what he regards as the inappropriate clitoral orgasm, see, for instance, The Rainbow, chap. 11; Women in Love, chap. 24; and especially The Plumed Serpent, chap. 26. Note, for example, “The throes of Aphrodite of the foam … The beak-like friction of Aphrodite of the foam, the friction which flares out in circles of phosphorescent ecstasy” that Lawrence censures in chap. 26 of PS.

80. See “Female Coercion,” “Volcanic Venus,” and “What Does She Want?”, in The Complete Poems of D. H.Lawrence, ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts (New York: Penguin, 1977), pp. 538-39.

81. Stevens, “The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage,” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), pp. 5-6.

Kate Chopin (Novel Date 1899)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1747

Chopin, Kate. "Chapter 10." In The Awakening, pp. 68-77. Chicago: Herbert S. Stone & Co., 1899.

In the following novel excerpt, Chopin's heroine, Edna Pontellier, experiences a feeling of liberation during her inaugural "solo" swim.

At all events Robert proposed it, and there was not a dissenting voice. There was not one but was ready to follow when he led the way. He did not lead the way, however, he directed the way; and he himself loitered behind with the lovers, who had betrayed a disposition to linger and hold themselves apart. He walked between them, whether with malicious or mischievous intent was not wholly clear, even to himself.

The Pontelliers and Ratignolles walked ahead; the women leaning upon the arms of their husbands. Edna could hear Robert's voice behind them, and could sometimes hear what he said. She wondered why he did not join them. It was unlike him not to. Of late he had sometimes held away from her for an entire day, redoubling his devotion upon the next and the next, as though to make up for hours that had been lost. She missed him the days when some pretext served to take him away from her, just as one misses the sun on a cloudy day without having thought much about the sun when it was shining.

The people walked in little groups toward the beach. They talked and laughed; some of them sang. There was a band playing down at Klein's hotel, and the strains reached them faintly, tempered by the distance. There were strange, rare odors abroad—a tangle of the sea smell and of weeds and damp, new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near. But the night sat lightly upon the sea and the land. There was no weight of darkness; there were no shadows. The white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and the softness of sleep.

Most of them walked into the water as though into a native element. The sea was quiet now, and swelled lazily in broad billows that melted into one another and did not break except upon the beach in little foamy crests that coiled back like slow, white serpents.

Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily; and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water, unless there was a hand near by that might reach out and reassure her.

But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water.

A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.

Her unlooked-for achievement was the subject of wonder, applause, and admiration. Each one congratulated himself that his special teachings had accomplished this desired end.

"How easy it is!" she thought. "It is nothing," she said aloud; "why did I not discover before that it was nothing. Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!" She would not join the groups in their sports and bouts, but intoxicated with her newly conquered power, she swam alone.

She turned face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.

Once she turned and looked toward the shore, toward the people she had left there. She had not gone any great distance—that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.

A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land.

She made no mention of her encounter with death and her flash of terror, except to say to her husband, "I thought I should have perished out there alone."

"You were not so very far, my dear; I was watching you," he told her.

Edna went at once to the bath-house, and she had put on her dry clothes and was ready to return home before the others had left the water. She started to walk away alone. They all called to her and shouted to her. She waved a dissenting hand, and went on, paying no further heed to their renewed cries which sought to detain her.

"Sometimes I am tempted to think that Mrs. Pontellier is capricious," said Madame Lebrun, who was amusing herself immensely and feared that Edna's abrupt departure might put an end to the pleasure.

"I know she is," assented Mr. Pontellier, "sometimes, not often."

Edna had not traversed a quarter of the distance on her way home before she was overtaken by Robert.

"Did you think I was afraid?" she asked him, without a shade of annoyance.

"No; I knew you weren't afraid."

"Then why did you come? Why didn't you stay out there with the others?"

"I never thought of it."

"Thought of what?"

"Of anything. What difference does it make?"

"I'm very tired," she uttered, complainingly.

"I know you are.

"You don't know anything about it. Why should you know? I never was so exhausted in my life. But it isn't unpleasant. A thousand emotions have swept through me to-night. I don't comprehend half of them. Don't mind what I'm saying; I am just thinking aloud. I wonder if I shall ever be stirred again as Mademoiselle Reisz's playing moved me to-night. I wonder if any night on earth will ever again be like this one. It is like a dream. The People about me are like some uncanny, half-human beings. There must be spirits abroad to-night."

"There are," whispered Robert. "Didn't you know this was the twenty-eighth of August?"

"The twenty-eighth of August?"

"Yes. On the twenty-eighth of August, at the hour of midnight, and if the moon is shining—the moon must be shining—a spirit that has haunted these shores for ages rises up from the Gulf. With its own penetrating vision the spirit seeks some one mortal worthy to hold his company, worthy of being exalted for a few hours into realms of the semi-celestials. His search has always hitherto been fruitless, and he has sunk back, disheartened, into the sea. But to-night he found Mrs. Pontellier. Perhaps he will never wholly release her from the spell. Perhaps she will never again suffer a poor, unworthy earthling to walk in the shadow of her divine presence."

"Don't banter me," she said wounded at what appeared to be his flippancy. He did not mind the entreaty, but the tone with its delicate note of pathos was like a reproach. He could not explain; he could not tell her that he had penetrated her mood and understood. He said nothing except to offer her his arm, for, by her own admission, she was exhausted. She had been walking alone with her arms hanging limp, letting her white skirts trail along the dewy path. She took his arm, but she did not lean upon it. She let her hand lie list-lessly as though her thoughts were elsewhere—somewhere in advance of her body, and she was striving to overtake them.

Robert assisted her into the hammock which swung from the post before her door out to the trunk of a tree.

"Will you stay out here and wait for Mr. Pontellier?" he asked.

"I'll stay out here. Good-night."

"Shall I get you a pillow?"

"There's one here," she said feeling about, for they were in the shadow.

"It must be soiled; the children have been tumbling about."

"No matter." And having discovered the pillow, she adjusted it beneath her head. She extended herself in the hammock with a deep breath of relief. She was not a supercilious or an over-dainty woman. She was not much given to reclining in the hammock, and when she did so it was with no catlike suggestion of voluptuous ease, but with a beneficent repose which seemed to invade her whole body.

"Shall I stay with you till Mr. Pontellier comes?" asked Robert, seating himself on the outer edge of one of the steps and taking hold of the hammock rope which was fastened to the post.

"If you wish. Don't swing the hammock. Will you get my white shawl which I left on the windowsill over at the house?"

"Are you chilly?"

"No; but I shall be presently."

"Presently?" he laughed. "Do you know what time it is? How long are you going to stay out here?"

"I don't know. Will you get the shawl?"

"Of course I will," he said, rising. He went over to the house, walking along the grass. She watched his figure pass in and out of the strips of moonlight. It was past midnight. It was very quiet.

When he returned with the shawl she took it and kept it in her hand. She did not put it around her.

"Did you say I should stay till Mr. Pontellier came back?"

"I said you might if you wished to."

He seated himself again and rolled a cigarette, which he smoked in silence. Neither did Mrs. Pontellier speak. No multitude of words could have been more significant than those moments of silence, or more pregnant with the first-felt throbbing of desire.

When the voices of the bathers were heard approaching, Robert said good-night. She did not answer him. He thought she was asleep. Again she watched his figure pass in and out of the strips of moonlight as he walked away.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1198

Apopular local colorist during her lifetime, Chopin is now recognized as an important figure in nineteenth-century American fiction and as a major figure in feminist literature. Her best-known work, The Awakening (1899), depicts a woman's search for sexual freedom in the repressive society of the American South during the Victorian era. The novel's frank treatment of guiltless adultery inspired critical backlash and public condemnation when it was published, and this negative reception caused Chopin to abandon her literary career. Chopin was largely ignored until the 1950s, when critical interest in her works began to enjoy a significant revival. Modern scholars now view The Awakening as a masterpiece of its time. Feminist critics are particularly interested in Chopin's novel for its insights into the condition of women at the turn of the century, and for its comment on the institution of marriage as well as female independence and sexuality.


Born on February 8, 1851, in St. Louis, Missouri, Chopin was the daughter of Thomas O'Flaherty, a prominent businessman, and Eliza Faris. Chopin's father died when she was four years old, and her childhood was profoundly influenced by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, who were descendants of French Creole pioneers. Chopin also spent time with her family's Creole and mulatto slaves, whose dialects she mastered. Chopin read the works of Walter Scott, Edmund Spencer, and other writers who were not represented among the encyclopedias and religious books in the family library, but despite her bookish nature Chopin was an undistinguished student at the convent school she attended. She graduated at the age of seventeen and spent two years as a belle of fashionable St. Louis society. In 1870, she married a wealthy Creole cotton magnate, Oscar Chopin, and moved with him to New Orleans. For the next decade, Chopin pursued the demanding social and domestic schedule of a wealthy New Orleans wife, the recollection of which would serve as material for The Awakening. By 1880, however, financial difficulties made it necessary for Chopin's steadily growing family to move to Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish, located in Louisiana's Red River bayou region. There, Chopin's husband managed the family plantations until his death in 1883. Afterward, Chopin insisted on assuming her husband's managerial responsibilities, which brought her into contact with almost every aspect of the family business and every segment of the community. She was particularly intrigued by the French Acadian, Creole, and mulatto sharecroppers who worked the plantations. The impressions she gathered of these people and of Natchitoches Parish life were later reflected in her fiction.

