illustrated portrait of American author Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

Start Free Trial

Emily Toth (essay date fall-winter 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4330

SOURCE: Toth, Emily. “Kate Chopin's The Awakening as Feminist Criticism.” Southern Studies 2, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1991): 231-41.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1976, Toth argues that The Awakening belongs to the didactic feminist tradition of women's literature.]

The title of this essay is bound to annoy some readers. The Awakening's not about “Women's Lib,” they may argue. It's a skillfully written novel, not a tract. It's a work of art, not a polemic. Or—as some critics have claimed—it's not really about women at all, but about the universal, existential human condition, loneliness and alienation.1

But Edna Pontellier is a woman, and what happens to her would not have happened to a man. The Awakening is a story of what happens when a woman does not accept her place in the home. The novel moves us because it illustrates the need for women's psychological, physical, social, and sexual emancipation—the goals of feminists in the twentieth century as well as the nineteenth. In its picture of the particular limitations placed upon women, the novel belongs to the tradition of feminist criticism a century ago, a tradition which embraces both fiction and social commentary. It is a tradition which literary historians still generally ignore.

What I call feminist criticism, or the criticism of women's limited roles, is not new to the nineteenth century. In the fourteenth century, Christine de Pisan wrote Le Duc des Vrais Amants to attack the double standard in love and sex, as embodied in the system of courtly love. In the seventeenth century Anne Bradstreet, the first American poet, complained in the Prologue to the Tenth Muse that her contemporaries failed to take her seriously because of her sex. Nor were other women poets, unknown today, silent about prejudices against them and women in general.2

A more systematic criticism of women's role in society begins in 1791, the year Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She argued that women's weaknesses stem from deprivation: lack of experience and education, repression of individual talents. Wollstonecraft's work inaugurated more than a century of ferment over what was termed “the Woman Question.”

Countless other critical works followed, especially in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Some of the more influential include Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century (American, 1844), John Stuart Mill's On the Subjection of Women (English, 1869), August Bebel's Die Frau und der Sozialismus (German, 1883), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics (American, 1898).

All these feminist critiques are compendia, covering the situation of women in the physical, psychological, sociological, and economic spheres. All support greater independence for women. Wollstonecraft and Fuller are the most idealistic and utopian; Mill is a liberal who stops short of such radical changes as easy divorce and the entry of large numbers of women into “male” professions. Bebel and Gilman are materialists, socialists who see change in the “sexuo-economic relation” (Gilman's phrase) as essential to any other changes on women's condition. Only Bebel gives more than cursory attention to poor and working-class women. Yet the similarities among these critics are far more evident than their differences.

What unites these books is a concern for women's escape from confinement, in all spheres of her life. And escape from confinement is the overriding theme of The Awakening, a book which demonstrates Kate Chopin's close connections with the ideas of feminist social critics. While there is no proof that she read feminist social commentaries, she did read wisely, in several languages. Moreover, the ideas expressed by feminist critics were part of the cultural...

(This entire section contains 4330 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

milieu of her day, part of the Woman Question. Even if she had not embraced feminist ideas, she could not be untouched by them.

In The Awakening, Kate Chopin transforms the insights of feminist critics into fiction. Her translation involves a movement from the abstract to the concrete. Instead of an idea, she presents a character; instead of a generalization, she makes a case study. In a number of ways, Edna Pontellier is the embodiment of nineteenth-century feminist criticism. In The Awakening, Kate Chopin uses directly the ideas of Gilman, Mill, and Bebel, and makes of The Awakening both a synthesis and crowning achievement of feminist consciousness at the turn of the century.

Edna Pontellier of The Awakening is twenty-eight years old and married to a New Orleans businessman twelve years her senior. During a summer at Grand Isle, she has a sensuous awakening. The sea, sand, and sky provide a seductive background; the Creoles, especially the mother-woman Adèle Ratignolle, encourage her to overcome her reserved Kentucky Presbyterian ways. Edna begins to examine her place in the universe.

She learns to swim, and she becomes attracted to Robert Lebrun, a young man (26) who flirts with her in the Creole fashion. She becomes more and more discontented with her role as wife and mother of two young sons. Sensing that their growing psychological intimacy is dangerous, Robert leaves immediately for Mexico, ostensibly on business. Soon afterwards, the Pontelliers return to New Orleans for the winter.

Edna continues to question her purpose in life. She becomes friendly with the disagreeable pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz, who is close to Robert and shares his letters with Edna. She begins to paint, and drops her social obligations. While her husband is away on a business trip, she moves out of his house into a small home of her own. And her awakened sensuality leads her to begin an affair with a roue, Alćee Arobin. She feels no shame, no remorse: only a greater intensity of passionate desire than she had ever felt before.

Robert returns from Mexico. Although he tries to avoid seeing Edna, they meet twice by chance. He confesses his love for her, but seems shocked at her independent behavior. Her sensual responsiveness seems to surprise him: she touches and kisses him before he makes any move toward her. Her announcement that she is not her husband's property, but gives herself as she chooses, seems to frighten Robert. Then Edna is suddenly called away to assist Adèle Ratignolle, who is about to give birth to her fourth child. The conventional word used for giving birth has a particular irony: it is Adèle's “confinement.”

When Edna returns, after witnessing a scene of “torture” that caused in her an inward revolt against woman's lot, she finds only a parting note from Robert: “Good-by—because I love you.”3 Edna does not sleep that night. Confronting her destiny, she refuses to sacrifice her “self.” She realizes that Arobin and Robert are both meaningless to her, and the children (who are supposed to give significance to a woman's life) are antagonists she must elude, to avoid “the soul's slavery” (999).

She returns to Grand Isle, the site of her mental and physical awakening. Shedding all her clothes on the beach, she swims until her strength is gone and death overtakes her.

Kate Chopin's critics found the novel immoral and condemned the book and its author, primarily for her expression of female sexuality. Very hurt by the book's reception, Chopin wrote only a few more stories before her early death in 1904, at the age of 53. Apart from the sexual awakening, however, she was not expressing uncommon thoughts, for the theme of confinement was treated thoroughly by feminist critics.

Confinement is both a process and a state, and it begins very early in a girl's life. Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes the process in Women and Economics.

Each woman born … has had to live over again in her own person the same process of restriction, repression, denial; the smothering ‘no’ which crushed down all human desires to create, to discover, to learn, to express, to advance. Each woman has had, on the other hand, the same single avenue of expression and attainment; the same one way in which alone she might do what she could, get what she might. All other doors were shut, and this one always open; and the whole pressure of advancing humanity was upon her.”4

Writing a year or two before The Awakening, Gilman describes through a general social commentary the process of confinement Edna underwent as a child. The only visual image we have of Edna's childhood is a description she gives Adèle Ratignolle of

… a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water.


In Edna's description of herself as a young girl, the child is active, in control of her body. She strikes out at her environment; it does not mold her. She is outdoors, not confined in the home. The analogy to the ocean and swimming suggests no restrictions—and anticipates Edna's emancipation and death.

Where was Edna going then? Adèle asks. Edna does not recall, and adds, “My sun-bonnet obstructed the view.” (896) It should be noted that bonnets, parasols and gloves are very much a part of a lady's apparel in The Awakening, for fair skin is part of the bourgeois ideal of beauty. These accessories protect her from the sun, but also insulate her from a life of the senses. Edna's freeing herself from her role is paralleled in clothing. Our first view of her is a view of an advancing parasol, seen by her husband. As she reconsiders her life, she finds herself “daily casting aside the fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (939). At the end of the novel Edna has cast aside all confinements, all garments, and stands naked at the sea. During her final swim she recalls “the blue-grass meadow that she traversed when a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end.” (1000).

In Edna's answer to Adèle, the sunbonnet may be read as a sign that Edna was undergoing the process of confinement required for a young girl. The bonnet restricts her ability to discover, to advance. Both literally and symbolically, she cannot see where she is going.

She tells Adèle that “I could see only the stretch of green before me, and I felt as if I must walk on forever, without coming to the end of it. I don't remember whether I was frightened or pleased” (896). She confides to Adèle that “sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided” (897). Edna seems to prefer the freedom of the child, before the process of confinement begins in earnest, before all doors but one are closed. Yet she recognizes that one may be “frightened” by freedom.

Gilman's “same single avenue”—a clearly-defined, restricted space—contrasts sharply with Edna's “stretch of green,” or unlimited territory. Both are metaphors for a condition in life: a state of confinement or a freedom to choose.

In the past, Edna soon learned that “All other doors were shut” (in Gilman's words) except the door to “the same single avenue of expression and attainment.” As an adolescent, Edna was infatuated with a cavalry officer, with the fiance' of another young woman, and with a great tragedian. All of these were hopeless from the start; yet they reveal that by her adolescent years Edna could no longer see her fate as an unlimited meadow. Instead, her future would be embodied in a man. Her only choice, her only avenue, would be her choice of that man.

Edna learned as a young woman to say to herself what Gilman calls “the smothering ‘no.’” Society (or Gilman's “pressure of advancing humanity”) begins the process of conditioning, but then each woman lives “over again in her own person” her confinement. Edna keeps to herself her inward disturbances, and expects to lead the dual life, “that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (893). She completes for herself the process of “restriction, repression, denial” begun by society: giving up her dreams, she accepts the “single avenue.”

When she marries Léonce Pontellier, she does not love him, but “his absolute devotion flattered her” (898). Yet her marriage is a form of rebellion, a last attempt at evading the “smothering ‘no’”—for her father and her sister Margaret, her surrogate mother, feel “violent opposition” to her marriage with a Catholic (898). Edna's choice seems to be an attempt to widen her avenue.

After her wedding, however, Edna expects to be a dignified matron, “closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams” (898). “Portals” is simply a more romantic term to show that, as Gilman states, “All other doors were shut, and this one always open.” The door as an image of enclosure is conventional, virtually a dead metaphor; but it is noteworthy that it appears in both Gilman and Chopin to allude to the same critical choice in a young woman's life.

Edna's illusions do not die. They merely go underground, to surface again with her attraction to another man, Robert. In modern terminology, Edna has not been completely conditioned to the female role. In Kate Chopin's imagery, Edna prefers the ocean of green grass.

Gilman's picture of the process of confinement is the most telling among nineteenth-century feminist critics. But John Stuart Mill gives the best portrayal of the state of confinement experienced by the bourgeois woman, especially the wife.5 Several key passages in On the Subjection of Women anticipate The Awakening. Mill argues, as does Chopin, that women need to free their bodies from physical limitations and to liberate their energies from confinement to domestic duties.

Mill is aware of the relationship between mind and body, and between social customs and behavior. He answers the complaint that women are too changeable and uncertain to be suited for anything but domestic life by arguing that

Much of all this is the mere overflow of nervous energy run to waste, and would cease when the energy was directed to a definite end. Much is also the result of conscious or unconscious cultivation; as we see by the almost total disappearance of ‘hysteria’ and fainting-fits, since they have gone out of fashion. Moreover, when people are brought up, like many women of higher classes … a kind of hot-house plants, shielded from the wholesome vicissitudes of air and temperature, and untrained in any of the occupations and exercises which give stimulus and development to the circulatory and muscular system … it is no wonder if those of them who do not die of consumption, grow up … without stamina to support any task, physical or mental, requiring continuity of effort. But women brought up to work for their livelihood show none of these morbid characteristics. … Women who in their early years have shared in the healthy physical education and bodily freedom of their brothers, and who obtain a sufficiency of pure air and exercise in after-life, very rarely have any excessive susceptibility of nerves which can disqualify them for active pursuits.6

Mill argues, then, that physical exercise is essential to mental well-being; that work cures nervous susceptibility and inability to concentrate; that much of women's weakness is traceable to customs of the day. All three of these points are illustrated in The Awakening, through the three main female characters: Edna, Mademoiselle Reisz, and Madame Ratignolle.

Throughout much of the novel, Edna is characterized by a kind of lassitude, a torpor: she spends an inordinate amount of time sleeping or eating7; she abandons herself, as she tells Adèle, as if she were still the child in the unlimited meadow. All summer she has tried and failed to learn to swim. But one night in the moonlight she succeeds. She gains an outlet for her energies.

“She was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who all of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone. … She could have shouted for joy. …

“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 swims out toward the sea, and “As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself” (908).

The language is the antithesis of confinement: “powers,” “control,” “daring,” “reckless,” “overestimating,” “unlimited.” As she exults in pushing her body to its limits, Edna senses a liberation of both body and soul. This is her first awakening in the book, the first answer to her questions about her place in the universe.8 The freedom of her body enlarges her vision of herself.

The physical exercise and the life outdoors awaken her sensuality: her pleasure in her own body is one of the forces impelling her toward the affair with Alćee Arobin. She no longer accepts woman's “crushing ‘no’”; instead she seeks an intensity of experience. Her growing desire for physical independence leads her to move from her husband's house, which stands for a confinement of her body. Her learning to swim is indeed like a baby's first step. In the last scene in the novel, she is naked and feels “like some new-born creature” (1000).

Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle are counterparts to Edna, representing two different directions in which the newly-awakened Edna might use her energies. Mademoiselle Reisz has overcome the limitations of the female role through meaningful work, illustrating Mill's point that directing one's energies to a definite end cures any “nervous susceptibilities.” She is an unpleasant and assertive little woman, no longer young, lacking any feminine tentativeness of manner. Her independent status gives her strength and the right to her eccentricities: although she is both ugly and outspoken, her splendid piano-playing entrances Edna. Later Mademoiselle Reisz talks with Edna abut the need for “the soul that dares and defies” (946). Edna thinks about her own painting as a possible way of defining herself through work—but she lacks the commitment to be that courageous soul.

Madame Ratignolle illustrates Mill's third point, that much of women's weakness is traceable to the customs of the day. Adèle is the complete “mother-woman,” the antithesis of Mademoiselle Reisz in her joyful absorption in others: her husband, her three young children. Voluptuously beautiful, golden-blonde, she is a madonna fluttering with protective wings about her children. She is constantly concerned with her “condition,” her latest pregnancy. She uses is as an occasion to be a coquette.

Although she is in robust health, she prefers to lean on a man's arm when she walks. She lets everyone know that the doctor forbade her “to lift so much as a pin!” (892). In one scene she complains of faintness. Edna bathes her face with cologne; Robert fans her; and the narrator reports that “The spell was soon over, and Mrs. Pontellier could not help wondering if there were not a little imagination responsible for its origin, for the rose tint had never faded from her friend's face” (892).

Edna's thoughts are traitorous, but they are also John Stuart Mill's. Mary Wollstonecraft, too, was aware of the effect that fashions in female behavior had on women's apparent health. She writes in A Vindication of the Rights of Women that a wife might even “condescend to use and feign a sickly delicacy in order to secure her husband's affection.”9

Mill and Chopin portray fainting as a feminine wile in a more sympathetic way. To Mill, it is a result of society's definition of women as weak creatures; to Chopin, it is the manifestation of Adèle's good-natured and total acceptance of what is expected from women. In both writers, women's weakness is a result of conformity; women's strength, a result of struggle against confinement. Madame Ratignolle absorbs the female role; Mademoiselle Reisz transcends it; Edna is trapped between the extremes incarnated in her two friends.

Edna ultimately believes herself incapable of escaping woman's state of confinement. Escaping through a man would simply be choosing the same avenue: “Today it is Arobin, tomorrow it will be some one else” (999). Neither the liberation of the soul through painting nor the liberation of the body through sensuality is enough: she lacks that “continuity of effort” which Mill finds lacking in most “women of the higher classes.” Her vagueness, her dreamy purposelessness illustrate his description of bourgeois woman's untrained, hot-house existence. Edna Pontellier is the concrete embodiment of Mill's ideas.

These examples from Gilman and Mill should suggest some connections that can be drawn between the feminist analysis in nineteenth-century social criticism and that found in fiction of the same era. Other significant parallels may be seen between The Awakening and works of feminist critics.

For instance, Mill's description of the married woman who is expected to “have her time and faculties always at the disposal of everybody,” who “must always be at the beck and call of somebody, generally everybody” (211) anticipates Léonce Pontellier's demands for attention and the children's demands for bon-bons.

There is also a connection with Gilman's criticism of men and women who are “over-sexed”: in her definition, too involved in the specialized tasks allotted to their gender. Both “mother-women,” like Adèle Ratignolle, and businessmen immersed in their work, like Léonce Pontellier, are illustrations for her criticism.

Gilman was strongly opposed to gratification of sensual appetites, but not all feminist critics agreed with her. Some of the writers even excuse adultery in women, in a somewhat limited fashion. Mary Wollstonecraft, for instance, feels that given women's education toward pleasing men, women no longer young nor beautiful may find themselves with an unsatisfied need for “gallantry” and “conquests”: hence, a desire for other men's approval and attention when those of their husbands are lacking (60-61, 137). But her discussion really centers around the need for male approval, not the need for sexual pleasure or variety.

Among the major feminist critics, only August Bebel, in Die Frau und der Sozialismus, provides an unambiguous and positive view of female adultery. He argues that a sexually-unfulfilled spouse has the right to seek satisfaction outside marriage, that nature should not be thwarted, and that sexual abstinence in women may lead not only to hysteria, but to insanity. He makes no strong distinctions between love and lust.10 Nor does Edna Pontellier, although respectable women were supposed to embrace the one and shun the other. Bebel is hardly typical of even the most radical critics in the Victorian era, but his ideas suggest that Kate Chopin was not utterly alone in her thinking.

The connections between nineteenth-century feminist critics and such important writers of fiction as Kate Chopin, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot have barely been touched. Literary criticism has too often confined itself to texts defined strictly as “literary,” excluding social criticism from consideration. Students of social history have too often ignored fictional materials.

A work like The Awakening functions not only as a story, but also a critique. When we can see more clearly its place in nineteenth-century social criticism, we can understand more easily its impact on its original readers and its meaning for us as part of our widening knowledge of women's past. Because it expands our field of vision, The Awakening is the best kind of feminist criticism.


  1. The argument that The Awakening is universal rather than female in application is almost a convention in Chopin criticism. Merrill Maguire Skaggs argues, for instance, that the novel is an expose' neither of the “new woman” nor of the Creoles, “but rather of any society in which the rights of one individual are automatically less than those of another.” See The Folk of Southern Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972), p. 188. For similar arguments, see also John R. May, “Local Color in The Awakening,Southern Review 6 (Autumn 1970), pp. 1031-40; Michael D. Reed, “Social Convention and Passional Nature in Kate Chopin's The Awakening,” paper given at the Modern Language Association convention, 1974.

  2. Christine de Pisan, The Book of the Duke of True Lovers, trans. Alice Kemp-Welch (London, 1908); Anne Bradstreet, “The Prologue” in The Women Poets in English: An Anthology, ed. Ann Stanford (New York, 1972): 46-47. The Women Poets in English contains the works of numerous forgotten feminist critics, including Rachel Speght, Katherine Philips, Joan Philips, and Mary Lee, Lady Chudleigh.

  3. Kate Chopin, The Awakening in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge, 1969): 995, 997. Further references to this edition will be cited by page number in the text.

  4. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics (New York, 1966): 70-71.

  5. Although Mill wrote On the Subjection of Women, he explains in his autobiography that it was “enriched” by his daughter's ideas, and that “all that is most striking and profound belongs to my wife,” Harriet Taylor Mill. Bebel also gives credit to his wife for helping him with his work. The women critics (Wollstonecraft, Gilman, Fuller) give no particular credit to men in their lives, presumably because they have lived what they are writing about.

    On the Mills, see Alice Rossi, “Sentiment and Intellect” in Essays on Sex Equality by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill (Chicago, 1970), esp. p. 57. For Bebel's debt to his wife, see his Aus Meinem Leben (Stuttgart, 1910): 180.

  6. On the Subjection of Women, in Rossi, 194. Other references to this edition will be cited by page number in the text.

  7. Edna's sleeping and eating are analyzed in two recent articles. See Ruth Sullivan and Stewart Smith, “Narrative Stance in Kate Chopin's The Awakening,Studies in American Fiction (September 1973): 62-75 and Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin's The Awakening,American Quarterly 25 (October 1973): 499-71.

  8. Learning to swim is not, however, classified as an awakening in Otis B. Wheeler's “The Five Awakenings of Edna Pontellier,” Southern Review 11 (January 1975): 118-128. Wheeler is more interested in awakenings which involve directly Edna's rejection of female social roles.

  9. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (New York, 1967): 62. Other references to this edition will be cited by page number in the text.

  10. August Bebel, Die Frau und der Sozialismus (Berlin, 1946): 132, 156, 158, 162.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1242

Kate Chopin 1851-1904

(Full name Katherine O'Flaherty Chopin) American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

A popular local colorist during her lifetime, Chopin is best known today for her psychological novel The Awakening, (1899) which depicts a woman's search for spiritual and sexual freedom in the repressive society of late-nineteenth-century America. When The Awakening appeared, critical and public indignation over the novel's frank treatment of guiltless adultery caused Chopin to abandon her literary career, and the novel itself was forgotten for several decades. Since the 1950s, however, serious critical attention has focused on the pioneering psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and artistic integrity of the work.

Biographical Information

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1851, Chopin was the daughter of a prominent businessman and his wife. Her father died when Chopin was four years old, and her childhood was profoundly influenced by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, women descended from French Creole pioneers. Chopin also spent time with her family's Creole and mulatto slaves, whose dialects she mastered, and she read the works of Walter Scott, Edmund Spenser, and other writers who were not represented among the encyclopedias and religious books in the family library. Despite her bookish nature, Chopin was an undistinguished student at the convent school she attended. She graduated at age 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. Chopin had also begun to publish 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 acknowledgment 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 ousted from local literary groups. Demoralized, she wrote little during the rest of her life. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1904.

Major Works

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. Although they sometimes have a slick quality, 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.

The Awakening is considered Chopin's best work as well as a remarkable novel to have been written during the morally uncompromising era 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, a lonely and unattractive pianist. The central symbol of the novel, the sea, also provides the framework for the main action. As a symbol, the sea embodies multiple pairs of polarities, the most prominent being that it is the site of both Edna Pontellier's awakening and of her suicide at the end of the narrative.

Critical Reception

After the initial furor over The Awakening had passed, the novel 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 roles 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. George Arms, for instance, has contended that Chopin was a happily married woman and devoted mother whose emotional life bore no resemblance to that of Edna Pontellier, while Chopin's principal biographer, 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 that Edna Pontellier's first priority should have been to her family and not to herself. Like Allen, Seyersted brings a feminist interpretation to The Awakening and points out that the increasing 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.

Once considered a minor author of local-color fiction, Chopin is today recognized for her examination of sexuality, individual freedom, and the consequences of one's actions—themes and concerns important to many later American writers. While her psychological examinations of female protagonists have made The Awakening and several of Chopin's stories seminal works in the development of feminist literature, her writings also provide a broad examination of societies that stifle self-expression, illustrating, as Peggy Skaggs has observed, that “having a secure place … is not enough in life; that one's sexual nature is a powerful part of the self, whether feminine or masculine.”

Joyce Dyer (essay date winter 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2442

SOURCE: Dyer, Joyce. “Symbolic Setting in Kate Chopin's ‘A Shameful Affair.’” Southern Studies 20, no. 4 (winter 1981): 447-52.

[In the following essay, Dyer discusses the ways in which Chopin's use of setting in “A Shameful Affair” prefigures the symbolism of The Awakening.]

“A Shameful Affair,” written on June 5th and 9th of 1891, represents an exciting thematic prelude to The Awakening. In it Mildred Orme, for a moment in her life at least, trades volumes of Ibsen and Browning for the broad, brawny shoulders of Fred Evelyn, a farmhand. She suffers more from guilt than Edna Pontellier seems to. Nevertheless, she makes discoveries about her physical nature that are as overwhelming, forceful, and important as Edna's. She awakens eight years before Chopin's best-known heroine. She prepares the way.

“A Shameful Affair” anticipates The Awakening's technique as well as theme. The story explores Mildred's desires symbolically. The setting—the lush Kraummer farm on the Iron Mountain—is as important to our understanding of Mildred Orme's awakening as the sea, the night, and the Grand Isle oaks are to our understanding of Edna Pontellier. The Kraummer farm, where Mildred Orme spends a summer, is indeed “no such farm as one reads about in humorous fiction.”1 Images of fertility—undulating wheat fields and streams of clear water full of fish—continually remind us of the force and insistency of Mildred's passion. In each of the story's three sections, Chopin juxtaposes or integrates lush descriptions of nature with scenes in which Mildred Orme discovers what James E. Rocks calls “the violent physical and mental effects of repressed desire.”2 “A Shameful Affair,” then, introduces us to a technique—the extensive and elaborate use of symbolic setting to describe the unconscious—that permits subtle exploration of Mildred's desires and later helps to make The Awakening one of the unique and vital novels of the nineteenth century.

Mildred Orme, as Chopin's mildly ironic attitude toward her suggests, knows far less about herself than she thinks she does. In the story's first sentence, the reader finds this twenty-year-old bronze-haired beauty sitting in the “snuggest” corner of the Kraummer's big front porch, content. Mildred Orme has chosen not to accompany the rest of her family to Narragansett, hoping to find time in this safe and restful (“snug”) retreat to pursue “exalted lines of thought” (p. 133). She lounges in her “agreeable corner” (p. 131) reading Ibsen and Browning. Mildred believes that her reading and twenty years of experience have given her considerable wisdom. Already she has refused six offers of marriage and formed her philosophy: life is a tedious affair. Certain of her superior nature and intellect, Mildred views the farmhands as members of a different species: intellectually inferior, coarsely mannered, gracelessly inarticulate.

Mildred soon begins to recognize that she still has much to learn about her biology. Chopin's description of the Kraummer farm prepares us for this recognition. Early in section i, Chopin introduces symbols of natural growth and fertility, symbols that will help us understand the force that drives Mildred toward Fred Evelyn. Chopin's juxtaposition of the images with Mildred's own first sensations of desire suggests that the reproductive urge drives all life. In the second paragraph of the first section, Chopin writes:

Here were swelling acres where the undulating wheat gleamed in the sun like a golden sea. For silver there was the Meramec—or, better, it was pure crystal, for here and there one might look clean through it down to where the pebbles lay like green and yellow gems. Along the river's edge trees were growing to the very water, and in it, sweeping it when they were willow.

(p. 131)

The wheat is ripe. Here, observes Chopin, were “swelling acres.” The grain is so thick that when it waves, the fields look sea-like. Trees are so abundant that they grow to the very edge of the water and beyond. Overgrown branches of willows scrape the surface of the river. The wheat is ready for harvest. The willows continue to grow and thrive, nourished plentifully by the Meramec's water.

Two paragraphs after this description, Mildred's previous contentment is violently disturbed by the presence of Fred Evelyn. Mildred feels strangely uneasy after an accidental meeting with this man. Although he detests Ibsen and Tolstoi (“he doesn't read ‘in books’—says they are spectacles for the short-sighted to look at life through” [p. 135]), Mildred finds him overwhelmingly attractive. He is tanned from outdoor work, young, and strong. “He had nice blue eyes. His fair hair was dishevelled. His shoulders were broad and square and his limbs strong and clean. A not unpicturesque figure in the rough attire that bared his throat to view and gave perfect freedom to his every motion” (p. 131). She decides she will honor him with a smile, but he never looks her way. Slighted, Mildred convinces Mrs. Kraummer to ask Fred to take her to church. Fred, however, has already made plans to go fishing and refuses. Mildred fails to understand why she is vexed by being snubbed by one so far below her, “a tramp, perhaps” (pp. 132-33). Nevertheless, she cannot ignore or forget Fred. The conditions are now exactly right for Mildred's awakening: “It was summer time; she was idle; she was piqued” (p. 132).

Chopin begins section ii with another description of the Kraummers' wheat. This time Mildred (who, like the wheat, is ripening) merges with the grain. On Sunday, the day after the first encounter with Fred, Mildred walks through the bending, heavy wheat toward the river. For a moment, Mildred and the grain coalesce, forming a single image reminiscent of J. G. Frazer's Corn Goddesses—Demeter and Persephone of Greece and the Corn-Mother and Corn-Maiden of northern Europe and North America: “High above her waist reached the yellow grain. Mildred's brown eyes filled with a reflected golden light as they caught the glint of it” (p. 133). Her eyes “reflect” the force of the wheat—the “golden light” that radiates from it. She even looks like a fertility goddess: “Her straw hat had slipped disreputably to one side, over the wavy bronze brown bang that half covered her forehead. Her cheeks were ripe with color that the sun had coaxed there; so were her lips” (p. 133).

The reader watches Mildred's passion unfold through the dramatic and symbolic fishing scene that follows in the same section. Mildred's impatience with the fish symbolically indicates her sexual impatience. Fred, who, like Hemingway's Nick Adams and Jake Barnes, has apparently gone fishing because he has found that “Eden without Eve is not only possible but preferable,”3 is interrupted by Mildred as she emerges from the wheat, “holding tight to the book she had brought with her” (p. 133). Fred continues to fish after Mildred arrives, but his tireless patience with the fish annoys Mildred. She wonders how long, how many hours, he can sit still, waiting for a fish to bite his hook. Mildred wants to catch the fish to symbolically satisfy her sexual urge. Her need is urgent and immediate. She wants something to happen; she wants to change a situation that is beginning to “pall.” She convinces Fred to let her hold the pole. As we might expect, a fish immediately clings to her hook, and Mildred is “seized with excitement upon seeing the line dragged deep in the water” (p. 134). Fred, not as sexually eager as Mildred, shouts, “Wait, wait! Not yet” (p. 134), but Mildred has her way.

Ironically, Fred Evelyn is now awakened by Mildred's excitement. As he grasps her pole to prevent her from drawing the fish, he starts violently “at finding himself so close to a bronze-brown tangle that almost swept his chin—to a hot cheek only a few inches away from his shoulder, to a pair of young, dark eyes that gleamed for an instant unconscious things into his own” (p. 134). Mildred's dark eyes still reflect the glint of the wheat and gleam “unconscious things” into Fred's own eyes, secrets long buried or never known. For a moment, both Fred and Mildred give way to the impulses they share with the wheat. Fred kisses Mildred; bewildered, “she did not know if it was ten times or only once” (p. 134). Then, suddenly, they separate and run from each other. Fred Evelyn disappears down the field path. Mildred, ashamed and confused, wonders if she should tell the Kraummers about the kiss that still burns her lips. She decides, as rationally as she can, to consider the situation calmly at a later time.

Chopin begins section iii by noting how confused Mildred is by her new physical turmoil. Because her previous sanity has been disturbed, Mildred begins to wonder if she is mad. Indeed, why should a kiss—something she thought she had long ago outgrown—be so delicious? “The sweet trouble of it banished sleep from her pillow” (p. 135), notes Chopin. The phrase “sweet trouble” well represents Mildred's state. Ambiguously, the forces that upset and confuse her bring both sweetness and trouble, both pleasure and shame. The “sweet trouble” continues to bother Mildred even after she discovers that Fred Evelyn is not a poor illiterate, but a member of her own social class who enjoys spending summers doing unconventional jobs.

It is appropriate that Mildred Orme and Fred Evelyn meet a final time amidst the wheat, for the wheat has consistently informed us that physical forces have led to Mildred's confusion and awakening. “In the gathering twilight she walked again through the wheat that was heavy and fragrant with dew” (p. 135), notes Chopin. Although Mildred never senses that the heavy, fragrant grain throbs with the same forces that pulsate within Mildred herself, she does sense that something she cannot stop is at work inside of her. As she sees Fred Evelyn approaching, Mildred knows that she cannot run away as a small child might. She must face her emotions. As Fred begins to apologize, to call himself “the most consummate hound that walks the earth” (p. 136), she urges him to remain quiet. She wants to forget what happened on the Meramec's bank. But Mildred Orme's final words let Fred and the reader understand that although she will try to repress the incident, Mildred will no longer foolishly think of herself as a woman who cannot be touched by passion. She promises to forgive him “Some day … some day—perhaps; when I shall have forgiven myself” (p. 136). Fred is puzzled by her words. Suddenly, a “quick wave came beating into his brown throat and staining it crimson, when he guessed what it might be” (p. 136). She had wanted that kiss more than anything in her life. And she knew it.

Why did Chopin decide in 1891 to let the Southern landscape give us information about Mildred Orme's unconscious? Why did she continue to use the technique in stories throughout the 1890s such as “A Harbinger,” “Caline,” “Azélie,” “La Belle Zoraïde,” “At Chênière Caminada,” “A Respectable Woman,” “Vagabonds,” “The Storm,” and “A Vocation and a Voice”? Why did she rely on it so heavily in The Awakening? Because Chopin never discussed or tried to justify her use of symbolic settings (except indirectly, when she said that the excessive regional delight of James Whitcomb Riley, Mrs. Catherwood, and Lew Wallace for “native streams, trees, bushes and birds, the lovely country life about them” produced “too sentimental songs,” not art [“The Western Association of Writers,” p. 691]) we can only guess. Perhaps she sensed that it was artistically efficient. With it she could achieve the indirection and variety necessary to create “subtle, complex, true” portraits of men and women (“The Western Association of Writers,” p. 691).

One may hypothesize that perhaps Chopin's use of terrain symbolic of the unconscious was dictated by the censoring instinct. The 1890s, a decade that chose James Whitcomb Riley as its favorite poet and Reverend Charles M. Sheldon's In His Steps as its best-selling novel, would not tolerate an explicit discussion of the subconscious. R. W. Gilder, Century's editor and the decade's literary spokesman, for example, consistently forced Chopin to soften her realism with idealism and to “sweeten” her heroines. One might guess that Chopin may have discovered that by using symbolic settings she could explore “unacceptable” impulses in a form “acceptable” both to her publishers and to herself.

Perhaps Chopin also sensed that by using symbolic descriptions she would not alienate readers who demanded and praised local color regionalism. Readers who wanted to find verisimilitude in her fiction could find it. Many of Chopin's symbolic nature descriptions were so lovely and “realistic” that they superficially resembled the non-functional descriptions of Ruth McEnery Stuart about the splendors of Brake Island, of Alice French about the scenic autumn beauty in the Black River bottoms, and of Mary Noailles Murfree about the majesty of the Tennessee Mountains. She was careful to use native flowers, trees, and landscape. Chopin's stories DID satisfy the regional curiosity of readers of Edward King's The Great South, Charles Nordhoff's The Cotton States in the Spring and Summer of 1875, and the magazine articles of Charles Dudley Warner, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Lafcadio Hearn.

Or, perhaps Chopin chose the technique for some other reason. Maybe she recognized that the technique was one of self-effacement and protection. She could always answer her critics with the phrase, “Sex is in your mind.” On the other hand, possibly Chopin, like Hawthorne, Poe, Emerson, Whitman, and Melville, actually felt that nature was practically sentient—or, at least, closely related to the mind and soul of man. Finally, maybe the technique was far less the result of conscious decisions than the above explanations suggest. Perhaps it was simply a part of her instinctive, personal style.

For whatever reason, Chopin found early in her career a technique that served her well. In The Awakening the Meramec becomes the Gulf of Mexico, the fields of wheat become orange groves, water oaks, and acres of camomile. The symbolic power of the Grand Isle symbols increases: Edna's sea awakens both soul and body. Although the landscape in “A Shameful Affair” is neither as exotic nor as symbolically complex as the landscape in The Awakening, it is vitally important to her 1891 short story and to the development of her symbolic technique. Without the careful descriptions of the Kraummer farm, “A Shameful Affair” would be interesting, but not as subtle and artistically satisfying as it is in its present form. And The Awakening? Without such early experiments with symbolic descriptions, one wonders if Chopin's 1899 novel would have been the same.


  1. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, Per Seyersted, ed. (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1969), I: 131; hereafter cited parenthetically.

  2. “Kate Chopin's Ironic Vision,” Revue de Louisiane 1 (1972), 116.

  3. Arthur Waldhorn, A Reader's Guide to Ernest Hemingway (New York, 1972), 107.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 93

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. (novels, short stories, poetry, and essays) 1969

The Awakening, and Other Stories (novel and short stories) 1970

The Storm and Other Stories, with The Awakening (novel and short stories) 1974

The Awakening, and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin (novel and short stories) 1976

A Kate Chopin Miscellany (diaries) 1979

A Vocation and A Voice: Stories (short stories) 1991

Matter of Prejudice & Other Stories (short stories) 1992

A Pair of Silk Stockings and Other Stories (short stories) 1996

Joyce Coyne Dyer (essay date summer 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221

SOURCE: Coyne Dyer, Joyce.“A Note on Kate Chopin's ‘The White Eagle.’” Arizona Quarterly 40, no. 2 (summer 1984): 189-92.

[In the following essay, Dyer analyzes the symbolism in Chopin's little-known late story “The White Eagle.”]

Few critics discuss Chopin's fiction written after April 1899—the publication date of The Awakening—with any degree of seriousness. Kenneth Eble writes that her last stories “lack distinction.”1 Per Seyersted regrets the “tame,” uncourageous nature of the bulk of her final manuscripts.2 And Robert Arner observes, “Only a few of her final tales are worth serious discussion.”3 Certainly one aspect of Chopin's fiction that suffers in her late stories is her imagery. Unlike the metaphors in The Awakening (as well as in several excellent stories) that enhance and often expand theme and meaning, those in her final short stories most frequently function either to decorate a sentence or to provide a convenient backdrop.

In “The Wood-Choppers” (October 1901), for example, Chopin describes a storm very unlike the one in her masterful 1898 story (“The Storm”). It adds melodrama rather than psychological insight. The rain that pelts “upon the shingle roof”4 and the mud that creeps up Léontine's ankles fail to become metaphors for the young girl's unconscious, as they do in stories such as “The Storm” and “Vagabonds.” The driving rain only intensifies the pathos of Léontine's immediate predicament: since the local woodchopper has not come to cut firewood, she must carry a stout heart and cut it herself, cut it so that her poor, white-haired, “feeble-looking and much bent” (p. 675) mother might avoid a fatal chill. In the dashing rain, a rich man, Mr. Willet, conveniently appears to rescue both Léontine and her mother from their “downpour” of ill luck. And in “Polly,” a story that ends with the embarrassingly trite injunction “Polly, put the kettle on!” (Seyersted notes the irony that these were the final words Chopin gave to the public),5 banal, superfluous images decorate her prose. For instance, Chopin comments that after Polly's sisters receive new books bought for the girls by Polly herself, they “hovered over the books like bees over a clover path in June” (p. 683). Such examples, unfortunately, are far too plentiful and easy to find in Chopin's work between November 1899 and 1903.

“The White Eagle,” however, a story about a woman who develops an unusual relationship with a cast-iron bird, suggests that at least at one time after The Awakening Chopin was eager to explore the variety of symbolism that today makes The Awakening so remarkable. The white eagle that dominates Chopin's May 9, 1900, story is an image that recalls the symbolic ambiguity and density of Edna Pontellier's ocean.

The eagle is wonderfully ambiguous. In some ways it represents the past of the woman in the story, her youth and the dreams it once held. When the woman was a child, the eagle had sat on the lawn of her parents' estate and “sheltered … [her] unconscious summer dreams” (p. 671). After her parents died and her brothers and sisters parted, the girl took the white eagle and moved it to her new lodgings. It was the only remainder from her childhood that the girl had. “People,” says Chopin, “wondered at the young woman's persistence in carting him about with her when she moved from place to place” (p. 672).

But the eagle also becomes a substitute for the lover the woman never has. “No mate came to seek her out” (p. 672), we learn, except the eagle. As she grows older, “she fancie[s] the white eagle blink[s] at her from his sombre corner on the floor, an effect produced by remnants of white paint that still stuck in his deep eye sockets” (p. 672). She seldom leaves her room, preferring to spend most of her time sewing at her machine and watching the eagle. But only death brings consummation and union. Just before her final breath, the woman has a vision: “The eagle had blinked and blinked, had left his corner and come and perched upon her, pecking at her bosom” (p. 672). After she dies, a relative decides to use the bird as the woman's tombstone marker. The woman and the bird are at last physically united.

The eagle, too, seems intended to remind us of the woman's static condition. Like the bird, the woman spreads her wings but never takes flight. She was young and vital once, but she never knew how to direct her energy. She never married, she never made friends, she never enjoyed her days. Like the cast-iron eagle, she is all frozen potential. Years of bending over her sewing machine in a stuffy room cause the woman to acquire the eventual posture of the bird. The eagle, sinking deeply into the woman's grave, “dipped forward as if about to take his flight. But he never does” (p. 673). Nor does the woman.

But this brief analysis does not exhaust the symbolic implications of the white eagle. The symbol defies quick translation. For example, there are suggestions of supernatural properties in Chopin's remark, “That was the last she knew of her white eagle in this life” (p. 672). Other times, the bird seems to possess some great, mysterious knowledge we can only guess at. It has a “venerable” head and wears “an expression which, in a human being, would have passed for wisdom” (p. 671). Also, Seyersted notes that the eagle appears to be the woman's “alter-ego.”6 Indeed, there seems adequate evidence for his observation: the woman begins, uncannily, to look and behave more and more like her grotesque companion (“Her hair began to grizzle. Her skin got dry and waxlike upon her face and hands”; “she uttered a shriek in the night” [p. 672]). Peter James Petersen chooses to call the story “reminiscent of Flaubert's ‘Un coeur simple,’ in which a woman who is systematically deprived of human contact sublimates all her longings in her relationship to a parrot, which is stuffed after it dies.”7 Too, the eagle, a flesh eater, a bird of prey, might be thought of as Death's messenger, if not Death himself. His corner is “gloomy” and he waits patiently for the woman to grow old. And, one wonders, as he must about Melville's whale, why is the eagle white?

The sea in The Awakening and the strange bird in “The White Eagle” resist paraphrase. They invite speculation, encourage wholesome intellectual puzzlement, and remind the reader that very few characters and situations, in life and fiction, are as simple as they may first appear. But the images also produce some regret in Chopin devotees. They serve as evidence that if Chopin had lived longer, if she had received some slight encouragement from contemporary reviewers of her 1899 novel, she might have chosen to further develop the richly ambiguous symbol and, perhaps, to write fiction like, if not greater than, The Awakening and “The White Eagle.”


  1. Kenneth Eble, “A Forgotten Novel: Kate Chopin's The Awakening,Western Humanities Review, 10 (1956), 261.

  2. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), p. 182.

  3. Robert Arner, “Music from a Farther Room: A Study of the Fiction of Kate Chopin,” Diss. Pennsylvania State University 1970, p. 229.

  4. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), II, 674; hereafter cited parenthetically.

  5. Seyersted, p. 185.

  6. Seyersted, p. 184.

  7. Peter James Petersen, “The Fiction of Kate Chopin,” Diss. The University of New Mexico 1972, p. 263.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625


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

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


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

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


Black, Martha Fodaski. “The Quintessence of Chopinism.” In Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, edited by Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis, pp. 95-113. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Black discusses political and cultural influences on Chopin's feminism in her writing.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Kate Chopin. New York: Chelsea House, 1987, 138 p.