In the mid-1880s, Chopin sold most of her property and left Louisiana to live with her mother in St. Louis. Family friends, who had found her letters entertaining, encouraged Chopin to write professionally, and she soon began writing short stories. These early works show the influence of her favorite authors, especially the French writers Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, and Molière. At this time, Chopin also read the works of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Herbert Spencer in order to keep abreast of trends in scientific thinking, and she began questioning the benefits of certain mores and ethical constraints imposed by society on human nature. After an apprenticeship marked by routine rejections, she published the novel At Fault in 1890. This work displayed many of the shortcomings of a first novel and failed to interest readers, but Chopin soon began to publish her short stories in the most popular American periodicals. With the publication of the collections Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), her growing reputation as a skillful local colorist was established. In 1899, Chopin completed her ambitious novel The Awakening, which was received with hostility by critics despite general acknowledgement of Chopin's mature writing skills. Chopin's reputation as a writer was severely damaged by the negative reception of The Awakening; she had difficulties finding publishers for her later works and was ostracized from local literary groups. Demoralized, she wrote little during the rest of her life. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 22, 1904.


The short stories collected in Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie established Chopin as an important writer of local-color fiction. Set primarily near Natchitoches Parish, these tales of Creole and Cajun life are noted for meticulous descriptions of setting, precise dialect, and an objective point of view. The stories in Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie attempt honest examinations of sexuality, repression, freedom, and responsibility—themes Chopin was to explore more fully in The Awakening. "Her Letters," for example, a story published in the magazine Vogue in 1895, tells with great realistic detail the story of a man driven to suicide by the suspicion of his late wife's infidelity, commenting subtly on patriarchal control as well as frankly displaying some of the key challenges of the institution of marriage. Scholars consider The Awakening Chopin's best-known work, remarkable in that it was written during the morally uncompromising climate of 1890s America. Psychologically realistic, The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a conventional wife and mother who experiences a spiritual epiphany and an awakened sense of independence that change her life. The theme of sexual freedom, and the consequences women must face to attain it, is supported by sensual imagery that acquires symbolic meaning as the story progresses. This symbolism emphasizes the conflict within Pontellier, who realizes that she can neither exercise her newfound sense of independence nor return to life as it was before her "awakening." For example, the sexual candor of the Creole community on Grand Isle, the novel's setting, is contrasted with the conventional moral strictures of New Orleans; birds in gilded cages and free-flying birds are juxtaposed; and the protagonist selects for her confidantes both the domesticated, devoted Adele Ratignolle and the passionate Madame Reisz, an antisocial and unattractive pianist. Critics consider Chopin's careful presentation of the constraints on married and unmarried women in The Awakening to be her most sophisticated and radical commentary on feminist themes.


The Awakening was very much ahead of its time; critics were outraged at its moral statements, and Chopin was shunned by southern literary society. After the furor over the novel had passed, it was largely ignored until the 1930s, when Daniel S. Rankin published a study of Chopin's works that included a highly favorable assessment of the book. During the succeeding decades, critical debate surrounding The Awakening has focused on Chopin's view of women's role in society, the significance of the main character's awakening and her subsequent suicide, and the possibility of parallels between the lives of Chopin and her protagonist. Per Seyersted has noted her secretive, individualistic nature and her evident enjoyment of living alone as an independent writer. Priscilla Allen has posited that male critics allow their preconceptions about "good" and "bad" women to influence their interpretations of Chopin's novel, arguing that they too often assume Edna Pontellier's first priority should have been her family and not herself. Like Allen, Seyersted brings a feminist interpretation to The Awakening and points out that the depiction of passionate, independent women in Chopin's other fiction supports the theory that she was in fact concerned about the incompatibility of motherhood and career for women living during the late nineteenth century.

Rebecca Dickson (Essay Date Spring-Summer 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3949

SOURCE: Dickson, Rebecca. "Kate Chopin, Mrs. Pontellier, and Narrative Control." The Southern Quarterly 37, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1999): 38-43.

In the following essay, Dickson outlines Chopin's place in the context of her female predecessors such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, and contends that in The Awakening "Chopin envisioned and portrayed a woman more firmly in control of her own story and her own body than any of her predecessors had imagined."

Until the twentieth century, the vast majority of plots created by, for, and about women were focused on an ingenue and were controlled by men, either quietly or overtly. Even when a young woman is the center of the story, and even if male characters seldom appear in a given novel, a man with his financial power inevitably holds the key to a heroine's happiness while patriarchal economic, political, and moral structures determine her identity and behavior. So, in the end a man controls a woman's story. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, that domination was being challenged on many fronts. Kate Chopin was one writer whose work significantly disrupts this male control of plot and narrative, often by manipulating another male-controlled institution: marriage. Although she employs this strategy in many earlier works, it is in The Awakening, with its surprising protagonist Edna Pontellier, that Chopin most forcefully challenges male-determined stories. With Mrs. Pontellier, Chopin rejects assessing women according to their sexual status. In so doing, she continues a project that a handful of nineteenth-century women writers had devoted themselves to: gaining a measure of narrative control for women.

Nineteenth-century women writers were highly constrained by the traditional heroine that eighteenth-century authors had created: she was invariably an ingenue, a young naive virgin who had to find a husband while maintaining her chastity. That virginity, vital and frequently referred to, seriously limited the heroine's options. As Susan Morgan tells us, when virginity is considered an unmarried woman's most valuable asset, as it certainly was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, men will control both women and culture because male actions determine a woman's sexual status and social identity. Consider, as Morgan does, the novels of the eighteenth century: when a single young heroine encounters a man, she can only hope he is kind while she defends her all-important virginity from his demanding sexuality. The man, on the other hand, has several choices: he may ignore the woman (in which case she may become a spinster, generally construed a sorry fate), he may act nobly (the virgin thus becomes a wife), he may act ignobly (he may seduce her, and she becomes a fallen woman), or he may act viciously (he may rape her, likewise defining her as fallen). Often a heroine's highest accomplishment in an eighteenth-or nineteenth-century novel is that she maintains her virtue when it is threatened by temptation or male aggression. But this achievement is based on non-action, by what a woman does not do. As Morgan puts it, if a woman can "make nothing happen … that would constitute a happy ending" (348). Meanwhile, men act; they control the labels that are conferred on heroines (spinster, wife, whore)—in short, they control the plot.

Two bestselling American novels from the eighteenth century illustrate this male dominance of narrative: both Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791) and Hannah Foster's The Coquette (1797) focus on a good-hearted but naive young woman who is seduced and abandoned by a man. In both novels, the patriarchally constructed seduction plot ineluctably unfolds. Both women must regret being seduced, and do; both women must sink emotionally, socially, economically, and do; both women must die, and do. Well-loved by American readers and considered highly instructive, these novels were still in print in Chopin's lifetime, and she likely read one or both of them. She certainly was familiar with the seduction tale, in which men have choices while women effectively do not, in which male actions determine the predictable plot, and where young women are valued according to the condition of their vaginas.

Not all novels written about ingenues end unhappily, of course. In Susan Warner's bestselling The Wide Wide World (1850), a novel Chopin did read (Toth 51), the heroine, young Ellen Montgomery, whose innocence is repeatedly stressed, faces one taxing experience after another. By learning to suppress her emotional impulses, however, she survives with hymen intact and is rewarded with a virile minister as her husband. Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854), another bestseller when Chopin was a girl, similarly focuses on a young virgin whose happiness is entirely defined by men or their institutions; like Ellen, young Gerty Flint's innocence is her key trait, and she too must learn to be passive. While Ellen and Gerty are presented first and foremost as ingenues who must overcome their stubborn, emotional natures, their male counterparts, Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn, are presented as adventurous souls who express their frustrations by escaping "sivilization." That Huck, who is the same age as Gerty and Ellen, is also a virgin, is irrelevant to his story. From such works, readers learn to ask of women, is she chaste? whom will she marry? But of men we ask, what is he like? what has he done? The cultural effects of these wildly differing questions are obviously enormous. Perhaps this disparity explains why Chopin read so many European writers, for several European women novelists were asking different questions about women.

Jane Austen, a writer on the other side of the nineteenth century whom Chopin read,1 was largely uninterested in the classic ingenue. In defending Austen's sexless tales, Morgan maintains that in not focusing on sexual intrigues and virgins, Austen allows her protagonists to concern themselves with something other than their virtue by making that virtue simply a given. Consequently, a woman's sexual status ceases to be the engine of plot, if not wholly irrelevant. Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Marianne Dashwood never cower with bosoms heaving for fear of some man's aggression. Each of them meets new people, reconsider themselves and their assumptions, decide they were wrong in some key matter, and change for the better. As Morgan makes clear, given the literary history of heroines, Austen's innovation is vital, for her protagonists have a chance to engage in self-reflection and self-correction, which are imperative in becoming mature adults. After Austen, heroines had a precedent for growing up, and sometimes had the emotional freedom to do so.

Chopin also read Charlotte Brontë, whose protagonists are much like Austen's: their virtue is presumed, which allows them to concern themselves with other matters. Brontë is determined to keep narrative control in her heroine's hands, so determined that in Jane Eyre (1847) she maims and blinds the puissant Rochester in order to give Jane a more dominant role in their relationship. In Villette (1853) she drowns the male protagonist, enabling Lucy Snowe to maintain her independence as a teacher and thinker. Brontë also wrote Jane Eyre and Villette in a bold first person, which is unusual in novels by women in the nineteenth century and another strategy for allowing women some control over their own stories.

But Chopin read French writers as often as she did English ones, and since she was intrigued with women who broke conventions, she read George Sand.2 Sand, like Austen, shuns the ingenue. Consider her most famous novels: in Indiana (1832) the exploits of a married woman who has an affair are followed, and in Lélia (1833) a nun who feels that her life and work have been meaningless is encountered. Sand also developed a new form of narrative that Isabelle Naginski calls androgynous, a "double-voiced discourse" through which she could express her own complex identity while simultaneously reflecting the changing role of women in France and Western culture (2-4). There was no place in Sand's complex narrations for the conventional young heroine whose virtue was paramount.

Chopin was also familiar with American writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman, who were shifting their focus from the ingenue to other characters: widows, old women, poor women, married women. Seldom do Jewett and Freeman write of the young virgin who will marry at the end of the story, and we know that Chopin frankly admired their works (Miscellany 90). Certainly their narrative choices influenced her own.

To wrest control of narrative from male authors and characters as these writers did, the virgin must be removed and the male-determined plot rejected. But while each of the above writers took these critical steps, their fiction betrays their limitations. Austen's heroines develop character and mature, and they enter marriages that promise to be unusually egalitarian and fulfilling, but Austen never offers a glimpse of female desire. Though in many of her works Sand portrays physical love as healthy, she too hesitates to depict female sexuality. Brontë still feels compelled to lock the sensual woman firmly in the attic, and Jewett and Freeman ignore or restrain female desire. In contrast, Chopin places a sexual woman center stage in the form of a Protestant-bred Kentuckian who has married a pillar of New Orleans's creole community. Significantly, however, we never see The Awakening's Edna Pontellier express herself sexually with her husband. In that notable omission, Chopin takes the battle for narrative control to an entirely new level.

What Chopin is playing with in The Awakening (1899) are the reader's expectations of heroines and married women. A nineteenth-century reader would have expected the heroine to be young and unmarried, for both in fiction and in everyday life, then as now, a married woman's life is generally dismissed as uninteresting and plotless. Once married, Western culture assumes that a woman's future—sexually, economically, and socially—has been settled.3 But Chopin recognized that the married woman could be a more promising heroine than the ingenue. With a married woman, the titillating question about a heroine's sexual status becomes moot, giving the writer room to develop her character, instead of the fate of her virginity. A married woman also has greater freedom than a single woman, something that was certainly true for the married women on the Grand Isle of Chopin's novel. While the lady in black serves as an apparently self-appointed chaperone for the unmarried lovers who are forever trying to elude curious eyes, Edna may involve herself in a heated relationship with Robert and no one thinks it unusual. Fully accustomed to unflagging sexual loyalty in women, even her husband Léonce considers Edna's actions innocuous. "[T]he Creole husband is never jealous," Chopin explains, "with him the gangrene passion is one which has become dwarfed by disuse" (CW [The Complete Works] 5: 891).

Given this assumption, Chopin may place her married heroine where a single woman of the 1890s simply could not otherwise go. A married woman might attend the horseraces with a man whom she barely knows; a single woman of "good" family could not. A father would hardly let his single daughter move into her own "pigeon-house," but Edna's husband does not object. Kate Chopin herself took full advantage of the freedoms allowed a married woman. While in Germany on their honeymoon, she and her husband Oscar wanted to visit the university in Bonn, but they were told that it would be unseemly for a woman to be observed by the all-male students. The new Mrs. Chopin tried to persuade the curator that "being married might in a manner abate the[ir] interest" (Miscellany 73). Her strategy failed, but it reveals Chopin's awareness of the license allowed married women. A few weeks later, the nineteen-year-old Mrs. Chopin strolled through Zurich unescorted, a pleasure which she herself finds remarkable (Miscellany 81).

Chopin's interest in married women as protagonists is evident in many of her short stories as well as in her two surviving novels (Thérèse Lafirme of At Fault is a widow).4 In The Awakening, Chopin eschews the ingenue almost entirely; she devotes little ink to the few virgins present and portrays them generically. The female half of the two lovers on Grand Isle, presumably a virgin, has no name, no face, and no identity other than being part of a couple. Chopin gently makes fun of the Farival twins, who are fourteen and always clad in virginal white and blue; she allows Made-moiselle Reisz to despise them openly (CW 16: 931). Mademoiselle herself is cantankerous, old, and wise, and her alleged virginity is irrelevant.5 And Mariequita, young and unmarried, is savvy and sensual rather than demure and passive. Given the language surrounding Mariequita and the stories she tells (12: 914-16; 39: 997-98), the reader can assume that she knows as much about sex as does Edna, a matron of twenty-nine.

Freed by marriage from the ingenue's pursuit of a spouse and from the wife's dreary labor by her husband's wealth, Edna has time for self-reflection. Since her husband can afford a nanny, she has time to pensively reconsider her own childhood, when she ran away from Presbyterian prayers to explore green meadows "idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided" (CW 7: 897). With Adèle's encouragement, Edna tries to articulate her own story, to trace how she shifted from a girl running from church to a woman learning how to swim, both symbolically and physically. She no longer concerns herself with silly infatuations for a cavalry officer or tragedian and instead tentatively attempts to understand the underlying rebellious impulses that prompted her to create those fantasies.

Because there is no pressing need to find a man, Edna can also immerse herself in others' stories. The visitors on Grand Isle share gossip and read racy novels, and Edna joins in (albeit shyly at first). Robert tells her of himself and his adventures (CW 2: 884) and of what could be found on the islands around Grand Isle (12: 915-16). When Edna and Robert visit Chênière Caminada, Madame Antoine entertains them with accounts of ships, Baratarian pirates, and other exploits (13: 920). Edna's impressionable mind embraces such tales, as she gradually learns to construct her own. When Dr. Mandelet dines with the Pontelliers, Léonce tells stories of his childhood, Edna's father tells a somber and self-involved yarn, and the doctor recounts a didactic tale about a woman who returns to her "legitimate" love. And then Edna tells her own story, one she makes up about "a woman who paddled away with her lover one night in a pirogue and never came back" (23: 953). Novice though she is, she proves a compelling storyteller:

[E]very glowing word seemed real to those who listened [to Mrs. Pontellier]. They could feel the hot breath of the Southern night; they could hear the long sweep of the pirogue through the glistening moonlit water …; they could see the faces of the lovers, pale, close together, rapt in oblivious forgetfulness, drifting into the unknown.

(23: 953)

Chopin here emphasizes that Edna is doing what the men are doing—telling stories—but she is also trumping them: she rejects Dr. Mandelet's conclusion as to what should happen when a woman wanders sexually. She tells a fib as well, which, of course, a good Protestant girl is taught not to do: she insists that hers is a true tale, an account she heard from Madame Antoine. But Edna's story is her own, an oral landmark in her personal history that she is shaping as never before.

The last months of Edna's life do make for a remarkable story, one that she alone has constructed. Consider Edna's plot: she falls in love with a man while on vacation one summer; loses that lover; learns that she can make her own money (through gambling, through painting); rejects her father's autocratic influence; finds a new lover; removes herself from her husband's house and his economic and social protection; and announces she will not be owned by a man. Several key figures among Edna's acquaintance recognize the unexpected shape her story is taking and try to impose their more conventional plots upon it. But Edna consistently repels every attempt to appropriate her story, especially those offered by men.

While on Grand Isle, Léonce is oblivious to Edna's emerging independence, but once back in New Orleans, where she has social obligations, he tries to rein her in. He expresses outrage over a wife who is not comporting herself properly, but Edna is unimpressed—she is perfectly content to eat her dinners alone while he dines at his club. She battles with Léonce, at times fiercely, at times fondly, and consistently wins. Alcée Arobin, a practiced womanizer, also needs to control women, but through illicit liaisons rather than the marital proprieties. While Edna explores her own character and potential, Alcée tries to reduce their relationship to a mere adulterous affair that he manipulates through shallow compliments, practiced sensuality, and oily devotion. But he fails and is often frustrated when Edna's attention wanders. Edna so firmly maintains control of their affair that Alcée becomes passive and effeminate: while she is moving out of Léonce's house, he dons a dustcap for her and becomes her servant, following her directives (CW 29: 968).

Robert frequently tries to impose his story upon Edna's, especially when he senses that she has experienced something meaningful. After her swim, he tries to make her achievement fit his fanciful myth of a Gulf spirit that occasionally seeks out a worthy human recipient. Edna quickly cuts him off: "Don't banter me" (CW 10: 909-10). She knows she has accomplished something personally momentous, and Robert's mythicizing annoys her. After Edna abandons the heavy atmosphere of the little church on Chênière Caminada and awakes to explore her own body in Madame Antoine's cottage, Robert, who realizes that Edna's flight from church is significant, tries to commandeer her story once again. When Edna invents a tale of a new race of beings having sprung up, Robert interjects his own fancies about her merely having slept for a hundred years. Edna ignores his interjection (13: 919) and maintains firm control of their relationship. It is her idea to go to Chênière Caminada, and it is she who sends for Robert. When they meet in New Orleans at Catiche's "small, leafy corner," Edna decrees that he share her dinner, and then abruptly asks him why he has avoided her. They argue, but he goes back to the "pigeon-house" with her, where she leans over and kisses him for the first time. In response, he attempts to redirect their relationship to a more traditional course by telling her he wants her to be his wife. She simply mocks him:

"You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, 'Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,' I should laugh at you both."

His face grew a little white. "What do you mean?" he asked.

(36: 992)

Certainly Robert should go pale, for this woman wants to control not only her story, but his as well, which is contrary to everything he has learned about the known universe. It is hardly surprising that he disappears after Edna's announcement that she is no longer a possession.