Reprints seminal writings on Chopin's works from early commentary to more recent critical views.

Ewell, Barbara C. “Kate Chopin and the Dream of Female Selfhood.” In Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, edited by Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis, pp. 157-65. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Ewell examines the notion of American individualism in Chopin's works.

Jones, Suzanne W. “Place, Perception and Identity in The Awakening.Southern Quarterly 25, no. 2 (winter 1987): 108-19.

Views the two locales in which The Awakening is set, New Orleans and Grand Isle, as enabling “Chopin to expose not only the confusion that arises when a woman experiences a new place, but also the way in which a social setting controls thought and determines identity.”

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 early reviews and later essays devoted to Chopin's works as well as including original essays examining The Awakening and several of Chopin's short stories.

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: Duke University Press, 1998.

Contrasts the protagonists of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter with Chopin's The Awakening based on the fact that Edna Pontellier had the experience of motherhood while Hester Prynne did not.

Wershoven, C. J. “The Awakening and The House of Mirth: Studies in Arrested Development.” American Literary Realism 19, no. 3 (spring 1987); 27-41.

Contends that Chopin's The Awakening and Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, while evidencing numerous dissimilarities, are in fact “related in patterns of conflict, grouping of characters, development of protagonists and, more subtly, in a cluster of images that reflect desperate and dangerous polarities.”

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Un-Utterable Longing: The Discourse of Feminine Sexuality in Kate Chopin's The Awakening.” In The Calvinist Roots of the Modern Era, edited by Aliki Barnstone, Michael Tomasek, and Carol J. Singley, pp. 181-97. Hanover, New Hampshire: The University Press of New England, 1997.

Considers elements of modernist and minimalist techniques in The Awakening and “the relationship of between these elements and Edna Pontellier's personal tragedy.”

Additional coverage of Chopin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement,Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 33; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 122; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 78; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors: British; 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 Story Criticism, Vol. 8; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 13; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 14; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

Lawrence Thornton (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7114

SOURCE: Thornton, Lawrence. “The Awakening: A Political Romance.” In Unbodied Hope: Narcissism and the Modern Model, pp. 63-80. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Thornton examines Edna Pontellier's growing awareness of politics in Creole society in The Awakening.]

          The food of hope
Is meditated action; robbed of this
Her sole support, she languishes and dies.

—Wordsworth, The Excursion


Anyone familiar with The Awakening knows that it echoes characters and events in Madame Bovary, but Chopin's indebtedness to Flaubert stops short of merely imitating the problems Flaubert imagined for his heroine. First of all, while Edna Pontellier and Emma Bovary are both narcissists, Edna becomes aware of political crises related to her position within Creole society that sharply distinguish her from Emma, who responds to French provincial society only as a mirror of her romantic fantasies. Secondly, Edna's existential crisis lasts much longer than Emma's short and brutal confrontation with reality. In addition to her political theme, Chopin carefully and almost leisurely explores the shocks to the romantic consciousness which were briefly glimpsed at the end of Madame Bovary.

The similarities and differences in aims become immediately apparent through a comparison of two important passages. Twelve pages into The Awakening we encounter the well-known evocation of the sea that becomes a central motif in the novel:

The voice of the sea is seductive; 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.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.1

These sentences are reminiscent of the exchange of platitudes between Léon Dupuis and Emma Bovary which moves from shared clichés about reading to Léon's avowal of great passion for sunsets and the seashore:

“Oh, I love the sea!” said Monsieur Léon.

“And doesn't it seem to you,” continued Madame Bovary, “that the mind travels more freely on this limitless expanse, of which the contemplation elevates the soul, gives ideas to the infinite, the ideal?”2

The sea symbolizes imagination in both passages, but there is a considerable difference between Emma's superficial response to received ideas, and Edna's romantic but serious exploration of her own soul. Emma's naiveté is nowhere more evident than in this confession to Léon that the sea is a catalyst to the “ideal” world of sentimental Romanticism. In The Awakening, however, the emphasis falls on the seductive, isolating effects of “inward contemplation.” Whereas Flaubert is interested in exposing the dry rot of Romanticism, Chopin is concerned with a woman whose susceptibility to Romantic codes ultimately gives way to at least a partial understanding of the lie that animates her visions. Edna's knowledge of the deliquescent nature of Romantic ideals also informs her view of personal freedom, and thus takes her story in another direction from Emma's.

That direction leads to an irresolvable conflict between Edna's vision of herself as an independent woman and the social forces of Creole Louisiana near the end of the nineteenth century. Throughout The Awakening, Chopin shows how Edna is deceived both by her private vision and by the society she discovers during the summer on Grand Isle. The hopes she begins to entertain about a new life spring from a congeries of sentimental ideals galvanized by Robert Lebrun, a “blagueur” (p. 12) who devotes himself to a different woman each summer. Edna's friend, Adele Ratignolle, sees the danger Robert poses to someone as impressionable as Edna and asks him to “let Mrs. Pontellier alone” (p. 20), which he declines to do, even after Adele tells him that “she is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously” (p. 21). The deceptiveness Adele recognizes in Robert mirrors the deceptiveness of Creole society which seems to accord women greater latitude than it is willing to grant. That women could smoke cigarettes, listen to men tell risqué stories, and read French novels soon appears as only a veneer covering a solidly conventional society that titillated itself with flourishes of libertinism.3 For, despite their apparent standing within the Creole world (a standing, it should be noted, gained solely through marriage), women are presented as an oppressed class. Edna's gradual understanding of her oppression becomes part of the conceptual framework of her overall rebellion, and so, along with my analysis of the consequences of Romantic Imagination, I want to show how Chopin shapes her materials through detailed social description and social interpretation.

Because of the social conventions that prescribe behavior in her world, Edna has nowhere to go, succumbing to the promises of Romanticism while living in a society that will not tolerate the terms she sets for her own freedom. Although she manages by sheer force of will to free herself from the oppressive marriage with Léonce, Edna does not experience freedom; instead, she finds herself trapped by her romantic visions and by what Léonce calls les convenances. If The Awakening were only another examination of narcissism and the romantic predictions of a bourgeois woman, it would simply repeat the material Flaubert renders in his great novel. Chopin is not Flaubert, but within the range of her talent she treats questions about Romanticism, narcissism, and women's independence that are essentially political and thus considerably different from those raised in Madame Bovary. Moreover, we care about Edna Pontellier in ways that we cannot care about Emma Bovary because Edna's intimations of an autonomous life force us to consider the problems of freedom and oppression within society, while Emma's whole life revolves around sentimental fatuities. If Edna at times seems predictable and even tiresome, these characteristics are countered by Chopin's subtle rendering of the process of “inward contemplation” that leads Edna to an understanding of an insurmountable social dilemma which can only be escaped in death.


For roughly the first half of the novel Chopin subordinates the political implications of Edna's predicament to the solitude and tentative self-exploration that begins to occupy her heroine during the summer idyll on Grand Isle. In the opening scenes Edna's undefined sense of longing is symbolized by the voice of the sea, which encourages the soul “to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation,” so that the relationships between Edna's isolation, her Romantic sensibility, and the social significance of her situation do not emerge with any clarity until the guests at Madame Lebrun's establishment gather for an evening of entertainment. Even then, there is no specific statement to link the motifs together; what Chopin gives us instead is the motif of music, which indirectly leads to images of flight and escape. As Mademoiselle Reisz begins to play the piano, Edna recalls the pleasure she derives from listening to her friend Adele when she practices. One piece Adele plays Edna calls “Solitude”: “When she heard it there came before her imagination the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him” (pp. 26-27). The image of the bird does not assume its full significance as a unifying symbol for another sixty pages when Edna remembers a comment of Mademoiselle Reisz's as she and Alcée sit before the fire in the “pigeon house”: “When I left today,” she tells him, “she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. ‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong winds. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth’” (p. 82). As the reader knows, escape from the labyrinth of self or tradition demands a cunning Edna does not possess. This failure is made explicit on the final page of the novel when she returns to Chênière Caminada: “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water” (p. 113). Trapped in romantic longings whose objects are always vague and shifting in her mind's eye, and in a culture whose codes of duty and responsibility make escape impossible for even the most reluctant of “mother-women” (p. 10), Edna's fate is clearly foreshadowed in the imagery of defeated flight Chopin weaves into The Awakening.

At this point, we need to ask why, in a novel that addresses a woman's fate in society, Chopin chose a male figure to symbolize her heroine's solitude. The reason stems from Chopin's having realized that, on an unconscious level, Edna can only imagine a man in a position suggesting freedom and escape. His failure represents Edna's projection of herself onto the imagined figure. This view is consonant with the rest of the novel where we see that only men are free to act as they like and to go where they want: Robert to Mexico, Léonce to New York, Alcée from bed to bed. Whether it is Grand Isle, Chênière Caminada, or New Orleans, men escape, women remain. The New Woman Edna feels emerging from her “fictitious self” (p. 57) demands the prerogatives of men, but in making these demands she can only be destroyed by overreaching in a society that has no place for her.

But there are other reasons beyond the fact that there was little hope for independent women in New Orleans at the turn of the century that must be considered in an account of Edna's failure. Simply put, she cannot see beyond the Romantic prison of imagination. To illustrate her myopia, Chopin introduces Mademoiselle Reisz, whose clarity of mind offers a striking contrast to the essentially abstract nature of Edna's quest. Through music she discovers a kindred spirit in Edna, whose vision of the naked man occurs shortly before the musician plays a Chopin impromptu that arouses Edna's passions and brings her to tears. “Mademoiselle Reisz perceived her agitation … She patted her … upon the shoulder as she said: ‘You are the only one worth playing for. Those others? Bah!’” (p. 27). She realizes that for her young friend music is the correlative of passion just as it is for her, but once their relationship develops Mademoiselle Reisz discovers that Edna's sensitivity does not encompass the discipline or the clarity of vision requisite to either the artist or the rebel. This is made clear one afternoon when Edna explains that she is becoming an artist. The older woman responds harshly, saying that “you have pretensions, Madame,” pointing out that “to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul … that dares and defies” (p. 63).

Mademoiselle Reisz is to Edna what Marlow and Stein are to Lord Jim: a romantic who has found a “way to be” that does not compromise her ideals. Like Marlow and Stein again, she functions as a mentor who recognizes Edna's potentiality for independence while understanding that her impressionable young friend must learn to see more clearly in order to achieve what she wants and avoid disaster.

Once they have begun to meet in New Orleans, the musician's misgivings about Edna's ability to find her way in a new Romantic world are expressed in another kind of music. Edna demands to see a letter Robert has written to Mademoiselle Reisz, hoping that she will find some mention of herself. That she is overwhelmed by Robert and misled by their relationship troubles the older woman, and her sense of impending disaster leads her to weave fragments of Wagner's Liebestod into the Chopin piece she has been playing. This double theme of Romantic life and death becomes part of the atmosphere of the city, floating “out upon the night, over the housetops, the crescent of the moon, losing itself in the silence of the upper air” (p. 64). Like Stein's great speech on the destructive element that presents the positive and negative aspects of Romanticism, Mademoiselle Reisz's music symbolizes the antithetical modes of Romance represented by Chopin and Wagner, and her evocation of Tristan and Isolde becomes an important part of The Awakening's imagery of destruction.

Mademoiselle Reisz functions as the only example of a free, independent woman whose hardiness Edna must emulate if she is to succeed and soar above “tradition and prejudice.” There is no question that the older woman provides Edna with a more viable model than Adele Ratignolle who is, after all, trapped without even knowing it. Mademoiselle Reisz's apartment becomes a refuge for Edna and the pianist comes closer than anyone else to making contact and supplying advice that could be helpful as Edna tries to find a place for her new self in the world. Nevertheless, her role in the novel is problematic, for she is an imperfect model whose positive qualities are balanced by abrasiveness and egocentrism. Chopin calls attention to the musician's idiosyncrasies when she introduces her into the story. Robert has gone to ask her to play for his mother's guests and finds her in one of the cottages: “She was dragging a chair in and out of her room, and at intervals objecting to the crying of a baby, which a nurse in the adjoining cottage was endeavoring to put to sleep. She was a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost every one, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others” (p. 26). Later, at Edna's dinner party, “Mademoiselle had only disagreeable things to say of the symphony concerts, and insulting remarks to make of all the musicians of New Orleans, singly and collectively” (p. 87). While Edna instinctively rebels against the larger social dictates of Creole society, those social graces that express less overwhelming convenances are still important to her, so that her amusement at her friend's disdain of conventions does not mean that she intends to imitate her. More subtly, Mademoiselle Reisz fails as a model because at this point Edna's passions, unlike her friend's, cannot be sublimated to music, but need physical expression. Like all her friends, Mademoiselle Reisz is eventually left behind as Edna increasingly dissociates herself from society and moves further into the mazes of solitude.

The musical motif in The Awakening provides specific dramatic referents to Edna's emotional states, but her imaginative life belongs to the realm of fantasy. Following her swim in the Gulf, Edna wants to think about her double experience of freedom and the “vision of death” (p. 29) that came to her in the water. Robert suddenly appears and Edna finds herself explaining that she has been overwhelmed by powerful experiences she does not understand: “There must be spirits abroad tonight,” she muses, half-seriously. Picking up the cue, Robert invents a Gulf spirit who has searched for “one mortal worthy to hold him company, worthy of being exalted for a few hours into the realms of the semi-celestials” (p. 30). Robert does not understand Edna's experiences, nor does he particularly care to; his interests are in the direction of establishing himself in Edna's imaginative life. Whether by intention or pure chance, his words do enter her consciousness so that the Gulf spirit becomes a symbolic presence for Edna on Grand Isle and later in New Orleans.

In fact, the next section of the novel is given over to an elaboration of the fantastic. In the course of exposing the structure of fiction devoted to the unreal, Tzvetan Todorov cites the following comment by Olga Riemann: “The hero (of a fantastic tale) continually and distinctly feels the contradiction between two worlds, that of the real and that of the fantastic, and is himself amazed by the extraordinary phenomena which surround him.”4 What Edna experiences during the next few days approximates this situation very closely, for Robert's invention of the Gulf spirit and Edna's vigil before the sea that night lead to an awareness of a “contradiction between two worlds,” particularly when she wakes up the next morning:

She slept but a few hours: They were troubled and feverish hours, disturbed with dreams that were intangible, that eluded her, leaving only an impression upon her half-awakened sense of something unattainable. The air was invigorating and steadied somewhat her faculties. However, she was not seeking refreshment or help from any source, either external or from within. She was blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility.

(P. 33)

Like a princess in a fairy-tale, Edna awakens to an enchanted world where the old rules of reality no longer seem valid.

The immediate result of her new perspective is to propose taking a boat trip to Chênière Caminada with Robert, and from the moment of their departure to the island the day contains experiences suggesting that reality had been altered. For example, as they sail toward the island, “Edna felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which held her fast, whose chains had been loosening—had snapped the night before when the mystic spirit was abroad, leaving her free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails” (p. 35). Soon after they reach the island Edna takes a nap. When she awakens, she tells Robert that “the whole island seems changed. A new race of beings must have sprung up. …” (p. 38). Later that afternoon she and Robert listen to one of Madame Antonie's stories about the Baratarian pirates. As she speaks, “Edna could hear the whispering voices of dead men and the clink of muffled gold” (p. 39). The fantasy continues during the return trip to Grand Isle, for Edna believes that “misty spirit forms were prowling in the shadows and among the reeds, and upon the water phantom ships [were] speeding to cover” (pp. 39-40). Edna recreates the atmosphere of these imaginary encounters at the dinner party she gives for her father when she tells the story “of 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 a trace of them from that day to this” (p. 70). It should be clear that the day Edna and Robert spend on Chênière Caminada is filled with examples of “extraordinary phenomena.”

The fantastic is implied in Chopin's early evocation of the sea, just as it is in Edna's visions of the unbinding of chains, pirate ships, and the lovers who disappear somewhere in the Baratarian Islands, freed forever from the mundane world of responsibility. Taken together, these events establish the atmosphere of Edna's mind, the mood of her thought. In this regard, it is important to see that The Awakening does not force the reader “to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described”;5 only Edna hesitates between the fanastic and the real. The reader becomes increasingly aware of the ironic presentation of events, as well as the distance opening between Edna and reality.

Edna cannot actualize the self that increasingly absorbs her attention because that imagined self has no substance. Even when she is most deeply immersed in her newly discovered world, none of her visions of her self, or of a future, achieve clarity. In this respect, there is a distinction between Edna and Emma Bovary that should be explored. Emma constructs extremely detailed imaginary worlds for herself and Léon, Rodolphe, and Largardy from the raw materials of sentimental literature, images of Parisian social life, and the drama that unfolds before her on the stage of the Rouen Opera House. But her world begins and ends in that matrix of images, which to her are “pictures of the world.” While Robert, in the guise of demon lover, appears in several of Edna's visions, she does not create detailed alternatives to the dreary life she has shared with Léonce. The reason should be clear enough: Edna's awakening corresponds with the attentions she receives from Robert who reifies the “realms of romance” anesthetized by Léonce, but her ultimate desire is for freedom to do as she likes, not, like Emma's, to find the man of her dreams. Thus, the journey into the Baratarian Islands she imagines with a demon lover is less important than her perception that she is “free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails.”


The motifs of music and fantasy that I have discussed so far shape The Awakening's themes of marriage, sexuality, and liberation. For the moment, I want to consider these themes separately in the order I have just mentioned, since that order corresponds to the direction of Edna's growth. Later, I will discuss them as a synthesis, a single perspective on the conditions of Edna's life, and by extension, that of women in Creole society.

All of these themes are announced in the first scene of the novel. Edna and Robert have just returned from a walk on the beach when Léonce remarks on Edna's tan, looking at her as “at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (p. 4). At the same time, Edna surveys her hand “critically,” remembers her rings given over to Léonce for safekeeping, and takes them back. The conflict between freedom and oppression, the problem of narcissism, and Edna's retreat from and return to the symbols of marriage are neatly set out in three sentences. But there is more here, for marriage already appears to be incompatible with Edna's solipsistic character. From this muted beginning, marriage becomes the great fact of the novel, inescapable and monolithic, repeatedly described as oppressive, the source of ennui, and the means by which women are brought to suffer the pain of childbirth, the “torture” of nature as Edna perceives it while watching over Adele Ratignolle's accouchement.

We encounter a complex manifestation of Edna's feelings about marriage later that night after Léonce has returned from billiards at Klein's Hotel. She and Léonce have had a disagreement about the care of the children and Edna begins to cry, overcome by vague feelings that cancel any memory of her husband's former “kindness”: “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul's summer day. It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood” (p. 8). This unspecified malaise is an inseparable part of marriage, producing a mood like a “shadow” or a “mist,” phenomena that can obscure the outline of things, perhaps even obscure the self. These images soon become part of The Awakening's symbolic design, for by suggesting that marriage obscures the essential self, they establish quite early one of Chopin's central political concerns. They allow us to see how Edna is oppressed by the facts of marriage and by her temperament in much the same way that the scene at the Banneville grove, where the wind coaxes a murmuring sound from the trees, symbolized Emma's ennui and disillusionment over her marriage to Charles.

The suggestion of obscurity and isolation that emerges from Edna's reverie reappears when Chopin writes that, “Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman … one who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (p. 10). Adele Ratignolle is the type of such selfless creatures: “There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams” (p. 10). What does Chopin mean to suggest by saying that there are no words to describe such women? Primarily, I would argue, that this epitome of the “mother-woman” is an anachronism, even though the beaches at Grand Isle are covered with them and they exemplify society's vision of woman's function. By saying that there are only the old words to describe Adele, Chopin subtly links her to the received ideas of woman's role in society. The “mother-woman” is a fiction. The old words have created a woman who fulfills “our” expectation and these words, associated with romance and dream, have created the self-image in which women like Adele bask. The point is that the essential self of both kinds of women is obscured, first by the institution of marriage, which separates the inner from the outer self, and second by the myths of womanhood that equate effacement of self, even the abjuring of self, with ideal and natural behavior. Thus both the romantic woman and the woman who mirrors the romantic clichés of a society's myths are blighted by the very terms of marriage.

But one of the novel's most interesting themes becomes apparent when we realize that, despite her rebelliousness, the associations Edna brings to marriage as a young woman can never be fully escaped. This is the case despite Léonce's lack of anything like the vigor of her youthful romantic fantasies that culminated in her infatuation with a “great tragedian” whose picture she kept and sometimes kissed. In fact, her entrapment is partly the result of the blandness she experiences with Léonce:

Her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident, in this respect resembling many other marriages which masquerade as decrees of Fate. It was in the midst of her secret great passion that she met him. He fell in love, as men are in the habit of doing, and pressed his suit with an earnestness and an ardor which left nothing to be desired. He pleased her, his absolute devotion flattered her. She fancied there was a sympathy of thought and taste between them in which fantasy she was mistaken.

(P. 19)

Edna then comes to see her marriage, with its initial vague resemblance to her adolescent longings, as a step into the “world of reality,” the act of a mature woman who will leave behind forever the “realm of romance and dreams.” It is not long before she finds herself forced to confront realities that are clearly antithetical to her modest expectations: “She grew fond of her husband, realizing with some unaccountable satisfaction that no trace of passion or excessive and fictitious warmth colored her affection, thereby threatening its dissolution” (pp. 19-20). So marriage for Edna devolves to fondness, and the absence of passionate emotion seems to guarantee stability.

The stultifying effects of the relationship with Léonce—the price Edna and all other wives pay for stability—are quickly developed. When she visits Adele in New Orleans, “the little glimpse of domestic harmony which had been offered her, gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui” (p. 56). In response to Léonce's entreaties for her to attend her sister's wedding, she says that “a wedding is one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth” (p. 6). Later, her awareness of having become a possession increasingly grates on Edna's sense of her individuality, and she gives her opinion of men who treat her as an object near the end of the novel during a conversation with Robert. “You have been a very, very foolish boy,” she says,

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.

(Pp. 106-7)

Earlier, when Edna first began to express her independence by ignoring the custom of her Tuesday at homes, Léonce responded by saying, “I should think you'd understand by this time that people don't do such things; we've got to observe les convenances” (p. 51). Léonce's comment cuts to the heart of what Edna rebels against; for her, marriage has come to seem like only one more convention within the myriad social forms that have become oppressive to her. Although she feels that marriage is “not a condition of life which fitted her,” that she is no longer a possession, the facts of her life argue against her interpretation of it. Margaret Culley stresses Edna's delight in her independence as an element of the novel's tragedy. Referring to her comment about no longer being a possession of any man's, Culley says that “we glimpse the ecstasy of the discovery of the power of the self and the refusal to abjure it.”6 But there is a considerable distance between what Edna says and does that makes Culley's assessment more optimistic than the situation warrants. Surely the “delight [Edna] takes in her solitary self”7 measures the distance between her imagination and reality in a painfully ironic way. Regardless of what she thinks, the shadow cast on Edna's soul by the convention of marriage and society cannot be escaped. Her decision to take her own life acknowledges the impossibility of returning to marriage, or of finding satisfaction in her solitude. It is the logical culmination of despair engendered by the loss of stability and her awareness of never being able to find a substitute for it in her affair with Alcée, or anyone else.


Edna is deceived by the promises of sex just as she is misled by the conventions of marriage, but even though she delights in the adulterous pleasures discovered with Alcée, The Awakening is not an erotic novel. Lazar Ziff sees the true significance of her sexuality when he writes that Edna “was an American woman, raised in the Protestant mistrust of the senses and in the detestation of sexual desire as the root of evil. As a result, the hidden act came for her to be equivalent to the hidden and true self, once her nature awakened in the open surroundings of Creole Louisiana.”8 Ziff's observation alludes to the “shadow” Jung characterized as “a moral problem that challenges the whole ego personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”9 Ironically, Edna's discovery of the “dark aspects” of her “true self” leads to increased self-knowledge, which isolates her from human contact, rather than providing a means by which she could experience emotional and physical gratification.

Such reflexiveness is clearly illustrated in the affair with Arobin. Edna has agreed to go to the races with Alcée and Mrs. Highcamp and later, when he takes her home, we are told that she “wanted something to happen—something, anything; she did not know what” (p. 75). Like Rodolphe when he first meets Emma, Alcée senses an easy conquest. All he has to do is fulfill her expectations:

His manner invited easy confidence. … They laughed and talked; and before it was time to go he was telling her how different life might have been if he had known her years before. With ingenuous frankness he spoke of what a wicked, ill-disciplined boy he had been, and impulsively drew up his cuff to exhibit on his wrist the scar of a saber cut which he had received in a duel outside of Paris when he was nineteen.

(P. 76)

This apocryphal story of Alcée's past as a hero out of the pages of Dumas provides the opportunity for an even bolder gesture: “He stood close to her, and the effrontery of his eyes repelled the old, vanishing self in her, yet drew all her awakening sensuousness” (p. 76). Here Alcée's melodramatic persona appeals to Edna for the same reason she was drawn to the cavalry officer and the tragedian—he embodies the “realm of romance” left behind with her marriage and reawakened by Robert.

What follows is as inevitable as Rodolphe's success with Emma, for what Edna wants is an opportunity to express the “animalism” that “strove impatiently within her” (p. 78). A mutual seduction follows “the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded” (p. 83). However, despite this expression of freedom, which was clearly inevitable, when Arobin leaves later that night “there was an overwhelming feeling of irresponsibility. There was the shock of the unexpected and the unaccustomed.” There was also something more important:

Above all, there was understanding. She felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality. But among the conflicting sensations which assailed her, there was neither shame nor remorse.

(P. 83)

The mist “lifted from her eyes” is the same mist Chopin refers to in the passage dealing with the “vague anguish” Edna discovers in marriage. What Edna understands here is that she has been liberated from the kind of life for which she is “not suited,” from marriage and from the shadow marriage cast on her sexuality. At the same time, this scene reveals another important aspect of her character. Edna always greets each new experience hyperbolically and she is constantly duped by fresh promises. Her conviction that she can now “comprehend the significance of life” is only another example, since her understanding fades with the waning of her enthusiasm about her passional self. She has learned nothing that could help her escape from the solitude steadily encroaching on her inner life.

The affair with Alcée becomes part of an emerging pattern of longing and restlessness which recalls the shadows and mists of her earliest sense of oppression. At the farewell party she gives to her old life on Esplanade Street such unfocused yearning is obvious:

… As she sat there amid her guests, she felt the old ennui overtaking her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition. It was something which announced itself; a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed. There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable.

(P. 88)

The sense of ennui returns us to the bedroom of her cottage on Grand Isle where she wept without knowing why, and felt a “vague anguish” whose source was inexplicable. The only substantial difference between the passage above and Edna's earlier encounters with hopelessness is the vision of the “beloved one” who is obviously “unattainable.” Clearly, her vision has been enlarged while the conditions of her life remain as they were on the night the novel opens.

Thus every detail in The Awakening contributes to a growing impression that Edna's beginning is her end. Ten pages into the novel, Chopin writes that “Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (pp. 14-15). Yet, a sentence later, in a paragraph introducing the first reference to the sensuous voice of the sea, the narrator warns that “The beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginnings! How many souls perish in the tumult!” The voice of the sea, as well as the Gulf spirit, hold out to Edna a promise that cannot be fulfilled. When the voice is heard once again on the last page it echoes the earlier promise of the sea, but concludes on the word “solitude,” and the invitation to Edna's soul to “lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation” is replaced by the image of the “bird with the broken wing.” Moreover, between these images of the sea framing the novel we see other motifs and themes also turning away from the promises they held out for Edna to their beginnings: the positive suggestiveness of Chopin's impromptu is transposed to Wagner's evocation of the dying Isolde; the fantastic worlds of Chênière Caminada and Grand Isle become the house on Esplanade Street; the sexual passion with Alcée deliquesces into loneliness; and the promise of Robert's attention on Grand Isle turns into his farewell letter.

It is Robert's letter that finally shatters Edna's illusions of escape. After sitting up all night thinking about it, her dilemma finally becomes clear:

She had said over and over to herself: ‘To-day it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn't matter about Léonce Pontellier—but Raoul and Etienne!’. … There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them.

(P. 113)

Edna now understands that Alcée, Robert, and her own sexual awakening belong to a metaphor for the unattainable. Her life has no direction, her world no form, and the emptiness she has come to feel is Chopin's comment on the “realms of romance.”

But this is not the end. Edna's void is suddenly filled with a vision of her children, which not only takes her back to her beginning, but also becomes the sign of her “soul's slavery.” Regardless of her casual attention to them, and her attempts to break away from marriage, they have always been there. Once, Edna said to Adele Ratignolle that “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself” (p. 48). That was when their antagonism was veiled. During her vigil, Edna has come to realize that it is Raoul and Etienne, not Léonce, who bind her to the ennui of a life that does not fit her. And so it is a double vision Edna experiences; she understands the mendacity of her “spiritual vision” and also that the “soul's slavery” her children would drag her back to is too great a price to pay now that she has tasted freedom, however confusedly. The agony she feels has a moral basis because she realizes that continuing to live as she must in a world circumscribed by les convenances could only destroy her children, and that realization adds considerably to her stature.

Defeated by the lies of romance and the facts of les convenances, Edna's return to the seashore at Chênière Caminada is accompanied not by thoughts or Robert or Alcée, but by the overwhelming pressure of Léonce, Raoul, and Etienne. As she swims out to sea, her mind is filled with sounds from her youth, above all the clang of the cavalry officer's spurs. We are left, as Edna dies, to meditate on that sound with intimations of a world that vanished as she reached out to grasp it.

Chopin's novel is prophetic of concerns that Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, and other women novelists would explore in the next quarter-century; were it not for her blindness to alternatives at the end, her virtual isolation, Edna might have grown up to keep company with Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsey, and to achieve a sense of identity similar to theirs. Though my argument in this book depends on (among other things) the persistence of a fictional critique of Romantic Idealism that extends well into our own time, it is important to see that Kate Chopin's treatment is idiosyncratic and focused on its debilitating effects not only on a single character but also on all women caught in the rigidities of a social system like that of Creole Louisiana. And this leads to an interesting irony that emerges from the conjunction of the two previous studies of female characters and the chapter that follows on Lord Jim. The “realms of romance” explored by Chopin and Flaubert are unquestionably destructive, and both novelists show that romance was the preeminent form of thought, the matrix of identity, available to women in the nineteenth century. Emma and Edna, because of their narcissism, are not free to choose another mode of thought, but it should be kept in mind that Jim and the other male characters at least have available to them other means of achieving identity or establishing personality. No novel considered here is so bleak as Chopin's in this regard, for she shows us that the illusions of romance were the dead end of identity for nineteenth-century women. As we will see in the next chapter, it is just the potential, the freedom to disabuse himself of similar illusions, that makes Conrad's Jim such a problematic case.


  1. Kate Chopin, The Awakening, ed. Margaret Culley (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 15. Hereafter cited in the text.

  2. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, ed. Paul de Man (New York: Norton, 1965), p. 58.

  3. In The American 1890's: Life and Times of a Lost Generation (New York: Viking, 1966), Lazar Ziff makes the following comments about Creole society: “The community about which she wrote was one in which respectable women took wine with their dinner and brandy after, smoked gcigarettes, played Chopin sonatas, and listened to the men tell risqué stories. It was, in short, far more French than American. … [T]hese were for Mrs. Chopin the conditions of civility, and, since they were so French, a magazine public accustomed to accepting naughtiness from that quarter and taking pleasure in it on those terms raised no protest. But for Mrs. Chopin they were only outward signs of a culture that was hers and had its inner effects in the moral make-up of her characters” (p. 297). For a more general examination of the social contexts of fiction than I can explore in this space see Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel (London: Merlin Press, 1962), and Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1965).

  4. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Cleveland, Ohio: The Press of the Case Western Reserve University, 1973), p. 26.

  5. Todorov, p. 33.

  6. Margaret Culley, “Edna Pontellier: ‘A Solitary Soul,’” in The Awakening, p. 228.

  7. Culley, p. 228.

  8. Ziff, p. 304.

  9. C. G. Jung, Psyche and Symbol, ed. Violet S. de Laszlo (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958), p. 7.

Joyce Coyne Dyer (essay date spring 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5885

SOURCE: Coyne Dyer, Joyce. “Techniques of Distancing in the Fiction of Kate Chopin.” Southern Studies 24, no. 1 (spring 1985): 69-81.

[In the following essay, Dyer discusses Chopin's technique of appealing to her readers' prejudices to openly discuss in her short stories topics that were normally considered taboo at the time.]

Chopin often made the prejudice of her Southerners (Creoles and Acadians) the subject of her fiction. Madame Carambeau, for instance, “detested dogs, cats, organ-grinders, white servants and children's noises. She despised Americans, Germans and all people of a different faith from her own.”1 Prejudice often became not only Chopin's topic, but also, curiously, her technique. Chopin relied, almost cynically it seems, on the prejudices of her readership and critics to allow her to talk about female sexuality in a way that otherwise might have been considered offensive or “vulgar.” Along with other important techniques we will examine, Chopin's probably quite conscious method of ascribing strong sexual desire—a trait we know she thought universal—to Indians, gypsies, madwomen, Negroes, and social outcasts provided her with comfortable distance from a message too powerful for her time. The uncivilized or insane could be expected to behave in course, wild, and “unnatural” ways; fringe members of society could be portrayed differently from people in the mainstream of a civilized community. What could a proper white Southern woman possibly have in common with a Naomi Mobry, a Zoraïde, or a Juanita?

In Chopin's earliest short story about female sexual desire, “Mrs. Mobry's Reason” (January 10, 1891), the author equates Naomi Mobry's lust with the final stages of her developing madness. Chopin carefully, symbolically, defines and describes the progressive stages of Naomi's growing insanity, distancing Naomi, step by step, from the region of “normal” emotions and desires. The story, which contains a strong hint of the situation in Ibsen's Ghosts,2 proves a fine introduction to one technique of reticence, self-effacement, and subterfuge that would serve Chopin well throughout the 1890s.

Naomi Mobry, daughter of Editha Payne, a woman who knew about the inherited madness in her family and should, perhaps, never have married, never have borne children, is seen in an early section of “Mrs. Mobry's Reason” as an unusually sensitive young woman. While she talks with her supercilious twenty-two-year-old cousin Sigmund, Naomi subtly discloses her heightened sensitivity to the colors of nature. Shortly after Sigmund naively proposes that Naomi read more and take a course at the university to enable her “to define the quality in Chopin's music that charms [her]” (72), Naomi assures her cousin that she would rather romp through the hills than sit closeted in a stuffy room. Exhibiting what Sigmund calls “a veritable savage eye for pure color” (73), Naomi describes the fields and hills which she loves.

What color! Look, now, at the purple wrapping those hills away to the east. See the hundred shades of green spreading before us, with the new-plowed fields between making brown dashes and patches. And then the sky, so blue where it frames those white velvet clouds. They'll be red and gold this evening.


Naomi's preference for the hills, for the earth and nature, and her ecstatic sensitivity to color begin to hint at her sensuous nature. Curiously, Naomi chooses the “raw” colors, like the Impressionists Chopin referred to in her review “‘Crumbling Idols’ by Hamlin Garland” (undated). Even the color purple is alluded to by Chopin in her review, the very color Naomi admires: “[Garland] admits,” she writes, “that he himself has discovered certain ‘purple shadows’ by looking at a stretch of sand, with his head turned top-side down!” (694) Though others may not, like Naomi and Garland, see the purple which wraps the hills or casts shadows on the sand, or admire the red and gold that accompany the evening, the Impressionistic vision is not thought to be insincere by Chopin. We might guess that the author was using Naomi's description, her choice of colors, to reveal a temperament unafraid of moral and social pressure, unafraid of what the truth might bring: a temperament not unlike that of the daring Impressionists Chopin discusses, “with their individualism; their abandonment of the traditional and conventional in the interest of ‘truth’” (694). It was, after all, a temperament not unlike Chopin's own.

As Naomi proceeds to describe her unusual sensitivity to sound, we continue to sense her powerful, sensuous attraction to the earth and natural force. Her initial comment about the subject seems ordinary: “There's nothing that has the meaning for me in this world that sound has” (73). Musicians, singers, and conductors have all made similar remarks. However, as she continues to speak, we realize that it is not the sounds of instruments and human voices that obsess her. The sounds of the earth itself fascinate and haunt her. She hears symphonies played by the wind. She muses, “I wonder if anyone else has an ear so tuned and sharpened as I have, to detect the music, not of the spheres, but of the earth, the subtleties of major and minor chord that the wind strikes upon the tree branches” (73). She even lets Sigmund know that she can hear the rhythmical breathing of the earth. “Have you ever heard the earth breath, Sigmund?” (73), she asks. After she notes the amazement in Sigmund's eyes, she senses the peculiarity and strangeness of her question. In order to change the subject, she merrily challenges her cousin to a mock duel. The real, recognizable, “ordinary” sounds of “the clink and scrape of the slender steels” replace the remote, unnatural sounds Naomi has been describing. Both Sigmund and his cousin temporarily need to hear a familiar noise that returns them to the comfortable realm of safe experience.

Naomi's reactions to sun and heat in section iii also might be read as suspiciously sexual. Naomi's increasing madness, again, continues to serve as the deceptive guise that allows Chopin to record the shocking. Sigmund believes that he and Naomi are falling in love in a purely romantic sense. Indeed, he finds “nothing so good to look upon as Naomi's brown [eyes]” (76) as he and the girl boat along the Meramec. Though to an onshore observer they might look like the boy and girl in a conventional romance, Naomi does not find the scene or the experience as idyllic and refreshing as Sigmund does. The sun intensifies her longing for her cousin. Chopin notes that Naomi is bothered by the “hot and lurid” (76) sun, words that suggest both the flamelike glow of the sun itself and the violent passion Naomi feels. The two have to glide under the shade of willow trees to avoid the sun's penetrating rays. Sigmund was “filled with wonder at the sweet trouble which stirred [Naomi] when she caught his gaze and answered it” (76). As Chopin's symbolism has indicated, Naomi's trouble is hardly as “sweet” as Sigmund thinks. She grows irritated when Editha asks her what is the matter. “I'm sure I don't know, mamma,” she sharply replies. “This heavy heat would make anyone's blood run a little sluggishly” (77). Naomi's sexual desire, symbolized by her response to sun and heat, further detaches her from normal things around her.

In section iv, Naomi's reactions to the sun become even more telling. Unlike Charles Farady's uncomplicated reaction to the sun in “A Point at Issue!” (August, 1889), Naomi's reaction defines intricate components of her mental breakdown—or, as we now might recognize, of her sexual development. In this section, Naomi's full sexual energy is released at the very moment Chopin ushers her into madness. “I went in the boat,” she tells Sigmund after he locates her sitting by the river's edge, “and when I was out there in the middle of the stream—listen, Sigmund—the sun struck me upon the head, with something in its hand—no, no, not in his hand—And after that I didn't care, for I know everything now” (78). The sun's stroke has freed her to express her sexual fondness for Sigmund. She can now passionately kiss him and confess her desire. “Ah, Sigmund,” she cries out, “this is just as I was dreaming it this morning when I awoke. Then I was angry because you were sleeping off there in your room like a senseless log, when I was awake and wanted you. And you slept on and never came to me” (78). But the sun's stroke has, simultaneously, finalized her madness. Naomi can no longer recognize the peculiarity of her statements as she once could when she told Sigmund about hearing the earth breath. “I know what the birds are saying up in the trees,” she tells her cousin, “like Siegfried when he played upon his pipe under a tree, last winter in town. I can tell you everything that the fishes say in the water. They were talking under the boat when you called me—” (78).

But the knowledge of the sun, the knowledge of her passion, is too bright, too intense for Naomi's day. Even Sigmund, who for a moment moves his “wooden” arms that hang at his sides to embrace her, kisses her only once—“he sought no further kiss” (78). Naomi's insights are now too candid and her spirit too erotic for people such as Sigmund to understand, or even for Naomi herself to comprehend. As Susan Wolstenholme has noted, Naomi and Sigmund have reversed sex roles: “Naomi plays what would conventionally be the male role in the relationship by initiating activities and even making sexual advances.”3 The intensity and confusion of her vision, a vision as we see, closely connected to her discovery of “abnormal” sexual and sensuous craving, burns the very light out of her eyes. Naomi will never again be able to return to the world her cousin inhabits. In the final sequence of the story, we see Naomi sitting upon a lounge, playing like a little child with scraps of paper that she tears and places in rows upon the cushion beside her.

It is significant, as well, to look closely at the frame Chopin provides for Naomi Mobry's story. The piece begins and ends with scenes that focus on Editha Payne Mobry, Naomi's mother. Chopin uses her, as she does her daughter, to talk about passion in a permissible way. The mother confesses her crime to John Mobry at the story's end: “[Madness] has been in the blood that is mine for generations, John, and I knew it, and I married you” (79). With terror in her eyes, she continues, “Oh, God! if it might end with me and with her—my stricken dove! But, John … Edward has already a child. Others will be born to him, and I see the crime of my marriage reaching out to curse me through the lips of generations that will come” (79). Editha's crime, her sin, like Naomi's madness, is carefully associated with desire and lust; its consequence and Editha's remorse make its discussion allowable.

In section i, Chopin records details of Editha and John's courtship. We see, through them, that Editha's weakness is more than that of simply wanting what other young girls were thought to desire: a safe marriage, a home. Editha agrees to John's offer, after three years of obstinate refusal, because of her passionate sexual need for John Mobry. She weakens “in the springtime and under the blossom-laden branches of an apple tree” (71). “Chance,” we are told, “brought him to her that spring day out under the blossoms, at a moment when inward forces were at work with her to weaken and undo the determination of a lifetime” (71). The apple tree, of course, recalls the original Garden, the original sin and sexual shame, but the equation of Editha's “sin” with sexual passion increases as we observe the symbolism Chopin uses to define her response to the world and to men. The images surrounding the discussion of her “sin” are the very images that surround the discussion of Naomi's madness. The common images suggest the common sexual content of both women's experiences. Sensuous imagery is important to both accounts; perhaps even more important, the sun, with its heat and intensity, becomes the figure central to the experiences of both females. Editha, we are told, looked away from John for a moment before accepting his long-standing proposal, “far away across the green hills that the sun had touched and quickened, and beyond, into the impenetrable mist” (71).