Seeing Edna after her summer on Grand Isle, kindly Dr. Mandelet also recognizes that she is transforming, sexually and otherwise. Despite the fact that he is impressed with Edna's shift from a "listless woman … into a being who … seemed palpitant with the forces of life" and even though "[s]he reminded him of some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun," Dr. Mandelet cannot approve of Edna's story (CW 23: 952). He tries to intervene, first with his didactic dinner tale. After Adèle's baby is born, he tries again to interrupt Edna's narrative, gently cajoling her to confide in him. But Edna will not cooperate. She is wary of the doctor's efforts and will not allow Dr. Mandelet to advise her on how to handle her marriage or her children, however well-intentioned he may be.

Edna does, however, allow women to help shape her story. The devoted mother Adèle is the first to see that Edna's attempt to understand and express herself could have serious consequences. Immediately after their conversation in which Edna speaks candidly of her experiences, Adèle warns Robert to leave Edna alone (CW 8: 899-901). A woman who rethinks her own story destabilizes patriarchal structures, and as one who has cheerfully resigned herself to home and husband, Adèle is alarmed by Edna's behavior. Hours after Edna announces to Robert that men no longer control her, Adèle imparts a haunting message that finally ends Edna's exploratory tale: "Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!" (37: 995).

In a narrative created by a woman, for women, about a woman trying to elude male control, it is fitting then that a woman's words send Edna to her final swim. Even in its unsettling conclusion, The Awakening remains a woman's narrative. The reality of suicide aside, and the ramifications of Adèle's patriarchal acquiescence notwithstanding, Chopin's fictive resolution of Edna's story bids a metaphoric adieu to male control of female narrative—a woman serves as the catalyst for Edna's final act, not a man. Women—Adèle, Mademoiselle Reisz, who encourages Edna's rejection of the conventional, and Mariequita, whose open sensuality Edna admires—have more influence on Edna's story than the men in her life. The women shape her narrative from beginning to end. Thus it is ironic and deliciously subversive that Chopin undermines male control of the human story with a married woman as her primary tool.

Among the handful of nineteenth-century women writers who were determined to give women some control not only of their lives, but of stories themselves are Austen, Sand, Brontë, Jewett, and Freeman. But with the publication of The Awakening at the end of the century, Chopin envisioned and portrayed a woman more firmly in control of her own story and her own body than any of her predecessors had imagined. In so doing, Kate Chopin joins them in their effort to de-center the cult of the virgin—she posits the inadequacy of a woman's sexual label in defining her identity by creating a narrative that focuses on personal exploration and transformation rather than on a woman's sexual status. And, predating Virginia Woolf by nearly thirty years, Chopin suggests that what a woman most needs is a pigeon-house of her own, where she may construct her own story. On this the hundredth anniversary of The Awakening, it is fitting that we place Chopin in the international pantheon of writers to which she belongs, among those writers who knew that women had to envision themselves in control—in their novels, in their social narratives—before they could learn to navigate their own lives.


  1. See Seyersted's discussion of Chopin's reading (25-26) or her reading list in the Miscellany (87-88).
  2. Seyersted points out that though we have no record that Chopin read Sand, her daughter Lelia believed that she was named after Sand's famous heroine (101).
  3. This attitude is most obvious in pre-twentieth-century novels, but it is also evident in today's mainstream movies and romance fiction.
  4. An incomplete list of Chopin's stories about married women includes: "The Going Away of Liza," "A Visit to Avoyelles," "In Sabine," "A Respectable Woman," "The Story of an Hour," "Her Letters," "Athénaïse," and "The Storm."
  5. Given Mlle. Reisz's open and effusive love for Edna, Mademoiselle may have been sexually active with women, which further disrupts male control of narrative.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. The Complete Works. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.

——. A Kate Chopin Miscellany. Ed. Per Seyersted and Emily Toth. Natchitoches, LA: Nortgwestern State UP, 1979.

The Nation (Review Date 3 August 1899)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277

SOURCE: "Recent Novels: The Awakening." The Nation 69, no. 1779 (3 August 1899): 96.

In the following review of The Awakening, the critic condemns Chopin for having written an immoral novel.

[Mrs. Chopin's] The Awakening is the sad story of a Southern lady who wanted to do what she wanted to. From wanting to, she did, with disastrous consequences; but as she swims out to sea in the end, it is to be hoped that her example may lie for ever undredged. It is with high expectation that we open the volume, remembering the author's agreeable short stories, and with real disappointment that we close it. The recording reviewer drops a tear over one more clever author gone wrong. Mrs. Chopin's accustomed fine workmanship is here, the hinted effects, the well-expended epithet, the pellucid style; and, so far as construction goes, the writer shows herself as competent to write a novel as a sketch. The tint and air of Creole New Orleans and the Louisiana seacoast are conveyed to the reader with subtle skill, and among the secondary characters are several that are lifelike. But we cannot see that literature or the criticism of life is helped by the detailed history of the manifold and contemporary love affairs of a wife and mother. Had she lived by Prof. William James's advice to do one thing a day one does not want to do (in Creole society, two would perhaps be better), flirted less and looked after her children more, or even assisted at more accouchements—her chef d'œuvre in self-denial—we need not have been put to the unpleasantness of reading about her and the temptations she trumped up for herself.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52

At Fault (novel) 1890

Bayou Folk (short stories) 1894

A Night in Acadie (short stories) 1897

The Awakening (novel) 1899

The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. 2 vols. [edited by Per Syersted] (novels, short stories, and prose) 1969

A Kate Chopin Miscellany [edited by Syersted and Emily Toth] (letters and journals) 1979

Kate Chopin's Private Papers (journals and prose) 1998

Title Commentary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7196


SOURCE: Mathews, Carolyn L. "Fashioning the Hybrid Women in Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Mosaic 35, no. 3 (3 September 2002): 127-49.

In the following excerpt, Mathews examines the meaning of the clothing imagery in The Awakening and contends that Chopin "uses dress as a means of representing female subjectivity."

During the years surrounding the turn into the twentieth century, discourse on dress proliferated, resulting in what fashion historian Joan Severa calls "a universal understanding of style" (454). Americans of the period purchased more clothing per capita than ever before, and manuals like Dorothy Quigley's What Dress Makes of Us or Mary Haweis's The Art of Dress appeared alongside books on dress reform like J. H. Kellogg's The Evils of Fashionable Dress. Early feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressed the topic … as did highly respected American psychologists such as William James and G. Stanley Hall. While Hall's 1898 study on motivation in dress interpreted clothing as a means of social conformity (Ewen 79), James singled out garments as instrumental in establishing self; he writes that "we […] identify ourselves with them" (280). The fervency with which dress became a serious subject within scientific and economic discourse is perhaps best illustrated by Thorstein Veblen's now classic book entitled The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, wherein he describes women's dress as the most "apt illustration" of the principles underlying the whole of his economic theory. Treating it as an emblem of conspicuous consumption, Veblen interprets female attire within the context of women's historical role as commodities of exchange. Because the wife functions as property, he argues, her costly attire is meant to pronounce her "uselessness" and lack of "productive labour" (170), thereby announcing "to all observers" (179) her husband's social and economic status.

The positions etched out by thinkers like Veblen, Gilman, Hall, and James establish cultural precedents for Kate Chopin's use of clothing in The Awakening, her controversial 1899 novel about marriage and female sexuality. Critics over the course of the past four decades have explicitly acknowledged Chopin's reliance on clothing and images of undressing to suggest her character Edna's sense of oppression and eventual liberation. Per Seyersted, for example, refers to acts of disrobing throughout the novel, arguing that this action at the novel's end "symbolizes a victory of self-knowledge" (194). Other critics have read Edna's disrobing conversely, attributing Edna's demise not to societal forces, as Seyersted suggests, but to the character's lack of an integrated self or to personal limitations that make change impossible. Suzanne Wolkenfeld, for example, calls the disrobing a "regression to the animality of infancy" (223). Robert Collins, tracing in its entirety the pattern of garment imagery, argues that disrobing "symbolizes Edna's dissatisfaction with fiction-making" but that the way in which the imagery is used "suggests that Chopin viewed Edna's suicide […] as a failure of imagination" (177). The attention to dress in Chopin criticism verifies the importance of garment imagery in the novel, but to date no critic has placed this pattern within the context of nineteenth-century discourse on dress.

My examination of the novel's clothing imagery maps out the specific socially grounded meanings encoded in Chopin's extensive and specific inclusion of details of dress; it is an analysis revealing that the writer uses dress as a means of representing female subjectivity. I begin by establishing the discursive background for use of dress in the novel and then focus on its depiction of working-class and non-white women, particularly in terms of their clothing, to show how Chopin depended upon social class and racial stereotypes to revise nineteenth-century feminist discourse on self-ownership. By exploring the novel's use of clothing as signals for particular constructions of nineteenth-century womanhood, I argue that the novel insinuates upon readers a model for female subjectivity that substantially amends the era's dominant form, which assumed middle-class propriety, moral superiority, and motherhood. Chopin's version of the female self in effect merges elements from presumably opposed social contexts—from lower-class as well as upper-class settings, for example—thus positing a hybrid formation that works culturally to unsettle categories of nineteenth-century thought.