Chopin, then, avoids making a threatening statement about female passion in “Mrs. Mobry's Reason.” Editha Payne is punished for her “sin”; Naomi cannot be held responsible for aberrant sexual behavior that is inextricably connected with her madness, can she? And yet, as we have seen, although Chopin evasively avoids offending, she still manages to make a forceful, stunning statement about the erotic. Wolstenholme suggests that “Mrs. Mobry's Reason” suffers from Chopin's making Editha Payne's “crime” the giving way to her desire and passion for a good man; such behavior is, the critic notes, “rarely a crime in a Chopin story.” “The punishment fate metes out is disproportionate to the crime,” Wolstenholme feels, whereas in Ibsen's Ghosts Mrs. Alving's sin is proportionate to her betrayal of her own desires and feelings.4 Perhaps the inconsistency Wolstenholme notes was intended by Chopin: in such an early piece she might have felt a special need to distort her true judgment of female passion in order to allow her simply to broadcast its presence. Chopin's inconsistency might be seen as still another way she veils herself from direct responsibility for objectionable remarks and conclusions.

“A Lady of Bayou St. John” and “La Belle Zoraïde,” stories written a month apart (August and September 1893) and both included in Bayou Folk, have a strong dependence on techniques of distancing, including Chopin's reliance on stereotypical racial attitudes as well as her use of connections between two stories, connections that offer sexual information but are so subtle they might be missed. In “A Lady of Bayou St. John” we meet Madame Delisle, a very young woman whose husband, Gustave, “was away yonder in Virginia somewhere, with Beauregard” (298), fighting for the Confederates in the Civil War. The story deals primarily with Madame Delisle's perverse, romantic loyalty to the dead (after her husband is killed in battle, she erects an altar to his memory, letting that memory “crowd and fill [her] life” [301] for the remainder of her days). This behavior is an essential psychological mystery in the narrator's exploration of what she calls “that psychological enigma, a woman's heart” (302). At first the story seems to resemble other Chopin stories about characters who live in the past: “Ma'ame Pélagie,” “The Return of Alcibiade,” “The Bênitous' Slave.” But there is something else enigmatic—and disturbing—about Madame Delisle's psyche: suggestions about her sexual nature are included. As we will see, the most powerful statement about her sexuality, ironically, appears not in “A Lady of Bayou St. John,” but, rather, in a later piece, “La Belle Zoraïde,” that seems not to be about Madame Delisle at all.

Robert Arner has noted that in “A Lady of Bayou St. John” “Mrs. Chopin was not ready to say yet what she saw [in a woman's heart].”5 However, Chopin does not feel timid about recording the presence of male passion in her story. Sepincourt—a Frenchman who visits Madame Delisle during Gustave's absence, falls in love with her, and vigorously proposes that she and he hurry off to Paris—Chopin comfortably, graphically describes his desire. We see it “in the glance that penetrated [Madame Delisle's] own; in the quiver of his sensitive lip and the quick beating of a swollen vein in his brown throat” (299). Chopin's description of Madame Delisle's own sexual response is less direct. Reading a letter from the Frenchman, Madame Delisle discovers it to be “a voice from the unknown, like music, awaking in her a delicious tumult that seized and held possession of her whole being” (300). She kisses him many times when he visits next, agreeing “in a fainting voice that he could scarcely hear” to go with him—“Anywhere, anywhere” (300). The embrace, the kisses, and her words (delivered, Chopin suggests, on the very verge of a swoon) remind us, in subtle ways, more of the typically romantic woman in nineteenth-century fiction than of some of Chopin's more daringly presented passionate females. The possibility of continued sexual exploration ends altogether with the next stroke of Chopin's pen. “But she did not go with him,” the narrator explains. “Chance willed it otherwise. That night a courier brought her a message from Beauregard, telling her that Gustave, her husband, was dead” (300). We hear no more about Madame Delisle's emerging sexuality.

As has been mentioned, the “delicious tumult” hinted at in “The Lady of Bayou St. John” is, cleverly, defined in more exact terms—terms approximately as direct as those used by the author in her description of Sepincourt—in “La Belle Zoraïde.” The story is a tale told by Manna-Loulou, Madame Delisle's Negro servant, and seems to have relatively little to do with Madame Delisle herself. We know the story must have been told before the proposal by Sepincourt. Before his arrival, we learn in “A Lady of Bayou St. John,” Madame “could not fall asleep at night unless old black Manna-Loulou sat beside her bed and told her stories” (298). After he lets his passion for her be known and she experiences the fright of her new feelings of love, Madame Delisle does not want Manna-Loulou by her side: “She would not hear Manna-Loulou's stories. She wanted to be alone, to tremble and to weep” (299-300). The reference to Manna-Loulou is so brief and so casual that it would be easy to miss it altogether or to ignore its significance. Yet, we cannot fully appreciate what Chopin is telling us about Madame Delisle's sexuality without understanding the association between Madame's reluctance to hear Manna-Loulou's tale, expressed in “The Lady of Bayou St. John,” and the specific content of one such tale told by the Negro servant in “La Belle Zoraïde.”

“La Belle Zoraïde” is a tale rich with disguised and veiled parallels. Robert Arner has noted one such significant ambiguity: “the teller of the tale and her listener stand in precisely the same relationship to each other as Zoraïde and Madame Delarivière do: slave-mistress.” Arner perceptively asks, “Is the story intended as an act of rebellion, however non-violent, by Manna Loulou?”6 Another parallel of importance also quietly begins to surface between Zoraïde's situation and that of Madame Delisle.

In “La Belle Zoraïde,” as Per Seyersted observes, Chopin examines “the theme of activated passion.” Zoraïde, he writes, “catches fire.”7 But she is a Negro, and her passion, therefore, is permissible. The dark, sexual content—the account of Zoraïde's desire for Mézor, Doctor Langlé's servant—is announced through a description of the night that precedes the commencement of Manna-Loulou's storytelling. “The summer night was hot and still” (303) the story begins. This stillness and heat are the sort that precede a storm—a release of energy. Symbolically, the heat and stillness suggest that a release of sexual energy is also about to occur. The heat makes a riverman lazy and languorous and causes “a lover's lament for the loss of his mistress” (303) to form upon his lips. Chopin stresses that “not a ripple of air swept over the marais” (303). She also emphasizes the unusual darkness of the night, hinting at mystery. “Yonder, across Bayou St. John,” she observes, “lights twinkled here and there in the darkness, and in the dark sky above a few stars were blinking” (303).

Although the stillness, heat, and darkness of this night are not mentioned again after Manna-Loulou begins narrating, the reader quickly senses that in the Negro servant's story he will discover the “release” of tension and energy that the night images foreshadow. Indeed, the stillness breaks when Zoraïde sees Mézor dance the Bamboula in Congo Square, “the sensual nature of [which dance] caused its prohibition.”8 Zoraïde, Chopin tells us with language far more explicit than that used to describe Madame Delisle's desire for Sepincourt, feels the music's primitive rhythms and longs to touch Mézor's body, “bare to the waist, … like a column of ebony, … [and glistening] like oil” (304). She desires this man “from the moment she [sees] the fierce gleam of his eye, lighted by the inspiring strains of the Bamboula, and [beholds] the stately movements of his splendid body swaying and quivering through the figures of the dance” (304).

Mézor, unlike M'sieur Ambroise, the mulatto “with his shining whispers like a white man's” (304) whom Zoraïde's mistress, Madame Delarivière, wants her to marry, is a figure of immense sexuality. He stands “as straight as a cypress-tree and as proud looking as a king” (304). When he is not dancing in Congo Square, he is hoeing his master's sugar cane, “barefooted and half naked” (305). Zoraïde cannot resist his appeal; though prohibited by her mistress from seeing him again, she disobeys and bears his child.

But Chopin has carefully distanced us from Zoraïde's behavior. Zoraïde is not a civilized white Southerner; she is, rather, a Negro and, later, like Naomi, a madwoman. Making the lovers both Negro (Zoraïde the color of cafe-au-lait and Mézor of ebony) makes the explicitness of the narrator's remarks more acceptable: Negroes, to nineteenth-century Southerners, were thought, primarily, to be sexually different from whites—promiscuous, primitive, lustful, fierce. Chopin even has the narrator who frames the story, Manna-Loulou (a woman “herself as black as the night” [303]), disapprove of Zoraïde's behavior, reinforcing many of the prejudices of white Southerners and moving us another step away from Chopin's true assessment of the situation. “But you know how the negroes are, Ma'zélle Titite,” Manna-Loulou says, smiling sadly as she seems to support the common prejudice about racial sexuality. “There is no mistress, no master, no king nor priest who can hinder them from loving when they will. And these two found ways and means” (305). Zoraïde and Mézor's behavior was not offensive because the color line permitted a strikingly different sexual code. Too, we find that Zoraïde, heartbroken because of her mistress's lie that her baby had died, becomes mad, forever clasping a rag bundle to her breast. She becomes “Zoraïde la folle” (307), and, as with Naomi Mobry, we have even more difficulty recognizing her mental state as in any way approximate to our own.

Chopin has even more carefully distanced us from the important parallel between Zoraïde and Madame Delisle that, when recognized, allows us to see that Zoraïde's eroticism is shared by Madame. The similarity between what Zoraïde felt and Madame Delisle was feeling becomes evident only if, after reading both stories, we remember Zoraïde's refusal to have Manna-Loulou continue with her nightly ritual of storytelling. One must have read “The Lady of Bayou St. John,” and read it carefully, to discover the connection Chopin is making. From “La Belle Zoraïde” alone we have no suggestion that the feelings Manna-Loulou ascribes to Zoraïde are shared by Madame Delisle, a young, wealthy, white Southern woman, but in Madame's refusal to listen further, we find the specific nature of the “delicious tumult” Madame Delisle experiences defined. Had Madame Delisle, after the overtures of Sepincourt, in some way sensed a parallel between her new sexual excitement and Zoraïde's? Was she afraid to admit it? Did she vaguely fear that Manna-Loulou's stories would give her own feelings too much clarity and intensity? Certainly Madame Delisle's sacrifice of self and passion to the memory of Gustave suggests that the guilt of her momentary desire for a man not her husband was of an extreme variety. Once again, Chopin avoids a direct message in favor of ambiguity, apparent stereotyping, and the most subtle sorts of clues.

We find similar as well as new techniques to establish distance from the truth of female passion in “Juanita” (July 26, 1894). The Juanita figure, we know, was a real person in Chopin's life, the daughter of the local postmaster in Sulphur Springs, Missouri.9 Chopin revised this story for Moods magazine from a diary entry about Annie Venn, the original “Juanita.”10

Although “Juanita” appeared first as a diary item, we cannot help but guess that Chopin began consciously working toward narrator distortion as she began to see the potential of her observations. We know this happened with “Cavenelle,” and we know that no matter how true events are that appear in Chopin's first person stories (of which there are remarkably few), the narrator often is treated with mild or intense irony. Seyersted, for example, observes that “Vagabonds,” as the manuscript at the Missouri Historical Society indicates, “describes an actual incident in the life of Kate Chopin, the Cloutierville widow.”11 Yet we have seen, with the help of critics of “Vagabonds,” that the storekeeper is hardly Kate Chopin: she is, rather, a repressed woman overly concerned about respectability and unaware of her true desires.12

The narrator of “Juanita” is “respectable” as well. She does have a sense of humor, though often at others' expense. She laughs at Juanita's appearance and peculiar taste in men. She thinks of herself as superior to the low-life behavior of Rock Spring's (originally Sulphur Spring's) town character. “For my part I never expected Juanita to be more respectable than a squirrel; and I don't see how any one else could have expected it” (368), she concludes.

Chopin's use of a distorted first person is an especially fine and effective distancing procedure, perhaps in some ways even more ambiguous and interesting than a Manna-Loulou type frame. Chopin, ironically, gains distance from the Juanita figure and her peculiar sexual behavior and preferences by associating herself closely with the details of Juanita's history. Disapproval of a character's behavior by the supposed “author” of an autobiographical fragment would naturally be more forceful and convincing than that of a storyteller who is named and apparently fictional, a Manna-Loulou. Chopin avoids the imputation that she approves of or understands Juanita's behavior by telling us, herself, that Juanita is no more moral than a squirrel. This assessment of Juanita's peculiar conduct would have been shared by countless numbers of Chopin's readers.

Another device Chopin uses here is similar to a distancing procedure described in the discussion of the previous short stories. “Juanita,” like “La Belle Zoraïde,” is coupled with a companion piece. That companion piece, “The Night Came Slowly,” lets us know more about the true identity of the narrator (and Chopin's hidden comment about female sexuality) as “The Lady of Bayou St. John” lets us know more about Madame Delisle and her obvious similarity to Zoraïde. Again, Chopin cleverly keeps part of the truth buried in a separate story, away from the reader's immediate experience.

“The Night Came Slowly” was originally, like “Juanita,” a diary entry. Written two days before the Annie Venn account, it was published with “Juanita” under the title “A Scrap and a Sketch.”13 In it we find the use of the first person, but the voice of the “I” in Chopin's “scrap” is very different from that of the “I” in “Juanita.” This is the voice of a woman strongly drawn to the sensuous. Though the sensuous in the piece is never directly equated with sexual awareness and desire, the language the narrator uses to describe her feelings is lush, provocative, mysterious, and interestingly metaphoric. The charm of the night to which she abandons herself is “soothing and penetrating” (366). The wind is called “the caressing wind” (366). It curiously “rippled the maple leaves like little warm love thrills” (366). This narrator casts aside respectability with disdain. “Why do fools cumber the Earth!” she asks excitedly. “It was a man's voice that broke the necromancer's spell. A man came to-day with his ‘Bible Class.’ He is detestable with his red cheeks and bold eyes and coarse manner and speech. What does he know of Christ?” (366) She confidently concludes, “I would rather ask the stars: they have seen him” (366). The thoughts might have been Edna's own as she fled the church of Our Lady of Lourdes on the Chênière Caminada for Madame Antoine's.

It is the person who can respond sensuously (and, it is hinted, sexually) who is happiest and closest to wisdom and fulfillment. Or so we learn in “The Night Came Slowly.” The mood of the piece and its message—so much closer to Chopin's prevalent thesis throughout her canon—informs our reading of “Juanita,” but only if we recognize that here is another instance of Chopin's subtle pairing of stories that appear, on first look, to have little to do with each other but, more closely examined, become absolutely inseparable, providing essential—and, perhaps, to many, objectionable—information in a highly discreet and wonderfully clever way. Juanita, though apparently far less articulate than the narrator of “The Night Came Slowly,” shares her fondness for and attraction to nature and the life of the senses. She has an “inflamed moon-face” (368); she spends her time when living with her parents close to the earth, “preparing vegetables for dinner or sorting her mother's flower-seed” (367), and she wanders frequently with her curious lover from the village to the secretive woods, a journey familiar to that of many of Hawthorne's outcasts.

Chopin adds still another technique to make Juanita's behavior seem irregular, to distance her from the normal and the ordinary. An effect comparable to the use of Negroes in “La Belle Zoraïde” and a madwoman in “Mrs. Mobry's Reason” is achieved by making Juanita the grotesque town character. Her appearance, her choices, her actions are so bizarre that we immediately see little of ourselves in her. She is enormous. She stands five-feet-ten and weighs over two-hundred pounds. Her wardrobe consists of a single garment—a soiled calico “Mother Hubbard.” Yet, men literally swarm around her, as they do Hemingway's enormous Alice in “The Light of the World.” Young and old, “They hung on her fence at all hours; they met her in the lanes; they penetrated to the store and back to the living-room” (368). She becomes involved with a number of attractive suitors: a rich South Missouri farmer and a Texas millionaire who owns a hundred white horses, one of which “spirited animals” (368) Juanita, significantly, begins to ride in her village.

Juanita's final choice is neither the wealthy farmer nor the Texas tycoon. In a passage highly reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's “Good Country People,” we learn that Juanita has chosen a puny, helpless, poor, ragged, one-legged man. Juanita tries to seel subscriptions to buy him a “cork-leg” (originally a “wooden” leg in the diary version [1018]). She also, later, produces a baby, “whose father, she announced, was her husband, the one-legged man” (368). No one could ever prove a marriage had occurred: “the story of a wandering preacher was told; a secret marriage in the State of Illinois; and a lost certificate” (368), but the propriety and appearance of her relationship with the one-legged man concerns Juanita not at all. Villagers, including the narrator, become accustomed to the common sight of Juanita mounting her husband upon a sorry-looking pony and leading it by the bridle into the woods—where Juanita “lavishes the wealth of her undivided affections upon the one-legged man” (368).

We have only to glance quickly through a list of Chopin's other stories to see that techniques discussed here, especially social and racial stereotyping, were used with uncommon frequency. In “Vagabonds” (Dec. [2?], 1895) and “A Vocation and a Voice” (November 1896) vagabonds and gypsies inform us about the instinctive life. In “Loka” (April 9-10, 1892) it is an Indian girl who desires to flee irresponsibly to the woods as she sniffs the sassafras leaves and “pungent camomile” (215), unlaces and removes her brogans, and stands “a-quiver, panting, ready for flight” (215). Calixta in “At the 'Cadian Ball” (July 15-17, 1892) is Spanish: “that little Spanish vixen” (219), Chopin calls her.14 In “Fedora” the titular figure is an extremely repressed woman seen by all around her as a sorry, pathetic, narrow-visioned spinster.

And in The Awakening there is some veiling. For example, Chopin conveys sexual knowledge through the use of lush, symbolic landscape descriptions; through the appearance of minor characters, such as Tonie and Gouvernail, whose relationships with women in earlier stories quietly, silently inform the novel; through the omission of poetic lines, a technique also important to our understanding of “A Respectable Woman”; and through the creation of Mariequita, another Spanish girl, as a symbol of the fully sensuous life. However, Edna herself is not Spanish. Nor is she a Negro, an Indian, a madwoman, or a town character like Juanita, she was too much like her readers for them to permit her erotic, sensual, shameless behavior.

In The Awakening there could be no doubt about Chopin's true message: female passion is universal, touching all equally, overwhelming women of every economic and social class, every race. But Chopin, like Edna, was to learn that society would not tolerate such unconventional and bold remarks. Contemporary reviews of the novel, now so familiar, condemned Chopin's masterpiece as “vulgar,”15 and “not healthy.”16 The reception, as we now know, “froze the creative impulse within her,”17 “killed her literary creativity.”18 Chopin knew the novel, with its directness, was a risk, but she probably thought that her public, like Chopin herself, was ready to look into the very face of truth. Perhaps by her use of distancing techniques throughout the 1890s Chopin hoped, in an artistically interesting way, to prepare her readers, her critics, and herself for the powerful, more direct message of her 1899 novel. Unfortunately, only she was ready to walk closer to the universal truth of female sexuality in 1899.


  1. Kate Chopin, “A Matter of Prejudice,” in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge, 1969), I, 282; hereafter works from volumes I and II of this edition will be cited parenthetically.

  2. For a thorough discussion of the Ibsen parallel (as well as the story's debt to Wagner's Ring cycle) see Susan Wolstenholme, “Kate Chopin's Sources for ‘Mrs. Mobry's Reason,’” American Literature, 51 (January 1980), 540-43.

  3. Ibid., 541.

  4. Ibid., 543.

  5. “Music from a Farther Room: A Study of the Fiction of Kate Chopin,” Diss. The Pennsylvania State University 1970, 77.

  6. Ibid., p. 91.

  7. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge, 1969), 108-09.

  8. Workers of the Writers' Projects Administration in the State of Louisiana, Louisiana: A Guide to the State (New York, 1941), 98.

  9. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, p. 217.

  10. Kate Chopin, A Kate Chopin Miscellany, ed. Per Seyersted and Emily Toth (Natchitoches, 1979), 99.

  11. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, p. 217.

  12. See Robert Arner, “Characterization and the Colloquial Style in Kate Chopin's ‘Vagabonds,’” Markham Review, 2 (May 1971), 110-12; Joyce Coyne Dyer, “Night Images in the Work of Kate Chopin,” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, 14 (Autumn 1981), 224-25.

  13. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, 217.

  14. Chopin may have sensed that her later description of Calixta in “The Storm” was even too powerful to be veiled by her Spanish heritage. “When [Alcée] touched her breasts they gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy, inviting his lips” (595), she had written. The author never tried to publish the piece because, as Seyersted noted, she was “quite aware of how daring she had been in this tale” (Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, p. 164).

  15. “Fiction,” Literature, 4 (23 June 1899), 570.

  16. “Notes from Bookland,” St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, 13 May 1899.

  17. “Kate Chopin (O'Flaherty),” American Authors, 1600-1900: Biographical Dictionary of American Literature (New York, 1938), 156.

  18. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, 183.

Wayne Batten (essay date fall 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6674

SOURCE: Batten, Wayne. “Illusion and Archetype: The Curious Story of Edna Pontellier.” Southern Literary Journal, 18, no. 1 (fall 1985): 73-88.

[In the following essay, Batten examines Chopin's ambiguity of meaning regarding the notion of illusion in The Awakening.]

Near the end of The Awakening, the protagonist is summoned by her friend Adèle Ratignolle, who is in labor for her fourth child. Although Edna herself has two children, the spectacle of childbirth leaves her shaken, and the kindly Doctor Mandelet insists on walking her home. Both the Doctor and Adèle know that Edna has moved out of her husband's house and possibly returned the attentions of the roué Alcée Arobin, and they may suspect, as the reader knows, that she is about to consummate her long-incubating passion for Robert Lebrun. The trouble, the Doctor tells Edna, is that

“youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature, a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost.”

“Yes,” she said. “The years that are gone seem like dreams—if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! well! perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one's life.”1

Of the commentators who for various reasons have extolled Edna's quest for selfhood, none notice, in this crucial interchange when Edna refuses professional help, that she and the Doctor are speaking at cross-purposes.2 If by “illusions” they mean not, loosely, “misconceptions” or “delusions,” then they are speaking of the distorting power of imagination, of how certain images harmfully influence perception. But the Doctor is asserting that romantic fictions actually assist instinctual “Nature” to entrap women in the condition which Adèle has just exhibited at its severest, while Edna can only be referring to the habits and assumptions that have sustained her conventional marriage to Léonce Pontellier at the cost of her own passionate nature, which has only recently been awakened. Given the unfailing precision and sang-froid of Kate Chopin's writing, it seems likely that the confusion points to a serious rather than a merely accidental ambivalence.

Doctor Mandelet's diagnosis was the subject of two letters which Kate Chopin purportedly received from London in the autumn of 1899, in the midst of a general outcry against the novel. Rankin, Chopin's first biographer, reprints both letters in full.3 Lady Janet Scammon Young wishes that Mandelet had advised Mr. Pontellier not to “fancy that because you have possessed your wife hundreds of times she necessarily long ago came to entire womanly self knowledge—that your embraces have as a matter of course aroused whatever of passion she may be endowed with.” Had Pontellier helped Edna to distinguish between love and passion, Lady Janet continues, Edna need not have died, but could instead have enriched her marriage with “her passional nature.” With her letter Lady Janet encloses one from Dunrobin Thomson, a consulting physician who warns that “the especial point of a wife's danger when her beautiful, God given womanhood awakes, is that she will save her self-respect by imagining herself in love with the awakener.” If, on the contrary, again assisted by her husband, “she knows perfectly well that it is passion; if she esteems and respects her passional capacity as she does her capacity to be moved by a song or a sonnet, or a great poem, or a word nobly said—she is safe.” Edna, accordingly, could have learned that the fantasies she constructs with Robert Lebrun do not render his attraction fundamentally different from the unembellished lure of Arobin; for, although illusions can dress up passion to look like love, the “passional capacity” can be safely recognized by associating it, not love, with the excitement of music and other arts. Yet Edna's fantasies contain something essential to her, and her imagination is not the free agent that Doctor Thomson would wish. It would be of the greatest interest to have Doctor Thomson's reaction to the contrary case of Emma Bovary, whose faith in romantic illusions renders any reconciliation between her passionate nature and her real world impossible.

Chopin's second biographer, Per Seyersted, adds still another dimension to the problem of illusion. Writing seventy years after the fact, Seyersted was unable to verify that either Lady Janet or Doctor Thomson ever existed, so that although the letters are preserved at the Missouri Historical Society, “we cannot quite exclude the possibility that they may have been falsifications.”4 Did the author, stunned and perhaps embarrassed by the effluvia cast by critics upon her somewhat self-indulgent and certainly libidinous protagonist, deviously compose these laudatory missives herself, maintaining that “the essence of the matter lies in the accursed stupidity of men”? Or did Father Rankin, who interviewed many of Chopin's circle and whose research notes were unaccountably lost, intentionally foist bogus documents upon the public, which in 1932 might bring up the old charge of scurrility, requiring a rebuttal stronger than any he could otherwise supply? Whoever abused the limits of illusion in the case, the letters give thoughtful responses to the question of why Edna dies and what could have prevented “that last clean swim.” And while both letters maintain that Doctor Mandelet gives inadequate treatment to Edna's problem, they also point to the suggestive power of illusion for both cause and cure.

Edna's illusions fall into three categories: those suggested to her by other characters, those she creates, and the images associated with her by the author. The third group is equivalent to Edna's real experience, to objective rather than subjective material, a distinction sometimes deliberately blurred by the impressionistic narrative technique but no less crucial for understanding her plight. When Edna, despondent after Robert's withdrawal and apparent abandonment on the night of Mme. Ratignolle's accouchement, casts aside her bathing suit, she feels “like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (p. 189). The birth image and the paradoxical feeling of returning to a place and knowing it for the first time are Edna's, but the attendant images are provided by the narrator. Incantatory passages are repeated from chapter six, early in the novel, but now the “seductive” voice and the “soft, close embrace” of the sea are more sinister. The soul is again drawn “to wander in abysses of solitude,” but the earlier “to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation” is dropped from the phrase (pp. 25, 189). Similarly, the wavelets, which “coiled back like slow, white serpents” on the night Edna learns to swim, have become shackles, “coiled like serpents about her ankles” (pp. 47, 189). During labor Mme. Ratignolle's braided hair is “coiled like a golden serpent” (p. 180). Much earlier, the reptilian image appeals to Edna, as she considers Robert's suggestion that they visit Grande Terre, to “climb up the hill to the old fort and look at the little wriggling gold snakes, and watch the lizards sun themselves” (p. 58). The powerful serpent image or uroboros thus surfaces at moments of seduction, childbirth, and death, but only under Edna's control in the first instance. Finally, as Edna begins to swim, she remembers her first exhilarating swim and the sea-like bluegrass meadow where she wandered as a child, “believing that it had no beginning and no end” (p. 190). More memories come as she swims until, on the threshold of eternity,

Edna heard her father's voice and her sister Margaret's. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.

(p. 190)

These final images, though consisting of Edna's early memories, have the focus and sensory immediacy of illusions, completing the cycle of life by approximating Edna's return to significant moments in her childhood.

In her analysis, Cynthia Griffin Wolff posits that Edna's childhood shows the development of a schizoid personality, a self-enclosed and self-protective psyche that fears and avoids real intimacy.5 Less convincingly, Wolff argues that this solipsism protects an infantile, oral fixation, and that Edna's fascination with the sea betrays a longing to return to the gratifying “oceanic” state of the infant still at one with the mother, still immersed in the amniotic fluid. To make a watertight case, Wolff must ignore several important considerations; Edna, for example, does not perversely leave Robert but is instead called away by the imperious Mme. Ratignolle, who with maddening clairvoyance has perceived that neither he nor Edna may quite live up to the Creole code of conduct. More importantly, Edna's last sensations do not accord with a “regression, back beyond childhood, back into time eternal.”6 Instead, they leave her at a time in childhood having special significance for her, which she has in part confided to Mme. Ratignolle in an earlier scene:

At a very early age—perhaps it was when she traversed the ocean of waving grass—she remembered that she had been passionately enamored of a dignified and sad-eyed cavalry officer who visited her father in Kentucky. She could not leave his presence when he was there, nor remove her eyes from his face, which was something like Napoleon's, with a lock of black hair falling across the forehead.

(p. 31)

Edna was subsequently infatuated with a young man engaged to her sister's friend, and still later, as a young woman, “the face and figure of a great tragedian began to haunt her imagination and stir her senses” (p. 32). Wolff shows that this succession of love-objects, each one more illusory than the one previous, naturally leads Edna to marry Pontellier, because “a husband who evoked passion from her might lure the hidden self into the open, tempting Edna to attach her emotions to flesh and blood rather than phantoms.”7 After hearing Edna's confidences, however, Mme. Ratignolle is sufficiently uneasy to warn Robert to “let Mrs. Pontellier alone” (p. 35). What finally does and does not happen between Edna and Robert can be understood less as a flight from the realities of flesh and blood than as the result of difficulties with the “phantoms” themselves.

Little Edna was enamored of a man, not an illusion, so intensely that “she could not leave his presence when he was there, nor remove her eyes from his face.” The Freudian critic might well point out that the cavalry officer was a friend of her father and thus a suitable person to whom Edna could transfer powerful Oedipal longings. The other recurring image from this time, the endless sea-field, gives the child a sense of freedom (especially from the gloomy Presbyterianism of her stern father) but also suggests the danger of becoming lost. The overwhelming emotions attached to the officer carry the same threat. In her next phase, in early puberty, Edna is drawn to a man she can safely identify as lover and husband, though not her lover and husband. With the tragedian Edna brings to bear a repertoire of romantic illusions which, unlike Emma Bovary before her, she never imagines her own husband can fulfill. This third, precociously cynical stage, this dissociation of imaginary from actual experience, breaks down in the course of the novel, and Edna finds no means of regaining her equilibrium. Her dilemma is sketched in her contrasting responses to music. When Mlle. Reisz plays, Edna is shaken by passions lashing her “as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (pp. 44-45). Previously she has responded to music as she does to the more prosaic performances of Mme. Ratignolle. A piece Edna calls “Solitude” causes her to visualize

the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him.

(p. 44)

This foreboding constellation brings together three sets of images: birds, sea, and mysterious male figures, each ambivalent with longing and danger. James H. Justus comments: “The picture itself can be seen as a transsexual projection: the naked man is Edna as well as the vaguely identified, wished-for, would-be lover: a kind of redaction of the twenty-eight swimmers plus one in Walt Whitman's Song of Myself.8 It is also likely that the lost man is a transmuted memory of her first, powerful attachment. Here, however, the male principle, wisdom, or Zeus, is in flight from the animus figure, who is left at the mercy of the waves, the undifferentiated sea of the unconscious. The passions aroused by Mlle. Reisz's music are safely contained in the medium of art, but when Edna brings them to her actual experience the attenuation of her imaginative faculty will prove more serious.

The imagination becomes attenuated when it ceases to mediate between the inner world of the psyche and the external world of society, marriage, and morality. The fantasy life may become hyperactive, but rather than compensating the psyche for its loss of actuality it expresses the true nature of the problem, reinforcing the message of recurring dreams. On the night of Edna's first, exhilarating swim, she finds herself in a new, more powerful position in relation to her world. Expanding on her comment that “it is like a night in a dream,” Robert playfully associates her new skill with folklore:

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.

(pp. 49-50)

Robert offers Edna a way to understand her excitement. The archetypal Gulf spirit only appears at times of crucial change, governed by the lunar, dream-like aspect of consciousness. He arises from the sea as the woman's animus arises from the unconscious at a moment when a new, more comprehensive organization of the psyche has become possible. Like the Gulf spirit, however, the animus presents a corresponding threat: the woman's subliminal, male identity, with its direct access to the unbounded unconscious, will dominate the psyche, eventually extinguishing the ego-consciousness; the woman is possessed by the archetype, who “will never wholly release her from the spell.” The usual defense is either to repress the instinctual life altogether or, as Robert unwittingly implies, to project the archetype onto a real man, to “suffer a poor, unworthy earthling to walk in the shadow of her divine presence.” This form of projection, though dangerous itself, at least opens the way through dialog to a relationship in which the transcendent figures are beneficially contained.9 Receptive to Robert's imaginative suggestions, Edna seems clearly on the path of projection, and when they return from the beach before the rest of the party the silence between them is “pregnant with the first-felt throbbings of desire” (p. 51).

Edna and Robert amplify their shared images during a trip by sailboat to Chêniére Caminada the next day, ostensibly to attend mass. Recalling the “mystic spirit” Edna now feels “free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails” (p. 58). Previously, Edna's confidences to Mme. Ratignolle had begun with her confession that “the sight of the water stretching so far away, those motionless sails against the blue sky, made a delicious picture that I just wanted to sit and look at” (p. 29). Now a participant, Edna is drawn to Robert's entreaties to take her sailing in his own pirogue, and she is delighted at the suggestion that her Gulf spirit will help her find buried treasure. Like Robert's “little wriggling gold snakes” and Edna's vision of “watching the slimy lizards writhe in and out among the ruins of the old fort,” pirate gold becomes a metaphor for illicit sexual gratification:

“I'd give it all to you, the pirate gold and every bit of treasure we could dig up. I think you would know how to spend it. Pirate gold isn't a thing to be hoarded or utilized. It is something to squander and throw to the four winds, for the fun of seeing the golden specks fly.”

“We'd share it, and scatter it together,” he said. His face flushed.

(pp. 58-59)

Small wonder, after this, that Edna finds the atmosphere in church “stifling” and leaves before the end of mass. The renegades find harbor at a nearby cottage, she “in the very center of the high, white bed,” he reclining “against the sloping keel of the overturned boat” just outside the bedroom (pp. 61-62). Refreshed, Edna consumes a bit of bread and wine, then plucks an orange and throws it at Robert, who is sufficiently seduced to insist on delaying their return until night. After hearing their hostess tell legends of the Baratarians, Edna and Robert sail home by moonlight, while the narrator records that “misty spirit forms were prowling in the shadows and among the reeds, and upon the water were phantom ships, speeding to cover” (p. 65). The impersonal narrative voice thus confirms what will prove to be the furthest extent to which the lovers can actualize their fantasies. Robert, who has perhaps pandered his illusions more effectively than he anticipated, decides the next day to begin his fortune-seeking trip to Mexico, a project he had postponed numerous times before. The dreamspinner turns and escapes into the commercial, material world. Surprised and hurt, Edna finds his move “perfectly preposterous and uncalled for” (p. 74).

Edna possesses now a complex of images of special significance for her: Gulf spirit, moonlit expeditions, sails on open sea, pirates, buried treasure, phantom ships, mists, a cloud of gold dust thrown “to the four winds.” Building upon the actual setting at Grand Isle and neighboring islands, these images contain as their nexus the animus in the form of demon lover, the woman's spirit-ravisher, illicit lover of body and soul. Robert's initial withdrawal frustrates Edna in the normal course of projecting the affect-laden archetype, who remains tied up in her framework of illusions and therefore insusceptible to dialog. During Robert's long absence, Edna consolidates her illusory resources. Her father visits, providing “a welcome disturbance,” revealing that his stern religion and patriarchal attitudes are matched, significantly, by his love of horse racing, his attractive bronze complexion, his white, silky beard and hair, and his habit of staying drunk all day with “numerous ‘toddies’” of his own concoction (pp. 113, 115). After a particularly exciting day at the races, Edna and her father join her husband and Doctor Mandelet for dinner. Over the wine the talk turns to recollection and story telling, Pontellier and Edna's father leading the way by telling stories of more interest to themselves than to the hearers. The Doctor appears no “happier in his selection, when he told the old, ever new and curious story of the waning of a woman's love, seeking strange, new channels, only to return to its legitimate source after days of unrest” (p. 117). Edna, in particular, is unimpressed by this case history, relevant though it may be to her own predicament. Instead,

She had one of her own to tell, of 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. It was a pure invention. She said that Madame Antoine had related it to her. That, also, was an invention. Perhaps it was a dream she had had. But every glowing word seemed real to those who listened.

(p. 117)

Dreams are often the medium through which the ego can glimpse animus, and Edna's frequent sleep or drowsiness has been commented on.10 The expedition which she and Robert never carried out has gained an archetypal immediacy, as “every glowing word seemed real” even to the male listeners. But here the trip ends, not with the lovers scattering gold together, but with disappearance and probable death. Consciously, Edna continues to develop her attachment to Robert, but unconsciously she feels that this romance cannot be reconciled with the known world. After hearing Edna's tale, the Doctor recognizes that her latency leaves her open to impersonal eroticism: “I hope to heaven it isn't Alcée Arobin” (p. 118)

The common cultural cognate for Edna's complex illusion is best exemplified in the group of ballads known as “The Daemon Lover” or “James Harris,” in which a woman abandons her husband and children to answer the call of her former lover, who appears at her window after a long absence at sea and tempts her with the promise of riches.11 In an early, lengthy version, the lover is a spirit “much like unto a man,” but in later, shorter variations he is a devil replete with cloven foot; and rather than merely disappearing the woman is drowned or carried to hell aboard his golden ship. Oral tradition appears to have developed the disastrous consequences of the woman's departure from her proper role as wife and mother, though the cautionary note is offset by the lurid effects of the devil's blandishments. Any sacrifice of social identity naturally bodes great risk, and when Edna moves out of her husband's grand house to the tiny “pigeon-house” she jeopardizes what she terms “illusions,” the social role and support system which her own paradigm may not adequately supplant. Her step toward greater independence and fulfillment, then, is also a move to act out the archetypal story of the woman governed by animus. Edna's disregard for the consequences and contingencies of violating convention indicates that her new illusions will mediate with the social world as poorly as her previous “illusions” mediated latent aspects of her psyche. Her certitude in this line of action is charged with mystification. In response to Doctor Mandelet's offer of help, she explains:

“Some way I don't feel moved to speak of things that trouble me. Don't think I am ungrateful or that I don't appreciate your sympathy. There are periods of despondency and suffering which take possession of me. But I don't want anything but my own way.”

(p. 184)

Minutes later, when Edna is about to enter the house where she believes Robert is waiting for her, “she could picture at that moment no greater bliss on earth than possession of the beloved one” (p. 185). A second time, however, Robert proves elusive, if not illusory; longing to possess, Edna is herself possessed. Jung writes that the woman at this stage

becomes wrapped in a veil of illusions by her demon-familiar, and, as the daughter who alone understands her father (that is, is eternally right in everything), she is translated to the land of sheep, where she is put to graze by the shepherd of her soul, the animus.12

In compensation for this peril, animus is also a psychopomp, who “gives to woman's consciousness a capacity for reflection, deliberation, and self-knowledge.”13 Unable to free herself of her “veil of illusions” through relationship with Robert, on whom she could project her overwhelming animus, Edna is left a prey to its negative effects, impersonal and hapless sexuality: “Today it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be someone else” (p. 188). Correspondingly, the obligations which Edna casts aside are not supplanted by experiences of relatedness through which the self gains meaning and stability; hence the capacity for self-knowledge becomes a void, prey to illusions made fascinating by the archetype.

But Edna's “veil,” woven of dream, fantasy and folklore, gains a still deeper archetypal reference through a set of images applied to her, images which associate her with both Venus and Psyche. Recalling Mrs. Pontellier's last dinner party in her husband's house, Victor Lebrun says 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” (p. 186). This appearance of seductive, god-like self-sufficiency ironically belies what Edna is feeling at the party, when she simultaneously longs for Robert and is overpowered by a sense of the unattainable. Victor's description does, however, accord with Robert's earlier conjecture that Edna “will never again suffer a poor, unworthy earthling to walk in the shadow of her divine presence.” The divine aura, the effulgence of reified archetype, actually makes the woman fragile. The perilous cross between mortal and divine is the subject of the myth of Psyche, in which Eros himself serves as animus, holding Psyche captive in his sumptuous palace, visiting her bed nightly, but adjuring her never to look upon him.14 At first it is Venus who, angered by the tributes paid to Psyche's merely mortal beauty, represents the malignant power of archetype; when Psyche brings forth her concealed lamp and discovers the beauty of Eros, he punishes her by taking flight, leaving her so bereft that her first impulse is to fling herself into a river to die.15 This crucial phase of the myth is the subject of “Psyche's Lament,” one of Kate Chopin's early poems. The second stanza

O sombre sweetness; black enfolden charms,
          Come to me once again!
Leave me not desolate; with empty arms
          That seeking, strive in vain
To clasp a void where warmest Love hath lain.(16)

expresses a passionate longing for the lost Eros, with no suggestion that he might be recovered. Here, in contrast to the myth, the “cursed lights” have only destroyed a sensual paradise, not opened the way to conscious love. The ambivalence of this moment is central to Edna's tragedy. Arobin's is “the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire” (p. 139). The light of Psyche's lamp transforms Eros from the serpent she expected to the most ravishing of lovers; after intercourse with Arobin, Edna “felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality” (p. 140). Edna cannot “imagine herself in love” with Arobin, however, and therefore the light, figurative and literal, cannot survive Robert's farewell note. After receiving it “She did not sleep. She did not go to bed. The lamp sputtered and went out” (p. 185). The narrator's images of illumination from torch or lamp reveal Edna to be a type of Psyche thwarted. In the brief chapter which introduces the incantatory personification of the sea, the narrator has warned: “A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her—the light which, showing the way, forbids it” (p. 25).

One alternative open to Edna is to become herself a creator and manipulator of illusion in the self-conscious and socially recognized role of artist. Although she “handled her brushes with a certain ease and freedom” indicating “natural aptitude” (p. 22), she has difficulty making the transition from amateur to professional. The discipline she needs has not been part of her upbringing; but training and practice might supply this deficiency were it not for more elusive problems confronting the dabbler who would be artist. The first of these emerges when Edna attempts a portrait of Mme. Ratignolle:

The picture completed bore no resemblance to Madame Ratignolle. She was greatly disappointed to find that it did not look like her. But it was a fair enough piece of work, and in many respects satisfying.

Mrs. Pontellier evidently did not think so. After surveying the sketch critically she drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface, and crumpled the paper between her hands.

(p. 22)

Clearly, the narrator does not share the evaluation made by the two women, and Edna's perfectionism may not be very distant from her friend's desire for a product that is representational rather than otherwise “satisfying.” The scene suggests that Edna has neither resolved the inevitable tension between illusion and reality, nor learned to inhabit the hinterland between the two, a place more essential to the artist than the convenient “atelier” where Edna daydreams. Another aspect of Edna's limitations arises in her relationship with Mlle. Reisz, who is unquestionably an artist. When in a later scene Edna laughingly speaks of becoming an artist, Reisz tells her she has “pretentions,” for the artist in addition to “absolute gifts” must, in order to succeed, “possess the courageous soul … The brave soul. The soul that dares and defies” (pp. 105-106). On another visit Reisz feels Edna's shoulder blades to see if her wings are strong, adding, “the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (p. 138). The imagery here recalls Edna's vision of a bird in flight from a male figure and anticipates the actual, wounded bird which flutters into the sea moments before the end. As conceived and represented by Mlle. Reisz, the Romantic artist must be opposed and superior to society, heroic and solipsistic. Quarrelsome, ugly, wearing an emblematic bunch of artificial violets in her hair, the little pianist shows the disfigurement which her kind of specialized isolation entails.17 Artistry thus presents danger as great as any Edna could encounter in employing her skills toward greater self-knowledge.

Whether Edna fails or refuses to sublimate her newfound, passionate nature through the medium or art, her plight shows the difficulty of finding a social role adequate to her needs. Society in this novel offers women only one role, and Edna is not a “mother-woman.” With mild sarcasm the narrator explains: “They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (p. 16). In her study of nineteenth-century American culture, Ann Douglas maintains that this maternal mystique served largely unacknowledged purposes:

The cult of motherhood, like the Mother's Day it eventually established in the American calendar, was an essential precondition to the flattery American women were trained to demand in place of justice and equality. It offered them, of course, a very genuine basis for self-respect. It gave them, moreover, an innate, unassailable, untestable claim to charismatic authority and prestige, a sanction for subjectivity and self-love.18

While men in The Awakening enjoy their careers in business or the professions, the matriarchy has ascendancy over the personal sphere, with the result that in respectable relationships men seem to have difficulty conceiving of women in other than maternal terms. When Edna resists her husband's selfish demand that she wake up and listen attentively to his account when he returns late from his gambling party, he retaliates by accusing her of neglecting their children. Even Robert, who helps to formulate Edna's erotic fantasies, had attended sometimes a girl or widow, but “as often as not it was some interesting married woman” (p. 20). His great hope on his return from Mexico is that Pontellier will set Edna “free” to become a wife and, inevitably, a mother all over again. Despite the practicality of its basis, the matriarchy is not independent of illusion, for like other complex roles it draws upon imagination. The prime embodiment of “mother-woman” is, of course, Mme. Ratignolle:

There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams … the spun-gold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires; two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious crimson fruit in looking at them.

(p. 17)

Again the narrator simultaneously employs and debunks standard images, suggesting both their usefulness and their deficiency. In the Creole society into which Edna has married the charismatic mother image gains its ultimate, paradoxical power through association with Roman Catholic iconography. Posing for her portrait Mme. Ratignolle is “like some sensuous Madonna” (p. 22) wearing her favorite color, white. The imagery continues with the Farival twins (whom Mlle. Reisz, significantly, dispises), “girls of fourteen, always clad in the Virgin's colors, blue and white, having been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin at their baptism” (p. 41). The logical disparity between “mother-woman” and virgin is dissolved in the figure of Mary, who expresses her consummate motherhood without the aid of mere men. In light of the miraculous mother, an archetype fully as powerful as the demon lover, the narrator wonders if Edna's growing recognition of “her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” is “perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman” (p. 25, italics mine).

Although in their final conversation Edna and Doctor Mandelet have differing referents in mind for “illusions,” the problem addressed is the same: what to do when illusions fail, when the psyche is left unprotected against particularities of time and place over which it has no more control than do the caged or stricken birds that appear at beginning and end. Worse still to live unshielded from full knowledge of this entrapment. The circle closes about Edna as she discerns that, all illusions aside, Adèle's final admonishment to “think of the children” bears a moral weight from which she cannot escape. She is overwhelmed, finally, not only by transcendent forces but also by the orientation of her society toward them, which reinforces the increasing autonomy of her fantasy life and frustrates her need to actualize vital aspects of her psyche through a meaningful and viable relationship with another. Among her last thoughts she acknowledges that husband and children are part of her life, “but they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul” (p. 190). Her flaw is that she counters this absolutism with her own by refusing, despite her reply to Doctor Mandelet, to live and suffer knowledge. In this respect she resembles Madame Bovary, who is similarly cornered by a network of circumstances and who dies in recoil from the painful recognition of her failure.19 In contrast, Edna's struggle achieves Promethean dimensions because her fascination with animus both charts a crucial phase of psychic development and brings her into oppostion with the sexless mother archetype which commands her social world. Her tragedy arises, however, less from the archetypes themselves than from the perilous nature of illusions which, clashing, rend for a moment to reveal the real world which is the perogative of the tragic protagonist, through suffering, to know.

For Edna, then, truth to her inmost nature and to the forces of individuation demands that she complete the transition from illusion to reality, that she finish the story she and Robert began on the night of her first long swim. If she cannot go forward, she can return to the erotic darkness which Psyche laments, to her first demon lover, to the point when past and present, illusion and reality, thought and sensation merge in the blissful embrace of animus, the shepherd of her soul. “The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.”


  1. Kate Chopin, The Awakening (New York: Avon Books, 1972) 184. Subsequent references will be given parenthetically in the text. Per Seyersted's edition in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin can be found in libraries but is relatively rare.

  2. For example, Ottavio Mark Casale, “Beyond Sex: The Dark Romanticism of Kate Chopin's The Awakening,Ball State University Forum 19.1 (1978): 76-80, places the novel in the tradition of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville; Donald A. Ringe, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin's The Awakening,American Literature 43 (1972): 580-588, relates the novel's transcendentalist concept of self-discovery to the sea imagery; Susan J. Rosowski, “The Novel of Awakening,” Genre 12 (1979): 313-332, compares Edna with other female protagonists of the bildungsroman type and links sea and meadow as images of escape from finitude; I am especially indebted to Lawrence Thornton, “The Awakening: A Political Romance,” American Literature 52 (1980): 50-66, who shows Edna's conflict with Creole culture, its dependence on illusion, and the moral aspect of her sexual awakening; Nancy Walker, “Feminist or Naturalist: the Social Context of Kate Chopin's The Awakening,The Southern Quarterly 17.2 (1979): 95-103, also deals with conflict between cultures but stresses the novel's adherence to naturalist conventions in representing the sexual basis of Edna's enlightenment; Priscilla Allen, “Old Critics and New: The Treatment of Chopin's The Awakening,The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977) 224-238, gives a useful, if somewhat polemical, review of earlier treatments of Edna; Allen finds emphasis on sexual awareness reductive and suggests, instead, that Edna's is a tragic struggle for freedom, for “full integrity, full personhood—or nothing” (p. 238).

  3. Quotations from the Young and Thomson letters in Daniel S. Rankin, Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932) 178-182.

  4. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget; Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969) 179.

  5. In “Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin's The Awakening,American Quarterly 25 (1973): 449-471. Wolff is seconded by Ringe's essay on the question of Edna's solipsism and possessiveness, though he attributes these qualities to a Romantic vision of the emerging self. James H. Justus, “The Unawakening of Edna Pontellier,” The Southern Literary Journal 10.2 (1978): 107-122, similarly attributes Edna's apparent regression to an actual increase in self-awareness which cannot find mature expression.

  6. Wolff, p. 471.

  7. Wolff, p. 452.

  8. Justus, p. 116.

  9. On the phenomenon of animus see Emma Jung, Animus and Amina, trans. Cary F. Baynes and Hildegard Nagel (1957; Zurich: Spring Publications, 1978); and C. G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, vol. 9, pt. 2 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, trans. R.F.C. Hull, 2nd ed., Bollingen Series 20 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968) pars. 1-67. On the problem of containment and projection see also Jung's discussion of marriage in The Development of Personality, vol. 17 of The Collected Works (1954) pars. 324-345.

  10. Especially by George Arms, “Kate Chopin's The Awakening in the Perspective of Her Literary Career,” Essays on American Literature in Honor of Jay B. Hubbell, ed. Clarence Gohdes (Durham: Duke University Press, 1967) 215-228; by Ringe; and by Robert S. Levine, “Circadian Rhythms and Rebellion in Kate Chopin's The Awakening,Studies in American Fiction 10 (1982): 71-81.

  11. Eight versions of the ballad are given in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis James Child, 5 vols. (1882-1898; New York: Dover Publications, 1965) 4: 360-369. Child records that an “Americanized version” of this ballad was printed at Philadelphia and cited in Graham's Illustrated Magazine for September, 1858 (p. 361). Given the widespread oral tradition of the tale, however, Kate Chopin need not have had any specific text in mind when she wrote her novel.

  12. Aion, par. 32.

  13. Aion, par. 33.

  14. The standard psychological explication of this myth is Erich Neumann, Amor and Psyche: The Psychic Development of the Feminine—A Commentary on the Tale by Apuleius, trans. Ralph Manheim, Bollingen Series 54 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971). For application to female protagonists of fiction, Lee R. Edwards,The Labors of Psyche: Toward a Theory of Female Heroism,Critical Inquiry 6 (1979): 33-49.

  15. Neumann, p. 100, comments on Psyche's suicidal reactions to the enormity of archetypal experience.

  16. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted, 2 vols. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969) 2: 727.

  17. The short story “Lilacs” shows the author's interest in the suggestiveness and emblemism of flowers. The pianist's hair ornament recalls the withered violets of Ophelia, while the pinks associated with the cavalry officer are dianthus, flower of the god Zeus or Eros.

  18. The Femininization of American Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977) 75.

  19. The comparison with Flaubert accords with the findings of Eliane Jasenas, “The French Influence in Kate Chopin's The Awakening,Nineteenth-Century French Studies 4 (1976): 312-322.

Martin Simpson (essay date fall 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 937

SOURCE: Simpson, Martin. “Chopin's ‘A Shameful Affair.’” Explicator, 45, no. 1 (fall 1986): 59-60.

[In the following essay, Simpson discusses images of nature and society in “A Shameful Affair.”]

Mildred Orme, in Kate Chopin's “A Shameful Affair,” is a socially conventional and sexually repressed young woman who has come to the Kraummer farm to escape the sexual demands that were made on her in civilized, urban society. Chopin uses fertile nature imagery to show Mildred being drawn out of the realm of sheltered social convention and into a natural world that is rich with sensuous physical surroundings. Here Mildred is forced to recognize and struggle with her sexuality.

Mildred is obviously a young woman who has continually repressed the sexual side of her nature. She is attracted to Fred Evelyn from the first time she sees him and goes out of her way to get his attention. After he has refused her request to drive her to church, she walks down to the river where she knows he will be fishing. She knows he will be alone, because earlier “all the other farmhands had gone forth in Sunday attire” (150). Even though it is obvious to the reader that Mildred is pursuing Fred, she conceals this knowledge from herself. She labels Fred as a “clumsy farmhand” and notes quite inaccurately that “farmhands are not so very nice to look at” (148). After she has had her sexual nature awakened by his kiss, she tells herself that the desire she feels for him is a “shameful whim that chanced to visit her soul, like an ugly dream” (152). Mildred has been able to avoid facing her sexual repression in the past only because she has been away in a civilized, urban environment where social conventions have allowed her to keep men at arm's length. She has “refused [her] half dozen offers” (149) and ironically has come to the farm to seek “the repose that would enable her to follow exalted lines of thought” (150).

The imagery that Chopin uses to describe the farm and Mildred's relation to it reveals that Mildred has entered a sensuous environment that she is trying to resist by clinging to symbols of civilization. The farmhouse itself, as a man-made structure, can be considered an island of civilization amidst the “swelling acres [of] undulating wheat” that “gleam in the sun like a golden sea” (148) and connote pulsating fertility. At first Mildred remains “seated in the snuggest corner of the big front porch of the Kraummer farmhouse,” behind her “Browning or her Ibsen” (148), which conveys the image of someone who is trying to isolate herself intellectually in a farmhouse that is itself isolated in an ocean of natural fertility.

Mildred has to abandon her island of civilized social convention when she becomes interested in Fred Evelyn, and nature begins to take its effect on her when she does. She must go down a “long, narrow footpath through the bending wheat” (150) to encounter Fred at the river. This footpath is like a tunnel through the “yellow wheat” that reaches “high above her waist” (150) on either side, which suggests the nearly overwhelming aspect of the fecundity that is almost enveloping her. Mildred's close contact with her sensuous surroundings causes her own repressed sexuality to come to the surface. Her brown eyes become “filled with a reflected golden light” (150) from the wheat as she passes through it, and her lips and cheeks become “ripe with color that the sun had coaxed there” (150). Nature has now begun to erode the self-control that Mildred has exercised over her passions.

Mildred's losing battle against the effects of the fertility around her is conveyed through Chopin's inspired use of imagery during the scene at the river. While she is watching Fred fish, Mildred is standing very still and “holding tight to the book she had brought with her” (150). The book is a sort of life-preserver (a repression-preserver, rather), a symbol of civilization and social restraint. When she “carefully” lays the book down and takes into her hands the phallic fishing pole that Fred gives her, she has given in to her sexual instincts. The voluntary act of setting aside the book and picking up the pole symbolically foreshadows her willing participation in the passionate kiss that follows.

After she has unwittingly and temporarily surrendered to her sexual desires at the river, Mildred once again retreats into her customary repressive behavior. When she feels the first moment of shame after Fred has kissed her, she determines to return to her room in the farmhouse. She will be isolated from nature there, and she can “give calm thought to the situation, and determine then how to act” (151). Only when she is back on the “very narrow path” through “the wheat that [is] heavy and fragrant with dew” (153) is she able to admit to herself what Chopin has already shown to the reader in the scene at the river: she is partly responsible for Fred's impulsive kiss. Being greatly disturbed at this knowledge, she tells Fred that she hopes to someday be able to forgive herself (153).

Chopin's theme in “A Shameful Affair,” the enlightened idea that sexual repression is harmful, is brought out by her contrasting images of civilized society and liberating natural fecundity. Mildred's consistent retreat from sexuality, associated with symbols of societal repression, causes her to become a troubled and confused young woman. She will never be a complete and healthy human being, Chopin is saying, until she comes to terms with the “golden, undulating sea” of her passions.


Chopin, Kate. “A Shameful Affair.” The Awakening and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin. ed. Barbara H. Solomon. (New York: Signet, 1976) 148-53.

Carole Stone (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3769

SOURCE: Stone, Carole. “The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Brith and Creativity.” Women's Studies, 13, nos. 1-2 (1986): 23-32.

[In the following essay, Stone views Chopin's birth imagery in The Awakening as symbolic of the birth of Edna Pontellier as an artist.]

When Kate Chopin's The Awakening was published in 1899 critics attacked its depiction of a heroine who sought sexual pleasure outside of marriage and condemned Chopin for “failing to perceive that the relation of a mother to her children is far more important than the gratification of a passion which experience has taught her is … evanescent.”1 But The Awakening is even more radical in its treatment of motherhood because it questions the assumptions that childbirth and child care are a woman's principal vocation, and that motherhood gives pleasure to all women.

In Chopin's era childbirth was considered a woman's noblest act; to write of it otherwise was unacceptable. Thus, the clinical details of pregnancy and birthing remained largely unwritten. As Dr. Mandelet tells Edna in The Awakening. “The trouble is that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature to secure mothers for the race.”2 But Dr. Mandelet's insight is rare for a man because he is a physician. By shattering the illusion that giving birth is a glorious experience, Chopin attacks the patriarchal structure which denies women control of their bodies. In addition, however, she goes beyond naturalism in her use of the birth motif. On the symbolic level birthing is a metaphor for the rebirth of the book's protagonist, Edna Pontellier, as artist. The novel can be read as a depiction of the growth of the female artist, a bildungsroman, in which birth is emphasized as unique to the female experience.

Many recent critics of The Awakening fail to see Edna's growing sense of power and control as signs of progress toward a new self-definition. They view her as a woman deluded by romanticism who is unable to make a conscious choice, such as the decision to become an artist, because her instincts are regressive. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, for example, considers Edna passive, an artist at the mercy of her work. Further, she finds that for Edna birth is a pyschic trauma awakening her to the impossibility of total fusion with another.3 Another critic, Suzanne Wolkenfeld, considers that Edna's “experience of rebirth is not directed toward new life, but backward to the womb.”4 And James Justus observes that Edna's “awakening is not an advance towards a new definition of self but a return to the protective self-evident identity of childhood,”5 while Donald A. Ringe considers Edna's romanticism part of a voyage of transcendental self-discovery, but concludes that Chopin “allows her character no limitless expansion of self.”6 A more recent critic, Carole Christ, views Edna's awakening in a positive light, seeing her evolving sense of self as spiritual rebirth. However, Christ, too, finds Edna ultimately socially defeated in spite of the very important fact that this heroine grows as an artist.7

In this essay I will argue that Edna's memories of her childhood, her immersion in the sea, and her search for a mother figure are emblems of regression in the service of progression toward an artistic vocation. Rather than returning to the dependency of childhood, she goes forward to a new conception of self, a definition of herself as artist. Further, I will suggest that Edna's romanticism is positive because it catalyzes her imaginative power. As the final step forward functioning as an autonomous human being, moreover, she sees through the delusion of romantic love after confronting the horror of giving birth.

Edna's artistic birthing is shown through the contrasting characters of two women, Adèle Ratignolle, a “mother-woman,” and Mme. Reisz, a pianist. As Per Seyersted has observed, “the novel covers two generations and births … a finely wrought system of tensions and interrelations set up between Edna's slow birth as authentic and sexual being and the counterpointed pregnancy and confinement of Adèle.”8 Adèle embodies female biology, always talking of her condition, for she has a baby about every two years. Adèle's opposite, Mme. Reisz, a serious artist, is unmarried. She exemplifies the solitary life of the dedicated artist.

A third influence on Edna's artistic development is Robert LeBrun, a young Creole man who, because he has not yet assumed the masculine values of his society, can be a friend to Edna as her husband cannot. He teaches her to swim, furthering her autonomy, and with his easy way of talking about himself, encourages her self-expression. Because he has aroused sexual desire in her, she eventually has an affair with another man, Alcée Arobin, an affair which functions as a rite of passage to sexual autonomy.

Each of these three figures has positive and negative qualities that help and hinder Edna's struggle to be creative. Adèle Ratignolle, a sensuous woman, awakes Edna to the sensuality of her own body. Also Adèle's candor in talking about such subjects as her pregnancy helps Edna to overcome her reserve. Furthermore, Adèle encourages her to express thoughts and feelings she had kept hidden, even from herself. For example, at Adèle's urging to say what she is thinking as they sit together by the sea, Edna recalls “a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl … She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water.” (17) When Edna says that she feels as if this summer is like walking through that meadow again “unguided,” Adèle strokes her hand, and we see that in fact, though not an artist, it is she who guides Edna toward warmth, openness, and creativity. For Edna's memory is an important step in the growth of her power of free association, necessary in the creative process.

In these early scenes by the sea Chopin also establishes the sea as a central symbol for Edna's birthing of a new self. The connection in her mind between the grass and the sea foreshadows the autonomy she achieves by learning to swim, as well as her final walk into the sea at the book's end. Symbolically, the sea is both a generative and a destructive force in The Awakening; it represents danger inherent in artistic self-expression—losing oneself in unlimited space—as well as the source of all life, facilitating rebirth, so that Edna in her first moments of being able to swim feels like a child who has learned to walk. The ocean has also been seen as a symbol of woman or the mother in both her benevolent and terrible aspects. Madame Ratignolle, in association with the sea, represents the benevolent mother who nurtues Edna and even inspires her to paint. Adèle seems to her, as she is seated on the beach, like “some sensuous Madonna,” and she paints her picture.

At this beginning point in her artistic development Edna thinks of herself as a “dabbler.” However, though Edna has had no formal training, Chopin establishes the fact that she is talented for “she handled her brushes with a certain ease and freedom which came not from a long and close acquaintance with them but from a natural aptitude.” (12) We also see early on that Edna has the capacity for self-criticism as “after surveying the sketch critically, she drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface and crumpled the paper between her hands.” (12) Later when Edna's critical faculties are turned against conventional values of home, husband, and family in the direction of autonomy, Adèle will show the negative side of her mothering qualities. By constantly reminding Edna of her duty to her children, she binds her to society's rules and impedes her creative growth.

In these early scenes at Grand Isle where Edna's struggle to be an artist is beginning, Robert is another source of imaginative power. As she paints Adèle's portrait, he encourages her with “expressions of appreciation in French.” While this may simply be Creole flattery, it is more encouragement than she has ever received from her husband. Like Adèle, he is sensual, and as she paints he rests his head against her arm. He also speaks about himself freely, telling her of his plans to go to Mexico. Under his influence she speaks to him about her life, and it is he who awakens her to the passions of her body. A few weeks after the painting scene on the beach, Chopin again uses the sea as a symbol of growth, and again in connection with Robert. One evening he proposes a night swim and we see him lingering behind with the lovers, “and there was not one but was ready to follow when he led the way.” (28) Robert's appearance is associated frequently with lovers; he becomes Cupid who awakens Edna to the force of Eros. This evening she learns to swim and feels herself “reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” (30) Loss of boundaries suggests orgiastic union which foreshadows Edna's final merging with the sea. Significantly, that evening as she lies in a hammock, an image of lovemaking, she feels herself “pregnant with the first felt throbbing desire” (32) for Robert.

When her husband returns later she refuses to go inside when he asks her to. By now she has achieved mastery over her body by learning to swim and mastery over her environment by challenging his authority. She now has to achieve mastery over her imagination, but at this point can only “blindly follow whatever impulse moved her.” (34) Next morning, without much thought, she asks a servant to tell Robert she wishes him to take the boat with her to Cheniere for Mass. Walking to the wharf, there are, as always when Robert appears, lovers who already stroll “shoulder to shoulder.” Edna's imagination is subsumed by the romance phase of her creative growth as she spends an idyllic day with Robert. This chapter could be considered an epithalamion which, like Edmund Spenser's, is governed by the position of the sun during each part of the marriage day. On the boat trip, “The lovers were all along. They saw nothing, they heard nothing.” (36) Edna and Robert became like the lovers, infatuated with each other, as the sun was high up and beginning to bite.” (36)

Edna grows tired in church during Mass, and we see her reject another of society's institutions of authority in favor of the natural force of Eros. Robert takes her to the home of Madame Antoine where Edna partially removes her clothes and while Robert waits for her outside, lies down “in a strange, quaint bed, with its country odor of the laurel, lingering about the sheets and mattress.” (39) The laurel, expressive of victory and celebration, is a tree sacred to Apollo, and since the sun charts the course of this harmonious day, the association is clear. The festival being celebrated is a mock wedding, and the hammock which Edna slept in the night before has been replaced by the marriage bed.

Edna wakes to an Edenic world of simple pleasure and magical properties. Beside her bed are bread and wine, symbolizing communion. Outside she picks an orange from a tree in a natural paradise where, Robert tells her, she has slept for a hundred years while he guarded her. As the day ends they watch the sun “turning the western sky to flaming copper and gold,” (41) as Madame Antoine tells them stories. She represents the oral tradition of art, a simple phase which Edna can enjoy and emulate. On the boat trip back, Edna hears “the whispering voices of dead men and the click of muffled gold.” (42) This day is the high point of romance in Edna's imagination, and she will return to it in her memory as she paints, and as she repeats Madame Antoine's stories.

The woman who represents a structured form of art is Mme. Reisz, the true artist Edna wishes to become. While Madame Ratignolle plays the piano solely for the pleasure of her family, Mme. Reisz plays Frederic Chopin with great feeling and art. Before hearing Mme. Reisz play, music had evoked pictures in Edna's mind. After listening to her play, Edna's passions are aroused. But like such nineteenth century female artists as Emily Dickinson, Mme. Reisz is unmarried, childless, eccentric in manner and in dress, and alienated from society. She cannot serve as a role model for Edna. Nevertheless, Edna's creative development continues. After the family's return to New Orleans, she takes up her painting once more in spite of her husband's admonishment that she “not let the family go to the devil” while she paints. She works with “great energy and interest” though she feels she is not accomplishing anything. Often she sings “Ah tu savais,” the song Robert sang on Grand Isle, and she recalls:

the ripple of the water, the flapping sail. She could see the glint of the moon upon the bay, and could feel the soft, gusty beating of the hot south wind. A subtle current of desire passed through her body, weakening her hold upon the brushes and making her eyes burn.


On the one hand romance limits her work, but on the other hand it is a source of inspiration.

There are factors beyond Edna's control, however, which limit her development. Gilbert and Gubar, in a discussion of the woman writer in patriarchal society, describe “the loneliness of the female artist, her feelings of alienation from male predecessors coupled with her need for sisterly precursors and successors, her urgent need for a female audience.”9 Certainly this describes Edna's situation as she seeks out her two contrasting women friends for validation, Mme. Reisz and Adèle Ratignolle. She brings her paintings to Adèle even though she knows in advance, “her opinion in such a matter would be next to valueness … but she sought the words of praise and encouragement that would help her to put heart into her venture.” (59) Adèle, true to her character as a “mother-woman,” tells her that her talent is immense, and Edna is pleased even though she recognizes “its true worth.” She receives a much harsher judgement of her artistic capacity from Mme. Reisz. In reply to the question of what she has been doing, Edna tells her “I am becoming an artist” and her friend says, “Ah! an artist. You have pretensions, Madame.” (68) Sensing the insecurity which keeps her from total commitment to art, Mme. Reisz warns, “To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts—absolute gifts—which have not been acquired by one's own effort. And moreover, to succeed the artist must possess the courageous soul.” (68)

But there is much evidence to show the growth in Edna's capacity to be an artist. She is learning to enjoy solitude, and her teacher, an art dealer, observes that her work “grows in force and individuality.” At a dinner party she tells the Baratarian story she heard from Madame Antoine, and her imagination has grown so much that she makes “every glowing word seem real” to her listeners. Shortly after, she moves out of her husband's house, using money from an inheritance and from the sale of her paintings, into a smaller house of her own. Edna's little house, like Woolf's “room of one's own,” is a symbol for growing psychic and financial independence. In addition, even more important than these actions, Edna has defined herself as an artist. Jokingly she says to Mme. Reisz, “You see that I have persistence. Does that quality count for anything in art?” (68) Indeed it does. Edna paints even though she lacks the serious criticism from others that could help her shape her art and despite the fact that she misses the support of women artists who understand the special obstacles that impede female creativity.

Two events occur almost simultaneously at the novel's climax, events which portray the forces that finally defeat Edna's search for artistic wholeness. One is her witnessing of Adèle's suffering in child-birth and the other is Robert's admitting that he loves her and wants to marry her. Edna has gone to Adèle, leaving Robert just after he tells her he has dreamed of marrying her if her husband will free her. She has replied that she is no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions to be given away. When she returns from Adèle's he is gone, having explained in a note that he has left not because he doesn't love her but because he does. Robert has been deeply connected to her sexual growth, which in turn affected the growth of her imagination. Through him she has begun to transfer the authenticity of her romantic vision to her paintings. Now, romantic illusions shattered, she loses the catlyst for her art.

The other illusion that is shattered is that of childbirth being a moment of joy. Edna does not remember her own pain when she gave birth, since she was chloroformed. Now, seeing Adèle's pain, she recognizes that she cannot rebel against nature. Adèle's parting words “think of the children” remind her of her mother-role which conflicts with her new-found freedom. Chopin was far ahead of her time in exposing the myth of bearing children as a woman's ultimate fulfillment, calling Adèle's “acouchement” a scene of torture. Almost a century later Sylvia Plath was to use the same image in The Bell Jar by describing the delivery room as “some awful torture chamber.”10 And a doctor tells Plath's protagnist Esther, just as Dr. Mandelet told Edna, “They oughtn't to let women watch. You'll never want a baby if you do. It'll be the end of the human race.”11

The next morning Edna returns to Grand Isle and walks to her death in the sea. Is her suicide triggered by Adèle's suffering in childbirth? By the knowledge that it is futile to rebel against biology? Does she kill herself because Robert has left her? Or because she has failed to become an artist? Edna drowns herself because she cannot live as a conventional wife or mother any longer, and society will not accept her newfound self. The solitude she enjoys makes for artistic growth, but she is bound to children, home, social duty. She will not sacrifice her new autonomy because, as Anne Jones points out, “she will not relinquish the core of her vision, which is not finally romance, but rather her own autonomous being … so she freely goes to the sea, losing her life. But she does not lose her self.”12

By beginning and ending The Awakening with the sea Chopin gives the book a wholeness that Edna cannot find in her life. Furthermore, Chopin's themes of sea/mother, love/lover, self/birth, sexuality/creativity are joined as Edna's birth of a new self is juxtaposed against Adèle's giving birth to another. In a moment of liberty she stands naked on the beach feeling like “some new-born creature” before entering the sea which becomes the universal Great Mother. To be sure, Chopin uses one image of defeat, the “bird with the broken wing,” which Edna sees “reeling, fluttering, circling, disabled down down to the water.” (124) This was the image used by Mlle. Reisz when, as if predicting Edna's fall she said, “it is a sad spectacle to see the weakling bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” (89) But how strong must a woman be at this time in order to maintain her artistic vocation without any support from community? Certainly Mlle. Reisz has given Edna no encouragement, so Edna thinks of how she would have laughed at her, of Robert who would never understand, and of her children who “sought to drag her into the soul's slavery.” (123)

Yet Edna's final moment is one of autonomous sexuality, as the world of her imagination resonates with fertility—“There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.” (125) Chopin repeats the description of the sea which describes Edna's first swim, “The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace,” (124) and with this symbolic closure portrays Edna becoming whole in the only way she can, by immersion in the universal sea of love. But how can Edna's death be positive? Many critics think it is not.13 Wolff, for example, uses it as further evidence of Edna's regressive instincts.14 Christ believes that while the ending of the novel was realistic for its time, suicide as a resolution cannot satisfy women now.15 Nevertheless, Edna Pontellier succeeds in giving birth to a new self even though the fact that she can not live on earth as this new self is tragic. The triumph of The Awakening lies in Chopin's depicting, when others did not, the conflicts faced by women who wish to become artists. Courageously, she built in her novel a bridge from past to future so that women might find their way across. Like her heroine, she too was a pontellier, a bridgemaker.


  1. C. L. Deyo, “The Newest Books,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 20, 1899, quoted in Kate Chopin, The Awakening, an authoritative text, Context, Criticisms (New York, Norton, 1976), p. 149.

  2. Kate Chopin, The Awakening & Selected Stories of Kate Chopin (New York: The New American Library, 1976), p. 120. All quotes are cited from this edition,

  3. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin's The Awakening,American Quarterly XXV (Oct. 1973), printed in The Awakening, ed. Culley, p. 212, 217.

  4. Suzanne Wolkenfeld, “Edna's Suicide: The Problem of the One and the Many,” in The Awakening ed. Culley, p. 223.

  5. James Justus, “The Unawakening of Edna Pontellier.” Southern Literary Journal, X (Spring, 1978), p. 112.

  6. Donald A. Ringe, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin's The Awakening,American Literature, 43 (January, 1972), reprinted in The Awakening, ed. Culley, p. 206.

  7. Carol P. Christ, Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980), p. 35.

  8. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), p. 153.

  9. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 50.

  10. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 53.

  11. Plath, p. 53.

  12. Anne Goodwyn Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Women Writer in the South, 1859-1936 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), p. 169.

  13. Wolkenfeld sums up critical views of Edna's suicide in The Awakening, ed. Culley. Those cited who hold negative views are Donald S. Rankin, George M. Spangler, and Cynthia Griffin Wolff.

  14. Wolff, in The Awakening, ed. Culley, p. 218.

  15. Christ, p. 39.

Patricia S. Yaeger (essay date spring 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12175

SOURCE: Yaeger, Patricia S. “‘A Language Which Nobody Understood’: Emancipatory Strategies in The AwakeningNovel 20, no. 3 (spring 1987): 197-219.

[In the following essay, Yaeger argues that language, not sexual liberation, is the element that makes The Awakening a “transgressive” novel.]

Despite the academy's growing commitment to producing and publishing feminist interpretations of literary texts, insofar as feminist critics read Kate Chopin's The Awakening as a novel about sexual liberation, we read it with our patriarchal biases intact. Of course The Awakening's final scene is breath-taking; Edna Pontellier transcends her circumscribed status as sensual entity—as the object of others' desires—and stands before us as her own subject, as a blissfully embodied being: “… she cast the unpleasant, pricking, garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her.”1 It is because of this new dignity and visibility Chopin gives to women's desires that The Awakening has been celebrated as one of the great subversive novels—a novel belonging to the tradition of transgressive narratives Tony Tanner describes in Adultery in the Novel. But in this essay I will suggest that Tanner's ideas are inadequate to account for the real transgressive force of Chopin's novel. Instead, I want to locate this force in Chopin's representation of a language Edna Pontellier seeks but does not possess, in her representation of “a language which nobody understood.”2

In Adultery in the Novel Tanner explains that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels derive a “narrative urgency” from their power to interrupt the status quo by representing characters or ideas which impinge on society's stability. While most bourgeois novels affirm marriage, the nuclear family, or genealogical continuity as the source of social stability, these same novels gather momentum by representing “an energy that threatens to contravene that stability of the family on which society depends”: an energy frequently embodied in the adulterous woman.3 While prostitutes, orphans, adventurers, and other marginal characters dominate the early phases of the novel and disrupt its representations of family stability with a raw transgressive force, Tanner suggests that in the novel's later incarnations this same energy is embodied in the motive or act of adultery. “Marriage, to put it at its simplest … is a means by which society attempts to bring into harmonious alignment patterns of passion and patterns of property” (15).

According to Tanner, marriage and adultery are central to the bourgeois novel because marriage mediates between the opposed demands of private desire and public law. “If society depends for its existence on certain rules governing what may be combined and what should be kept separate, then adultery, by bringing the wrong things together in the wrong places (or the wrong people in the wrong beds), offers an attack on those rules, revealing them to be arbitrary rather than absolute” (13). This is a fine observation, and resembles the critique Edna Pontellier applies to her husband and children while contemplating suicide. But Edna's critique of her position within the nuclear family, her sense of herself as someone who should not be regarded as her husband's or children's property, is only a part of her story: her realization does not begin to explain the forces in her society that resist critique. While the adulterous impulses of the novelistic heroine challenge one form of patriarchy, I want to suggest that they enhance another: the power of woman's “extra-marital” desire does not have the revolutionary power Tanner predicates.

Obsessed with the other, murdered, ostracized, or killed by her own hand, the adulterous woman is caught in an elaborate code that has already been negotiated by her society. Her actions may be defined as abnormal, but they are only mildly transgressive; adultery remains well within the arena of permissible social trespass. Edna Pontellier falls in love with Robert Lebrun precisely because this possibility is inscribed within her, because adulterous desire is covertly regarded in her society as a path for woman's misconduct: such desire continues to involve an obsessional valorization of the masculine.

Edna often wondered at one propensity which sometimes had inwardly disturbed her. … At a very early age … she remembered that she had been passionately enamored of a dignified and sad-eyed cavalry officer who visited her father in Kentucky. She could not leave his presence when he was there, nor remove her eyes from his face, which was something like Napoleon's.


Participating in the bourgeois family is one expression of the romantic obsession that shapes and destroys the bourgeois heroine. Participating in licentious desire for a man other than her husband is simply another. At the Pontelliers' dinner party early in the novel we can see how this desire remains within the schema of approved social narratives:

The Colonel, with little sense of humor and of the fitness of things, related a somber episode of those dark and bitter days, in which he had acted a conspicuous part and always formed a central figure. Nor was the Doctor happier in his selection, when he told the old, ever new and curious story of the waning of a woman's love, seeking strange, new channels, only to return to its legitimate source after days of fierce unrest. It was one of the many little human documents which had been unfolded to him during his long career as a physician. The story did not seem especially to impress Edna.


With his generous construction of what is and is not “legitimate,” the doctor has told a story in Tanner's “New Testament tradition.” According to Tanner, Christ is the ideal narrator, the narrator who, when “confronted with the woman taken in adultery,” tries to make the “would-be lawgivers aware of her problematical reality, calling into question both the impersonal application of the law and the justification and rights of the would-be legislators. Effectively this implies the disintegration of society-as-constituted” (14). But what else might it imply? Christ, despite his distinct “femininity,” and Mandelet, despite his generosity, still claim jural power by virtue of their gender; their acts and judgments do not imply “the disintegration of society as constituted,” but rather its “fatherly” reformation, since these paternal figures define—if not society's center—then its gentlemanly margins. In their “generous” revisions of law we find the same plot transferred to another patriarchal economy. Neither Christ nor Dr. Mandelet suggests a revision of the traditional heterosexual plot which, while it may or may not involve marriage, always involves a hierarchical reading of woman's relation to man.

Tanner has more to say; he argues that even “without anything or anyone necessarily having changed place or roles (in social terms), the action of adultery portends the possible breakdown of all the mediations on which society itself depends, and demonstrates the latent impossibility of participating in the interrelated patterns that comprise its structure” (17). This apocalyptic view of transgression is appealing, but wrong. For Edna, the thought or practice of adultery seems revolutionary but is actually a conservative gesture within the larger scheme of things, another mode of social acquiescence.4 The most radical act of trespass Chopin's novel describes is not Edna's propensity to fall in love, or even the way she acts after falling, but the fact that she is disturbed by her own obsessions.

Before her romance with Lebrun intervenes, Chopin's novel holds Edna's awakening open for us as an extraordinary event that Chopin refuses to attach—except peripherally—to Lebrun until we have witnessed Edna's preliminary attempts at self-dialogue and self-knowledge. We should therefore take exception to Tanner's paradigm, his notion that adultery

introduces an agonizing and irresolvable category—confusion—into the individual and thence into society itself. … If society depends for its existence on certain rules governing what may be combined and what should be kept separate, then adultery, by bringing the wrong things together in the wrong places (or the wrong people in the wrong beds), offers an attack on those rules, revealing them to be arbitrary rather than absolute. In this way, the adulterous woman becomes the “gap” in society that gradually extends through it. In attempting to ostracize her, society moves toward ostracizing itself.


Society may read itself through the absence of the adulterous woman, but she, being absent, cannot read herself. It is the absence of such critique and not the absence of adultery that allows the maintenance of a sex/gender system that remains repressive and hierarchical and victimizes women by making them not only wives, but objects of romantic or domestic narratives. The Awakening's most radical awareness is that Edna inhabits a world of limited linguistic possibilities, of limited possibilities for interpreting and re-organizing her feelings, and therefore of limited possibilities for action. In Edna's world what sorts of things are open to question and what things are not? Although Edna initially attempts to move into an arena in which she can begin to explore feelings which lie outside the prescribed social code, finally she can only think about herself within that code, can only act within some permutation of the subject-object relations her society has ordained for her.

If this is so, can we still define The Awakening as one of the grand subversive novels, as a novel belonging to a great tradition of emancipatory fiction? We can make such claims for The Awakening only if Chopin has been successful in inventing a novelistic structure in which the heroine's very absence of speech works productively, in which Edna's silence offers a new dialogic ground from which we can measure the systematic distortions of her old ground of being and begin to construct a new, utopian image of the emergence of women's antithetical desires. Does Chopin's novel offer such utopian structures?

“She had put her head down on Madame Ratignolle's shoulder. She was flushed and felt intoxicated with the sound of her own voice and the unaccustomed taste of candor. It muddled her like wine, or like a first breath of freedom” (20). What are the conditions that permit Edna to feel intoxicated with the sound of her own voice, to experience this “unaccustomed taste of candor” in conversation with a friend? These feelings are customary, this rapture quite ordinary, in fictions by men. “The earth is all before me,” Wordsworth insists in The Prelude. “With a heart / Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty, / I look about; and should the chosen guide / Be nothing better than a wandering cloud, / I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!”5 We know, of course, that Wordsworth has it wrong, that he has miles to go before he discovers anything remotely resembling liberty. Intoxicated by his own voice, thrilled at the prospect of articulate freedom, Wordsworth still claims prophetic powers; he permits his mind to wander and releases his voice to those “trances of thought and mountings of the mind” which hurry toward him. This makes gorgeous poetry, but for whom does it speak? Such moments are rarely recorded by women writers either on their own behalf or on behalf of their fictional heroines. In the scene in The Awakening where Edna returns to the beach from her unearthly swim, it is Robert Lebrun who speaks for her, who frames and articulates the meaning of her adventure, and the plot he invents involves a mystical, masculine sea-spirit responsible for Edna's sense of election, as if romance were the only form of elation a heroine might feel. Edna repudiates Robert's story: “‘Don't banter me,’ she said, wounded at what appeared to be his flippancy” (30). And yet Robert's metaphors quickly become Edna's own:

Sailing across the bay to the Chênière Caminada, Edna felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening—had snapped the night before when the mystic spirit was abroad, leaving her free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails. Robert spoke to her incessantly …


The tension between Edna's imagined freedom and Robert's incessant speech is palpable, but unlike the speech of Edna's husband, Robert's words invite dialogue: “‘I'll take you some night in the pirogue when the moon shines. Maybe your Gulf spirit will whisper to you in which of these islands the treasures are hidden—direct you to the very spot, perhaps.’ ‘And in a day we should be rich!’ she laughed. ‘I'd give it all to you, the pirate gold and every bit of treasure we could dig up.’” (35). Not only is Robert's vision one that Edna can participate in and help to create, but it is also like a fairy-tale: romantic, enticing, utopian. As a “utopia” Robert's vision is not at all emancipatory; it offers only the flip side, the half-fulfilled wishes of an everyday ideology.

“How many years have I slept?” she inquired. “The whole island seems changed. A new race of beings must have sprung up, leaving only you and me as past relics. …”

He familiarly adjusted a ruffle upon her shoulder.

“You have slept precisely one hundred years. I was left here to guard your slumbers; and for one hundred years I have been out under the shed reading a book. The only evil I couldn't prevent was to keep a broiled fowl from drying up.”


This comic repartee is charming: as Foucault explains in The Order of Things, utopias afford us special consolation. “Although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are able to unfold; they open up … countries where life is easy, even though the road to them is chimerical. … This is why utopias permit fables and discourse: they run with the very grain of language and are part of the fundamental dimension of the fabula.6 What Robert Lebrun offers Edna is a continuing story, a mode of discourse which may be chimerical, but unlike Edna's talk with her husband is also potentially communal. This discursive mode cannot, however, invite its speakers to test the limits of their language; instead, it creates a pleasurable nexus of fancy through which Edna may dream. Freed from the repressive talk of her husband, Edna chooses another mode of oppression, a speech-world that offers space for flirtation that Edna finds liberating. But this liberation is also limiting, a form of stultification, and in exchanging the intoxicating sound of her own voice as she speaks on the beach for Robert's romantic voice, Edna Pontellier's growing sense of self is stabilized, frozen into a mode of feeling and consciousness which, for all its promise of sexual fulfillment, leaves her essentially without resources, without an opportunity for other internal dialogues.7 We may see The Awakening as a novel praising sexual discovery and critiquing the asymmetries of the marriage plot, but we must also recognize that this is a novel in which the heroine's capacities for thought are shut down, a novel in which Edna's temptations to think are repressed by the moody discourse of romance. In fact, the novel's explicitly utopian constructs partake of this romance framework; they do not function transgressively. Does Chopin offer her heroine—or her reader—any emancipatory alternative?

Let us begin to answer this question by considering a moment from Lacan's essay “From Love to the Libido”—a moment in which Lacan turns upon his audience and denies that we can ever define ourselves through another's language.