Although writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often disagreed in their judgements regarding societal emphasis on dress, they consistently posited dress as a semiotic system of signs wherein sartorial details work together to articulate the wearer's social identity. In 1892, for example, Helen Ecob wrote, "Character of dress is the external sign of the social, intellectual, and moral status of the wearer" (230, emph. mine). Because women's social identities were inexorably tied to marriage, many writers were quick to point out how women's clothing signalled immobility and their lack of self-ownership. Material evidence of the period supports these rulings, for the lady's gown, sewn from over twenty yards of fabric and worn over multiple "skirts," hand-embroidered drawers, a corset, and undervests, weighed nearly twenty pounds. When she added outdoor wraps, she carried twenty-five to thirty pounds of fabric (Ewen and Ewen 106). The appearance of inactivity was no mere illusion. Heavily boned bodices and tightly fitted sleeves prevented wearers from reaching tiny hook-and-eye fasteners sewn down the back (Bradfield 28), and a maid often assisted. Dress reformers of the late nineteenth century were especially quick to note the connection between women's dress and their lack of productivity. Like Veblen, they viewed women's clothing in relation to issues of ownership. "A Symposium on Women's Dress," published in October 1892 by The Arena, for example, chronicles opinions of artists, physicians, and women "crippled" by fashion as arguments for making "improved" dress the sign of "good breeding" (621).…Divine providence, Darwin, art, health, and motherhood were all recruited to carry forth the symposium's call for a more rational dress, and throughout, the plea for women's rights surfaces. Observing the link between dress and middle-class women's roles, E. M. King pessimistically predicts the defeat of dress reform: "Dress reformers may well despair, for I perceive that their hopes can never be fulfilled until they go, both in theory and practice, to the very root of the matter. Women must take their rightful place in the sphere of humanity. They must respect and reverence their own bodies and have their rightful sovereignty over them" (King 629). King's writing clearly demonstrates the cultural weight of thought linking female clothing and lack of self-ownership. Kate Chopin mined this vein of thought when she used dress to signal meanings related to female sovereignty, but she used social-class coding to insure that Edna's position not just as wife but as middle-class wife comes under scrutiny.

Propriety and the whole cult of respectability that directed the lives of middle-class Americans of this era lie at the heart of Edna Pontellier's quest for self-ownership. As John Kasson's study of manners in America shows, upper-middle- and leisure-class women recognized correct form in dress as integral to setting themselves apart from the lower classes. "Correct form" specified particular styles, fabrics, and colours for different hours of the day and different activities. As historical work by both Philippe Perrot and Penelope Byrde illustrate, women like Edna Pontellier purchased expansive wardrobes so that they might appropriately attire themselves for morning, afternoon, or evening as they religiously observed differences between country and city dress and between street wear and calling attire. Like other middle-class women of the period, Edna performs time-consuming rituals of dress, preparing her toilette several times a day. She begins her day, for example, in a "white morning gown" (73), a laced and flounced garment worn by middle-class women as they directed their household staffs. Later she changes into a tailor-made street gown to make informal morning calls (73). If she were to make the more formal afternoon calls, she would don a visiting dress or formal day gown, or if she were to receive callers, she would wear a reception gown, intricately constructed with layers of flouncing, scalloped frills, piping, tucks, and insets of brocade. Edna's failure to be thus attired first brings into the open the Pontellier's marital conflicts. Angered that his wife has not kept her formal reception day, Mr. Pontellier says, "It's just such seeming trifles that we've got to take seriously; such things count" (71). Standing as fictional counterpart to Veblen's insistence that women's dress functioned as an expression of the husband's social position, the conflict serves as one of many reminders of Edna's initial lack of autonomy and self-ownership.

Margit Stange has noted that The Awakening builds toward a "turning point […] at which Edna, deciding to leave Léonce's house, resolves 'never again to belong to another than herself'" (203). Arguing that the novel dramatizes nineteenth-century rhetoric of self-ownership, Stange explains Edna's rejection of her role as middle-class wife within the context of domestic feminists' campaigns for voluntary motherhood. This reform movement, which began in 1840 with Lucinda Chandler's plea that each woman take "control over her own person independent of the desires of her husband" (qtd. in Stange 107), used the term self-ownership to denote a woman's right to refuse marital sex and thus to limit family size. Stange argues that when Edna turns Mr. Pontellier out of her bed with talk of the "eternal rights of women" (Chopin 85), she uses discourse typical of domestic feminists of the period. Stange maintains, though, that the character profoundly alters these feminists' version of self-ownership, which held that women's sexuality was integrally tied to motherhood. They vehemently opposed birth-control devices, fearing that contraception would create a threatening sexual freedom that would ultimately dissolve the family. While Stange notes that Edna declares herself "free to have sex with whomever she chooses," she does not discuss Chopin's method for revising domestic feminism and asserting female sexuality. It is this gap in Stange's discussion that attention to clothing addresses. Because The Awakening associates proper dress with middle-class identity and its opposite—impropriety and states of undress—with working-class and non-white women, it strips self-ownership of its straight-laced passionlessness. Female sexuality emerges as an integral aspect of self-ownership, but at the expense of working-class and non-white women.

My analysis of Chopin's representation of social class borrows from the methodology of Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, who, in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, theorize a system for mapping out interconnected meanings within given cultures. Arguing that European cultures "think themselves" by way of the oppositions "high"/"low" or "top"/"bottom," they show how hierarchical classifications can be cross-referenced to reveal meaning (2). Within a given culture's system of symbolization, social classes, the human body, psychic forms, and geographic space are all laid out through the high/low opposition that correlates each domain to the other three. A disruption of the hierarchy within one domain affects all other domains (3). The validity of such a cultural matrix is evidenced in everyday speech when undesirable locations are called the "armpit" of the world or when verbal insults function by way of a synecdoche that sums up the whole person with some choice, lower-anatomy substitute like "ass-hole." While Stallybrass and White do not address fashion as a domain that can be cross-referenced with other significant domains, their use of Bakhtin's conceptions of the classical body and the grotesque certainly apply to women's fashion of the period. Arguing that the body and meaning are related discursively, they show that the classical body consistently denotes the "form of the high official culture" (21, emph. Stallybrass and White's). This body, closed, perfect, and pure, is without orifice. Pedestalled and symmetrical, monumental and distant, the classical body expresses the same values articulated in "tasteful," "refined" female dress of the late nineteenth century. The cross-referencing between the human body and social class that Stallybrass and White observe occurs with remarkable frequency in fashion commentary of this period. One etiquette-manual writer insisted, for example, that "nothing so quickly points out the low-bred as loudness of conduct or flashiness of dress" (qtd. in Kasson 98). Another advisor articulated the link between conspicuous display and women's sexual bodies when he suggested that loudness in dress invited sexual advances (Kasson 163).

Discussions of tasteful dress that engaged Chopin's contemporaries enable readers today to interpret with closer historical accuracy the implied cultural "high" or "low" of certain details of dress in The Awakening. For instance, Edna Pontellier looks "handsome and distinguished" in her street gown, a description that Carol Mac-Curdy reads as commentary on Edna's lack of femininity (55). Yet even a cursory glance at fashion magazines of the period reveals the frequency with which "handsome" was applied to women's public attire ("Two"; "Long"). Chopin's Edna, never appearing in public in costumes overly rich in fabric or too eye-catching in colour, epitomizes the tasteful dresser.… Linked in prescriptive fashion commentary with those of "high-breeding," understated, tasteful attire like Edna's identified wearers as respectably middle class, an assumption that explains why a writer for The Jewish Daily News so emphatically urged her mostly immigrant readers to "seek refinement" ("Just") in their dress. Working-class women, and especially non-white or newly Americanized ones, occupied by virtue of class and ethnicity a culturally "low" social and economic position. By dressing tastefully (like those "high"bred), they might unsettle cultural categories that enabled unequal power relations among the social classes and among races. Fed by fears of miscegenation, a general stereotyping of non-white and working-class women as sexually promiscuous occurred with blatant candour at the turn of the century (McNall 25-26), and it is no surprise that Chopin depended upon such assumptions in her depiction of Mariequita, the Spanish servant girl who serves within the novel as cultural "low" to the demure and tasteful "high" of Edna Pontellier.

In The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, Barbara Babcock examines how given cultures use language, art, and religion to symbolically invert commonly held cultural codes, values, and norms. While a belief turned on its head can work culturally toward different ends, sometimes reinforcing the dominant view and sometimes challenging it, an inversion nonetheless presents an alternative. Such symbolic inversion occurs in Chopin's use of Mariequita not simply as a foil for Edna but as a character whose race and class enable Edna to break with the conventions of middle-class marriage. And, as theories regarding cultural matrixes would predict, the "high"/"low" opposition between Edna and the servant girl works across different domains. "Low" in terms of social class, Mariequita is also associated with the lower body—most often genitalia and feet. Glaringly underdeveloped as a character, she appears in only two scenes of The Awakening, an inclusion underscoring her symbolic function since these particular scenes occur at structurally pivotal points in the narrative. First appearing in the Chênière Camanada episode, which is most often identified as the scene of Edna's sexual awakening, Mariequita appears once more at the novel's end just before Edna's suicide. The incomplete portrayal works to focus readers' attention on two aspects of characterization that the novel presents clearly: her social class and her body. Not simply lower class, but of the lowest, the servant class, Mariequita in each scene flaunts a lack of propriety with her body—the slimy feet she bares, the "eyes" she "makes" at Robert, the "mouths" she "makes" sassing old Beaudelet (52). An example of what Bakhtin calls the "grotesque," which stands in opposition to "the bourgeois individualist conception of the body" (Stallybrass and White 22), Mariequita's body becomes integral in Edna's conception of subjectivity. Like another of the novel's dark women—the "generous" Verta Cruz girl who gives Robert an embroidered pouch (122) or the "stunning girls" who kept Arobin occupied in Mexico (123)—Mariequita calls forth sexual associations inseparable from her race and class, and these cultural assumptions enable what Michele Birnbaum has called "Edna's racial surrogacy" (314), her identification with "the marginalized[,] which both affirms her class position and allows her to critique the sexual constraints associated with it" (304). Kasson's study of nineteenth-century manners validates Birnbaum's conclusions, for he shows that, to middle-class Americans of Chopin's period, cleanliness, manners, and taboos regarding body functions and sexuality were paramount in etching out an identity counter to that of the supposedly "low bred." Functioning as "low-others" against whom middle-class Americans measured their own superiority, people low on the socioeconomic ladder—workers and nonwhites—were essential to middle-class constructions of self, Kasson maintains. As he demonstrates, these low-others served as a sort of symbolic repository for all that the middle class excluded when setting themselves apart—impropriety, poor taste, filth, and unacceptable sexual desires. It was these cultural codes that allowed Chopin to use Mariequita to revise domestic feminists' concept of self-ownership, and the move entailed a highlighting of the contrast between the tastefully clad and properly middle-class wife, Edna Pontellier, and the barefoot and sexually promiscuous Mariequita.