What I, Lacan … am telling you is that the subject as such is uncertain because he is divided by the effects of language. Through the effects of speech, the subject always realizes himself more in the Other, but he is already pursuing there more than half of himself. He will simply find his desire ever more divided, pulverized, in the circumscribable metonymy of speech.8

The hearing of a lecture, the writing of a psychoanalytic text, the reading of a novel: these are moments of self-divisiveness, of seeking what we are in that which we are not. It is this drive toward self-realization in the speech of the other that we have begun to discover in The Awakening. Chopin's novel focuses from its beginning on the difficulties we have maneuvering within the precincts of language. It opens with an exotic and showy image: “A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That's all right!” (3) The parrot's speech is nonsensical, and yet it illuminates its world in an intriguing way. An amalgam of English and Creole, this exotic speech alerts us to the fact that the parrot inhabits a multilingual culture and suggests the babble and lyricism bred by mixing world views. But in addition to giving us a glimpse of the worlds we will encounter within the larger novel, these opening paragraphs make enigmatic statements about our relation to language itself; they open up an intriguing linguistic matrix.

Mr. Pontellier, unable to read his newspaper with any degree of comfort, arose with an expression and an exclamation of disgust. He walked down the gallery and across the narrow “bridges” which connected the Lebrun cottages one with the other. …

He stopped before the door of his own cottage, which was the fourth one from the main building and next to the last. Seating himself in a wicker rocker which was there, he once more applied himself to the task of reading the newspaper. The day was Sunday; the paper was a day old.


In contrast to the giddy plurality of the parrot's speech, Mr. Pontellier's meditations are redundant and single-minded. Chopin asks us to associate his propriety with the backward tug of words which are “a day old” and already emptied of meaning.9 The parrot, on the other hand, speaks a language emptied of meaning but full of something else. “He could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mockingbird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence” (3). Repetitive, discontinuous, incomprehensible: the speech of this parrot points to an immediate contrast between everyday speech and a more extraordinary speech world. The parrot mixes modes of speech at random; its polyvocal discourse directs our attention to a potential lack of meaning in words themselves—to a register of meaning beyond the reach of its language which is paradoxically articulated in The Awakening as “a language which nobody understood.”

In reading the parrot's speech we are in the vicinity of what Lacan calls “metonymy”:

A lack is encountered by the subject in the Other, in the very intimation that the Other makes to him by his discourse. In the intervals of the discourse of the Other, there emerges in the experience of the child something that is radically mappable, namely, He is saying this to me, but what does he want?

In this interval intersecting the signifiers … is the locus of what, in other registers of my exposition, I have called metonymy. It is there that what we call desire crawls, slips, escapes, like the ferret. The desire of the Other is apprehended by the subject in that which does not work, in the lacks of the discourse of the Other, and all the child's whys reveal not so much an avidity for the reason of things, as a testing of the adult, a Why are you telling me this? ever-resuscitated from its base, which is the enigma of the adult's desire.


Reading Chopin's text we find ourselves, from our first overhearing of the parrot's empty speech, in the position of the child who asks “Why?” but unlike the child we can begin to formulate an answer. The register of desire—of something not described within language but premised and promised there—is provided for us in the “empty” referents of the parrot's speech and its highly charged iterations of the mockingbird's song. It is this enigmatic “language” Mr. Pontellier attempts to shun as he navigates his newspaper and the “bridges” connecting the coherent and well-mapped spaces between the cottages. But it is in the unmapped spaces, the spaces between words, the unspoken sites of desire that Edna Pontellier initially resides, and in order to understand how this transgressive impulse is structured into Chopin's novel we need to see that Chopin herself has divided the linguistic topography of The Awakening in to an extra-linguistic zone of meaning imaged for us at the beginning of the novel in the speech of the parrot, a “language which nobody understood,” and a countervailing region of linguistic constraints imaged for us in Mr. Pontellier's speech.

Although Lacan's reading of “metonymy” helps us to identify this linguistic topography, the novel's missing register of language should not be confused with the irrecoverable “lack” that Lacan defines at the heart of discourse, or the psychic dyslexia in which Kristeva says “Woman” resides. Although “the feminine,” in Kristeva's early essays, is said to be synonymous with the a-linguistic (“What I mean by ‘woman’ is that which is not represented, that which is unspoken, that which is left out of namings and ideologies”10), I want to suggest that Edna's absent language is not a manifestation of women's permanent expulsion from “masculine speech” but of what Jean-François Lyotard calls “le differend.

Lyotard explains that “in the differend something ‘asks’ to be put into sentences, and suffers the wrong of not being able to be at the moment. … It is the concern of a literature, of a philosophy, perhaps of a politics, to testify to these differends by finding an idiom for them.”11 Chopin testifies to these “differends” by using the metaphor of an absent or displaced vocality (“the voice of the sea,” the multivoiced babble of the parrot) to emphasize Edna's need for a more passionate and intersubjective speech that would allow Edna to revise or rearticulate her relations to her own desire and to the social reality that thwarts this desire. This is to argue that The Awakening is a text that asks for another idiom to fill in the unspoken voices in Edna's story: an idiom that contemporary women writers and feminist critics have begun to provide.12 Thus Edna Pontellier speaks an unfinished discourse that reaches out to be completed by other speaking human beings: her “lost” speech—represented by her own speech fragments, by the sibilant voice of the sea and the chatter of the trilingual parrot—is not unfinished on an a-historical, metaphysical plane. Instead, Chopin's displaced metaphors of vocality help us to envision for her heroine a more radical speech situation, a linguistic practice that would reach out to the “differend,” to a politics that is not yet a politics, to a language that should be phrased but cannot yet (or could not then) be phrased.13 In this reading of Chopin's text the emancipatory moments in The Awakening do not consist of those instances of adulterous desire that drive Edna toward the transgressive side of the marriage plot. Instead, such emancipatory moments are contained in those unstable instances of self-questioning and dialogue with herself and with other women that the novel's romance plot helps to elide.

Before looking more closely at the way the “differend” operates in Chopin's novel, let us consider the moment of Edna's awakening in more detail. On the evening when Edna first begins, consciously, to recognize her powers and wants “to swim far out, where no woman had swum before” (28), her experience is one of multiple moods, of emotions which seem confused and inarticulate: “A thousand emotions have swept through me to-night. I don't comprehend half of them. … I wonder if any night on earth will ever again be like this one. It is like a night in a dream. The people about me are like some uncanny, half-human beings. There must be spirits abroad to-night” (30). Sensing the extraordinary reach of her feelings, Lebrun answers in kind:

“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 him 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 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.”


While Robert Lebrun may have “penetrated her mood,” he has also begun to alter its meaning. Edna's experience has been solitary and essentially mysterious; her swim has been a surpassing of limits, a mythic encounter with death—an experience suffused with metaphor, beyond comprehension. Robert's words do not begin to encompass its meaning, but he does attempt to communicate with her, to understand her mood. And since Edna lacks an alternative register of language to describe her tumultuous feelings, Robert's conceit soon becomes her own; his language comes to stand for the nameless feelings she has just begun to experience. Just as Edna's initial awakening, her continuing journey toward self-articulation and self-awareness is initially eccentric and complex, so this journey is finally diminished and divided, reduced in the romantic stories that she is told and the romantic stories she comes to tell herself, to a simplistic narrative that falsifies the diversity of her awakening consciousness. From this perspective, the pivotal event of Chopin's novel is not Edna's suicide, nor her break with her husband, but her openness to Robert Lebrun's stories, her vulnerability to the romantic speech of the other which has, by the end of the novel, become her speech as well:

“I love you,” she whispered, “only you; no one but you. It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream. Oh! you have made me so unhappy with your indifference. Oh! I have suffered, suffered! Now you are here we shall love each other, my Robert. We shall be everything to each other. Nothing else in the world is of any consequence. I must go to my friend; but you will wait for me? No matter how late; you will wait for me, Robert?”


Edna's final retelling of her story is not an accurate self-portrait, but a radical betrayal of the “awakening” that emerges at the novel's beginning. This initial “awakening” does not involve the violent triangulation of adultery, romance, and erotic story-telling, but the exploration of a discontinuous series of images that are promisingly feminocentric. In fact, what is disturbing about Edna's last speech to Robert is its falsification of her story, its naming of Lebrun as author of her growth, as source of her awakening. For what this last speech denies is the essential strangeness of Edna's initial self-consciousness, the tantalizing world of unvoiced dreams and ideas that Edna encounters at the novel's inception. By the end of the novel Edna has drifted into a system of self-explanation that—while it seems to account for her experience—also falsifies that experience by giving it the gloss of coherence, of a continuous narrative line. Edna's thoughts at the beginning of the novel are much more confused—but they are also more heterogeneous and promising.

In the opening scenes of The Awakening this struggle among different social possibilities, among diverse points of view, fails to take place as explicitly realized dialogue. Even Edna's husband does not have the power to challenge the voices which annoy him, but only “the privilege of quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining.” “The parrot and the mocking-bird were the property of Madame Lebrun,” Chopin tells us, “and they had the right to make all the noise they wished” (3). The detail seems trivial, but it is worth noting that just as Mr. Pontellier's reaction to the parrot's nonsensical speech is defined in terms of his relation to the parrot as someone else's possession, so his wife is defined in terms of property relations as well. “‘What folly to bathe at such an hour and in such heat! … You are burnt beyond recognition,’ he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (4). In Pontellier's linguistic world, the roles of speaker and listener are clearly defined in terms of social and material hierarchies. Edna Pontellier is someone her husband feels free to command and free to define, but she is not someone to whom Mr. Pontellier listens:

“What is it?” asked Pontellier, looking lazily and amused from one to the other. It was some utter nonsense; some adventure out there in the water, and they both tried to relate it at once. It did not seem half so amusing when told. They realized this, and so did Mr. Pontellier. He yawned and stretched himself. Then he got up, saying he had half a mind to go over to Klein's hotel and play a game of billiards.


When Pontellier—feeling “very talkative”—returns from Klein's hotel late at night, he blithely awakens his wife to converse.

He talked to her while he undressed, telling her anecdotes and bits of news and gossip that he had gathered during the day. From his trousers pockets he took a fistful of crumpled bank notes and a good deal of silver coin, which he piled on the bureau indiscriminately with keys, knife, handkerchief, and whatever else happened to be in his pockets.


Pontellier expects his words to have the same weight as his silver; the only difference is that he dispenses his language with greater abandon. But Edna Pontellier inhabits a speech-world very different from her husband's, a world oddly bereft of his cultural symbols. “Overcome with sleep,” she continues dreaming as he speaks and answers him “with little half utterances.” For her husband, Edna's separateness is maddening. Her words, like the words of the parrot Pontellier cannot abide, seem nonsensical; her “little half utterances” suggest a replay of the early morning scene on the beach. But this time the hierarchies are played out in earnest, and Pontellier reacts to his wife's inattention with a burgher-like furor. Nominally concerned for his children, he stalks to their rooms, only to find them inhabiting their own bizarre speech-worlds: “He turned and shifted the youngsters about in bed. One of them began to kick and talk about a basket full of crabs” (7).

While The Awakening traces the closure of its own intervals of desire and self-questioning, Chopin is also engaged in the radical mapping of those moments of speech in which our desires begin to address us. If the socio-symbolic world we inhabit encourages us to displace unspoken polyphanies with repetition, with customary stories, with narrative lines, the force of The Awakening's subversive nocturnes, its metonymic intervals, belies the permanence of Pontellier's social forms and suggests a linguistic counterplot which glitters through the text with dis-articulate meaning. The child's response throws his father's patriarchal assumptions into even higher relief when Pontellier responds to his son's “utter nonsense” by chiding his wife: “Mr. Pontellier returned to his wife with the information that Raoul had a high fever and needed looking after. … He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother's place to look after children, whose on earth was it?” (7). When Pontellier uses his power of speech to awaken his wife and to define her, Edna answers with deliberate silence. But when Pontellier drifts off to sleep, this silence loses its power. “Turning, she thrust her face, steaming and wet, into the bend of her arm, and she went on crying there, not caring any longer to dry her face, her eyes, her arms. She could not have told why she was crying.” What is remarkable about this episode is Chopin's emphasis on the unspoken, the unsayable:

An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul's summer day. It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood. She did not sit there inwardly upbraiding her husband, lamenting at Fate, which had directed her footsteps to the path which they had taken. She was just having a good cry all to herself. The mosquitoes made merry over her, biting her firm, round arms and nipping at her bare insteps.


The oppression Edna feels is not merely “indescribable” and “vague,” it also comes from an “unfamiliar” region of consciousness and can only be described through analogy. Edna's mood closes as swiftly as it has opened: “The little stinging, buzzing imps succeeded in dispelling a mood which might have held her there in the darkness half a night longer” (8). The biting mosquitoes add an ominous note and operate upon Edna like her husband's alien language; it is as if their determined orality forecloses on Edna's own right to speak.

In the morning the talk between wife and husband is amicably re-established through an economic transaction: “Mr. Pontellier gave his wife half the money which he had brought away from Klein's hotel the evening before” (9). When Mr. Pontellier responds with the appropriate cultural symbols, Edna is as trapped as she was in her conversations with Robert; she can only voice gratitude. “‘It will buy a handsome wedding present for Sister Janet!’ she exclaimed, smoothing out the bills as she counted them one by one. ‘Oh! we'll treat Sister Janet better than that, my dear,’ he laughed, as he prepared to kiss her good-by” (9). This happiness continues when Mr. Pontellier returns to New Orleans. The medium of this continued harmony is something oral or edible, something, like language, that Edna can put in her mouth:

A few days later a box arrived for Mrs. Pontellier from New Orleans. It was from her husband. It was filled with friandises, with luscious and toothsome bits—the finest of fruits, patés, a rare bottle or two, delicious syrups, and bon-bons in abundance.

Mrs. Pontellier was always very generous with the contents of such a box; she was quite used to receiving them when away from home. The patés and fruit were brought to the dining-room; the bonbons were passed around. And the ladies, selecting with dainty and discriminating fingers and a little greedily, all declared that Mr. Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs. Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew of none better.


Chopin's description of Edna's acquiescence, her praise of her husband, is edged with an undeclared violence; Edna is “forced to admit” what she does not feel. But what else could she say? “Mr. Pontellier was a great favorite, and ladies, men, children, even nurses, were always on hand to say good-by to him. His wife stood smiling and waving, the boys shouting, as he disappeared in the old rockaway down the sandy road” (9). Edna has no words for describing her intricate feelings, and if she did, who would listen? She could only speak in a private “language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze …”

In her essay on The Awakening Cynthia Griffin Wolff argues that Edna's central problem is psychological, that once her “hidden self” has begun “to exert its inexorable power” we can see that Edna's “libidinal appetite has been fixated at the oral level.”14 I have begun, in contrast, to suggest that Edna's problem is linguistic and social, that her “orality” is frustrated, exacerbated by her social milieu. Wolff insists on the correspondence between Edna's “preoccupation with nourishment” and an infantile, “orally destructive self, a limitless void whose needs can be filled, finally, only by total fusion with the outside world, a totality of sensuous enfolding” (208, 211). She explains that this totality “means annihilation of the ego.” But we have seen that Edna's need for fusion, her preoccupation with nourishment or oral surfeiting, does not arise from Edna's own infantility but from social prescription. Married to a Creole, Edna does not feel at home in his society, and she feels especially ill at ease with the Creole manner of speech. If the gap between Creole and Anglo-American cultures gives Edna a glimpse of the inadequacies of each, Edna's inability to deal fluently in the language her husband and lovers speak remains a sign of her disempowerment. As she sails across the bay with Robert to the Chênière Caminada, he flirts with a “young barefooted Spanish girl” named Mariequita. Mariequita is coy and flirtatious; she teases Lebrun and asks him sweet, ribald questions:

Edna liked it all. She looked Mariequita up and down, from her ugly brown toes to her pretty black eyes, and back again.

“Why does she look at me like that?” inquired the girl of Robert.

“Maybe she thinks you are pretty. Shall I ask her?”

“No. Is she your sweetheart?”

“She's a married lady, and has two children.”

“Oh! well! Francisco ran away with Sylvano's wife, who had four children. They took all his money and one of the children and stole his boat.”

“Shut up!”

“Does she understand?”

“Oh, hush!”


The scene is gay, but Mariequita's questions are filled with foreboding. Robert's knowledge of several languages, his power to control what others hear and speak, is a sign of his “right” to preside in a context where “no one present understood what they said” (34).

In a conversation with Alcée Arobin later in the novel we see how the paths for women's self-expression are continually limited. As Edna begins to explore her own deviance from social codes, Alcée Arobin usurps her role as story-teller; he begins to define her himself:

“One of these days,” she said, “I'm going to pull myself together for a while and think—try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don't know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can't convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”

“Don't. What's the use? Why should you bother thinking about it when I can tell you what manner of woman you are.” His fingers strayed occasionally down to her warm, smooth cheeks and firm chin, which was growing a little full and double.


The text moves from an emphasis on Edna's power of thought and speech to an emphasis on her erotic power, her flesh, as Arobin reasserts the old codes and “feeds” her with stories. Earlier in the novel Adele Ratignolle is similarly primed. Counselling Robert Lebrun to leave Mrs. Pontellier alone, Madame Ratignolle is rebuked for her efforts to speak: “‘It isn't pleasant to have a woman tell you—’” Robert Lebrun interrupts, “unheedingly, but breaking off suddenly: ‘Now if I were like Arobin—you remember Alcée Arobin and that story of the consul's wife at Biloxi?’” Lebrun's speech operates not only as a form of entertainment, but as a form of repression. “And he related the story of Alcée Arobin and the consul's wife; and another about the tenor of the French Opera, who received letters which should never have been written; and still other stories, grave and gay, till Mrs. Pontellier and her possible propensity for taking young men seriously was apparently forgotten” (21). Lebrun dismisses Madame Ratignolle's concern for Edna and reminds us that the women in Chopin's novel taste little if any verbal freedom. Visiting the Ratignolles Edna observes that

The Ratignolles understood each other perfectly. If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union.

Monsieur Ratignolle … spoke with an animation and earnestness that gave an exaggerated importance to every syllable he uttered. His wife was keenly interested in everything he said, laying down her fork the better to listen, chiming in, taking the words out of his mouth.


If Edna “is remarkably vulnerable to feelings of being invaded and overwhelmed,” if, as Wolff insists, “she is very much at the mercy of her environment,” this is because her environment is invasive and overwhelming, not only limiting her self-expression to acts of eating, but also rewarding women who, like Madame Ratignolle, are dutifully “delicious” in their roles, who put men's words in their mouths, who have “eaten” their husbands' language.

We have established that The Awakening revolves around the heroine's limiting life in the courts of romance and describes, as well, a frightening antagonism between a feminine subject and the objectifying world of discourse she inhabits. “The letter was on the bookshelf. It possessed the greatest interest and attraction for Edna; the envelope, its size and shape, the postmark, the handwriting. She examined every detail of the outside before opening it” (47). What men say, what they write grows more and more portentous, and the cumulative weight of their saying is often the same: “There was no special message to Edna except a postscript saying that if Mrs. Pontellier desired to finish the book which he had been reading to her, his mother would find it in his room, among other books there on the table” (47). The world of alien discourse seems omnipresent in the novel, and when Edna tries to make her own mark, her efforts are fruitless. “Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet” (53). In frustration Edna seizes a glass vase and flings it to the hearth. “She wanted to destroy something. The crash and clatter were what she wanted to hear” (53). If The Awakening can be defined as an emancipatory text, if it voices a conflict between men's speech and the speaking of women, this is a conflict articulated as a struggle between men's normative language and something unvoiced and enigmatic—a clatter, a “language which nobody understood.” Edna's anger is speechless; her gesture all but impotent, for when a maid sidles into the room to clean up the glass she rediscovers her mistress's cast-off ring: “Edna held out her hand, and taking the ring, slipped it upon her finger” (53).

It is, in fact, only women of property like Madame Lebrun, the owner of the summer resort where the Pontelliers are staying, or artists like Mademoiselle Reisz who have the power of public expression. But Mademoiselle Reisz (who would seem, initially, to offer Edna another model for female selfhood) is surprisingly complicitous in limiting Edna's options. We find the strongest image of her complicity midway through the novel when she hands Edna the letter from Robert and asks Edna to read it while Mademoiselle Reisz plays heart-rending music. “Edna did not know when the Impromptu began or ended. She sat on the sofa corner reading Robert's letter by the fading light.” As Edna reads Mademoiselle plays like a manic cupid, gliding “from the Chopin into the quivering lovenotes of Isolde's song, and back again to the Impromptu with its soulful and poignant longing” (64). The music grows fantastic; it fills the room, and Edna begins to sob “as she had wept one midnight at Grand Isle when strange, new voices awoke in her.” Now she hears one voice only and this voice has an oppressive material weight. “Mademoiselle reentered and lit a candle. Robert's letter was on the floor. She stopped and picked it up. It was crumpled and damp with tears. Mademoiselle smoothed the letter out, restored it to the envelope, and replaced it in the table drawer” (64). Like Mr. Pontellier's crumpled bank notes and small change, the letter has come to possess its own objectivity, its own material power. But if this is a letter that Mademoiselle Reisz can exchange for the pleasure of Edna's visit, it also represses her particular sonority. Mademoiselle Reisz's music is replaced by Robert's tune: “Robert's voice was not pretentious. It was musical and true. The voice, the notes, the whole refrain haunted her memory.”

The speech of the masculine “other” becomes, for Edna Pontellier and the women in her society, an arena of self-loss and inner divisiveness. Madame Lebrun's expressions, like Edna's, remain vestigial, enigmatic. Her sewing machine echoes the “clatter” of Edna's broken vase.

“I have a letter somewhere,” looking in the machine drawer and finding the letter in the bottom of the work-basket. “He says to tell you he will be in Vera Cruz the beginning of next month”—clatter, clatter!—“and if you still have the intention of joining him”—bang! clatter, clatter, bang!

“Why didn't you tell me so before, mother? You know I wanted—” Clatter, clatter, clatter!


If Madame Lebrun does not possess Alcée Arobin's power of definition, she does possess his power of interruption, and the noise of her sewing machine half-prepares us for her jibe at her younger son: “Really, this table is getting to be more and more like Bedlam every day, with everybody talking at once. Sometimes—I hope God will forgive me—but positively, sometimes I wish Victor would lose the power of speech” (42).

Translated into the language of the other, Edna's own story fails to materialize. But what might it have looked like? What is the rhythm and content of Edna's speech when she is neither speaking like her father or lover nor to him? First, we have seen that Chopin plays with the hiatus between the stories Edna inherits and what, in Edna, is heterogeneous to these stories, but is not bound by them. In The Awakening a story or framing device is frequently set against a “remainder” or supplement of meaning not encompassed within that frame. This remainder, this “excess” of meaning represents a “differend” which challenges the framing story's totalizing power, its explanatory validity. (Adorno puts this another way in his Negative Dialectics: “A matter of urgency to the concept would be what it fails to cover, what its abstractionist mechanism eliminates, what is not already a case of the concept.”)15 It is never a question of Edna's transcendence of local mythology, but rather of a negative and dialectical play between myth and that which resists mythic closure:

“Of whom—of what are you thinking?” asked Adele of her companion. …

“Nothing,” returned Mrs. Pontellier, with a start, adding at once: “How stupid! But it seems to me it is the reply we make instinctively to such a question. Let me see … I was really not conscious of thinking of anything; but perhaps I can retrace my thoughts.”

“Oh! never mind!” laughed Madame Ratignolle. “I am not quite so exacting. … It is really too hot to think, especially to think about thinking.”

Clearly Adele Ratignolle's dislike of “thinking” is normative in Edna's society and acts as near-absolute rule. But Edna ventures into areas of the mind that are not well mapped, into memories excluded from Adele Ratignolle's cultural typology. And in thinking of “Nothing,” something old and familiar emerges:

“But for the fun of it,” persisted Edna. “First of all, the sight of the water stretching so far away, those motionless sails against the blue sky, made a delicious picture that I just wanted to sit and look at. The hot wind beating in my face made me think—without any connection that I can trace—of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass … She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water. Oh, I see the connection now!”

“Where were you going that day in Kentucky, walking through the grass?”

“Likely as not it was Sunday,” she laughed, “and I was running away from prayers, from the Presbyterian service, read in a spirit of gloom by my father that chills me yet to think of.”


As practitioners of free association and students of Freud we may see little that is remarkable in Edna's response. But this is to underestimate the radical quality of her awareness, to dismiss its acrobatic integrity. It is as if Chopin is aware, as Edna is only naively, that the mind wants to go beyond itself, to go toward extremes, to test the accuracy of its own boundaries. Even as the social order demands a closing of ranks—a synthesis or yoking together of disparate ideas in such a way that their disparity grows invisible—the individual has the capacity to challenge her own syntactic boundaries. Edna's talks with Madame Ratignolle present us with a radical example of thought as disconnection, of Edna's capacity to separate ideas from one context to pursue them in another. This is the precondition for dialectic, the capacity for critique that Hegel defines in his Phenomenology:

The activity of dissolution is the power and work of the Understanding, the most astonishing and mightiest of powers, or rather the absolute power. The circle that remains self-enclosed and, like substance, holds its moments together, is an immediate relationship, one therefore which has nothing astonishing about it. But that an accident as such, detached from what circumscribes it, what is bound and is actual only in its context with others, should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom—this is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure ‘I’.16

What does this “power of the negative” mean for Edna, and what does it do for her? The images she conjures up seem aimless and accidental, beyond further synthesis, beyond dialectic. But this is precisely their virtue.

In escaping her father's old sermons, Edna strikes out into new physical space; she veers toward an arena of free feeling not designated by the pater-familias. Similarly, in walking to the beach, Adele Ratignolle and Edna have slipped momentarily outside the zone of paternal definition. “In some unaccountable way they had escaped from Robert,” Chopin explains (15). The problem, of course, is that their escape is literally unaccountable, that outside the other's language they enter the arena of “Nothing,” of a language which nobody speaks. And yet in talking with Adele Ratignolle Edna begins to see connections she has not seen before; her thoughts become unsystematic—they go forward before going astray. “Thought,” as Maire Jaanus Kurrik suggests, “must admit that it is not only cogency but play, that it is random and can go astray, and can only go forward because it can go astray. Thought has an unshielded and open aspect, which is unsystematic, and which traditional philosophy has repressed for fear of chaos.”17 She adds that thought must “abdicate its idea of hegemony and autarky, and practice a disenchantment of the concept, its transcendence,” if it is to challenge its own preconceptions (221). Edna is not so self-conscious about the nature of her thinking, but as her mind plays over the past in a random and heterodox fashion, we can recognize in her thoughts the potential disenchantment of the concept that most binds her, the concept of an obsessive attachment to men, of a romantic and excessive bondage to father-like figures. The image of the beloved cavalry officer that Edna remembers is followed by a series of images or memories of men who have “haunted” Edna's imagination and “stirred” her senses. These broken images come to her not as images of love, but as sources of puzzlement, disaffection, and wonder. Edna is open to thinking about the mystery of her affections; she notes in past amours an obsessive quality that demands perusal.

But something prevents Edna from thinking further, from becoming fully aware of the conditions which bind her. In this instance the conversation between Edna and Adele is interrupted; as they converse on the beach their voices are blurred by “the sound of approaching voices. It was Robert, surrounded by a troop of children, searching for them” (20). Unable to continue their conversation, interrupted in the very moment when Edna had begun to feel “intoxicated with the sound of her own voice … the women at once rose and began to shake out their draperies and relax their muscles,” and Madame Ratignolle begins to lean “draggingly” on Robert's arm as they walk home (20).

Thought should, perhaps, be “unshielded” and “open”; if thinking is to occur at all the mind must open itself to what is playful, random and unsystematic. But thought can only go so far afield before it ceases to be thought at all; as Hegel suggests, mind or spirit possesses its power only “by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being” (19). And this “tarrying with” is something that occurs over time and in a community of speakers; it is not the product of an instant. What prevents Edna's “tarrying with” the negative is not her own inadequacy or some incapacity inherent in speech as such, but Edna's lack of a speech community that will encourage these new speculations, her lack of a group of fellow speakers who will encourage the growth of her thought and its translation into praxis. Though Madame Ratignolle is sympathetic and offers Edna both physical solace and a sympathetic ear, open conversation between them is rare; they speak different languages. “Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one. Then had followed a rather heated argument.” Edna finds herself speaking a language as impenetrable to others as the parrot's babble: “The two women did not appear to understand each other or to be talking the same language” (48). The pull of the libidinal speech-world Edna shares with Robert, then, is immense. (Robert, Chopin explains, “talked a good deal about himself. He was very young, and did not know any better. Mrs. Pontellier talked a little about herself for the same reason. Each was interested in what the other said” [6]). What emerges from their conversation is not a critique of society, however, but gay, utopian play, a pattern of speech in which Edna is once again caught within the semiotic, the bodily residues of her social code, and is not permitted the range of meaning or the control over culturally established symbols that Robert Lebrun is able to command.

Given the power that Robert (and the romance plot itself) exerts over Edna's ordinary patterns of associative thinking, it is worth noting that Chopin's novel ends in a more heterogeneous zone, with Edna's attention turned neither toward Robert nor her husband and children, but toward her own past:

She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again. Edna heard her father's voice and her sister Margaret's. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.


This lyrical ending is as enigmatic as the novel's beginning; it might be read as a regression toward oral passivity: toward an infantile repudiation of the validity claims, the social responsibilities adult speech requires. But I would suggest this extralinguistic memory comes to Edna at the end of her life because it is in such a sequence of images, and not the language of Robert Lebrun, that Edna can find the most accessible path to her story—that even in death Edna is seeking (as she sought on the beach) a path of emancipation; she is seeking a register of language more her own.

At the end of the novel as Edna swims out to sea and tries to address Robert once more, she falls again; she finds herself trying to speak a language no one understands. “‘Good-by—because, I love you.’ He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand” (114). The story that Edna has told herself about her affection for Robert is inadequate. Close to death, she turns her mind toward the blurred edge of her womanhood, and the novel ends as it has begun, with a medley of distinct and disconnected voices. Here they represent a point of possible origin; they trace that moment in time when, still experiencing the world as a multitude of sounds, Edna's attention begins to shift from the plural voices of childhood toward the socially anticipated fulfillment of her sexual rhythms, toward the obsessive “clang” of the cavalryman's spurs. Just as the novel begins with the parrot's strange speech, with an order of speaking that satirizes and escapes from the epistemological confines of the heroine's world, so Edna's own awakening begins with and returns at her death to the rich and painful lure of desires that are still outside speech and beyond the social order. We must look again at this excluded order of meaning.

In The Order of Things Michel Foucault describes the discontinuity and disjunction he feels in perusing a list of incommensurable words or objects encountered in a story by Borges. Foucault experiences the variable terms of this list as “monstrous” and unnerving—Borges' reader is presented with an “order of things” which refuses orderly synthesis. This mode of disorder Foucault defines as a “heteroclite,” a state in which “things are ‘laid’, ‘placed’, ‘arranged’ in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible … to define a common locus beneath them all” (xvii-xviii). In the opening sentences of The Awakening the parrot's speech presents us with a similar confusion. Here different syntactic and semantic units from different language systems mingle but refuse to cohere, and we find ourselves contemplating a potential “heterotopia,” a discontinuous linguistic space in which the communicative function of language itself is called into question. These discontinuous linguistic spaces, these “heterotopias,” are disturbing “because they secretly undermine language … because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy ‘syntax’ in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things … to ‘hold together’” (xviii). The opening sentences of Chopin's text have a similar effect upon their reader.18 In the discrepancies between different languages and the fractioned idioms these languages produce, we are presented with several categories of words and of things that cannot be held, simultaneously, in consciousness. The novel begins by challenging orthodoxy; it posits a world of saying in which ordinary ways of looking at things are called into question.

Chopin's novel pushes us from its beginning toward an arena of speech which asks us to become aware of disjunctions between the disorder of words and the social order, between our usual perceptions and the world these perceptions are designed to organize. The potent, possible syntheses between the self and its world—the syntheses the symbolic order insists we believe in—are challenged and in their place we discover a universe that is anomalous, asynchronic, confusing: a world not so much out of joint as out of its inhabitants' thought, a world outrageously unthinkable. Chopin insists that Mr. Pontellier's manner of organizing himself within this world is to ignore its arch nonsense, to cling to its objects for fetishistic support. He reads his newspaper, fingers his vest pocket: “There was a ten-dollar bill there. He did not know: perhaps he would return for the early dinner and perhaps he would not” (5). Within the novel an extraordinary register of speech is always opening up and then quietly shutting down—a closure which returns us, inevitably, to the circumscribed world of other people's objects and other people's speech, to a linear world in which the intervals of desire are stabilized by cultural symbols that determine the perimeters of self-knowledge.

Chopin makes us aware that the world her novel is designed to represent is itself a heteroclite; her text points to a discrepancy between one kind of social order and its possible others. “It is here,” as Foucault says in The Order of Things, in the region where the heteroclite becomes visible,

that a culture, imperceptibly deviating from the empirical orders prescribed for it by its primary codes, instituting an initial separation from them, causes them to lose their original transparency, relinquishes its immediate and invisible powers, free itself sufficiently to discover that these orders are perhaps not the only possible ones or the best ones; this culture then finds itself faced with the stark fact that there exists, below the level of its spontaneous orders, things that are in themselves capable of being ordered, that belong to a certain unspoken order …


To argue that Edna Pontellier commits suicide because she lacks a language, because of this “unspoken order,” seems a cruel oversimplification of her character and of her material situation. And yet at the end of The Awakening we are, like Edna, subjected to a multiplication of points of view and can see no way to contain this multiplicity within the novel's heterosexist milieu. To argue that Edna lacks a language, then, is not only to say that culture has invaded her consciousness, has mortgaged her right to original speech, but that Edna's language is inadequate to her vital needs, that it is singular when it should be plural, masculine when it should be feminine, phantasmic when it should be open and dialectical. And what becomes clear by the novel's end is that Robert Lebrun has served as an iconic replacement for that which Edna cannot say; his name functions as a hieroglyph condensing Edna's complex desires—both those she has named and those which remain unnameable.

In Powers of Horror Julia Kristeva suggests that “phobia bears the marks of the frailty of the subject's signifying system,” and Edna's love for Robert—although it is not phobic as such, reproduces this frailty as symptom; when Edna seeks nothing but the speech of her beloved, it makes her “signifying system” frail.19 Edna Pontellier has no language to help her integrate and interrogate the diversity of her feelings; she experiences neither world nor signifying system capacious enough to accommodate her desires. But by the end of the novel these contradictory desires become noisy, impossible to repress. As Edna helps Adele Ratignolle through a difficult childbirth the romantic interlude that Edna has shared with Robert becomes faint; it seems “unreal, and only half-remembered” (108), and once again language fails her. When Dr. Mandelet asks if she will go abroad to relax, Edna finds herself stumbling for words: “‘Perhaps—no, I am not going. I'm not going to be forced into doing things. I don't want to go abroad. I want to be let alone. Nobody has any right—except children, perhaps—and even then, it seems to me—or it did seem—’ She felt that her speech was voicing the incoherency of her thoughts, and stopped abruptly” (109). After watching Adele give birth and listening to her painful repetitions (“Think of the children, think of them”), Edna begins to re-experience the bodily sensations and feelings for her children that she has repressed; her extra-marital desires grow more tumultuous. Once more her sentences split with the weight of this conflict, and as Mandelet tries to put them together, as he offers to “talk of things you never have dreamt of talking about before,” Edna refuses his kind and magian powers, just as, in childhood, she refused her father's chill summons to prayer. She gives herself, instead, to the “voice” of the sea, to that sibilance in which every name drowns. And her mind returns to what she can claim of her childhood, to the story she told Adele Ratignolle on the hot summer beach.

Kristeva has suggested that we consider “the phobic person as a subject in want of metaphoricalness” (37), and I have suggested that the same becomes true of a woman in love, a woman who becomes the subject of her culture's romantic fantasies. “Incapable of producing metaphors by means of signs alone,” Kristeva argues,

[this subject] produces them in the very material of drives—and it turns out that the only rhetoric of which he is capable is that of affect, and it is projected, as often as not, by means of images. It will then fall upon analysis to give back a memory, hence a language, to the unnamable and namable states of fear, while emphasizing the former, which make up what is most unapproachable in the unconscious.


I am not suggesting that Edna is in need of a Freudian or even a Kristevan analysis. I am suggesting instead that we can locate the power of the novel's final images in Edna's desire “to give back a memory, hence a language,” to that within her which remains nameless.

There is a fact which our experience of speech does not permit us to deny, the fact that every discourse is cast in the direction of something which it seeks to seize hold of, that it is incomplete and open, somewhat as the visual field is partial, limited and extended by an horizon. How can we explain this almost visual property of speaking on the basis of this object closed in principle, shut up on itself in a self-sufficient totality, which is the system of langue?20

The “voice” of the sea Edna tries to embrace is more than a harbinger of death, more than a sign of dark and unfulfilled sexuality; the novel's final images frame and articulate Edna's incessant need for some other register of language, for a mode of speech that will express her unspoken, but not unspeakable needs.


  1. Kate Chopin, The Awakening, ed. Margaret Culley (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 113. All further references will be cited in the text.

  2. For readings of Edna that celebrate her sexual awakening, see, for example, Per Seyersted's emphasis on “Edna's slow birth as a sexual and authentic being” (153) in Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (New York: Octagon, 1980), pp. 134-63, and Sandra M. Gilbert's excellent “The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin's Fantasy of Desire” in Kenyon Review (Summer 1983), pp. 42-66. Gilbert's enthusiastic description of Edna as a “resurrected Venus … returning to Cyprus … a radiant symbol of the erotic liberation that turn-of-the-century women had begun to allow themselves to desire” (58, 62), endows Edna with an archetypal complicity in erotic myth that Chopin herself takes pains to critique. For a reading that is less passionate than Gilbert's but truer to the novel's sexual ambiguities, see Paula Treichler's “The Construction of Ambiguity in The Awakening: A Linguistic Analysis,” in Women and Language in Literature and Society, ed. Sally McConnell-Ginet et al. (New York: Praeger, 1980), pp. 239-57.

  3. Tony Tanner, Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 4. All further references will be cited in the text.

  4. For a similar view of Tanner's work and an extended critique of the ways in which critics have refused to see the difference between “transgression” and real social change, see Allon White's “Pigs and Pierrots: The Politics of Transgression in Modern Fiction” in Raritan (Summer 1982), pp. 51-70.

  5. William Wordsworth, The Prelude in Selected Poems and Prefaces: William Wordsworth, ed. Jack Stillinger (Boston: Riverside, 1965), p. 193.

  6. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1973), p. xviii. All further references will be cited in the text.

  7. Gilbert argues that Robert's telling of these “wistful adult fairy tale[s]” (53) aids in reproducing a modern Aphrodite's birth from the foam—a birth in which Edna is “mystically and mythically revitalized.” Gilbert imagines that Robert's words are without distorting power because she envisions Grand Isle as a woman's world, a colony situated “outside patriarchal culture, beyond the limits of the city where men make history. … Here power can flow from outside … from the timelessness … that is free of historical constraints” (51). The point of my essay is that these “historical constraints” invade Edna's fantasies of “timelessness” as insistently as they invade Mr. Pontellier's city life.

  8. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 188. All further references will be cited in the text.

  9. Edna is also associated with old print. Early in the novel Adele Ratignolle “brought the pattern of drawers for Mrs. Pontellier to cut out, a marvel of construction, fashioned to enclose a baby's body so effectually that only two small eyes might look out from the garment, like an Eskimo's.” This is a world where characters are cut to fit the language they speak, where Edna's manufacture of a pattern for her children's garments can be read as a parable for her condition within language: “Mrs. Pontellier's mind was quite at rest concerning the present material needs of her children … but she did not want to appear unamiable and uninterested, so she had brought forth newspapers which she spread upon the floor of the gallery, and under Madame Ratignolle's directions she had cut a pattern of the impervious garment” (10).

  10. Julia Kristeva, “Interview-1974,” trans. Claire Pajaczkowska, m/f (5/6 1981), p. 166.

  11. Jean-François Lyotard, Le differend (Paris: Minuit, 1983), p.30. All further references will be cited in the text. This translation is from Peter Dews' “The Letter and the Line: Discourse and its Other in Lyotard,” in Diacritics (Fall 1984), p. 49. See also in the same issue “Interview,” trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele, pp. 16-21, and David Carroll's “Rephrasing the Political with Kant and Lyotard: From Aesthetic to Political Judgments,” pp. 74-87.

  12. See, for example, Margaret Culley's “Edna Pontellier: ‘A Solitary Soul’” in her edition of The Awakening; Susan J. Rosowski's “The Novel of Awakening” in The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, ed. Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1983); Paula Treichler's “The Construction of Ambiguity in The Awakening: A Linguistic Analysis” in Women and Language in Literature and Society, ed. Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker, and Nelly Furman (New York: Praeger, 1980); Anne Goodwyn Jones' “Kate Chopin: The Life Behind the Mask” in Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981); and Sandra M. Gilbert's “The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin's Fantasy of Desire,” in Kenyon Review (Summer 1983), pp. 42-66.

  13. Gilbert wants to discover a more definite, definable symbolic matrix than Chopin's novel provides. Still, her essay itself is a beautiful testimonial to the “differend” in Chopin's novel. Gilbert finds The Awakening prophetic, and argues that Chopin's novel calls out toward new paradigms: Edna “is journeying not just toward rebirth but toward a regenerative and revisionary genre, a genre that intends to propose new realities for women by providing new mythic paradigms through which women's lives can be understood” (59). But Gilbert argues that this transformation actually occurs as Edna swims “out of one kind of novel—the work of Eliotian or Flaubertian ‘realism’ she had previously inhabited—and into a new kind of work, a mythic/metaphysical romance that elaborates her distinctively female fantasy of paradisiacal fulfillment and therefore adumbrates much of the feminist modernism that was to come within a few decades” (52). In other words, Gilbert experiences the novel primarily through its differend, through the future discourse it calls toward. This may distort Gilbert's reading of Chopin, but it transforms her essay into a form of feminist myth-making that uplifts and inspires.

  14. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “Thanatos and Eros” in The Awakening, ed. Margaret Culley, (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 208. All further references will be cited in the text.

  15. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1983), p. 8.

  16. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 18-19.

  17. Maire Jaanus Kurrik, Literature and Negation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), p. 221. Kurrik's ideas have been useful throughout in helping me come to terms with Edna Pontellier's way of thinking. See also Adorno's Negative Dialectics, pp. 3-57.

  18. I have focussed on the opening sentences, but this sense of the “heteroclite” pervades Chopin's text. The most bizarre and recurrent instance of a set of characters who simultaneously inhabit Mr. Pontellier's world and live in some other, incommensurable realm is the pair of lovers and their surreal duenna:

    The lovers were just entering the grounds of the pension. They were leaning toward each other as the water-oaks bent from the sea. There was not a particle of earth beneath their feet. Their heads might have been turned upside-down, so absolutely did they tread upon blue ether. The lady in black, creeping behind them, looked a trifle paler and more jaded than usual.


  19. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia, 1982), p. 35. All further references will be cited in the text.

  20. Lyotard, Le differend, p. 32. This translation is from Peter Dews' “The Letter and the Line: Discourse and its Other in Lyotard,” in Diacritics (Fall 1984), p. 41.

Anna Shannon Elfenbein (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4016

SOURCE: Elfenbein, Anna Shannon. “Kate Chopin's The Awakening: An Assault on American Racial and Sexual Mythology.” Southern Studies, 26, no. 4 (1987): 304-12.

[In the following essay, Elfenbein contends that Chopin challenged American racist and sexist notions about sexuality in The Awakening.]

Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) shocked its nineteenth-century readers by presenting without comment the adultery of Edna Pontellier, a wealthy, white American wife and mother adrift in Creole society. The shock was so great that the novel went unread for almost sixty years. Recent critics have tended to blame the literary double standard, which prohibited female authors at the turn of the century from broaching topics available to male authors, for the opprobrium Chopin suffered. But it was the cultural chauvinism of Chopin's contemporaries that was primarily responsible for their adverse reaction to The Awakening.

For much of Chopin's audience the troublesome issue of female desire was resolved through a racist conception of passion and purity according to which passion was projected onto “dark” women, while purity was reserved exclusively for “white” women. This conception manifests itself in the comments of early reviewers of The Awakening. W. M. Reedy, publisher of the Mirror and responsible for introducing some of Maupassant's provocative pieces to America, voiced the objections of many of his American confreres when he condemned Chopin for permitting her heroine, a “real American lady,” to “disrupt the sacred institutions of marriage and American motherhood without repentance.” Reedy was willing to accept a “woman sinner on American soil if she was a ‘foreigner’”1 or a member of the lower class, like Stephen Crane's Maggie, Frank Norris's Trina, or Theodore Dreiser's Carrie,2 but not if she was white and upper-class, like Edna Pontellier.

Chopin's contemporaries were dismayed by The Awakening because its sexual realism assaulted American sexual-caste mythology. Profoundly subversive and courageous, the novel collapsed the traditional categories that had long segregated “dark” women and “white” women in American literature and advanced a new conception of female desire that was color-blind and democratic. Exploiting the complex social milieu available to her as a New Orleans author and deploying a multi-racial cast of female characters, who share to varying degrees Edna Pontellier's awakened sensuality, Chopin violated the expectations of her genteel readers by showing that sexual passion is no respecter of class or caste boundaries.

The complex social milieu Chopin depicted also distinguishes The Awakening from Flaubert's Madame Bovary, to which it has frequently been compared.3 Instead of the bourgeois aspirations to social status of an Emma Bovary, Chopin's Edna experiences ambivalence toward the sensuality of the New Orleans Creoles. Her disorientation concerning the behavior appropriate for privileged white women in Creole society is perceived by Adèle Ratignolle, the exemplar of white Creole femininity, when she warns Robert Lebrun, who has been pursuing Edna in a conventional Creole way, that Edna “‘is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate mistake of taking you seriously.’”4 Edna does make this mistake, and because her status as a privileged white woman depends upon her compliance with an elaborate system of racial and sexual rules that constrict the sexual expression of white women, her awakening and her noncompliance threaten a social order she fails to understand. Constricted by class and caste bias and her propensity to see everything only as it impinges on her own emotional life, Edna's view of her world is not large enough to accommodate her discovery of the common sexual ground of women's experience.

As Edna veers from the path charted for privileged white women, she is contrasted with the other women characters in the novel, characters who occupy an unchanging space in the patriarchal society Chopin describes. Critics of the novel have of course discussed the contrast between Edna and Adèle Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist, noting that these women present mutually exclusive options for Edna. They have also examined Chopin's ironic coupling of a pair of lovers with a lady in black who tells her rosary while shadowing them and Edna. However, in focusing on this dark lady, presumably a white widow, and the lovers, they have neglected to note Chopin's implicit comparison of Edna with women of color or ambiguous race who make up the novel's gallery of “dark” women.5 Peripheral and incompletely realized as characters, these dark women in The Awakening add richness and complexity to the novel, making it possible for Chopin in her depiction of Edna, whose character is so much at odds with conventional views of woman's nature, to subvert literary stereotype and popular prejudice. A matrix of diverse female types, “white” and “dark,” surrounds Edna, who sees other women only in the way convention dictates.

Although Chopin may have shared to a degree the racist assumptions of American culture of her period, the novel's realistic treatment of Edna's interaction with these women exposes the sex and caste prejudices of Creole society—a society itself the object of slur and stereotype in American society at large. In so doing, Chopin challenged the biases of the novel's contemporary detractors, who recognized too well the racial implications of the novel, and its current rediscoverers, who, in emphasizing the novel's depiction of sexism, see only a portion of the picture of a sexist, racist society that Chopin drew with compelling accuracy. At the center of this picture, Edna progresses toward discovery of “her position in the universe” (893), but her way is doubly barred, for sexual and racial prohibitions block her as they block the other women in the novel.

Chopin's realism repeatedly captures the racism as well as the sexism of Edna's acquaintances. Swerving toward social satire in a dinner-table scene that reinforces our sense of the provinciality of her Creole characters, Chopin presents the diners' alarm and prurient interest when they learn that Robert Lebrun, the elder son of their hostess, plans to live and do business in Mexico. Any reader who has been privy to ethnic jokes in similar situations may squirm at Chopin's description of the round-table speculation that follows the news of Robert's departure, culminating in Adèle Ratignolle's request “that Robert … exercise extreme caution in dealing with the Mexicans … a treacherous people, unscrupulous and revengeful. She trusted she did them no injustice in thus condemning them as a race” (924). The discussion concludes with the testimony of Victor Lebrun, who assures all who will listen that Mexicans, especially Mexican women, about whom he implies intimate knowledge, are happy, childlike people.

Victor, the younger son in the Lebrun family, embodies the racist and sexist prejudices of his society, asserting his importance by badgering the black women of the Lebrun household or by bragging of his sexual prowess. The “droll” (924) stories he tells of his conquests and the demeaning treatment he accords the domestics who serve his family pass without notice in Edna's crowd, where such extremes of male self-assertion are sanctioned. Victor's behavior, an adolescent and therefore comic version of male practice in Edna's society, fuses sexual and racial exploitation, assorting Chopin's cast of women characters according to their conventional service functions. Edna fails repeatedly to hear Victor's “highly colored story” of adventures he “wouldn't want his mother to know” (942). Presumably these adventures also take place with women whom he wouldn't want his mother to know.

Edna, Madame Lebrun, and the other white women in the novel accept the presence of such dark rivals as they do the services of dark menials without reflection and without criticizing the habits of their men. Madame employs a little black girl to “work the treadle” of her machine: “The Creole woman does not take any chances which may be avoided of imperiling her health” (901). Edna, marked by her Presbyterian prudery as an outsider in the sensuous and expressive society of the Creoles, awakens too late to the absurdity of racial divisions of labor that do not protect white women from the biological perils women share. Deceived by the seeming candor of Creole society concerning sex, she recoils from Adèle Ratignolle's “harrowing story of one of her accouchements,” which withheld “no intimate detail” from a mixed audience at table, and from Robert's “droll” stories related to an amused audience of married women (889). The meaning of Adèle's “harrowing” story and of Robert and his brother Victor's “droll” stories escapes Edna, who fails to understand, until too late, their applicability to her own situation as a woman. Edna's failure to see compounds her failure to hear. Her negative view of those whose stigmatized status she shares retards the intellectual and emotional development she requires for survival.

The “Solitary Soul” of Chopin's original title for the novel, Edna stands apart from both the white and dark women in New Orleans, though she is implicated in the strict separation of female roles and races there. Edna fails repeatedly to hear, see, or emphatize with others. Her “obstructed” (896) vision eliminates the possibility of transcendence of the fixed roles available to women in her society, though her “natural aptitude” (891) as a portrait painter might have allowed transcendence had she had the critical vision Chopin herself demonstrates in drawing her. However, because Edna is merely narcissistically involved with her art, she effaces her portrait of Adèle Ratignolle in irritation when Adèle objects that it doesn't look like her and irritation commands the dark women of the Pontellier household to pose. Having discovered that the maid's back and shoulders are “molded on classic lines” (940) and that the maid will not object to an unflattering or inaccurate portrait as Adèle has objected, Edna captures only a conventional view of her woman sitter. She must fail as an artist because she lacks the ability to see anything but a highly stylized image such as the image of “Solitude” she envisions when Adèle plays a favorite piano solo. To Edna, “Solitude” must be a male figure. Poised beside a desolate rock on the seashore, watching a distant bird winging its flight away from him, this male figure is a synthetic and sentimental type, epitomized by nineteenth-century calendar art and by the works of Maxfield Parrish.6 Although Edna responds more authentically to the music of Mademoiselle Reisz, her response is emotional rather than intellectual and fails to free her from the distorted perspective her society affords women of her social class.

Edna's class consciousness and her incapacity for transcendence appear in her blindness to the quotidian presence of dark women in her world, blindness that establishes her inability to escape those patriarchal imperatives regarding sex and woman's place that her sensual nature leads her to violate. Edna's unthinking reliance on values that will ultimately require her suicide appears in her failure to perceive these women or their significance. Alienated from her role as a mother by the quadroon nurse, who cares for her two sons with “fictitious animation” (935), and unable to take off her wedding ring or shatter a vase without being interrupted by a maid, who silently hands the ring back to her, Edna feels herself alone and exceptional. She wants “to swim far out, where no woman had swum before” (908), but in the end she drowns herself like many other nineteenth-century heroines in no-exit situations.

Edna is not the only woman in The Awakening who fails to make common cause with other women. For the other women in the novel establish no more than the shallowest of female relationships. Ironically, it is Edna who feels the claims of sisterhood most acutely, forgoing the long-awaited consummation of her passion for Robert Lebrun to attend Adèle when her friend sends word that she is in labor. Watching Adèle, who is transformed by travail, her face “drawn and pinched, her sweet blue eyes haggard and unnatural” (994), Edna confronts the facts of life that privileged women see only at rare moments. In contrast, Josephine, the attending “griffe”7 nurse or midwife, refuses “to take too seriously … a situation with which she [is] so familiar” (994). Each woman is isolated in this experience that women share: Adèle, awaiting the male doctor, the audience for her grand performance, feels abandoned and neglected. Josephine works hard to maintain her professionalism and patience. Edna recoils from the scene of “torture” (995) so reminiscent of her own experiences of childbirth, fleeing the labor room and later deciding, like other white heroines in Southern fiction, that “To-morrow would be time to think of everything” (997).

The marked separation of the women in this scene underlines Chopin's consistent treatment of class and caste divisions among women in the novel, divisions she realistically portrays and implicitly calls into question. The staging of such separation is most evident in the foregoing scene, and in two other scenes in the novel that depict Mariequita, a peripheral but essential “dark” woman character whom Edna fatally misperceives. Mariequita's response mirrors Edna's, reflecting the class and caste antagonism that divides women from each other and from true self-knowledge. Although racism and sexism in Creole society and in the society in which Edna was born mandate a difference between women of Edna's class and Mariequita's caste, Chopin juxtaposes Edna and Mariequita, blurring the racial categories established by men to control the sexuality of women and exposing the flawed vision of these two victims of such distinctions.

It is no accident that Robert and Victor Lebrun, whose surname reinscribes their “dark” proclivities, court both Edna and Mariequita or that Mariequita appears at two crucial junctures in the story to underscore the unacknowledged importance of dark women in Edna's world. In the Chênière Caminada episode that juxtaposes the limiting facts of life and the romantic fantasies Edna and Robert weave for each other, Mariequita appears, “making ‘eyes’” (915) at Robert. Although Edna views Mariequita as stereotypically “dark” and carefree, it is Edna who is on a fool's errand and Mariequita who has business to transact. Separated from Mariequita by class, purpose, and language but not, quite obviously, by gender and sexuality, Edna is unable to understand Mariequita's amused banter in Spanish to Robert about the lovers in the boat. Edna's view of Mariequita is fragmented, focusing as it does on apparent irrelevancies such as the “sand and slime between her brown toes” (914) rather than on the telling interaction between Robert and this young woman with whom he shares a language closed to Edna.

Later in this episode, Edna anatomizes her own body as she awakens to her sensuality and looks “at her round arms … as if [they] were something she saw for the first time.” It is the whiteness of her skin, “the fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh” (918), that is stressed here, as in an earlier episode when her husband Leonce looks at her tanning skin “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage,” and she responds by surveying her “hands, strong, shapely hands … drawing up her lawn sleeves about the wrists” (882). The connection between Edna's badge of class, white skin, and her status as a married lady is forged here with a resigned closural gesture, as she “silently reache[s] out to [Léonce], and he, understanding, [takes] [her] rings from his vest pocket and drop[s] them into her open palm” (882). Edna's fragmented body is not unified until the end of the novel, when she emerges “naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her.” At this moment, she, like Mariequita, stands barefoot in the sand, “the foamy wavelets curl[ing] up to her white feet, and coil[ing] like serpents about her ankles” (1000).

The Chênière Caminada episode in which Mariequita first appears prepares for her reappearance in the final scene of the novel, linking Edna to a class of women conventionally assumed to differ from privileged women. This linkage is sustained through recurrent mention of dark women with flashing eyes who satisfy their desires without suffering the social ostracism Edna must suffer if she “swims out where no [white] woman had ever swum before.” On the return from Chênière Caminada, Robert teaches Edna a romantic little air, Ah! si tu savais!—“Ah, if you knew what your eyes tell me!” Edna, who has dark and passionate eyes, parrots the words, failing to perceive the ironic connection between the lyrics of this refrain, Mariequita's eye-play, and the flashing eyes of other dark women in the novel. Although haunted by the melody, Edna refuses to confront the truth embodied in its lyrics until the end of the novel, when she flees her discovery of the impersonal and ephemeral nature of sexual passion.

Edna's first intuition of this truth comes when Robert returns from Mexico with a memento (aptly Freudian)—a finely embroidered tobacco pouch. When Edna, who has indulged in a brief consolation affair with Alcèe Arobin, a notorious roué, questions Robert about this gift from his Vera Cruz “girl” and about the women of Mexico “‘with their black eyes and their lace scarfs’” (985), she betrays the limited range of her worldly experience. Robert's response shows his worldly wisdom, as does his blasé attitude toward the experience. Although Robert's experience contrasts with Edna's naivete, they both recognize the insignificance of the affairs they have enjoyed while apart. His callous assertion that the Vera Cruz girl “‘wasn't of the slightest importance’” (985) and that “‘There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar upon the water’” (985) accords with Edna's claim that Alcée Arobin's photograph means nothing to her. The untimely interruption of this interchange by Alcée himself adds another voice to the tasteless, chauvinistic discussion of the dark women of Mexico, whom Alcée characterizes as “‘Stunning girls’” (985). Although Edna fails to see that her own status as an object of male possession is no different from that of women who serve as objects of male passion, she realizes that Robert, who shares a male language with Arobin that is as closed to her as was Mariequita's Spanish, “had seemed nearer to her off there in Mexico” (987). Arobin's pointed request that Edna convey his regards to Mr. Pontellier when she writes puts her in her place, which differs from that of the dark women under discussion only in the strictly artificial or legal sense agreed upon by men.

The ability of men like Robert and Alcée to assert their mastery of women in such discussions confirms Edna's powerlessness to change her lot by allying herself with men. The end of the novel, which presents Mariequita once more, suggests Edna's powerlessness to change her lot by allying herself with women. When Edna walks as though catatonic past Mariequita and Victor to her death, she cannot really see Mariequita, nor can she be seen by her. Edna's hard-won understanding of her sexual nature thus remains bounded by race and class prejudices, which are signaled by the fact that here as in the beginning she is called “Mrs. Pontellier”8 and by the fact that here as in the Chênière Caminada episode, she is unable to interact with Mariequita except by casting herself once more into the social role that she has sought to escape. Thus, she intrudes upon Victor and Mariequita and gives them orders for a supper she never intends to eat. In this, her last social act as Mrs. Pontellier, Edna betrays once more the conventional attitudes of her class, which dictate suicide, the socially correct choice for a respectable white woman who has strayed from her role as wife and mother. Through food, the emblem of her subjugation and her self-indulgence throughout the novel, Edna insists on service from Victor and Mariequita, the dark woman who will provide a plausible story to account for her “accidental drowning.”

Held in reserve until this final scene and sketched once again with minimal but telling strokes, Mariequita responds to Edna according to convention. Even Edna's suspicious appearance at Grand Isle before the summer session cannot crack the class code that disables both women. Both are centered on themselves and must act out the roles they have been assigned, roles that satisfy neither but maintain the patriarchal order. Thus, Edna ignores Mariequita, addressing her remarks to Victor. And Mariequita feels jealous of Edna, believing the myth of a woman “who gave the most sumptuous dinners in America, and who had all the men in New Orleans at her feet” (998). Such a belief, so at variance with the truth, suggests the romantic illusions that will survive Edna to perpetuate male control. Because Mariequita lives on to tell Edna's story—and to get it all wrong—and because Mariequita's story is so clearly the one Victor has told her to maintain his power over her, Edna's partial knowledge of the sexual realities concealed by romantic fictions dies with her.

The true story, Kate Chopin's story of Edna's awakening, however, remains to cancel those romantic fictions that lead Edna astray. The inevitable consequence of her initial belief in her ability to venture further than other women of her class and of the caste, and of the class consciousness she shares with other privileged women, Edna's suicide indicts both sexism and racism. For Edna, and Edna alone among the women in the world of the novel, awakens to the truth about her own sexuality and that of other women, a truth concealed by romantic, racist fictions. Through Edna's awakening and her suicide, through her “obstructed vision” of the sexual realities that impinge on the lives of all women, Chopin took her stand against the sexual stereotypes that deny women, including Edna and the other women in the novel, not only the freedom and the opportunity but even the ability to experience and express their diversity.


  1. Quoted by Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge, 1969), 114.

  2. Edna Pontellier is unique because her creator was a woman and because she [Edna] is a white, upper-class wife and mother. Stephen Crane's Maggie, Hamlin Garland's Rose, Theodore Dreiser's Carrie, and Frank Norris's Trina manifest passion, but only Edna possesses an independent sense of herself as a sexual being; and she defies race, class, and sex conventions regarding woman's sexual nature.

  3. It is worth noting that Chopin's debt to Flaubert's Madame Bovary is less than has been suggested by those who draw analogies between Edna Pontellier's situation and Emma Bovary's. Significantly, Emma is surrounded by male characters, while Edna is surrounded by a gallery of female types, white, black, and racially mixed.

  4. Kate Chopin, The Awakening, in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, Vol. II, ed. Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge, 1969), 900. All subsequent references to The Awakening will be parenthetically cited in the text.

  5. This critical neglect is merely one case in point of white solipsism. In Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981), Bell Hooks [Gloria Watkins] indicts white critics in general for making black women invisible in their readings of literature.

  6. James H. Justus, “The Unawakening of Edna Pontellier,” The Southern Literary Journal 10 (Spring, 1978), 107-22. Justus perceives that the male image originates in romantic iconography but fails to see that it has more than a personal reality for Edna, since it suggests her programming by her culture, a programming she shares with other women encouraged to visualize themselves as men in order to attain vicarious individuality.

  7. This is the term for an individual of mixed black and native American ancestry.

  8. In “The Construction of Ambiguity in The Awakening: A Linguistic Analysis,” Women and Language in Literature and Society, Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker and Nelly Furnam, eds. (New York, 1980), 239-57, Paula A. Treichler notes that Edna achieves individuality in the course of the novel and becomes identified to the reader as Edna. Treichler asserts that by the final chapter Edna has fully achieved her identity, but “the real Edna is elsewhere” (254). The use of Edna's married name in the final chapter, however, also suggests that in commiting suicide Edna is behaving as she has been programmed to behave. She is following the only path open to women of her class who experience sexual passion outside of marriage.

Barbara C. Ewell (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3728

SOURCE: Ewell, Barbara C. “The Awakening in a Course on Women in Literature.” In Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening, edited by Bernard Koloski, pp. 86-93. The Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

[In the following essay, Ewell explains her approach to teaching The Awakening.]

The Awakening may be the quintessential text for a course in women's studies. Greeted with polite dismay at its publication in 1899, revived and hailed as a lost classic sixty years later on the crest of the most recent women's movement, the novel offers a paradigmatic tale of a woman's abortive struggle toward selfhood in an oppressive, uncomprehending society. Who could ask for a more rousing exemplar of the fate of women who seek personal integrity in a world that reduces womanhood to role-playing? Or, for that matter, of the fate of women writers who dare to reveal the “life behind the mask” of conventional propriety? The stories of Edna and her author are the real stuff of consciousness-raising. And consequently, often without trying, sometimes even actively resisting, I have found The Awakening emerging as a touchstone if not the resonant centerpiece of my course on women in literature.

The centrality of The Awakening has been consistent over ten years of teaching the course, primarily in the South: to young sophisticates of a women's college, to the more provincial young people of a rural state university, or, most recently, to the professional adult students of a liberal arts college in a major city. Variations of student responses do occur, of course, but a common identification with the southern landscapes hardly accounts for students' consistent and riveted fascination with Chopin's novel.

These southern, and thus relatively conservative, contexts have also shaped my own rather traditional approach to the course itself. Women in Literature, as I teach it, is an intensive study of novels, short stories, poems, and occasionally plays by women. Partly in deference to student interest and, until recently, to the dearth of handy texts, the bias has been toward nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American writers. Of late, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women and my own expanded reading have encouraged the inclusion of many earlier and more international works, though I persist in avoiding translations. My usual practice is to assign one or two nineteenth-century novels—Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a Brontë novel (Jane Eyre or Villette work well), a selection from Wollstonecraft; then Chopin's The Awakening, often preceded by regional short stories by Jewett, Chopin, and Freeman; sometimes Wharton's The House of Mirth, Woolf's Room of One's Own and To the Lighthouse or Orlando, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Plath's The Bell Jar (less and less), a Lessing novel (The Golden Notebook or Memoirs of a Survivor); sometimes Welty's Delta Wedding or Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (excellent with Jane Eyre), Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Morrison's Sula or The Bluest Eye; and from time to time, Atwood's Surfacing, Ellen Douglas's A Lifetime Burning, Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, Jong's Fear of Flying, Rebecca Hill's Blue Rise, or some other contemporary work that has piqued my—or other reviewers'—interest. In addition to the six to eight novels finally chosen, we often read selections from a short-fiction or drama anthology and always spend several weeks with an anthology of poetry.

My aims in this course are perhaps apparent from the reading list—to expose students to some of the great British and American works by women that focus on female concerns: marrying, dealing with social roles, discovering sexuality, developing selfhood. I emphasize the “other” perspective that women have on their lives, the way stereotypes disintegrate when one sees this other point of view, and the peculiar constraints women must face and resolve. These thematic approaches seem appropriate in a course frequently elected by non-literature majors, but the texts themselves are studied principally as aesthetic rather than cultural documents.

The susceptibility of The Awakening to the approaches of women's studies is clear even in the biographical introduction with which I try to begin any new text. These life sketches, which are pointedly not going to be “on the test,” encourage students to appreciate not only the very human creators of these wonderful textures and narratives but also—I hope—the pleasures of knowing some things solely for their own sake. Chopin's biography, which I know better than most other biographies of women writers, is an especially good instance of a writer whose life and fiction interact in oblique, but perhaps typically female, ways. The fairly conventional patterns of her youth in St. Louis and adulthood in New Orleans and in the Cane River country, for example, are broken by her widowhood in midlife and the writing career that followed. Chopin's fictional exploitation of these settings is fairly obvious, but students are also always intrigued by the contradictions of her apparently happy marriage to Oscar and Edna's less fortunate relationship with Léonce, factors that underline the inventive dimensions of art. The scandalized reaction to The Awakening is also instructive, focusing for students the differing historical realities of the novel and preparing them better for the social inhibitions that later limit Edna's alternatives. Finally, Chopin's response to the rejection of her work and the oblivion of the novel after her death are poignant examples of the power of the critical industry to suppress or neglect whatever voices that unsettle its complacent self-conceptions. That particular lesson usually has considerable impact.

Having thus established some biographical context for the novel, I generally turn to the students to discover what their initial impressions of and reactions to the novel have been. I am rarely disappointed. The Awakening has always seemed to me easy to teach precisely because it does elicit such various—often passionate—responses. It is difficult, I think, not to read Edna's story without some response: outrage, disgust, pity, wonder, terror. All these good old Aristotelian cathartic emotions are particularly elicited by the ending: why did Edna kill herself? what does it mean that she did? More often than not in this initial discussion, students bring up most of what I consider the significant elements of an interpretation—Edna's relations with others, men and women; her role as mother and wife; her notions of self and sexuality; the role of setting—and thus set the stage for my eventual comments. But the students' engagement is itself a liberating classroom experience. Many who had never ventured any opinion suddenly become vociferous defenders—or protesters—of Edna's fate. And frequently, their involvement with this text frees them to express themselves on other texts as well. Of course, that kind of engagement is central to a women's studies class, which, in the best traditions of liberal education, proposes to examine the moral and personal relevance of historical texts.

The pertinence of Edna's dilemma—how to be an individual in a society that insists she play specific roles—is certainly a key to its fascination since it uniquely engages both younger students (who are much involved in articulating their selves) and older students (who are well aware of the compromising forces of social reality). But in presenting the terms of that dilemma, Chopin exposes a number of specifically female concerns, issues that are inevitably the focus of women's studies: the nature of female sexuality, the conventional opposition of romance and passion, the moral isolation of women in patriarchal systems, the role of female friendship, the importance of the body and the physical world to self-realization, the ambivalence toward children and childbearing. One good approach to many of these matters—which also helps to define Edna's dilemma and thus to interpret the novel's disturbing ending—is a close scrutiny of chapter 6, the first and most deliberate of Chopin's editorial intrusions. Not only does the chapter articulate the nature of Mrs. Pontellier's crisis—“to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her”—but it also epitomizes the features of that crisis. The “two contradictory impulses,” for example, that Edna obeys in first refusing and then following Robert to the beach underline the spontaneity of her awakening; a corresponding ambivalence is reflected in the image of the “certain light” that both shows the way and then forbids it. Edna's irrational and moody behavior is thus shown to be a function of deep and deeply uncomprehended recognitions about her “position in the universe as a human being.” While these observations help to explain Edna's erratic and impulsive, almost involuntary quest, Chopin also insists on the unsettling uniqueness of Edna's awareness—“a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight.” This characteristically wry irony is immediately followed by the narrator's sympathetic regard for anyone expecting to survive such interior chaos. Edna's moral isolation as a woman—not to mention as a Protestant and a Kentuckian in this Catholic Creole society—is thus made a prominent and ominous element of her self-awakening. The sensuality that for women is often a path to awareness is also beautifully evoked here, coupled with its major symbol, the sea. A lyric refrain personifies the sea as lover, whose initial invitation to solitude and reflection conceals depths that Edna has only begun to plumb. A comparison of the initial version with the altered repetition in the final pages offers a dramatic instance of the subtleties of Chopin's style even as it underlines the real possibilities of choice that do remain for Edna, if only for the short space of the novel.

Although all these seminal elements can be made the focus of critical discussion, the sensuality of the passage seems to me particularly useful in launching an examination of the overall role of setting—especially of the sea. The alternation between Grand Isle and New Orleans clarifies the conflicts Edna experiences between the sensuous and physical realities that awaken her self and the strict social conventions that have previously defined her. A good place to focus on the specific role of the sea is Edna's learning to swim. Paula A. Treichler has a fine analysis of the ambiguity of the language in this passage and its relevance to female perceptions of power, but most students quickly grasp there the metaphoric power of Edna's struggles with the sea and the prescient vision of death her conquest of its forces eventually yields. The ensuing battle of wills on the gallery with Léonce and his efforts to enforce his sexual desires on her only emphasize Chopin's narrative skills and her ability to mingle event and symbol provocatively.

But it is Edna's own character that most clearly embodies the complexity of women's choices in a world defined by male concerns. The ambivalence, for example, highlighted in chapter 6 recurs both in decisions Edna makes later and in the figure that she poses to the reader. Exploiting that duality in classroom discussions is a good way, I find, to dramatize the difficulty of “objective” judgments or even of moral absolutes. Such an approach calls into question not only the conventional structures of Edna's society but our complicity with them—challenges to our assumptions about reality, which are obviously basic to Chopin's intent in this novel as well as central to the perspectives of women's studies. It is useful at this point, then, to pose to students two possible views of Edna: is she a hopeless, irresponsible romantic, revenging herself on the universe, or a purposeful individual, seeking selfhood, but lacking any real alternatives? Although such formulations oversimplify the matter, they do provide a basis for discussion and a means of understanding both Edna's personal dilemma and ours in attempting to comprehend its significance. The evidence for either perspective is persuasive; witness the available criticism of the novel. Edna's natural sensuality, for example, her “sensuous susceptibility to beauty,” is everywhere: from her admiration of Adèle to her awareness of her body, especially at Chênière Caminada, to her recurrent eating and sleeping and dreaming in the novel. While this affinity for the physical implies very female concerns, if not some substantiality in her self-awakening, evidence for her romanticism is also powerful: her adolescent fantasies about unattainable men, her prosaic and thus “real” marriage to Léonce, and her general equation of “life's delirium” with the desirable and the ephemeral and of reality with the mechanical and endless. At the same time, Edna declares her need for self-determination and quite consistently abandons Léonce's house and money in her effort to cast “aside that fictious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (19). In contrast, she does not think very much or very clearly about her predicament; Adèle calls her an unthinking child, and even en route to her suicide she appears to have no definite insight or plan.

But the central ambivalence in Edna and the critical issue for nineteenth-century women focuses on her understanding of love and passion. The crucial passage here is another (though less intrusive than the first) editorial chapter, chapter 28, recounting Edna's response to Arobin's passionate embraces. Like most nineteenth-century women, for whom sexual passion was deemed at least unladylike if not downright vitiating, Edna had learned as a child to confuse sexual passion with romance. In Arobin's purely physical attractions, the separateness of these experiences is revealed. The mist is “lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality.” As Edna's illusions about sexual passion begin to fall away, she understands more clearly what she wants, not from Arobin, but from Robert—a romantic, physical relationship, the consummation of body and soul, self and other. Her romantic, adolescent dreams of fulfillment—“life's delirium”—now disclose their physical component, sexual desire. But what Edna has yet to understand is that physical passion, real contact with real people, has concrete consequences. The complications of that insight are the crux, not only of Edna's dilemma, but, as Chopin saw, of the contemporary woman, attempting to forge a realistic, implicitly modern perspective on the dissolving paradigms of Victorian culture. This crisis of sexual identity, posed so prominently and disturbingly in the life of a woman, is a central issue of the age, forming a primary if often unacknowledged undercurrent of realist fiction in Chopin's time. But Chopin's explicitly feminine perspective challenges those paradigms more profoundly and thus more threateningly than any vision before that of the modernists themselves.

This female perspective is similarly apparent in Chopin's treatment of Edna's women friends. Adèle Ratignolle and Mlle Reisz are Edna's primary confidantes and models; she admires and loves them both and values their counsel. At the same time, Chopin exposes their insufficiency as models and embodies in them aspects of Edna's basic conflict between her romantic desires and her longing for self-sufficiency. Adèle's romantic beauty, her absorption in the role of “mother-woman” are attractively conventional, but Edna cannot sacrifice “the essential” for the sake of such blissful immersion in others' needs. Similarly, Mlle Reisz possesses the courageous soul of independence—the essential self Edna cherishes—but Edna cannot bear the pianist's lonely solitude or the lack of romance in her life. Chopin creates in these two women rich models of the limited alternatives late nineteenth-century America offered women. The different responses they elicit from that society (as well as from Edna)—its benevolent protectiveness toward Adèle or its condescending tolerance of Mlle Reisz—are instructive. A significant insight of women's studies has been the power of roles—of social structures—to determine personal choices, complicating the search for self (a sympathetic quest, particularly for adolescents), especially a search as undirected and unhappy as Edna's.

But it is Edna's final awakening that centers this novel in a course about women. For the real complication of sexual identity and selfhood for women remains the responsibility for children. Edna's climactic recognition begins with her unexpected meeting with Robert at Catiche's garden café and their return to the “pigeon house” where they finally confess their love (36). But Edna's response to Robert's “mad” dreams of divorce is a dramatic measure of how far even an errant soul like Edna's can go toward insight and freedom. No one can any longer set her free, she explains to a stunned Robert: “I give myself where I choose.” But Chopin brilliantly interrupts any reply Robert might offer with a knock on the door and Adèle's request for her friend's presence at her imminent labor and delivery. Not only does Edna's departure reveal the priority of her friendship with Adèle over her tryst with Robert, but that seemingly chance intrusion on their imminent sexual encounter is also a summons to recognition. Precisely as Edna is about to realize “life's delirium”—the merging of passion and romance with Robert—its results, especially before effective and widespread birth control, are vividly recalled to her: children. That relation of passion and children, which for women remains the chief issue of sexuality, is more fully expounded in Edna's conversation with Dr. Mandelet, who understands “intuitively” the sources of Edna's dismay (38). Romance is an illusion, and, deliberately confused with passion for young Victorian girls, it becomes “a decoy to secure mothers for the race”; but the children that result from that illusory confusion are real responsibilities, whose rights even Edna cannot ignore or “trample on.” To awaken thus, as she must, to these bitter facts of life is to incur responsibility for one's choices, even ignorant choices; it is to recognize one's position in the universe as a responsible individual and to relinquish the romantic dream of union with others—the very dream that had led to that self-recognition—at the very moment when selfhood had made communion really possible. And though Edna tries to defer this unpleasant recognition, Robert's pusillanimous note—“I love you. Good-by—because I love you” (38)—which confirms his own inability to deal with real consequences, leaves her no choice.

But Edna's return to Grand Isle is as ambivalent as her spiritual path. I find it a lively exercise to review with students her final deliberations, especially her focus on her children, whom she will not allow “to drag her into the soul's slavery” but who are still the only ones that “matter” (39). The wonderfully complex tone of that final passage, with its insistence on Edna's despair and its symbolic bird with a broken wing, coupled with the deeply attractive imagery of birth and the sensuous pleasure of the sea, only heightens the ambivalence of Edna's plight. But it also provides excellent material for either side of the debate that, we hope, is now raging in the classroom about whether Edna's deed is justifiable or even defensible. Appropriately, too, children become the key element in such a discussion—as children have always been in the seemingly endless—if not timeless—debate about the nature and place of women in human being.

If the classes on The Awakening have gone well, many inhibitions are dissipating both in the classroom and in the informal journals that I have found a vital writing component of a women and literature course. When students have to articulate their thoughts and feelings about texts and discussions—even, perhaps especially, negative ones—classroom participation is dramatically improved, in both quality and quantity. Moreover, rewarding students for at least trying to see the moral and political as well as intellectual pertinence of these texts to their lives reinforces the sense of literary engagement that I want to encourage. Indeed, the many unresolvable and emotionally confusing issues raised in such a class almost require this expressive outlet. But the other well-known function of journal writing is its usefulness in generating formal papers. While I generally do not assign research papers in this course, I do ask for at least two short essays. And The Awakening, which evokes such strong responses, also provides very manageable material for analysis, especially for a first paper, when student insecurities loom large. Assignments on the role of setting, the use of female models or foils, image patterns (birds, the sea, eating and sleeping), and the function of minor characters have all proved fairly successful. Broader topics are also possible, such as the conflicts of women and society, the ambivalences of childbearing, the portrayal of men, the alienation of the outsider, female friendships, the value of suicide, or the nature of freedom or of female sexuality.

Though, as I have tried to suggest, The Awakening broaches many issues central to the perspectives of women's studies, the crucial value of the novel in a classroom remains for me its ability to generate excitement and real involvement with a text. Throughout my years of teaching the novel, those responses have varied, but they remain intense. Younger, less sophisticated students, for example, who still believe the world is their liberated oyster, seem more intransigent toward Edna's suicide (why didn't she just move away? elope with Robert? get a job?) and less forgiving of her abandonment of her children, who, for these students, are still part of a misty, happy future. To such students, Chopin can teach tolerance and empathy. Many black women, especially older ones, who have a long heritage of overcoming vastly greater obstacles than Edna's, are frankly disgusted with her cowardice (white ladies just don't know what real trouble is!). Chopin's gift to them can be renewed confidence in their own powers and traditions. Edna's problems perhaps find greatest understanding among other older, middle-class women, who have known the bittersweet burdens of children and who recognize the silent, choking restrictions of bourgeois respectability. But most students, while they may not agree with Edna or may even find her weak and foolish, as perhaps Chopin's ironic distances suggest she is, rarely fail to see the poignance of her dilemma. They recognize, as Chopin obviously intended us to, that weak and confused as Edna may be, her conflict with an uncomprehending society has a piercing and resonant reality. And while even Chopin withholds her judgment on its outcome, none of us is rendered exempt from evaluating its causes or its complex components of sex, freedom, and the demands of society and selfhood. Such engagement, of course, is the manifest goal of women's studies and, indeed, of all effective learning and teaching.

Cristina Giorcelli (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15165

SOURCE: Giorcelli, Cristina. “Edna's Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging.” In New Essays on The Awakening, edited by Wendy Martin, pp. 109-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Giorcelli argues the Chopin's ambiguities in The Awakening support both her own and her protagonist's “cyclical view of existence.”]

The human being who has a soul does not obey anyone but the universe,”1 wrote the French poet Gabriel Germain. Readers of Kate Chopin's The Awakening keep asking themselves whether the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, abandoning herself to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the book, obeys the universe and therefore the needs of her soul; or whether, “idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided”—as she has lived for twenty-eight years—she simply lets herself be carried into the unknown “rapt in oblivious forgetfulness.” The question of whether Chopin intends Edna's disappearance to be regarded as a victory (the mythical apotheosis of her integrity, whatever its cost)2 or a defeat (the inevitable outcome of her hubris, whatever its motivation).3

The ending is indeed ambiguous because it is “open” and technically “circular.” We do not actually “see” Edna drown but see her instead surrounded by and bathed in symbols of fertility and immortality (the sea, the sun, bees). To this extent, the ending is open. At the same time, it is technically circular because the narrative movement in the last chapter reverts to the very beginning of the book, which is set on the sensuous, promising Gulf of Mexico. The close thus presents an equivocal “solution.” There is the implied suicide, but Edna may have begun to live at another level of existence.

Since the critical discovery of the book in the 1960s, the elusiveness of its ending and the puzzling treatment of its protagonist's personality have caused critics to examine it mainly from two stances. From a feminist point of view, Edna's plight is that of a woman who finally begins “to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.” Although her spiritual and social quest is not represented as successful,4 it is regarded as attesting to the New Woman's awareness of her right to be herself and even, when necessary, to take her own life as the ultimate statement of self-assertion. From the point of view of stylistic coherence,5 however, the message of The Awakening is blurred by the dichotomies and ambiguities that pervade the entire narration. The author's wavering hold on surface and underlying meanings, ironic and serious tones, direct and indirect statements indicates a refusal to take sides and baffles judgment.

The Awakening escapes basic, clear-cut definitions from the viewpoint of both its technique and its theoretical allegiance to one or another literary mode (realism, naturalism, symbolism). Is it a novel or an extended short story? Does Chopin intend to deal with the spiritual growth and deep transformation of her protagonist, or does she intend to disclose the pitiful fatuity and inevitable failure of human aspirations? With regard to the more technical problem, the main character is psychologically, emotionally, and socially drawn in terms so stark as almost to oversimplify her case. Moreover, information about the other characters or the background situation is presented in an apparently casual and indefinite manner. As far as the more theoretical purposes are concerned, rather than either turning into a socially accepted self or helplessly suffering the insults of malevolent chance, Edna is steeped in ontological ambivalence. She seems only intermittently to be able to take a firm grasp of the world. If at times “she felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality,” at other times she is confused and hesitant. She muses, “if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! well! perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one's life.”

The book's meaning and structure may be better recognized and valued if one takes a many-sided perspective and allows a number of options to coexist and play off against one another. Such a reading does not choose between or reconcile dualities, but holds them in what Richard Wilbur, in another context, calls “honed abeyance.” The conclusion would then acquire another, further significance. If the open and circular ending eludes our expectations as to the meaning of Edna's final plunge, it might be seen as purposely flexible. Chopin matches the structure with the thematic content of the book: a cyclical view of existence.

The complex and composite subject presented in the narrative is appropriately introduced by the linguistic features of its title.6 Syntactically, as it consists of an -ing clause, it is a blend of nominal and verbal functions. Semantically, it designates a border condition that, while linking two (or three) opposing ones (sleeping and/or dreaming versus waking up), partakes of both and points to a form of semisomnambulism, to living and acting in the dark. This vacillating, shady situation and action may be interpreted in terms of both its physical and its metaphorical (spiritual, intellectual, sexual) meaning. Since the narration centers on Edna, who is descended from Kentucky Presbyterians, a subtle (if partially blasphemous) religious reference might be inferred from the title as well. Edna's awakenings, from sleep to life and from dreams/reveries to rationality, endow the narration with a vague sense of transience. Her prevailing and pervasive characteristic is one of potentialities not wholly actualized, of stages not entirely reached, of thoughts not distinctly formulated, of emotions not openly recognized.

From the outset, Edna is described as possessing liminal features.7 She is difficult to figure in traditionally structured categories or even to be appraised by readers and fellow characters. Perhaps only Dr. Mandelet understands her. This wise and sympathetic old man invites her confidence (“I don't want you to blame yourself, whatever comes. Good night, my child”)8 and may be regarded as the foil to her self-centered and rigid father. If his paternalistic and positivistic outlook forces upon her an evaluation of reality that smothers her imaginative flutterings (“youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature, a decoy to secure mothers for the race”), he is also the only character who offers to comfort and assist her in her despair. Mandelet possesses “anointed eyes,” implying that he is gifted with a “divine” attribute: He sees far into the unseen. (His name, incidentally, sounds like and contains a pun on “Mandalay,” the mystic bay of Burma, a symbol of Eastern wisdom.) But Edna's distinctive condition is to be isolated and incapable of limiting (or unwilling to limit) the extent of her finally assumed independence.