When Mariequita appears on the boat in the Chênière Camanada segment with bare, dirty feet, she inverts the middle-class toilette through undress—a term I use to denote matters of dress set in opposition to bourgeois propriety, decorum, and cleanliness. Rejoinders to Edna's prim, stocking-protected and shoe-enclosed lower extremities (55), such feet marked the person as racially and intellectually inferior, according to physiognomic treatises like Alexander Walker's Intermarriage; or How and Why Beauty, Health and Intellect Result from Certain Marriages and Deformity, Disease and Insanity from Others. Further, their very sliminess, along with the basket of shrimps, implies work and appropriateness determined by function rather than fashion. Bakhtin's notion of the carnival as a cultural ritual of inversion clarifies the significance of Chopin's focus on feet in the Chênière Camanada segment. The carnival, in privileging the grotesque body with its teeming lower parts (feet, buttocks, genitals), allowed members of the upper class voyeuristic gazes at all that they excluded from their own definitions of self (Stallybrass and White 48, 128). With just this sort of voyeurism, Edna looks at Mariequita's bare feet, "noticing the sand and slime between her brown toes." She observes the girl's sexually alluring eye-play, and she "like[s] it all" (52). Later, when Edna removes "the greater part of [her clothes]" (55) in Madame Antoine's cottage to experience her body for the first time, the shoes and stockings are the only articles of clothing specified. The removal of her clothing and her bathing precede the removal of her shoes and stockings, the illogical sequence thus highlighting the feet. This baring of feet recalls the earlier image of the sexually free and barefooted Mariequita, and it works on a symbolic level to invert middle-class gender codes of propriety, sexual taboos, immobility, and lack of self-ownership. The feet and undress function as symbols of the culturally "low" and become for Edna Pontellier symbols of the sexual freedom she desires.

By mid-novel, Edna has taken control of her body and bed as domestic feminists since 1840 had been advocating, but she has not accepted as warrant for her action their insistence on female passionlessness. By merging what in the nineteenth century was a male prerogative—possessive individualism—with elements of lower-class or non-white female subjectivity, Chopin posits a "hybrid" construction of womanhood that pulls from both the conventions of the middle class and the repository of "low," rejected qualities that the middle class associated with those beneath them in the social hierarchy. The symbolic relation between dress and female selfhood is underscored in the analogy used as Mr. Pontellier muses over Edna's behaviour: "He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world" (77, emph. mine). While this oft-quoted passage has been used to celebrate Edna's emerging selfhood, readers should not overlook Chopin's method, which works at the expense of the low-others of nineteenth-century culture—those of low economic status, particularly non-white women.

While Chopin's use of hybridization could seem little more than a stitching together of dress associations from different social classes, her reliance on these associations underscores just how profoundly particular symbolic representations align with actual social forms. Barefootedness is not simply an arbitrary choice within Chopin's novel; rather, it has a very concrete correlative in the material and social world of turn-of-the-century America. Only servant girls like Mariquita, who could not afford to ruin shoes by shrimping in them, would appear barefooted; middle-class women did not even bare their feet to swim. And, as Stallybrass and White argue, when opposite poles of categories like propriety/impropriety mix in actual social practice, a hybrid cultural formation results. Fusing contradictory elements, these hybrid formations interrogate "the rules of inclusion, exclusion and domination" that structure a society (43). Hybridization, Stallybrass and White write, "produces new combinations and strange instabilities in a given semiotic system[;] it therefore generates the possibility of shifting the very terms of the system itself" (58, emph. Stallybrass and White's). In social practice, hybridization might, for example, produce constructions of womanhood that could ultimately shift definitions of male and female. Chopin includes two characters who function as such cultural hybrids. Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz each successfully blends elements of the "high" and "low," and, as hybrid constructions of womanhood, each pulls from a closet of possibilities the seemingly incompatible to assemble a costume that signifies the disruption of established hierarchies.

Most often read as the embodiment of traditional womanhood, Adele Ratignolle is the mother-woman bedecked in fluttering garments that suit "her rich, luxuriant beauty" (33). Appearing at the novel's onset in stark contrast to Edna, who wears the "symmetrical" lines associated in the 1890s with the New Woman, Adele dresses in "pure white, with a fluffiness of ruffles" and "draperies" (33). Fashion commentary of 1898 noted that such a dress should give the illusion that the wearers, or "aery habitations," are composed "of stuff less solid than flesh and blood" (Cunnington 402). The language here echoes discourse on motherhood prevalent during the nineteenth century—writings in which mothers appear as angels or soft spirits "hovering in soothing caresses" (Melendy 45). Imaging Adele and the other mother-women first as domestic chickens, caged by their maternal instinct, which in turn transforms them into ministering angels, Chopin blends motherhood, spirituality, and femininity, portraying Adele as the epitome of ideal womanhood. Adele, however, cannot be pigeon-holed, for her maternal qualities are often overshadowed by an erotic appeal associated elsewhere in the novel with low-others. Receiving Edna in a "negligé which left her arms almost wholly bare and exposed the rich, melting curves of her white throat" (75), Adele displays an improper level of undress, thoroughly at odds with middle-class "correct form." The emphasis on her whiteness, however, permeates the image, whitewashing the eroticism borrowed from the lower classes and non-white models of womanhood with an assertion of what Birnbaum calls "colonizing whiteness" (316). Readers inclined to read the novel's unmistakable emphasis on whiteness as a purely aesthetic choice must reckon with the racial implications present in Chopin's representation of white female subjects. Whether we read this emphasis as another example of colonization or as Chopin's effort—albeit compromised—to unsettle cultural hierarchies, the fact remains that Adele resists easy categorization and thus cannot be dismissed as an uncomplicated emblem of nineteenth-century womanhood. Both physical and spiritual, sensual and chaste, she merges the "high" and "low" of the culture, and as hybrid "sensual Madonna" (30), she serves as model for Edna's growing comfort with her own body (see: Shaw 66; Wershover 29; Stone 25).

While Adele demonstrates the possibility of women's constructing hybrid selves, her choice to pursue motherhood as vocation limits her capacity for challenging dominant gender roles. A more fully alternative self emerges in Mademoiselle Reisz, the reclusive artist whose music evokes in Edna intense passions. Undoubtedly playing a significant role in Edna's decision to pursue her art and move out of her husband's house, Made-moiselle Reisz puts forth an appearance befitting her eccentric temperament. Summed up as having "absolutely no taste in dress," she wears one ornament, "a batch of rusty black lace with a bunch of artificial violets," which sits to the side of her false hair (44). With these adornments, however, she makes a uniquely anti-fashion statement. Anti-fashion, a mode of dress that often functions as a sign of protest, included during the nineteenth century the bohemian garb worn by French artists, the bloomer costume propounded by dress reformers, and the outmoded styles worn by eccentric individualists like Mademoiselle (see: Davis 5-27; Barwick 48-70; Hollander 363-65). False hair—clumps of curls with comb—had fallen out of fashion by 1879, and, while millinery like Mademoiselle's violets and black lace embellished ladies' evening wear in stop-and-go cycles throughout the nineteenth century, only in the 1870s did such pieces enjoy general daytime use (Cunnington 302-05). Mademoiselle Reisz's clinging to these outmoded styles of her youth makes a potentially political statement, for, in America's burgeoning consumer society, women who resisted the sway of fashion fulfilled an oppositional role, contesting consumerism by rejecting what Veblen observed to be women's primary function under capitalism: consumption. The prunella gaiter that Mademoiselle mends during one of Edna's visits further underscores her opposition to normative female roles. Utilitarian and practical rather than ornamental, gaiters, which were button shoes with a cloth upper section, are pictured in the 1894 The Woman's Book as a part of a reform business ensemble (213). Clearly in contrast with the ruffled tea gowns and velvet-trimmed walking dresses shown elsewhere in The Woman's Book, the suit and gaiters adopt the idiom of men's dress, insistently expressing seriousness, activity, and purposeful work.… Fashion historians and theorists like Joanne Finkelstein (107-29) or Fred Davis (33-54) have discussed the importance of more "masculine" dress for nineteenth-century unmarried women who entered the professions (see also Ewen and Ewen 88-97). Mademoiselle's gaiter suggests in its very functionality her mobility, her leaving her home to teach music and perform. Of course, Mademoiselle Reisz's "old prunella gaiter," shabby and in need of mending, is no careful addendum to a three-piece suit. Indeed, like the other of the material details of her life—the three-room apartment in a racially mixed neighbourhood or the "dingy and battered" buffet (81)—the gaiter implies not only women's changing life options but also the economic hardship that often accompanied a choice to shun marriage in favour of independence.