All that concerns Edna is marked by an essential state of “inbetweenness.” She can be defined mainly by approximation and is not integrated into any milieu: neither in the one in which she was raised nor in the one in which she lives. Physically she is “rather handsome than beautiful”; her eyes are “yellowish brown,” “about” the color of her hair; her eyebrows are “a shade darker.” Her figure is characterized by a “noble beauty” and a “graceful severity,” where the chiasmus of the adjectives bridges distances and mitigates polarities. In short, Edna is “different from the crowd.” Religiously, as a child, she ran away “from prayers, from the Presbyterian service” and, as an adult, again on a Sunday, she leaves the “stifling atmosphere” of the Catholic mass. Intellectually she is caught between an “outward existence which conforms” and an “inward life which questions.” Emotionally she is torn by conflicting “impulses” and she feels either “happy” or “unhappy,” she is either “kind” or “cold” (Chap. 26). Although there were traces of French blood in her, we are told at the beginning of the narrative that they “seemed to have been lost in dilution”; ethnically and genetically, we might say, she is elusively complex.

In a society regulated by convention, dress and comportment are of utmost importance. It is revealing that, whereas the Creole women around her wear either white (Adele Ratignolle and Madame Lebrun) or black (the enigmatic “lady in black” and Mademoiselle Reisz) garments and ornaments, Edna, at Grand Isle, unites the opposites, wearing a white muslin “with a waving vertical line of brown running through it” and, in New Orleans, she puts on a blue dress with a red silk handkerchief around her head and a golden satin gown.9 The color symbolism is unmistakable: Edna's white, which points to a transfiguration of being, is brought down to “earth” by brown (her eyes and hair), which indicates matter and sadness; blue and red represent her countertendencies toward abstraction and sexuality; and gold is the symbol of the fully realized, supreme essense.10 As far as behavior is concerned, at the beginning of the story, although her Creole, “feminine” friend Adele is cautious about exposing her skin to the strong rays of the sun, Edna does not protect hers at all, disclosing her defiant disregard of southern womanly taboos (“You are burnt beyond recognition,” her husband had angrily exclaimed in Chapter 1, not realizing that a new, phoenixlike identity was about to rise out of her “ashes”). Above all, not fully understanding the Creole code, she makes the “unfortunate blunder” of falling in love with Robert, thus living out dramatically a relationship originally meant to be taken only as pleasantly courteous. Spatially as well, Edna cannot be surrounded by fixed, socially controlled, enclosed places. As a child, in her native Kentucky, she had walked “diagonally” (along the longest and thickest, the most toilsome but most exalting, route) across a field of bluegrass. As a grown woman in New Orleans she takes extended walks, preferring “to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places”—a mimesis of her conditions—rather than staying at home, the home of which she says: “It never seemed like mine.” She needs open, preferably vast, spaces: a meadow, the beach, the streets of a large city. Since it is the tendency of her nature to escape structured categories, her ambivalence is underlined by the characteristics of the places where events occur. She begins to understand her real self at Grand Isle, a summer resort between the city and the sea. When she feels the first “throbbings of desire” for Robert, she spends a day with him at a yet more distant and smaller island, Chenière Caminada as if she needed to retreat to a wilder, more secluded and separated area where fantasies might reign more freely and where the two of them might pose as the living characters of a revisited fairytale. After her return to New Orleans, viewing her neighborhood with the outlook of an outsider, she judges it “very French, very foreign.”

In all respects, Edna is a stranger who lives on the periphery of (in between) two ways of life—the American and the Creole, the strictly Puritanical and the sensuously Catholic—and two sets of conventions—the reserved and the exuberant. At the same time, Edna lives spiritually and logistically outside the social institution that tends to define her. She does not follow her husband to New York; she leaves her husband's house; she entrusts her children to the care of her mother-in-law. Presumably expressing the opinion of Creole society, Adele aptly observes, “She is not one of us; she is not like us.” Edna is considered to be and feels different; she finds the world around her not only “alien” but even “antagonistic.”

Similarly, in the temporal dimension, the narration emphasizes the liminal time of day, the period of darkness between one day and another. In the first section of the book, situated at Grand Isle and consisting of sixteen chapters, events are grouped under six time sequences: The first (Chaps. 1-3) covers the period from one Sunday morning to Monday morning; the second (Chaps. 4-6) from an afternoon to the night of the same day; the third (Chaps. 7-8) from one morning to luncheon of the same day; the fourth (Chaps. 9-14) from a Saturday night (August 28) to Sunday night; the fifth (Chap. 15), one evening and night; and the sixth (Chap. 16), one morning in September (characteristically, a liminal month). According to the traditionally accepted11 four divisions of the day cycle (morning, midday, afternoon, and evening/night), mornings and evenings/nights seem to be in balance (five recurrences each).12 The most momentous events occur during the evenings/nights. On the first Sunday night (Chap. 3), Edna is abruptly awakened and upset by her husband, thus disclosing the discontent beneath the smooth surface of her married life. On the occasion of Edna's late afternoon swim in the ocean, Chopin comments fervently on Edna's quest (Chap. 6). On a Saturday evening, Edna swims far out alone for the first time and feels she is “reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself,” thus realizing her potential for autonomy. Later that night, for the first time since her marriage six years before, she resists her husband's “compelling wishes” with determination. On the following late Sunday afternoon, at Chenière Caminada, she wakes up like Sleeping Beauty, after a long sleep (of “a hundred years,” as Robert/Prince Charming tells her), to live a few hours of perfectly idyllic harmony (the most extended period in the book) in a magic atmosphere. On an evening, finally, Edna learns that Robert is leaving for Mexico and realizes that, through him, she is losing “that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded.”

In this first section of the book, the actual time covered by the narrative is about four unconsecutive days between the middle of August and the middle of September. Semantic and thematic linguistic references link the sequences to one another;13 each sequence (except for the fourth) starts with the day subdivision following the one that ends the previous sequence.14 The impression of a fluid, languorous, but compact stretch of time is thus effectively created. Only the fourth sequence stands out from the third and fifth, and breaks this contiguous and predictable succession of the day cycle phases: It begins and ends at night, whereas Chapter 8 ends at luncheon and Chapter 15 starts in the evening. Covering a very important lapse of time, in which Edna learns how to swim—that is, how to enter the fluid element itself—and her feelings for Robert coalesce into a deep infatuation, it fits her character that this sequence is circumscribed by darkness.

The second section of The Awakening is situated in New Orleans and contains twenty-two chapters. The actual time span covered by the narrative is about five months—roughly from the end of September to the middle/end of February, which is the end of winter in this region. Since this second section runs approximately only one-third longer than the first one, time is often fragmented into sporadic but significant events, which are rarely temporally tied to the preceding or following ones. No succession of the day's four solar subdivisions is to be consistently found between one chapter and the next. Darkness prevails throughout. The section starts on an evening (Chap. 18) and ends at night (Chap. 38). The critical events that affect the protagonist happen in the evenings/nights: the third (and last) quarrel with her husband (Chap. 17), her first visit to Mademoiselle Reisz, the pianist, who plays a crucial role in the story (Chap. 21); dinner during which Dr. Mandelet realizes that Edna vibrates with life and is ready for change, and in which she recounts the just invented (and “open”) anecdote of the two lovers who disappeared in a pirogue; the sense of absolute freedom and rest she experiences when everybody (the four men in her life: her father, husband, and two sons) leaves her and, alone, she reads Emerson (Chap. 24); Alcée's kiss, which affects her like “a flaming torch”; her regret that “it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her” (Chap. 28); her sumptuous dinner party in which, as will be shown, so much is revealed (Chap. 30); the beginning of her affair with Alcée that very night (Chap. 31); her first kissing of Robert (Chap. 36); her assistance during Adele's childbirth and her realization that a woman's independence is hindered by the existence of her children (Chap. 37). Finally, that very night, there is the shattering of all her dreams and illusions by the farewell note from Robert. In ten chapters the main action occurs in the evenings/nights (Chapters 17, 21, 23, 27, 28, 30, 31, 34, 37, 38) and in six (Chapters 20, 24, 25, 26, 33, 36) it starts in the afternoon. Only in Chapters 18, 22, 29, and 35 do events occur in the mornings, and in two chapters (19 and 32) they cover diverse days and times.

In the third section, which consists only of Chapter 34, the action rapidly returns to Grand Isle for the span of half a day and the time is toward noon, the moment of fullest sun and splendor.

Edna's inner crisis comes to a head because of her infatuation/love for Robert, who shares some of her physical and psychological characteristics, which are achieved both by making her more masculine and him more feminine. “In coloring he was not unlike his companion,” writes Chopin. “A clean-shaved face made the resemblance more pronounced.”15 Psychologically, too, Robert tends to be passive and “childish.”16 A gallant with a reserved and delicate personality, he is so affected by the world around him that his eyes, rather than possessing a color and an expression of their own, “gathered in and reflected the light and languor of the summer day.” Affinities between them—if one wants to push speculations beyond the text—date from long before their first meeting at Grand Isle: Edna and Robert were both orphans (of mother and of father, respectively) and had been brought up by the one parent who—from the evidence given in the case of the former and from what we learn in the case of the latter—did not seem to have much in common with or to have a preference for them: Edna's older sister, Margaret, is pictured as being as stern as their father, the colonel (Chap. 7 and, in passing, Chap. 22); Mademoiselle Reisz says that Aline Lebrun loves Robert's brother, Victor, more than him.

At the outset of their relationship at Grand Isle, Edna and Robert share a similar way of amusing themselves (Chaps. 1 and 2) and, above all, a propensity to conjure up and become attuned to fairy-tale situations (Chaps. 12 and 13). In Chapter 1 Chopin shows them facing each other while sitting on the step of a porch (a liminal place), and again in Chapter 4 they hold the same position. They are indeed mirror images—or doubles—of one another, thus disclosing both their haunting death instinct and their desire for immortality. When Edna sees and confronts Robert after his return from Mexico, she repeats almost verbatim17 the sentence with which he summarizes his past months' experiences. She does this in order for him to realize (although he does not) how in harmony they have been, notwithstanding their separation. Only apparently, however, are her additions to his sentence minor specifications (“Caminada,” “sunny,” “with a little more comprehension than”) or reservations (“still”). In effect, they indicate how attentive she has been to the events that stirred her life from the summer on. In particular, when talking of their fairytale interlude, she gives the magic little island (Grand Terre) its complete name to emphasize its importance in her life. She describes the old fort as “sunny” to convey to him some of her own feelings of that memorable day when she had thought that “she would like to be alone there with Robert, in the sun,” the symbol of plenitude. Informing him that in the city she had tried to give her life meaning by working, she asserts that the occupation she had undertaken was not just “mechanical.” But immediately afterward she has to admit that she has not succeeded in her intent, possibly because—as we know from previous authorial comments—she is “devoid of ambition, and striving not toward accomplishment.” Even if they share many characteristics, then, Robert, after five months and a sojourn abroad, is very much the same man he was when he left: timid, tied to the rules of his milieu. Edna, on the other hand, has tested herself in new personal as well as professional directions and has begun to realize that dreams and fantasies should not be fettered by institutional forms. At their second encounter she can “maternally” reproach him by saying: “You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things. … I give myself where I choose.”

Their state of in-betweenness is further exemplified by Edna's and Robert's being the middle members of a feminine and a masculine triad. (Three is a recurrent number throughout the narration.)18 Edna is both pulled toward and repulsed by Adele Ratignolle—the devoted mother, the Madonna, the Queen—on the one side, and, on the other, by Mademoiselle Reisz—the devoted pianist, the disagreeable and ugly spinster. As a girl, Edna had been caught between two very dissimilar, strongly defined, assertive sisters: Margaret, who was “matronly and dignified” and Janet, who was “a vixen.” Now she is attracted by Adele and Mademoiselle Reisz for different reasons. Dissimilar as they are, Adele, sensuous and placid, helps Edna think of herself as a “woman,” whereas Mademoiselle Reisz, malicious and imperious, “seemed to reach Edna's spirit” through her “divine art,” thus helping her to think of herself as an “individual.”

Robert stands between and is juxtaposed to both Leonce Pontellier, the acquisitive businessman and boring husband, and Alcée/Victor, the physically attractive and morally unscrupulous men about town. Robert shares features with and is different from both: Like Leonce, he is dependable and conventional, but he is also imaginative and agreeable. Like Alcée/Victor, given his resemblance to Edna, he is handsome (though his physical aspect is never fully described) and successful with women, but he is also a tactful gentleman.

Both Edna and Robert represent transitional states of being, states marked by ontological mobility and epistemological vagueness. Edna is often defined by negations (or, as we have indicated, by approximations). Psychologically, her husband thinks that she is “not a mother-woman.” She feels “not thoroughly at home in the society of Creoles” because she is “not accustomed to an outward and spoken expression of affection.” Deprived of a mother, Edna could not fully be a daughter and is not moved by any sisterly affection. She refuses to attend her younger sister's wedding. She is also prone to abandon her responsibilities as a wife: After the third quarrel with her husband, she flings her wedding ring upon the carpet and stamps her heel upon it (Chap. 17); she is intensely, but even in her own eyes only occasionally, a mother, “fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way” and “It was with a wrench and a pang that Edna left her children. … All along the journey homeward their presence lingered with her like the memory of a delicious song. By the time she had regained the city the song no longer echoed in her soul.”

Only “half” of Edna is where the whole person should be: She is often “half-awake”; she feels “half-hearted”; she traces “half remembered experiences”; she cherishes the “half-darkness” of her garden; she can at times only “half comprehend” what is said. She is also “absent-minded” and lacking in “forethought,” because she acts upon impulses and whims, which she only “half” knows. In this, too, she differs greatly from the Creole attitude toward life which seems to be marked by a monotonous consistency (Leonce's devotion, Chap. 3) and an annoying persistence (Adele's conversation, Chap. 4). Further, Edna possesses only half of what, according to Mademoiselle Reisz, is needed to be an artist: the natural talent but not “the courageous soul. … The soul that dares and defies.” She seeks a total (spiritual, intellectual, sexual) love relationship, but is torn between a romantic fantasy (Robert “had seemed nearer to her off there in Mexico”) and an erotic liaison (after sensuously responding to Alcée's first kiss, she regrets that “it was not love which had held this cup of life to her lips”). Stamped by ambivalence, she is portrayed in her final act as still both dying and alive.

Edna's mind and body are literally trying to catch up with each other. Following the exaltation provoked by her first solitary swim, walking home, she feels “as though her thoughts were elsewhere—somewhere in advance of her body, and she was striving to overtake them.” Upon leaving Adele's house, before her final plunge into the sea, she again feels “as if her thoughts had gone ahead of her and she was striving to overtake them.” At the beginning and toward the end of the narrative, these two comments underline Edna's still unachieved completeness of being. Only in the water does she experience a fusion of body and soul, because in the formal-informal element she loses her principium individuationis and her physical self seems to become as light and free and “weightless” as her spiritual self.

Edna's “symbol” is the maze suggested, first, by the depths of the sea (Chap. 6) and, later, by the “deep tangle” of the garden outside her New Orleans house. In Chapter 7, and briefly again in Chapter 34, the sea is specifically related to the “green” Kentucky meadow of “blue grass.” After her last quarrel with her husband, she finds solace in looking out at “the dusky and tortuous outlines of flowers and foliage. She was seeking herself and finding herself in just such sweet, half darkness which met her moods.” Through the adjectives, “green” and “blue,” two expanses (the blue sea and the green garden) are connected with the third one (the green meadow of blue grass): It is only when these two colors (the natural and the spiritual) merge that Edna feels happy (“entertained”) and would like to remain in that situation, as in a labyrinth, “forever.”

Linguistic structures underscore the thematic ambiguity of the book. An adverbial clause is often used to approach, albeit tentatively, Edna's inner self: “as if” (or “as though”). In trying to define what Edna thinks or, more frequently, what Edna feels,19 Chopin often reverts to this hypothetical, circuitous, basically unreal adverbial clause to relate her character's inner world to the outside one. “As if” establishes, according to Vaihinger's analysis, “an apperceptive construct under which something can be subsumed and from which deductions can be made,” although what is stated in the conditional clause is considered unreal. This formula posits the “subjective” validity (and not the objective significance) of judgment, since the assumptions are presented as only imaginary.20 Thus, for instance, Chopin informs us that Edna's eyes would be held on an object “as if lost in some inward maze of contemplation or thought.” Edna tells Adele that on that momentous summer day in Kentucky, when walking through the meadow of blue grass, she threw her arms out “as if swimming.” The day she goes to Chenière Caminada with Robert, she acts “as if she had placed herself in alien hands.” When she visits Madame Ratignolle with her sketches and drawings, she confesses that she feels “as if I wanted to be doing something,” and, when alone in her husband's house, she is overcome by exultation and walks through it “as if inspecting it for the first time.” On melancholy days it seems to her “as if life were passing by, leaving its promise broken and unfulfilled.” After her reaction to Alcée's kiss she feels “as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes.” When by chance she meets Robert for the second time in New Orleans, in the cafe in the little garden, she reacts “as if a designing Providence had led him into her path.” After kissing Robert, she looks into his face “as if she would never withdraw her eyes more.” Edna's epistemological self is presented as so frail in its relationship with reality that she cannot conceive real analogies or draw actual equivalences; she can articulate only hazy, tentative comparisons that seem to have no objective significance and to be rooted in no objective reality. The validity, the expediency of such significances and such realities, is, however, admitted by the very possibility (or necessity) of the comparisons themselves. Edna's cognitive process is thus based on fiction; she approaches reality through a potentially rich but dangerously indirect method. She yearns for abstractions, for illusions created by her “mythical” impulse: “the abiding truth,” “the unlimited in which to lose herself,” “life's delirium,” “the unattainable.”

Transitional states are inevitably states of inner and outer ambiguity. In her quest for her true self, Edna loses, or enhances with the addition of the opposite ones, her original gender connotations and social attributes. At Grand Isle she becomes so attached to Adele Ratignolle—who possesses “grace and majesty” and speaks “the law and the gospel”—that she looks at her “like a faultless Madonna,” with the feeling with which, in Provençal times, a man would have looked at a woman. Adele is even described as “the fair lady of our dreams,” with “spun-gold hair,” blue eyes that resemble “sapphires,” and lips “so red one could only think of cherries.” To such a goddess or fairytale figure, Edna cannot but be tied by the subtlest of bonds, or what “we might as well call love.” As Edna conquers areas within and outside herself for the expression of her individuality (she goes out freely, she paints, she shuns her obligations, she lives alone, she takes a lover whom she does not love, she is ready to start an affair with another one whom she loves), she gradually abandons the prescribed “womanly” manners. She talks “like her father,” she drinks like a man (“She drank the liquor from the glass as a man would have done”), she twice defines her own attitude as “unwomanly,” and, taking the initiative, she kisses her beloved Robert. Symbolically, at the end of the narrative, she stands alone in the nude, on the seashore, like the man whose figure her mind had once evoked when listening to a piece of piano music: “There came before her imagination the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him.” Becoming independent and living freely entails, for Edna, possessing and developing androgynous characteristics. Chopin seems here to imply that an up-to-date goddess and a fairytale or romance protagonist should be both feminine and masculine (not like Adele, who, being only “feminine,” is a “bygone heroine”).

In her first published short story, “Wiser Than a God” (1889), Chopin had pitted the artistic profession against family life. Paula Von Stoltz,21 the main character, thinking of these two vocations as mutually exclusive, chooses to become a famous pianist, that is—paraphrasing the words of the epigraph22—to “be wise” rather than “to love.”

In The Awakening, to love/to be in love is a means toward becoming wise, a stage toward realizing one's “position in the universe,” toward metamorphosing into the “god” who is possibly the only being capable of matching these two faculties. Having started her quest with the desire to love and to be loved, Edna ends it by subsuming her capacity to live and becoming wise. In her last moments, when she is back on the beach at Grand lsle, she realizes that, although she would like to have Robert near her, “the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.” But her love is, at last, directed to the prime sources of being: the sea and the sun, that is, both to the ambivalent, mediating agent that includes the formal and the informal and to the all-encompassing spirit of creation. In this final scene she is indeed both the real woman and the imagined man. And since she feels like “some new-born creature opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known,” her/his plight becomes that of reconciling opposites, of coming to terms with mysterious essences (a “familiar” and yet “never known” reality), by achieving plenitude. By overcoming gender restrictions, by breaking all barriers, by identifying life and death, Edna attains, at the very end, a precarious, quasi-divine wholeness.

Symbols of negative meaning are interspersed with positive ones. Edna is not, like Paula Von Stoltz, wiser than a god, but for a short while she is as wise as the gods/goddesses who might also love. First by emphasizing Edna's similarity to Robert and then by making her drop all social, “feminine” niceties, Chopin creates an androgynous being whose dynamic tension must be kept in balance. Such a complex and compound entity alone can master, in her/his awareness (and with the complicity of the indeterminate ending), inner and outer limits. Through her androgyny Edna succeeds in achieving the wholeness of a composite unity, both integral and versatile, both necessary and free. Triumphing over sex and role differentiations ontologically implies subjugating that which substantiates but curtails, and ethically it entails mastering the grim unilaterality of responsibility. The bourgeois crisis23 that Edna endures—the discrepancy between duty toward others and right toward herself, between social demands and personal yearnings, between repressive order and chaotic freedom—may be overcome in the grasped fullness of her dual being.

If we are tempted to regard Edna's last gesture as narcissistic (the drowning and the water symbolism imply as much), the fact that she abandons her self points rather to a reaching out for, an attainment of, more self. She merges with that supreme reality and other cosmos that has “no beginning and no end,” in which opposites are not so much reconciled as potentially summed up, and birth, death, rebirth are endlessly recycled in the Heraclitean flux. At this point she can cast “the unpleasant pricking garments from her.” Although “faded,” these garments stand for the worn-out social rules and the hypocritical allure behind moralistic conventions, and even for the illusion of completeness through sexual encounters (“pricking”). On the verge of attaining wholeness, Edna can throw aside “that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.” These garment metaphors take on greater drama from the fact that clothes metaphors play so large a role in the narration. After Robert's departure for Mexico, her existence had already appeared to her “like a faded garment which seems to be no longer worth wearing.” And after having assisted Adele—when she still believes that Robert is waiting for her at home—she regards the turmoil of her fierce emotions as “a somber, uncomfortable garment, which she had but to loosen to be rid of.” By divesting herself of all her garments—her bathing suit, but also her “outer” fictitious self, her past experiences and her wrenching emotions—she frees herself from her physical life, logical thoughts, and subconscious perceptions, as well as from external hindrances, in order to enter a condition of authenticity and joy in the water under the sun. Through a baptismal immersion in the sanctifying waters of inner grace, and in the face of immortality symbolized by the bees and sun, she is platonically recapturing that lost innocence that is her soul,24 cloaked and hampered by the body and its trappings. The scene and the imagery recall those at Christ's baptism on the Jordan (Matt. 3:16-17). Unlike the episode in the Gospel, however, there is here no saintly witness, no official recognition, to testify to Edna's essence, and the bird hovering above has “a broken wing” and is therefore not an adequate symbol of the divine. Once again, Edna retains her ambiguity by being alone to intuit and interpret the cosmic event of which she is the protagonist: her super-natural awakening.

Only twice before, in the first section at Grand Isle, had Edna been shown on the beach in the morning: in Chapter 7, in which she discloses moments of her inner life to Adele for the first time, and in Chapter 16, in which, under Mademoiselle Reisz's eyes, she plunges and swims “with an abandon that thrilled and invigorated her.” In both cases the combination of water and sun prompts important insights into herself: By recalling an episode of her childhood, she realizes her propensity to abandon herself to a vast natural solitude (the meadow of bluegrass). By reacting with a plunge in the water to an unpleasant piece of gossip (in the past, Robert had been interested in Mariequita, the pretty and spontaneous, “natural” Spanish girl), she again abandons herself to another vast natural solitude (the sea). At the end, not only does she identify sea and meadow (“the water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. … She went on and on … thinking of the bluegrass meadow”), but she lets herself be seduced by the sensuous “touch of the sea” under the sun, that is, under the most powerful symbol of intuitive knowledge, of the spirit in its highest individual realization, in its “illumination.”25 Since, moreover, the sun, like the sea, symbolizes the beginning and the end of all, we are confronted with a scene in which each distinct element and their combination underscore the notion of an eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. No longer under the influence of the moon, the passive and “feminine” symbol26—and, incidentally, also a symbol of death—Edna is here in conjunction with the sun, the golden divinity, the symbol of eternal life. The influence of the moon, which had presided over her gradual development, is thus overcome. In this final scene, at the “mercy” of the sun, if her body will die, her Life will not perish.

Encircled by the night, she for a while arises to the sun's level during her farewell dinner party (Chap. 30). Wrapped in the golden “shimmer” of her satin gown, at the head of a table covered with pale yellow satin and adorned both by “massive brass candelabra, burning softly under yellow silk shades” and by yellow roses, with champagne glittering in the crystal glasses, Edna suggests “the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone.”27 In the profusion of gold that is the sun's basic attribute, one may say that she represents the sun/Apollo's nightly counterpart (the moon/Artemis). In the crucial Chapter 10, while going to the beach the night in which she learns how to swim, she already misses Robert “just as one misses the sun.” Not in juxtaposition to, however, but in merging with those parts of being that compose her unity will Edna finally attain a sense of completeness.

In the last scene, no longer attached to ephemeral life, Edna enters a love relationship with the sun and the sea, the primal elemental factors; after experiencing “how delicious” it feels to stand naked under the sky, she lets herself be embraced by the water. In the process of attaining fulfillment with Nature, with the Emersonian Not-Me, with the universe, the reality of her life is left behind and the people she was related to (sons, husband, friends, relatives, beloved one, and even her secretly treasured first love) become distant and meaningless. Back at Grand Isle, finally rejecting both absolute renunciation (in the first section of the book represented by the lady in black) and juvenile fulfillment (previously incarnated by the two young lovers), she opts for absolute fulfillment.

It is consistent with what we regard as the author's deliberate decision not to propose definitive answers and not to assign precise and restricting qualities to Edna that the book ends when she is achieving the wholeness for which she craves. For this reason, although in the last scene Edna is imbued with a mystic aura, negative or deathly forces are also at work: Mademoiselle Reisz's sneer, her father's and her sister Margaret's (undoubtedly harsh) voices, the barking of an old dog (the animal psychopomp), the sycamore tree (which traditionally protects the souls of the dead),28 the metallic, hideous clang of the cavalry officer's spurs. To the end Edna must remain poised between contrary visions, messages, and meanings in order to retain her polyvalent nature. Her wanderings do not end because the maze, her symbol, has led her into the cavern where she undergoes a change of heart and where a superior being emerges. The only “cavern” she had been familiar with is one “wherein discords wailed.” In this last scene, therefore, in the composite center of her being, Spirit and Nature, Reason and Understanding, I and Not-I do merge for a chronologically brief, but symbolically infinite, time. In this merging, Edna joins the source of Being. She lives and dies within the twisting labyrinth, which stands for the perennial cycle of life—death—rebirth. The process of becoming—following the two main patterns of the labyrinth—is, indeed, infinite like the spiral, and perpetually returning on itself like a braid.29 The ambiguous ending permits an open and intersected interpretation: Death and life may be regarded as phases of a single existence, either of which will be superseded by the other.

From a rationalist outlook, by presenting both of these possibilities concurrently, Chopin has courted misunderstanding. Her transcendentalist influences, however, justify her diffidence toward ordinarily accepted standards of judgment and solely rational explanations. In her epistemological relativism, she allows neither naturalistic conditions nor purely logical procedures to account for the mysterious complexities of life. As she had once written: “truth rests upon a shifting basis and is apt to be kaleidoscopic.”30

Whitman's impact on Chopin has already been analyzed, particularly on her imagery and symbolism.31 What must be noted is her debt to Emerson and the transcendentalists with respect to her sense of human beings as intermediaries between myth and consciousness, between the projections of their “divine” unconscious (dreams, visions, intuitions) and their interpretations of such projections, by which “Feeling is converted into thought; intuition, into insight.”32 In this perspective, human beings serve a dynamic function of intercommunication and interchange, and perform a role that shuns the law of conceptual logic as well as the gratifications that come from strict definitions. This inner potential connects the individual with those dried-up (“shrunk”) powers that, as Emerson claims in Nature, had once peopled the cosmos with gods born of his/her unconscious “overflowing currents. Out from him sprang the sun and the moon; from man, the sun; from woman, the moon. The laws of his mind, the periods of his actions externalized themselves into day and night, into the year and the seasons.”33

In a very unobtrusive and apparently unconscious manner, Chopin appears to have seized upon mythic figures to help unravel both the complexity and the mystery of human existence. As with so many artists, gods and goddesses are thus employed by her as hypostases of a higher unity. Writers often resort to myths not as ways to escape history, but as structures “for dealing with shared crisis of self-definition in the face of the unknown”;34 in such cases, myths offer them the opportunity of “naming the unknown.”35 Chopin may have kept a related group of myths (and of gods and goddesses) more or less intentionally36 in mind—without meticulously following them in every detail—to depict her protagonist's mystifying identity. The mythical content may also account for the open ending.37

Edna's spiritual tendencies are hinted at from the beginning of the book. The first thing we know about her is that she possesses a physical emblem of spirituality, “strong, shapely hands.” (One recalls Mandelet's “anointed eyes”: His name may refer also to the French word for hand.) Leonce Pontellier, who considers his wife “a valuable piece of personal property,” regards his possessions as “gods.” Furthermore, the images of portals and of a temple are employed to convey what marriage was for Edna: “As the devoted wife of a man who worshiped her, she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her” (Chap. 7). And again: “Within the precincts of her home she felt like one who has entered and lingered within the portals of some forbidden temple.” But she, the pantheistic goddess, suffocates “inside” the reality of married life, conceived of as a temple that entombs her. She has to fling open the portals onto realities of dreams to be herself, to capture her divinity: “Edna began … to feel again the realities pressing into her soul.” Her dreaming and daydreaming indicate a preference for the inner world and are conducive to tearing down those barriers that, in the “awakened” state, do not allow her archetypal models to surface. Thus, mythic and fairytale figures perfectly suit Edna, who has become the heroine of her dreamed about, compelling romance from the moment when the “mystic spirit” brought her to the “realms of the semicelestials.”

In the languorous tempo and hazy atmosphere of the first section of the book, and in the fragmented tempo and tense atmosphere of the second section, there are two moments (Chapters 13 and 30) in which the protagonist is not only different from but “above” all the other characters.

In Chapter 13 Edna acts and speaks like fairytale princesses—like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White: “The whole place was immaculately clean, and the big, four-posted bed, snow-white, invited one to repose. It stood in a small side room. … Edna, left alone in the little side room, loosened her clothes. … [She] stretched herself in the very center of the high, white bed. How luxurious it felt to rest thus in a strange, quaint bed.” Later, she speaks like Sleeping Beauty: “How many years have I slept?” she inquired. “The whole island seems changed. A new race of beings must have sprung up, leaving only you and me as past relics.” “You have slept precisely one hundred years.” In both fairytale heroines, the awakening to individuality (and to sexuality) occurs after a period of withdrawal from active life.

At another time (Chap. 30) Edna takes on attributes of Persephone, the queen of the underworld, the goddess who crosses continuously the threshold of life and death: the sceptre (suggesting the regal woman who rules), a tiara of diamonds (“Something new, Edna?” exclaimed Miss Mayblunt, with lorgnette directed toward a magnificent cluster of diamonds that sparkled, that almost sputtered, in Edna's hair, just over the center of her forehead”), the pitcher (Edna does not actually pour the libations, but cocktails and champagne enrich and brighten her table), the color yellow.

The most important connection between the two fairytale princesses and the mythic queen is that both Snow White/Sleeping Beauty and Persephone share the motif of the long sleep, similar to death (for the Greeks, Sleep and Death were divine brothers). Edna sleeps and often takes naps even during the day, as if to balance her sleeping and waking hours. The two princesses and Persephone, after a period of sleep and isolation, will awake (be reborn) and experience joy and completeness, either with the prince or with the mother. In the last scene, after her long phase of semiactivity and narcissistic “contemplation of the self”38—of semisomnambulism—Edna is finally enjoying ecstasy in Nature. The two fairytales may be regarded as the popular version of the myth of Persephone,39 who lives, in some variants, six months on earth (from March—approximately the month in which Edna returns to Grand Isle—to August—the month in which Edna first appeared at Grand Isle) and six months in Hades (from September to February, the time Edna spends in New Orleans). In both the fairytales and the myth, the theme is that of cyclical birth—death—rebirth.

In Chapter 30, however, a number of reticulated suggestions are offered to give substance and depth to the mythical figure of Persephone. At Edna's dinner party, oriental refinements are conjured up to create a voluptuous setting: the music of mandolins (an instrument that derives from the oriental lute and, incidentally, contains another reference to the hand, and therefore to spirituality), the perfume of jessamines (the Arabic flower), the splash of a fountain (the heart of the Arabic garden).40 In this context, Victor, Robert's younger brother, a “tête montée,” is expressly depicted as Dionysus, the oriental-Greek god of “intoxicated delight.”41 On his black curls, in fact, is laid a garland of roses (not of ivy, however—but roses are possibly more suggestive) and “his dusky eyes glowed with a languishing fire.” One of the women guests drapes a white silk scarf “across the boy in graceful folds,” and another one makes him sip champagne from a glass brought to his lips. At this moment of the night, a “mystic cord” seems to pass around Edna's guests and “jest and laughter” bind them together in a sort of repressed bacchanal. (By these hints Chopin suggests a Swinburnean atmosphere.)42

Through his physical appeal and the impetuousness of his nature, Victor gains Edna's and the other women's sympathies. Up to that point in the narrative he has played a minor role: He has mainly been shown bickering with various people: his mother, Mr. Farival (Chap. 15), and—as Madamoiselle Reisz recounts—with Robert (Chap. 16). Victor is now at the center of everybody's attention and turns into “a vision of Oriental beauty.” The oriental (sensual, exotic, even cruel)43 role is so well enacted by him that in the last chapter of the book, at Grand Isle, he teases Mariequita and makes her jealous of his acquaintances and deeds in the city by telling her that the women at Edna's feast were “youthful houris.”

Dionysus is the chthonian god of oriental origin who, like Persephone, stands for the two main cycles of nature: death and rebirth, winter and spring, barrenness and fertility. Indeed, in the Orphic tradition, he was believed—as Dionysus Zagreus—to be the son of Zeus and Demeter, Persephone's mother. He, the divine child, the twice born, belongs to both the world and the underworld; he is the god of duality. Dionysus is, in his masculine and feminine nature, a formidable synthesis of opposites44 and a link between disparate realities. He represents paradox and the embrace of mad ecstasy that occurs when death and life meet.45 One of his familiar settings is the sea, and the sea is Victor's special domain, since he spends most of the year at Grand Isle. Dionysus/Victor has, therefore, affinities with Persephone (and the “semicelestial” Ariadne)/Edna.

It has been stated before that Robert and Edna share important psychological and physical traits and that they function in similar ways within the narrative. If Edna possesses and brings into play characteristics usually considered masculine, Robert possesses feminine ones. He is youthful and attractive, but he is also endowed with self-control and balance. In a phrase, he represents the man of conscience. From the mythological point of view, Robert (whose name in German etymology means “bright”) is thus comparable to Apollo, the ambidextrous god of circular completeness (symbolized by the sun disc). Confronted with Dionysus, Apollo stands as his opposite, but also as his complement. They epitomize “the eternal contrast between a restless, whirling life and a still, far-seeing spirit.”46 At Delphi the two gods were celebrated as juxtaposed divinities: Apollo during the solar months, Dionysus in the winter. Moreover, Dionysus excites some of the very faculties that Apollo guards: prophesying, singing, playing musical instruments. Robert confesses that in Mexico “Something put into my head that you cared for me, and I lost my senses,” thus guessing the truth, and after the trip to Chenière Caminada, he sings the melody “Si tu savais” with a voice that is “not pretentious” but “musical and true.” In the summer, at Grand Isle, we see little of Victor; in the winter, except at the end, when spring is advancing, Robert is away in Mexico.

Dionysus is often represented as accompanied by processions of Maenads and satyrs; on three occasions (Chaps. 9, 15, 30) Victor is portrayed at the dinner table, surrounded by a big, vociferous company of men and women. Victor is the only man, in addition to Robert, to walk with Edna under her sunshade (Chap. 20), thus showing a certain degree of possible intimacy with her.47

The bond that unites Victor, Robert, and Edna is subtle but so strong that when, at the party, Victor kisses the palm of Edna's hand, she is moved because “The touch of his lips was like a pleasing sting.” Robert will react in a similar way when Edna kisses him: “She leaned over and kissed him—a soft, cool, delicate kiss, whose voluptuous sting penetrated his whole being.” The “sting” of a wasp or bee, combined with “pleasing” and “voluptuous,” suggests a masochistic combination of pain and delight, Thanatos and Eros. The bee, incidentally a solar symbol, is identified with Persephone's mother (Demeter), and represents the resurrection of the soul and the sacred Word (significantly, the bee reappears at the very end of the book). Victor, Edna, and Robert, therefore, share the same divine substance, the Spirit.48

Victor (Latin, “winner”) is the youngest of the men to flirt with Edna: He is nineteen, Alcée's age when he was wounded in a duel in Paris. The two men personify, in fact, the impetuous roué, the “wicked, ill-disciplined boy,” who completely fulfills the demands of his temperament (the number nineteen, as the result of the sum of ten and nine, indicates both a complete cycle and full human satisfaction).49 “Alcée” may refer to Alcaeus, the Greek poet who celebrated convivial and physical pleasures, and his surname, Arobin, sounds like “Arab” and points toward exoticism and sensuality.

In Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy) (1872), Nietzsche had ascribed the conditions of great art (as those operative in Greece in the fifth century B.C.) to a blending of the Apollonian and the Dionysian principles, the former described as the world of visions and rapt repose and the latter as the world of voluptuousness and strenuous becoming. Even if Chopin did not know Nietzsche's work,50 these mythological dichotomies were widely discussed,51 and indeed seem to be incarnated in the two Lebrun brothers. (Their surname refers to matter and sadness, to earth and death.) One may also hazard that in the serene contemplation and joyful ecstasy of her final musical52 and dramatic merging, Edna symbolizes their union.

Dionysus and Persephone are like the children of Demeter, and Dionysus and Apollo are, respectively, a chthonian and a solar double. In our context, if Victor and Edna are similar because both are defined as impetuous (Chaps. 30 and 32), Robert and Edna are more than just doubles of one another. They are similar and almost coeval: We are obliquely informed53 that he is twenty-six, whereas, when the narration starts, Edna is twenty-eight. They may thus bring to mind the famous divine twins, Apollo and Artemis, who were born of Leto under a palm tree. When, in the first scene of the book, Edna and Robert are together, she is fanning herself with a palm leaf (Chap. 2).

In several traits Edna may be linked to Persephone, the queen of Hades. In her beauty and fertility she is a chthonian Aphrodite, who, in turn, is an immortal Ariadne (even the name of the daughter of Minos of Crete is associated with that of the love goddess).54 In other traits, however, she may be regarded as being analogous to Artemis, the virgin goddess. Artemis is associated with the moon and has a virginal, independent nature. Edna is represented mainly during the dark times of the day and declares that she will not be hampered by her children: “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself.” Artemis, moreover, delights in wild nature and performs the function of protectress of childbirth. Edna likes open, solitary, “uncivilized” places and rushes to assist Adele at the end, notwithstanding the presence of Robert in her house. Not being a mother-woman, Edna's two past experiences of childbirth seem to her “far away, unreal, and only half-remembered” (Chap. 36). It is as if, like most goddesses (Hera, for instance), after her own childbirths, she had returned to a virginal state: She tends toward a life of complete independence and craves “solitude” (Chaps. 4, 6, 9, 10, and 34). Artemis loves dogs; at the beginning of her experience of marital independence Edna plays with her children's little dog (Chap. 24) and at the end she hears the barking of an old dog (Chap. 39). In her desire to cast manners and obligations aside, Edna may thus be considered wild and ruthless, like Artemis. Finally, Artemis, the Lady of Clamors, is associated not only with Apollo but also (like Ariadne) with Dionysus,55 thus bringing Edna, Robert, and Victor mythologically even closer together.

In trying to account for all the aspects of such an elusive character as Edna, we realize that neither Persephone nor Artemis entirely encompasses her. Yet another goddess, the one who completes the triad of the virginal ones, is necessary: Athene (who, being present with Artemis at Persephone's abduction, indicates her affinity with them). To adopt Richard Ellmann's term, Chopin does not proceed “singlemythedly.” The reference to so many contiguous archetypes may be justified by the composite nature of Edna's personality, which, to be fully accounted for, needs a plurality of figures. But they are tightly connected to one another, notwithstanding their particularities.

Dumezil has maintained that a tripartite system representing the three functions of productivity, force, and sovereignty is to be found in Indo-European myths.56 In our text, productivity would be embodied in Persephone, force in Artemis, and sovereignty in Athene. Athene is characterized by a complete independence of humanity. Edna says to Robert, “I give myself where I choose,” and in the last scene she thinks, “Today it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be someone else.” Athene, like Artemis, performs the role of protectress of childbirth, but, above all, of the arts. Edna is endowed with gifts as a painter. Furthermore, Athene embodies the inner tension of being both a virgin and a mother. Such an anti-thetical condition is well represented by Edna's split between the psychological and the physiological levels of her existence. Masculine maiden and virgin mother, Athene is essentially androgynous and, as such, all the more similar to Edna. The goddess is often associated with the snake or serpent, a symbol of autochthony and a messenger between the underworld and human reality.57 This reminds us of Edna's first swim, when the sea “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.” In the final scene too, “The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles.” The serpent represents rebirth, renewal, and spiritual enlargement in the inner world.

Another animal sacred to Athene is the horse, which is also one of Apollo's attributes (a further, indirect connection with Robert). Chopin writes that “There were possibly a few track men out there who knew the race horse as well as Edna”; and when Dr. Mandelet compares her to “some beautiful sleek animal waking up in the sun,” he may be thinking of a horse. Athene has connections both with Dionysus, to whom according to one tradition, she was related,58 and with her half-brother Apollo, who, according to another secret tradition,59 was thought of as her son by Hephaistos. In the richness of her multiple aspects, Athene is thus involved with the two main mythical figures behind the two most important male characters in the novel.

Athene is intimately bound to Persephone. In fact, the owl, a symbol of wisdom, is an animal they share.60 After her first quarrel with her husband at Grand Isle, when Edna goes out on the porch and first becomes aware of “some unfamiliar part of her consciousness,” all is silent around her “except the hooting of an old owl.” The similarity between Athene and Persephone is attested to by still another symbol of fertility: the pomegranate for Athene and the orange (the internal structure of which is similar to that of the pomegranate) for Edna. On two eventful occasions she is pictured among the orange trees. First, in Chap. 13, she appears four times among or under the orange trees, to emphasize the abundance of feeling that takes hold of her at Chenière Caminada (the first part of the island's name may recall the oak and its mushroom, symbols of longevity and of regeneration through death).61 Later, in Chap. 36, while sitting under the orange trees of the small cafe in the garden, Edna meets Robert just before their reciprocal declaration of love in her pigeon house.