Chopin includes only three specific details about Mademoiselle's attire, one of them the outdated but ultra-feminine false hair and violets, the second the masculine-coded gaiters, and a third the red flannel rag that she wears around her neck when she is sick. This final detail works to punctuate a point of friction where body, gender identity, and subjectivity interconnect, for elsewhere in the novel red functions as a symbol for female sexuality, a point that Christina Giorcelli makes in her essay on The Awakening (112). While Giorcelli makes no mention of Mademoiselle's red rag, her argument about the symbolic use of red lends support for Kathryn Seidel's reading of Mademoiselle, which examines the character within the context of late-nineteenth-century representations of lesbians. Showing that Made-moiselle, like the lesbian characters in works of George Sand, Zola, de Maupassant, and O. Henry, displays physical deformity, flaunts her hostility of domestic occupation, and pursues art as a vocation, Seidel argues that Chopin's treatment here draws on nineteenth-century stereotypes of lesbians, a position that becomes all the more pointed within Chopin's colour-coding of female sexuality. Notwithstanding the implication of a "twistedness," Mademoiselle's sexuality significantly resists classification within the binary categories male/female. In an odd mix that makes Mademoiselle the antithesis of ideal female beauty and the antithesis of ideal male beauty, Chopin blurs categories of male and female. Dependent on men neither economically nor romantically, Mademoiselle nonetheless lacks the economic power she might enjoy were she an independent male, a social reality of unmarried professional women's lives that further works to blur traditional gender codes. Although Mademoiselle appears to involve herself only vicariously in romance, her lesbianism nevertheless opens a powerfully transgressive space. In its refusal to fit into strictly binary gender configurations, it acknowledges a female subjectivity that defines itself not simply by opposing normative categories but by tossing the markers of those categories willy-nilly into a hybrid mix. Hybrid from the top of her head (where ultra-feminine, evening millinery sits askew at all hours of the day) to the tips of her toes (where gaiters accented with the idiom of masculine dress leak), Mademoiselle Reisz lives out the artistic life amid the common and racially mixed. The artist who "dares and defies," Chopin suggests, chooses anti-as her mode of life, art, and dress, and she mixes categories, particularly gender categories, at will.

The sort of hybrid anti-fashion favoured by Mademoiselle Reisz marks Edna's dress at only one point in The Awakening. As she prepares to declare her economic independence and take up her life as an artist in her pigeon house, she works in an "old blue gown, with a red silk handkerchief knotted at random around her head" (105). In putting on a dress discarded because it has gone out of fashion, Edna foregoes special work clothing, the morning gowns and wrappers that were "a luxury" enjoyed only by the upper and middle classes (Hall 52-53). Instead, she employs a mode of dress customary for members of the lower classes, who adapted their worn dress-up clothing to meet the daily needs of work. Edna's anti-fashion outfit fabricates an identity that takes its inception from the working class, but it clearly alters the materials. Edna's gown, though old, was never working-class dress-up wear. And her red handkerchief, though knotted peasant style, is—unlike Mariequita's red servant's kerchief—made of silk. Turning the peasant's rag into an odd mix that simultaneously signifies wealth and its lack, Edna dons for the first time a sort of hybrid anti-fashion, and she has "never looked handsomer" (105). Once again, Chopin builds Edna's subjectivity by calling upon imagery of low-others; in effect, Edna plays at transgressing class boundaries, a game that Birnbaum rightly sees as reinforcement of class and race difference. Yet, by choosing clothing not typically favoured by middle-class women, Edna comes the closest at this point to truly outfitting herself to venture forth with self-possession. Outfitted for work, foregoing attire bought through bourgeois marriage, she puts on her own version of Mademoiselle's outmoded, anti-fashion ensemble, planning to take up the independent life. Edna's plans, of course, never materialize. Sartorially speaking, she cannot make a habit of anti-fashion. Abandoning the pieced-together costume that most becomes her, Edna celebrates her exit as wife wearing an opulent gown of gold satin.

The description of Edna in her gold gown at her gala birthday dinner puts into place the opposition most significant to her subjectivity—solitary artist/mother-woman. Amid the "soft fall of lace encircling her shoulders," Chopin writes, there is something in Edna's appearance that suggests "the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone" (109). Regal imagery appears in only one other scene—when Adele walks toward her children with the majesty "which queens are sometimes supposed to possess" (31). This repetition suggests that power for women emanates from two possible positions: motherhood and solitude. While historians have thoroughly documented the discourse on motherhood, showing that it clearly enhanced women's power during this period (see: Gordon 111-15; Leach 85-90), the implications of solitariness are much harder to sort through but critically vital in discussing a novel originally entitled A Solitary Soul. Because solitariness exists as both a category of Edna's thought and as a concept scrutinized by Chopin, only by teasing apart character zone and authorial voice can readers unravel its implications. Chopin's position emerges in her description of Edna's shimmering gown, for, when read against the background created by other uses of dress in the novel, the rich folds and excess of the gown's folds perfectly exemplifies the sort of opulence that Veblen linked with the show of the husband's power—not the wife's. Because the novel has brought into question both consumerism and a husband's ownership of his wife, there is little reason to read Chopin's description of Edna's appearance at the dinner as a statement of female power. Edna in effect fabricates the solitary artist with materials taken directly from the garb she aims to put aside, and she crowns herself with a diamond tiara, a gift from the husband she desires to escape.

Edna's inability to sustain the sort of boundary crossing needed to construct a new sort of female selfhood that can pull her present role—motherhood—into an innovative one that would merge motherhood and artistic pursuit surfaces in the character's visit to Iberville. Immediately following her move into the pigeon house, this visit pulls her toward merger with her children; arms "clasp" and cheeks "press" as Edna gives her children "all of herself." Yet, Chopin defines motherhood as a reciprocal relationship, for, although Edna gives all of herself, she also "gather[s] and fill[s] herself with [her children's] young existence" (115). Edna continues to span this threshold while in transit between Iberville and New Orleans when the presence of the children lingers "like the memory of a delicious song" (116). The synaesthesia merging sound and taste suggests other fusions as well—thresholds where autonomy meets love, where middle-class convention meets non-conventional social practice, where self-possession need not negate ties to others. Unable to remain within this liminal space where motherhood meets solitude, though, Edna reaches the city "alone" (116), and she is left to imagine a utopian world where ties to the social world disappear.

Just as Edna's clothing throughout the novel has marked her social class and gender identity, so her rejection of clothing symbolically closes off these sites of subjectivity. Chopin prepares the reader for her character's final rejection of the social world during the island awakening scene when she divests herself of her constraining garments to nap in Madame Antoine's cottage. Conventions of nineteenth-century utopian fiction undergird this episode (Rose 1-5), as when Edna wakes to pretend with Robert to have slept "precisely one hundred years" (57). She perceives the island as "changed" and imagines that a "new race of beings […] have sprung up," leaving only herself and Robert as "past relics" (57). With this imaginary leap into an Edenic future rich with sensual pleasures and devoid of former social ties, Chopin suggests the sort of premature utopianism that Terry Eagleton has attributed to many nineteenth-century Marxists. Such utopias then and now, he argues, simply risk "making us ill" (229) with desire, for they suggest no starting point from which "a feasible future might germinate" (230). Edna's need to rupture all ties with the existing world in order to construct a new self surfaces in the quick question she asks: "And when did our people from Grand Isle disappear from the earth?" (57). With her own people gone, she might enter a utopian paradise where no demands from the past impinge. The utopian vision ends abruptly and significantly with the word really: "But really, what has become of Monsieur Farival and the others?" (57, emph. mine). In reality, Chopin suggests, a future severed from our present selves simply cannot be. The future must incorporate the present if it is to be feasible. Only a dialectical relationship between present and future can ultimately fuse into one hybrid self the oppositions that, if kept isolated, threaten destruction.

Not knowing how to incorporate her own past—motherhood—into her construction of a new sort of female self, Edna fabricates through her death the solitary woman. Having told Adele "I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself," she goes to Grande Isle at the novel's end to undress and stand "naked under the sky" (136). The utopian dress-reform movement provides a context for reading Edna's final divesting. While some utopian reformers advocated wearing flesh-coloured tights and Greek-style draperies …, others simply advocated a free and non-conventional nudity (see: Banner 147-53; Rigel 397). These latter dress reformers, espousing an abrupt shift from constricting corsets to liberating nudity, brandished a violent break between present and future. Edna Pontellier embodies with her death this same sort of divide. All she can do is throw off the worn, pricking garments of the world, for she can find no vestments to clothe solitariness in a world indisputably social. Her new woman, clothed only in the undress of simple cultural negation, gives up the struggle for liberation. No clothes become her.

Edna's rejection, at the novel's end, of all dress and thus all possible female social identities illustrates her inability to reconcile the contradictions elemental to a hybrid construction of womanhood. Edna's limitations, however, are secondary to my point. Kate Chopin clearly recognized the necessity of women's looking beyond dominant, middle-class figurations of womanhood for models of liberated practice. By creating characters that merged the dress and supposed behaviour from a variety of sites, she was able to forward alternative female identities. Her use of stereotyped social class, racial, and lesbian models of female sexuality most certainly encumbers readers' unconditional praise of Chopin's use of hybridization as a means of representing an alternative female subject, and any interpretation must come to grips with the way nineteenth-century "low-others" are integral to the options that Chopin offers in The Awakening. Yet the writer's awareness that social change for women must entail innovative forms that pull from a variety of social contexts is noteworthy. Rather than simply restating commonly accepted forms, Chopin combined in new ways social forms already present within the culture.

In 1896, a writer for Godey's Magazine predicted a revolution in dress, prophesizing a future when women would "wear the garments once considered as the prerogative of our husbands and brothers." She asked with disdain if the woman of the future would be "a hybrid sort of creature" who with her raiment would suggest "both sexes" (Montaigu 435). For Montaigu and for the public at large, dress at the turn into the twentieth century revealed more than mere fashion statements. These contemporaries of Kate Chopin could read with ease subtle cues intoned with gender connotations, and they were adept at scrutinizing each others' dress for signs of taste, character, and respectability. Not surprisingly, modern readers lack specific knowledge about sartorial choices of the period and are thus left to read clothing imagery as simple detail or as satisfying bits of local colour. Yet, when seemingly transparent details of dress are placed solidly within the discursive field of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America, the socially significant meanings that contemporaneous readers took for granted emerge. As this reading of Chopin's novel demonstrates, an interdisciplinary approach that melds literary study, fashion history and theory, and social history can open late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century texts by recovering meanings lost as fashions faded. Without a doubt, Kate Chopin represented the changing silhouette of American womanhood.

Works Cited

Babcock, Barbara. The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1978.

Banner, Lois W. American Beauty. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Barwick, Sandra. A Century of Style. Boston: George Allen and Unwin, 1984.

Birnbaum, Michele A. "'Alien Hands': Kate Chopin and the Colonization of Race." American Literature 66 (1994): 301-23.

Bradfield, Nancy. Costume in Detail: Women's Dress, 1730-1930. Boston: Plays, 1968.

Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: B.T. Batsford, 1992.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening: A Complete Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Ed. Nancy Walker. Boston: Bedford, 1993.

Collins, Robert. "The Dismantling of Edna Pontellier: Garment Imagery in Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Southern Studies 23 (1984): 176-90.

Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. London: Faber and Faber, 1937.

Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Ecob, Helen Gilbert. The Well-Dressed Woman: A Study in the Practical Application To Dress of the Laws of Health, Art and Morals. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1892.

Ewen, Stuart. All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York: Basic, 1988.

Ewen, Stuart, and Elizabeth Ewen. Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.

Finkelstein, Joanne. The Fashioned Self. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1991.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. 1898. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

Giorcelli, Christina. "Edna's Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging." New Essays on The Awakening. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1988. 109-40.

Gordon, Linda. Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. New York: Grossman, 1976.

Hall, Lee. Common Threads: A Parade of American Clothing. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.

Haweis, Mary Eliza Joy. The Art of Dress. London: Chatto and Windus, 1979.

Hollander, Anne. Seeing through Clothes. New York: Avon, 1980.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology. Vol. I. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981.

"Just between Ourselves, Girls." The Jewish Daily News. 14 December 1902: English page.

Kasson, John F. Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990.

Kellogg, J. H. The Evils of Fashionable Dress. Battle Creek, MI: The Office of the Health Reformer, 1876.

King, E. M. Untitled essay. Symposium on Women's Dress. Part 2. The Arena 35 (October 1892): 629-30.

Leach, William. True Love and Perfect Union: The Feminist Reform of Sex and Society. New York: Basic, 1880.

"Long Cloaks for Early Autumn." Harper's Bazar 7 July 1900: 616-17.

MacCurdy, Carol A. "The Awakening: Chopin's Metaphorical Use of Clothes." Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association (1985): 58-66.

McNall, Sally Allen. "Immigrant Backgrounds to My Antonia: A Curious Social Situation in Black Hawk." Approaches to Teaching Cather's My Antonia. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. New York: MLA, 1989. 22-30.

Melendy, Mary Ries. Perfect Womanhood for Maidens-Wives-Mothers. N.p.: Boland, 1903.

Montaigu, Countess Annie de. "Fashion, Fact, and Fancy." Godey's Magazine (April 1896): 435-50.

Perrot, Philippe. Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. Trans. Richard Bienvenu. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994.

Quigley, Dorothy. What Dress Makes of Us. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1897.

Rigel, Robert E. "Women's Clothes and Women's Rights." American Quarterly 15 (1963): 396-97.

Rose, Anita. "Reconfiguring the 'Other' in Late Nineteenth-Century British Utopian Literature." Diss. U of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1996.

Seidel, Kathryn Lee. "Art is an Unnatural Act: Mademoiselle Reisz in The Awakening." Mississippi Quarterly 46 (1993): 199-214.

Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995.

Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.

Shaw, Pat. "Putting Audience in Its Place: Psychosexuality and Perspective in The Awakening." American Literary Realism 23.1 (fall 1990): 61-69.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1986.

Stange, Margit. "Personal Property: Exchange Value and the Female Self in The Awakening." The Awakening: A Complete Authoritative Text with Biographical and HistoricalContexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Ed. Nancy Walker. Boston: Bedford, 1993. 201-17.

Stone, Carole. "The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Birth and Creativity." Women's Studies 13 (1986): 23-32.

"A Symposium on Women's Dress." Part 1. The Arena 34 (September 1892): 488-507.

——. Part 2. The Arena 35 (October 1892): 621-34.

"Two New Yachting Gowns." Harper's Bazar 28 July 1900: 814-15.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. 1899. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1912.

Walker, Alexander. Intermarriage; or How and Why Beauty, Health and Intellect Result from Certain Marriages and Deformity, Disease and Insanity from Others. Birmingham: Edward Baker, 1897.

Wershoven, C. J. "The Awakening and The House of Mirth: Studies in Arrested Development." American Literary Realism 19.3 (1986/87): 27-41.

Wolkenfeld, Suzanne. "Edna's Suicide: The Problem of the One and the Many." The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Margaret Culley. New York: Norton, 1976. 218-24.

The Woman's Book: Dealing Practically with the Modern Conditions of Home-Life, Self-Support, Education, Opportunities, and Every-Day Problems. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1894.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726


Green, Suzanne Disheroon, and David J. Caudle. Kate Chopin: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Works. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999, 274 p.

Provides a comprehensive survey of criticism on Chopin published between 1976 and 1998, including annotated entries for books, essays, dissertations, biographical studies, and bibliographical works.

Seyersted, Per and Emily Toth. "Bibliography of Kate Chopin's Writings" and "Writings on Kate Chopin." In A Kate Chopin Miscellany, pp. 203-11; 212-61. Natchitoches, La.: Northwestern State University Press, 1979.

Contains a detailed bibliography of Chopin's writings and of critical study of Chopin's works.


Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990, 528 p.

Questions long-held views on Chopin's life and writing; includes appendices, photographs, and a select bibliography.


Allen, Priscilla. "Old Critics and New: The Treatment of Chopin's The Awakening. "In The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards, pp. 224-38. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.

Examines the critical reception over time given to The Awakening.

Beer, Janet. "Sister Carrie and The Awakening: The Clothed, the Unclothed, and the Woman Undone." In Soft Canons: American Women Writers and the Masculine Tradition, edited by Karen L. Kilcup, pp. 167-83. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Compares the heroines of Chopin's The Awakening and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.

Burns, Karin Garlepp. "The Paradox of Objectivity in the Realist Fiction of Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin." Journal of Narrative Theory 29, no. 1 (winter 1999): 27-61.

Analyzes the use of objectivity and its feminist implications in Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country and Chopin's The Awakening.

Crosland, Andrew. "Kate Chopin's 'Lilacs' and the Myth of Persephone." ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 14, no. 1 (winter 2001): 31-4.

Provides a concise analysis of Chopin's short story "Lilacs," paying particular attention to its mythological allusions.

Ewell, Barbara C. "Unlinking Race and Gender: The Awakening as a Southern Novel." The Southern Quarterly 37, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1999): 30-7.

Examines how The Awakening was shaped by the culture and history of the late-nineteenth-century South and compares Chopin's commentary on gender to her understanding of racial inequalities.

Koloski, Bernard. Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996, 165 p.

Surveys Chopin's short stories and reprints reviews and essays on Chopin's life and work as a short story writer.

Petry, Alice Hall, ed. Critical Essays on Kate Chopin. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996, 257 p.

Reprints both early and modern reviews and essays devoted to Chopin's works.

Rich, Charlotte. "Reconsidering The Awakening: The Literary Sisterhood of Kate Chopin and George Egerton." The Southern Quarterly 41, no. 3 (spring 2003): 121-36.

Discusses the influence of George Egerton's writings on The Awakening, stressing the similarities between Chopin's novel and Egerton's Keynotes.

Rankin, Daniel S. Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932, 339 p.

Provides critical discussion of Chopin's short stories and details about her life in relation to her work.

Schweitzer, Ivy. "Maternal Discourse and the Romance of Self-Possession in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. "In Gendered Agents: Women and Institutional Knowledge, edited by Silvestra Mariniello and Paul Bové, pp. 161-91. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

Contrasts the protagonists of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Chopin's The Awakening, particularly noting that Edna Pontellier experiences motherhood while Hester Prynne does not.

Simons, Karen. "Kate Chopin on the Nature of Things." The Mississippi Quarterly 51, no. 2 (spring 1998): 243-52.

Highlights the influence of the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius on The Awakening.

Wade, Carl. "Conformity, Resistance, and the Search for Selfhood in Kate Chopin's The Awakening." The Southern Quarterly 37, no. 2 (winter 1999): 92-104.

Departs from the typical regionalist and feminist readings of The Awakening to explore the novel's place in the tradition of realist fiction.


Additional coverage of Chopin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 33; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 11, 15; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography 1865-1917; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 78; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 3; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 17; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 8, 68; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 127; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.


Chopin, Kate (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)