The plurality of mythical figures needed to portray such an elusive character as Edna points to the discontinuities of the self that, according to Bloom,62 typically characterize American romanticism. At the same time, however, Chopin seems to direct attention to the most discerning elements that link these figures to one another in order to lend Edna her many-sided uniqueness. Athene is, for instance, the protectress of feminine handiworks, in patriarchal times represented by the spindle or the needle. In popular fairytales these are often fairies' or witches' tools. In “Sleeping Beauty,” the princess pricks her finger with the old woman's spindle in the tower and falls asleep. At the opening of “Snow White,” after pricking her finger with a needle, the queen longs for a child to whom she indeed gives birth not very long after. The sexual implications of these tools63 stress the role of Athene and of middle-aged or old women as go-betweens (midwives) in a psychological (as well as a physical) sense. Such females may display either the positive or the negative sides of womanhood, like the seven good fairies versus the eighth, wicked one in “Sleeping Beauty” or the queen mother versus the wicked stepmother in “Snow White.”

In The Awakening, two women without men (a widow and a spinster) are invested with a similar function. Aline Lebrun and Mademoiselle Reisz live in high, tortuous, dark, gothic eyries. Madame Lebrun's room at Grand Isle “was situated at the top of the house, made up of odd angles and a queer, sloping ceiling” and Mademoiselle Reisz's apartment in New Orleans is under a roof and is full of “dingy” windows, which admit “a good deal of smoke and soot”; from them “the crescent of the river” and “the masts of ships and the big chimneys of the Mississippi steamers” can be seen. These two women are the benevolent fairy and the malevolent witch, respectively: Madame Lebrun is always dressed in white, works at her sewing machine with the determination with which Mademoiselle Reisz practices her piano art, and is still “a fresh, pretty woman.” Although of little importance in the narrative, Madame Lebrun is the mother of the two most important men and the one who, by providing Edna with Mademoiselle Reisz's address, indirectly favors Edna's and Robert's meeting in New Orleans. Mademoiselle Reisz, by contrast, is always dressed in black and, without being malevolent (although her surname rhymes with “vice”), is certainly wry, critical, and prophetic. Soot and chimneys belong to witches as well as to her, as does the shining crescent. But it is “the crescent of the river” and not of the moon. This shift underlines the fact that Mademoiselle Reisz cannot be associated with the most pregnant symbol of woman's fertility. Witches' horror of water (therefore of the spiritual element) is also characteristic of her: “Mademoiselle Reisz's avoidance of the water had furnished a theme for much pleasantry.” Her physical aspect, moreover, is rather grotesque: “Her laugh consisted of a contortion of the face and all the muscles of the body,” her hands have “strong, wiry fingers.” She is so small and deformed that at Edna's dinner party she has to be “elevated upon cushions,” and when she sits at the piano, “the lines of her body settled into ungraceful curves and angles.” She always wears “a batch of rusty black lace with a bunch of artificial violets pinned to the side of her hair.” Like witches, Mademoiselle Reisz is ageless and might be as old as her furniture, “dingy and battered from a hundred years of use” (the number underlines the mythic time in which she, like a character in a fairytale, lives).64 Everything in her points toward the magic being who stirs up hidden forces. It is, for instance, after Reisz's playing of the piano that Edna, passionately moved by it, swims for the first time alone. It is she who quiets Edna's troubled soul with her music. She is the first to tell Edna that Robert is in love with her and, finally, she sharply conveys to her that Robert is not the person whom she should love: “If I were young and in love I should never deem a man of ordinary caliber worthy of my devotion.” Conversely, it is to Mademoiselle Reisz that Edna first discloses both her desire to leave her husband's house and her resolution “never again to belong to another than herself”; moreover, it is to her that Edna first confesses her love for Robert (Chap. 26).

Mademoiselle Reisz is thus a conjurer and a ficelle, a necessary link that accounts both for Edna's gradual awareness of her aspirations and for the progress of the action. (Edna will meet Robert again in Mademoiselle Reisz's apartment.) She may be connected to Athene (and Edna) because, in her dark side, the goddess wears the head of one of the gorgons, the terrible Medusa, on her aegis, her shield. Mademoiselle Reisz's head is obviously not covered with serpents, but the author insists on her unusual millinery, her only characterizing ornament.65 If, with her talent and her dedication, Mademoiselle Reisz stands for the spiritual urge forward, this urge, as in the case of the gorgon, is perverted by an excessive, presumptuous, ultimately self-destructive turning on itself.66

Since the pursuit of a rigid coherence is advocated by Chopin neither in professional nor in family life, Adele, too, takes on for a while the semblance of Medusa in the last scene in which she appears—that of the delivery of her child: “Her face was drawn and pinched, her sweet blue eyes haggard and unnatural. All her beautiful hair had been … coiled like a golden serpent.” Even Adele, the tender mother, the sweet and sympathetic Madonna, who, as Demeter tried to protect Persephone, would like to protect Edna (“In some way you seem to me like a child”), shows her dark side. Demeter, too, becomes Demeter Erynnis.67

In Athene/Medusa, therefore, the three different characters of Edna, Mademoiselle Reisz, and Adele merge, at least temporarily. So that if we might have been tempted to detect in the characterization of Mademoiselle Reisz and, to a lesser extent, of Aline Lebrun traces of the old patriarchal prejudice that rejects women without men as anomalies, with Adele as Medusa as well, another subtle indication can be inferred: In a repressive society,68 sooner or later, continuously or occasionally, womanhood as such is destined to be regarded, even by a woman artist, as frightening (possibly because the female Medusa forces men and women to look at themselves and realize their true nature). By drawing a many-sided character like Edna, Chopin has bridged the gap between the two more stereotyped opposing figures of Adele and Mademoiselle Reisz, while imbuing them with unexpected, linking attributes.

Other evidence throws light on the controversial meaning of the book. Pallas Athene is the moon69 (and, as such, is connected with Artemis) and represents the lunar cycle. The Panathenaea Festival, which every four years celebrated magnificently the protectress of Athens, could begin on the twenty-eighth of the month dedicated to her.70 When The Awakening begins, Edna is twenty-eight, and the only precise date in the whole narration is that of Edna's first swim: August 28. Twenty-eight is the number that indicates the lunar months and is closely related to the female. It is the arithmetic sum of the first seven numbers and represents a complete cycle, totality, eternal life, thus fitting the etymology of Edna's name, which means “rejuvenation” in Hebrew71 (and is close to Erda, the German earth goddess). Through a perennial cycle of birth-death-rebirth she is, therefore, true to her name. What is of special interest to us is that twenty-eight points to a dynamic perfection.72

August 28 is also, however, the day on which the Christian calendar celebrates Saint Augustine, the Church doctor who would have agreed with the Holy Spirit in not vouchsafing to any woman a significant amount of wisdom (to paraphrase Chopin's words in Chapter 6). Augustine, as we know, was deeply influenced by Plotinus's Enneads, which identified the content of true wisdom in self-direction and self-awareness in knowledge of the Good. In Plotinus's thinking, when man reaches freedom in the One, he is freed from all dependence, from all individuality: The return to unity marks his return to transcendent independence when he is finally alone with the Alone,73 when he attains “self union.” Only by transcending oneself, by becoming all things, through a pantheistic union with the Universal Being does one attain infinity, perfection. Augustine insists on the gulf (the word, so rich in metaphorical meanings, makes us think of the Gulf at Grand Isle) between man and God, but retains the neoplatonic belief that redemption as well as regeneration proceeds by turning inward upon oneself and that obligation to God entails a desire for self-fulfillment. He maintains that duty and self-interest ultimately coincide, because love of self and love of God, even if they exist separately, are coextensive.74

In the mystery surrounding Edna's last act, one may detect concepts and posit hypotheses that afford a multilateral dimension to her instinctual decision, especially since, when walking toward the sea, “She was not dwelling upon any particular train of thought.” Even the fact that the narrative ends with Chapter 39 may offer a subject for speculation. The result of thirteen multiplied three times, this number symbolizes a dynamic, limited, and relative system tending to the acquisition of a more forceful potentiality. Being elevated to the third power, the system strives toward perfection, totality.75

With her inner and outer liminality, her search for existential fulfillment and her multifaceted, goddesslike traits, Edna entices us, moves us. Whatever judgment we will pass on her struggle for independence and self-realization—that is, no matter how doomed from the start is this bourgeois myth propounded by a society that then denies it for women—through her final sensuous and mystic ecstasy, seeking immersion in her environment, she either purges herself of her narrowly conceived individualism or exorcises the isolation into which she was cast.76 Rather than living as under a “narcotic”—etymologically associated with “sleep” and with Narcissus—she breaks the isolation of her existence, sublimates her instincts by directing them toward the Ideal, and joins the universe.

Edna's plight is constrained by neither social circumstance nor obstacle. She is left free to do as she pleases: She has no husband, no children, no relatives, no acquaintances, no society either, overtly to malign or brutally to hamper her. From the aesthetic point of view, the writer neither attempts to project an intriguing situation by adopting involuted narrative structures nor does she care to reveal to the fullest extent her characters' deepest psychological instincts and motivations. Yet we are conquered by Edna's naiveté77 and by the sheer honesty of her timeless, solitary quest.


  1. Gabriel Germain, Chants pour l'Ame de l'Afrique (Paris: Debresse, 1956), p. 89: “L'homme qui a une âme n'obéit qu'à l'Univers.”

  2. In Chapter 32, the protagonist feels that “She began to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life. No longer was she content to ‘feed upon opinion’ when her own soul had invited her.”

  3. In Chapter 38, Edna says: “I don't want anything but my own way.”

  4. Carol P. Christ, Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980).

  5. George M. Spangler, “Kate Chopin's The Awakening: A Partial Dissent,” Novel 3(3) (Spring 1970):249-55; and Jane P. Tompkins, “The Awakening: An Evaluation,” Feminist Studies, 3(3-4) (Spring-Summer 1976):22-9.

  6. The title of the book was actually meant to consist of both the present one and the one that the author had originally proposed to the publisher: A Solitary Soul. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), p. 221, n. 38.

  7. See Victor W. Turner, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage,” in The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), and also “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas” in Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974). To be liminal entails achieving a new state of being, a new spiritual communitas, whereas to be marginal implies being permanently excluded, an absolute “other.” It is the aim of this chapter to try and demonstrate that Edna belongs to the liminal.

  8. For instance, Edna thinks of herself as a child and as childish (Chaps. 7, 19, 35, 39), and is defined as a child by Adele Ratignolle (Chap. 33), by Doctor Mandelet (Chap. 38), and by the author (Chap. 10).

  9. Edna wears the red silk handkerchief on her head after having kissed Alcée, that is, after having begun to break the moral code of her class. The sexually free Spanish girl, Mariequita, is the only other character to wear a red piece of clothing, in fact, a red kerchief on her head (Chap. 12).

  10. For a discussion of the meaning of these colors, see Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles (Paris: Laffont, 1969), pp. 107-9, 126, 111-12, 663-5, 564-6, respectively.

  11. Ibid., p. 436.

  12. Five mornings are expressly mentioned: the Sunday morning at the beginning of the story; the following Monday morning (Chap. 3); one morning (Chap. 7); one Sunday morning (Chap. 12); one morning (Chap. 16). Five evenings/nights are accounted for: the first Sunday night (Chap. 3); one evening (Chap. 5); one Saturday night, August 28 (Chaps. 9, 10, 21); one Sunday night (Chap. 14); one evening and night (Chap. 15).

  13. The first sequence is connected to the second one by both a linguistic and a thematic reference [“A few days later a box arrived for Mrs. Pontellier from New Orleans” (Chap. 3), and “She was sitting there the afternoon of the day the box arrived from New Orleans” (Chap. 4)]. The second sequence is connected to the third one by the use of an identical background: the sea at Grand Isle. (At the end of Chapter 5 Edna swims in the sea, and in Chapter 6 the author comments on her swimming. At the beginning of Chapter 7, while contemplating the sea, Edna starts thinking about herself, thus beginning to realize the nature of her personality.) The fourth sequence appears to be tenuously connected to the one that precedes it (at the beginning of Chapter 9 the author informs us that the time is a Saturday night “a few weeks after the intimate conversation held between Robert and Madame Ratignolle,” which occurred in Chapter 8). This sequence is not linked to the following one. The fifth sequence is tied to the sixth one by a thematic reference—in Edna's flashback—to Robert's leaving “five days ago” (Chap. 16).

  14. The first sequence ends (Chap. 3) in the morning (and an afternoon is anticipated); the second sequence starts (Chap. 4) in the afternoon and ends (Chap. 6) at night; the third sequence starts (Chap. 7) in the morning and ends (Chap. 8) at luncheon; the fourth sequence, instead, starts (Chap. 9) at night and ends (Chap. 14) at night; the fifth sequence starts in the evening and ends at night (Chap. 15); the last sequence (Chap. 16) starts in the morning.

  15. Edna notices that his hair is “the color of hers” (Chap. 33).

  16. Adele Ratignolle says to Robert: “You speak with about as little reflection as we might expect from one of those children down there playing in the sand” (Chap. 8). The author comments, “He was childishly gratified to discover her appetite” (Chap. 13). Later Edna defines him as “a foolish boy” (Chap. 34). When Robert is not in the company of women, he likes to be with children (Chaps. 2 and 7).

  17. Robert says: “I've been seeing the waves and the white beach of Grand Isle, the quiet, grassy street of the Chenière, the old fort at Grand Terre. I've been working like a machine and feeling like a lost soul. There was nothing interesting.” Edna says: “I've been seeing the waves and the white beach of Grand Isle, the quiet, grassy street of the Chenière Caminada, the old sunny fort at Grand Terre. I've been working with a little more determination than a machine, and still feeling like a lost soul. There was nothing interesting.”

  18. For instance, three are the quarrels between Edna and her husband (Chaps. 3, 11, 17); three are her visits to Mademoiselle Reisz (Chaps. 21, 26, 33); three times the lady in black appears with the lovers (Chaps. 7, 8, 15); three times she appears with the lovers and Mr. Farival (Chap. 12). Three times the twins play the piano (Chaps. 1, 2, 9). Before marrying, Edna had experienced three infatuations (Chap. 7). Robert speaks three languages (Chap. 2). Linguistically, too, the narration is dotted by triads: When Edna is shattered by the news that Robert is going to Mexico, she desperately wonders how he could leave so suddenly, “as if he were going over to Klein's or to the wharf or down the beach.” The colonel reproaches Edna for her “filial,” “sisterly,” and “womanly” wants (Chap. 24); Arobin may be met at “horse courses,” “operas,” or “clubs” (Chap. 25). Robert sweetens his coffee with three lumps of sugar (Chap. 36). Celina's husband is defined as “a fool, a coward, and a pig” (Chap. 39). Three is the first perfect number, which represents totality, the achievement of divine Unity, the participation of humanity in the invisible world. It is also associated with the search for one's biological and sexual identity.

  19. In several cases the adverbial clause, when referring to Edna, is preceded by the verb “to feel.” For instance: “I felt as if I must go on forever” and “I feel this summer as if I were going through the green meadow again” (Chap. 7); “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 her soul” (Chap. 10); “Edna felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast” (Chap. 12); “she felt as if she were thoroughly acquainted with him” (Chap. 23); “I feel as if I had been wound up to a certain pitch—too tight—and something inside of me had snapped” (Chap. 31).

  20. Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of “As if” (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), pp. 93, 95.

  21. This young woman, whose vocation is to become a concert pianist, and Mademoiselle Reisz do not bear French surnames. Perhaps on account of their exacting calling, the author prefers to assign them ancestry different from that of most of the other, more “easygoing,” characters.

  22. “To love and be wise is scarcely granted even to a God.”

  23. In Adorno's dialectical analysis, the narrowly conceived principium individuationis is one of the myths of bourgeois ethics that, distancing “truth” and “freedom” from the social context and imbuing authenticity with “religious authoritarian pathos without the least religious content,” further alienates the “monadological” individual. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1978), pp. 152-5. These Marxist observations may be of help insofar as they emphasize how tightly The Awakening is connected to the bourgeois tradition and culture.

  24. The word “soul” occurs more than twenty times in the narrative, four times in each of the following chapters: 6, 21, 39; in this last, the contexts in which the word was used in the previous two chapters are repeated.

  25. Chevalier and Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, pp. 710-14.

  26. Ibid., pp. 474-8.

  27. In Sandra M. Gilbert's “The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin's Fantasy of Desire,” Kenyon Review 5(3) (Summer 1983), Gilbert argues that Chopin is portraying in Edna a fin-de-siècle Aphrodite, thus “exploring a vein of revisionary mythology allied not only to the revisionary erotics of free love advocates like Victoria Woodhull and Emma Goldmann but also to the feminist theology of women like Florence Nightingale … and Mary Baker Eddy” (61).

  28. Chevalier and Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, pp. 197-201, 728.

  29. Ibid., pp. 445-7.

  30. Kate Chopin, “Emile Zola's ‘Lourdes’” (1984) in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted, 2 vols. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), Vol. 2, p. 697.

  31. See Seyersted, Kate Chopin, pp. 86, 151; Lewis Leary, “Kate Chopin and Walt Whitman” in Southern Excursions: Essays on Mark Twain and Others (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971), p. 170; Joan Zlotnick, “A Woman's Will: Kate Chopin on Selfhood, Wifehood, and Motherhood,” Markham Review 3 (October 1968):1-5; Gregory L. Candela, “Walt Whitman and Kate Chopin: A Further Connection,” Walt Whitman Review 24(4) (December 1978):3.

  32. Jeffrey Steele, “Interpreting the Self: Emerson and the Unconscious,” in Emerson, Prospect and Retrospect, ed. Joel Porte (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 102.

  33. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Robert E. Spiller and Alfred R. Ferguson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), vol. I, p. 42.

  34. Estella Lauter, Women as Mythmakers, Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-Century Women (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 8.

  35. Albert S. Cook, Myth and Language (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), p. 1.

  36. A. Pratt maintains that women writers often resort to myths as acts of discovery prompted by imagination and intuition. Annis Pratt, Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981). In the plan of studies of Chopin's convent school, mythology was one of the subjects taught. Louise Callan, The Society of the Sacred Heart in North America (New York: Longmans, 1937), pp. 735-6.

  37. Myth has, among its features, that of being an “expanding contextual structure.” Eric Gould, Mythical Intentions in Modern Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 177.

  38. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment. The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Knopf, 1977), p. 226. Chopin is obviously indebted to the romantic tradition on sleep and dreams. She could not have known Freud's Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams), which appeared in 1900 and was not translated into English until 1913, yet her work shows a profound sensitivity to the nature of the unconscious.

  39. Marie L. von Franz, The Feminine in Fairy Tales (Irving: University of Dallas, 1972), pp. 18-43. The following Jungian analysis is based on the conviction that—as Bickman observed—Jungian psychology completes the movement of American romanticism and turns “metaphysics into a phenomenology of consciousness. The most striking activity in American Romanticism is that … of the imagination exploring those areas where ideas are felt as well as thought, and where spiritual aspirations and sexual desires are discovered to spring from the same inner dynamics.” Martin Bickman, The Unsounded Centre: Jungian Studies in American Romanticism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), p. 39.

  40. Curiously, when looking at the garden earlier (Chap. 17), Edna had not mentioned this fountain. Chopin's narrative method is often based on reticence and understatement. For example, one learns the names of Edna's children (Raoul and Etienne) in Chapters 3 and 14, respectively; again, only in the last chapter does one first learn that during the previous summer, Edna had always tripped over some loose planks in the porch.

  41. Walter F. Otto, Dionysus, Myth and Cult (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1981), p. 65.

  42. Margaret Culley, “Edna Pontellier: A Solitary Soul,” in The Awakening, An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, ed. M. Culley (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 227. See also Gilbert, “The Second Coming of Aphrodite,” 61.

  43. Victor, who insists on singing the song Edna does not want to hear, provides the disruptive climax of the party.

  44. Otto, Dionysus, Myth and Cult, p. 136.

  45. Ibid., p. 137.

  46. Ibid., p. 208.

  47. Edna appears under the sunshade twice with Robert (Chaps. 1 and 12) and once with Adele (Chap. 7).

  48. Chevalier and Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, pp. 1-2.

  49. Ibid., pp. 292-3, 531-3.

  50. In Kate Chopin, A Critical Biography, Per Seyersted never mentions Nietzsche as a possible influence on Chopin. But Daniel S. Rankin in Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932, p. 174) suggests that this novel may have been indebted to Gabrielle D'Annunzio, as well as to other representatives of European aestheticism. Specifically, he mentions The Triumph of Death (translated into English in 1896), which shows the impact of Nietzsche and of Wagner. In both novels there is indeed a strong emphasis on the power of music to move and to reveal the inner world of every human being. Incidentally, in a book published posthumously in 1901, Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power), Nietzsche writes that Dionysus is the epitome of “transitoriness” and declares that he can be interpreted “as enjoyment of productive and destructive force, as continual creation.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p. 539, sects. 1049, 1885-6. It is, of course, too early to speak of a Nietzschean influence here. Although Nietzsche's books began appearing in the 1870s, his influence on Anglo-American culture did not commence until 1896, when, newly translated in Britain, his works started to be known. Patrick Bridgwater, Nietzsche in Anglosaxony (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1972), p. 150. For further reference, see Stephen Donadio, Nietzsche, Henry James, and the Artistic Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978). Nietzsche is linked to American culture through his devotion to Emerson. From 1862 and for more than a quarter of a century, “Emerson was the object of Nietzsche's continuing interest.” Herman Hummel, “Emerson and Nietzsche,” New England Quarterly 19 (1946):73. It is possible that the occasional Nietzschean theme in Chopin is actually Emersonian and one acquired on native ground.

    Note that Walter Pater, too, had studied the figure of Dionysus as the expression of a power that is “bringing together things naturally asunder, making, as it were, for the human body a soul of waters.” W. Pater, “A Study of Dionysus,” in Greek Studies, A Series of Essays (London: Macmillan, 1922), p. 29.

  51. For a complete bibliography of Nietzsche, see Herbert W. Reichert and Karl Schlechta, International Nietzsche Bibliography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

  52. Kate Chopin, The Awakening, ed. with an introduction by Lewis Leary (New York: Holt Rinehart, 1970), pp. 12-13.

  53. In Chapter 5 the author gives us his age indirectly: We have to make an addition (fifteen plus eleven) in order to know it. Edna's age, instead, is stated twice (Chaps. 6 and 30).

  54. Otto, Dionysus, Myth and Cult, pp. 181-8.

  55. Ibid., p. 92. Incidentally, Ariadne (who, like Persephone, Artemis, and Aphrodite, belongs to the element of moisture, Becoming, and death) had, like Edna, two sons.

  56. Georges Dumezil, Myths et Epopée, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1968).

  57. Karoly Kerenyi, Athene, Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion (Zurich: Spring Publications, 1978), pp. 17, 55-7. Given Chopin's familiarity with the poetry of A. C. Swinburne, see his “Erechtheus.”

  58. Ibid., p. 47.

  59. Ibid., p. 54.

  60. Ibid., p. 32.

  61. Chevalier and Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, p. 169.

  62. Harold Bloom, Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976), p. 255. The critic maintains that “The Emersonian or American Sublime … differs from the British or the Continental model not by a greater or lesser degree of positivity or negativity, but by a greater acceptance or affirmation of discontinuities in the self.”

  63. Von Franz, The Feminine in Fairy Tales, p. 38.

  64. The number ten (or its multiples: one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand) is frequently employed in the book. Ten designates a totality in movement, a return to unity, an alternation, or better, a coexistence, of life and death. Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, pp. 292-3.

  65. To signify the alliance between rationality and vital powers, all pagan mother-goddesses carry the serpent as an attribute (Isis, Demeter, Athena, Cybele). In Christian iconography, the serpent is, instead, crushed under Mary's foot. In Medusa the serpents stand for perverted power. See S. Freud's essay “The Uncanny” (1919) and Tobin Siebers, The Mirror of Medusa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

  66. Chevalier and Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, pp. 388-9.

  67. Carl G. Jung and Karoly Kerenyi, Essays on a Science of Mythology, The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, Bollingen Series (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 126. Edna and Adele are designated as “cruel” by Robert (Chap. 36) and Doctor Mandelet (Chap. 38), respectively.

  68. A. Goodwin Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), p. 173-7.

  69. Kerenyi, Athene, Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion, p. 59.

  70. Ibid., pp. 40-1. Incidentally, the month dedicated to Athene corresponds to our mid-July-mid-August period, roughly both the month in which The Awakening begins and the “eighth” one in our calendar.

  71. A similar meaning (rejuvenation, cyclical restoration) is involved in Edna's desire to eat fish. In fact, by taking her last “swim” she may become like a fish, and further, take on the nature of the supreme christological symbol. On the other hand, the fish may also symbolize her sensitivity, inconstancy, and desire to let herself go. Chevalier and Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, pp. 617-19.

  72. Ibid., pp. 806-7 and 411-12. Twenty-eight, being also the sum of twenty and eight, stands for God, the primary Unity, and for resurrection and transfiguration. Twenty-eight is also the sum of the years of the Farival twins, who seem to be perfectly symmetrical (Chap. 9) and, therefore, indicate the possibility of surmounting multiplicity by attaining unity through a balanced duality. Twenty-eight, finally, designates Adam Kadmon, the Universal Man.

  73. Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna, rev. B. S. Page (London: Faber and Faber, 1956), particularly Enneads IV and VI.

  74. See Oliver O'Donovan, The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980). Such concepts may have been handed down to Kate Chopin through Emerson, or she may have absorbed them through her Catholic unbringing. To the impact of Augustine's doctrines (and of Plotinus's pantheism) on Puritan theology and, through it, on transcendentalism, Perry Miller has devoted numerous essays. His “From Edwards to Emerson” is precious, even if it studies a chronologically more limited span of theological thought. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956).

  75. Chevalier and Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, pp. 766, 772-5.

  76. Siebers, The Mirror of Medusa, pp. 57-86.

  77. See Ruth Sullivan and Stewart Smith, “Narrative Stance in Kate Chopin's The Awakening,Studies in American Fiction 1(1) (Spring 1973):62-75; Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin's The Awakening.American Quarterly 25(4) (October 1973):449-71; and Allen F. Stein, “Kate Chopin's The Awakening and the Limits of Moral Judgment,” in A Fair Day in the Affections: Literary Essays in Honor of Robert B. White, Jr., ed. Jack D. Durant and M. Thomas Hester (Raleigh, N.C.: Winston Press, 1980).

Cristina Giorcelli, a gradute of Bryn Mawr, is Professor of American Literature at the University of RomeThree. She has written extensively on W. Irving, E. A. Poe, H. Melville, H. James, S. Crane, E. Wharton, G. Stein, W. C. Williams, L. Zukofsky. Since 1980, she directs the Anglo-American section of the quarterly journal Letterature d'America. She is also editor of a series on Abito e Identita (Clothing and Identity).

Elaine Showalter (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8882

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book.” In New Essays on The Awakening, edited by Wendy Martin, pp. 33-57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Showalter examines the ways in which Chopin defied the female literary tradition with The Awakening.]

“Whatever we may do or attempt, despite the embrace and transports of love, the hunger of the lips, we are always alone. I have dragged you out into the night in the vain hope of a moment's escape from the horrible solitude which overpowers me. But what is the use! I speak and you answer me, and still each of us is alone; side by side but alone.”1 In 1895, these words, from a story by Guy de Maupassant called “Solitude,” which she had translated for a St. Louis magazine, expressed an urbane and melancholy wisdom that Kate Chopin found compelling. To a woman who had survived the illusions that friendship, romance, marriage, or even motherhood would provide lifelong companionship and identity, and who had come to recognize the existential solitude of all human beings, Maupassant's declaration became a kind of credo. Indeed, The Awakening, which Chopin subtitled “A Solitary Soul,” may be read as an account of Edna Pontellier's evolution from romantic fantasies of fusion with another person to self-definition and self-reliance. At the beginning of the novel, in the midst of the bustling social world of Grand Isle, caught in her domestic roles of wife and mother, Edna pictures solitude as alien, masculine, and frightening, a naked man standing beside a “desolate rock” by the sea in an attitude of “hopeless resignation” (Chap. 9). By the end, she has claimed a solitude that is defiantly feminine, returning to the nearly empty island off-season, to stand naked and “absolutely alone” by the shore and to elude “the soul's slavery” by plunging into the sea's embrace (Chap. 39).

Yet Edna's triumphant embrace of solitude could not be the choice of Kate Chopin as an artist. A writer may work in solitude, but literature depends on a tradition, on shared forms and representations of experience; and literary genres, like biological species, evolve because of significant innovations by individuals that survive through imitation and revision. Thus it can be a very serious blow to a developing genre when a revolutionary work is taken out of circulation. Experimentation is retarded and repressed, and it may be several generations before the evolution of the literary genre catches up. The interruption of this evolutionary process is most destructive for the literature of a minority group, in which writers have to contend with cultural prejudices against their creative gifts. Yet radical departures from literary convention within a minority tradition are especially likely to be censured and suppressed by the dominant culture, because they violate social as well as aesthetic stereotypes and expectations.

The Awakening was just such a revolutionary book. Generally recognized today as the first aesthetically successful novel to have been written by an American woman, it marked a significant epoch in the evolution of an American female literary tradition. As an American woman novelist of the 1890s, Kate Chopin had inherited a rich and complex tradition, composed not only of her American female precursors but also of American transcendentalism, European realism, and fin-de-siècle feminism and aestheticism. In this context, The Awakening broke new thematic and stylistic ground. Chopin went boldly beyond the work of her precursors in writing about women's longing for sexual and personal emancipation.

Yet the novel represents a literary beginning as abruptly cut off as its heroine's awakening consciousness. Edna Pontellier's explicit violations of the modes and codes of nineteenth-century American women's behavior shocked contemporary critics, who described The Awakening as “morbid,” “essentially vulgar,” and “gilded dirt.”2 Banned in Kate Chopin's own city of St. Louis and censured in the national press, The Awakening thus became a solitary book, one that dropped out of sight, and that remained unsung by literary historians and unread by several generations of American women writers.

In many respects, The Awakening seems to comment on its own history as a novel, to predict its own critical fate. The parallels between the experiences of Edna Pontellier, as she breaks away from the conventional feminine roles of wife and mother, and Kate Chopin, as she breaks away from conventions of literary domesticity, suggest that Edna's story may also be read as a parable of Chopin's literary awakening. Both the author and the heroine seem to be oscillating between two worlds, caught between contradictory definitions of femininity and creativity, and seeking either to synthesize them or to go beyond them to an emancipated womanhood and an emancipated fiction. Edna Pontellier's “unfocused yearning” for an autonomous life is akin to Kate Chopin's yearning to write works that go beyond female plots and feminine endings.

In the early stages of her career, Chopin had tried to follow the literary advice and literary examples of others and had learned that such dutiful efforts led only to imaginative stagnation. By the late 1890s, when she wrote The Awakening, Chopin had come to believe that the true artist was one who defied tradition, who rejected both the “convenances” of respectable morality and the conventions and formulas of literary success. What impressed her most about Maupassant was that he had “escaped from tradition and authority … had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes.”3 This is very close to what happens to Edna Pontellier as she frees herself from social obligations and received opinions and begins “to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life” (Chap. 32). Much as she admired Maupassant, and much as she learned from translating his work, Chopin felt no desire to imitate him. Her sense of the need for independence and individuality in writing is dramatically expressed in The Awakening by Mademoiselle Reisz, who tells Edna that the artist must possess “the courageous soul that dares and defies” (Chap. 21) and must have strong wings to soar “above the level plain of tradition and prejudice” (Chap. 27).

Nonetheless, in order to understand The Awakening fully, we need to read it in the context of literary tradition. Even in its defiant solitude, The Awakening speaks for a transitional phase in American women's writing, and Chopin herself would never have written the books she did without a tradition to admire and oppose. When she wrote The Awakening in 1899, Chopin could look back to at least two generations of female literary precursors. The antebellum novelists, led by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan Warner, and E. D. E. N. Southworth, were the first members of these generations. Born in the early decades of the nineteenth century, they began to publish stories and novels in the 1850s and 1860s that reflected the dominant expressive and symbolic models of an American woman's culture. The historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has called this culture the “female world of love and ritual,” and it was primarily defined by the veneration of motherhood, by intense mother-daughter bonds, and by intimate female friendships. As Smith-Rosenberg explains: “Uniquely female rituals drew women together during every stage of their lives, from adolescence through courtship, marriage, childbirth and child rearing, death and mourning. Women revealed their deepest feelings to one another, helped one another with the burdens of housewifery and motherhood, nursed one another's sick, and mourned for one another's dead.”4 Although premarital relationships between the sexes were subject to severe restrictions, romantic friendships between women were admired and encouraged. The nineteenth-century ideal of female “passionlessness”—the belief that women did not have the same sexual desires as men—had advantages as well as disadvantages for women. It reinforced the notion that women were the purer and more spiritual sex, and thus were morally superior to men. Furthermore, as the historian Nancy F. Cott has argued, “acceptance of the idea of passionlessness created sexual solidarity among women; it allowed women to consider their love relationships with one another of higher character than heterosexual relationships because they excluded (male) carnal passion.”5 “I do not believe that men can ever feel so pure an enthusiasm for women as we can feel for one another,” wrote the novelist Catherine Sedgwick. “Ours is nearest to the love of angels.”6 The homosocia world of women's culture in fact allowed much leeway for physical intimacy and touch; “girls routinely slept together, kissed and hugged one another.”7 But these caresses were not interpreted as erotic expressions.

The mid-nineteenth-century code of values growing out of women's culture, which Mary Ryan calls “the empire of the mother,” was also sustained by sermons, child-rearing manuals, and sentimental fiction.8 Women writers advocated motherly influence—“gentle nurture,” “sweet control,” and “educating power”—as an effective solution to such social problems as alcoholism, crime, slavery, and war. As Harriet Beecher Stowe proclaimed, “The ‘Woman Question’ of the day is: Shall MOTHERHOOD ever be felt in the public administration of the affairs of state?”9

As writers, however, the sentimentalists looked to motherhood for their metaphors and justifications of literary creativity. “Creating a story is like bearing a child,” wrote Stowe, “and it leaves me in as weak and helpless a state as when my baby was born.”10 Thematically and stylistically, pre-Civil War women's fiction, variously described as “literary domesticity” or the “sentimental novel,” celebrates matriarchal institutions and idealizes the period of blissful bonding between mother and child. It is permeated by the artifacts, spaces, and images of nineteenth-century American domestic culture: the kitchen, with its worn rocking chair; the Edenic mother's garden, with its fragrant female flowers and energetic male bees; the caged songbird, which represents the creative woman in her domestic sphere. Women's narratives were formally composed of brief sketches joined together like the pieces of a patchwork quilt; they frequently alluded to specific quilt patterns and followed quilt design conventions of repetition, variation, and contrast. Finally, their most intense representation of female sexual pleasure was not in terms of heterosexual romance, but rather the holding or suckling of a baby; for, as Mary Ryan points out, “nursing an infant was one of the most hallowed and inviolate episodes in a woman's life. … Breast-feeding was sanctioned as ‘one of the most important duties of female life,’ ‘one of peculiar, inexpressible felicity,’ and ‘the sole occupation and pleasure’ of a new mother.”11

The cumulative effect of all these covert appeals to female solidarity in books written by, for, and about women could be a subversive critique of patriarchal power. Yet aesthetically the fiction of this generation was severely restricted. The sentimentalists did not identify with the figure of the “artist,” the “genius,” or the “poet” promulgated by patriarchal culture. As Nina Baym explains, “they conceptualized authorship as a profession rather than a calling. … Women authors tended not to think of themselves as artists or justify themselves in the language of art until the 1870s and after.”12 In the writing of the sentimentalists, “the dimensions of formal self-consciousness, attachment to or quarrel with a grand tradition, aesthetic seriousness, are all missing. Often the women deliberately and even proudly disavowed membership in an artistic fraternity.”13 Insofar as art implied a male club or circle of brothers, women felt excluded from it. Instead they claimed affiliation with a literary sorority, a society of sisters whose motives were moral rather than aesthetic, whose ambitions were to teach and to influence rather than to create. Although their books sold by the millions, they were not taken seriously by male critics.

The next generation of American women writers, however, found themselves in a different cultural situation. After the Civil War, the homosocial world of women's culture began to dissolve as women demanded entrance to higher education, the professions, and the political world. The female local colorists who began to publish stories about American regional life in the 1870s and 1880s were also attracted to the male worlds of art and prestige opening up to women, and they began to assert themselves as the daughters of literary fathers as well as literary mothers. Claiming both male and female aesthetic models, they felt free to present themselves as artists and to write confidently about the art of fiction in such essays as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's “Art for Truth's Sake”.14 Among the differences the local colorists saw between themselves and their predecessors was the question of “self-ishness,” the ability to put literary ambitions before domestic duties. Although she had been strongly influenced in her work by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Pearl of Orr's Island, Sarah Orne Jewett came to believe that Stowe's work was “incomplete” because she was unable to “bring herself to that cold selfishness of the moment for one's work's sake.”15

Writers of this generation chose to put their work first. The 1870s and 1880s were what Susan B. Anthony called “an epoch of single women,”16 and many unmarried women writers of this generation lived alone; others were involved in “Boston marriages,” or long-term relationships with another woman. But despite their individual lifestyles, many speculated in their writing on the conflicts between maternity and artistic creativity. Motherhood no longer seemed to be the motivating force of writing, but rather its opposite. Thus artistic fulfillment required the sacrifice of maternal drives, and maternal fulfillment meant giving up artistic ambitions.

The conflicts between love and work that Edna Pontellier faces in The Awakening were anticipated in such earlier novels as Louisa May Alcott's unfinished Diana and Persis (1879) and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis (1879). A gifted painter who has studied in Florence and Paris, Avis does not intend to marry. As she tells her suitor, “My ideals of art are those with which marriage is perfectly incompatible. Success—for a woman—means absolute surrender, in whatever direction. Whether she paints a picture, or loves a man, there is no division of labor possible in her economy. To the attainment of any end worth living for, a symmetrical sacrifice of her nature is compulsory upon her.” But love persuades her to change her mind, and the novel records the inexorable destruction of her artistic genius as domestic responsibilities, maternal cares, and her husband's failures use up her energy. By the end of the novel, Avis has become resigned to the idea that her life is a sacrifice for the next generation of women. Thinking back to her mother, a talented actress who gave up her profession to marry and died young, and looking at her daughter, Wait, Avis takes heart in the hope that it may take three generations to create the woman who can unite “her supreme capacity of love” with the “sacred individuality of her life.”17 As women's culture declined after the Civil War, moreover, the local colorists mourned its demise by investing its traditional images with mythic significance. In their stories, the mother's garden has become a paradisal sanctuary; the caged bird a wild white heron, or heroine of nature; the house an emblem of the female body, with the kitchen as its womb; and the artifacts of domesticity virtually totemic objects. In Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs, for example, the braided rag rug has become a kind of prayer mat of concentric circles from which the matriarchal priestess, Mrs. Todd, delivers her sybilline pronouncements. The woman artist in this fiction expresses her conflicting needs most fully in her quasi-religious dedication to these artifacts of a bygone age.

The New Women writers of the 1890s no longer grieved for the female bonds and sanctuaries of the past. Products of both Darwinian skepticism and aesthetic sophistication, they had an ambivalent or even hostile relationship to women's culture, which they often saw as boring and restrictive. Their attitudes toward female sexuality were also revolutionary. A few radical feminists had always maintained that women's sexual apathy was not an innately feminine attribute but rather the result of prudery and repression; some women's rights activitists too had privately confessed that, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in her diary in 1883, “a healthy woman has as much passion as a man.”18 Not all New Women advocated female sexual emancipation; the most zealous advocates of free love were male novelists such as Grant Allen, whose best-seller, The Woman Who Did (1895), became a byword of the decade. But the heroine of New Woman fiction, as Linda Dowling has explained, “expressed her quarrel with Victorian culture chiefly through sexual means—by heightening sexual consciousness, candor, and expression.”19 No wonder, then, that reviewers saw The Awakening as part of the “overworked field of sex fiction” or noted that since “San Francisco and Paris, and London, and New York had furnished Women Who Did, why not New Orleans?”20

In the form as well as the content of their work, New Women writers demanded freedom and innovation. They modified the realistic three-decker novels about courtship and marriage that had formed the bulk of midcentury “woman's fiction” to make room for interludes of fantasy and parable, especially episodes “in which a woman will dream of an entirely different world or will cross-dress, experimenting with the freedom available to boys and men.”21 Instead of the crisply plotted short stories that had been the primary genre of the local colorists, writers such as Olive Schreiner, Ella D'Arcy, Sarah Grand, and “George Egerton” (Mary Chavelita Dunne) experimented with new fictional forms that they called “keynotes,” “allegories,” “fantasies,” “monochromes,” or “dreams.” As Egerton explained, these impressionistic narratives were efforts to explore a hitherto unrecorded female consciousness: “I realized that in literature everything had been done better by man than woman could hope to emulate. There was only one small plot left for herself to tell: the terra incognita of herself, as she knew herself to be, not as man liked to imagine her—in a word to give herself away, as man had given himself away in his writings.”22

Kate Chopin's literary evolution took her progressively through the three phases of nineteenth-century American women's culture and women's writing. Born in 1850, she grew up with the great best-sellers of the American and English sentimentalists. As a girl, she had wept over the works of Warner and Stowe and had copied pious passages from the English novelist Dinah Mulock Craik's The Woman's Kingdom into her diary. Throughout her adolescence, Chopin had also shared an intimate friendship with Kitty Garasché, a classmate at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Together, Chopin recalled, the girls had read fiction and poetry, gone on excursions, and “exchanged our heart secrets.”23 Their friendship ended in 1870 when Kate Chopin married and Kitty Garasché entered a convent. Yet when Oscar Chopin died in 1883, his young widow went to visit her old friend and was shocked by her blind isolation from the world. When Chopin began to write, she took as her models such local colorists as Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman, who had not only mastered technique and construction but had also devoted themselves to telling the stories of female loneliness, isolation, and frustration.

Sandra Gilbert has suggested that local color was a narrative strategy that Chopin employed to slove a specific problem: how to deal with extreme psychological states without the excesses of sentimental narrative and without critical recrimination. At first, Gilbert suggests, “local color” writing “offered both a mode and a manner that could mediate between the literary structures she had inherited and those she had begun.” Like the anthropologist, the local colorist could observe vagaries of culture and character with “almost scientific detachment.” Furthermore, “by reporting odd events and customs that were part of a region's ‘local color’ she could tell what would ordinarily be rather shocking or even melodramatic tales in an unmelodramatic way, and without fear of … moral outrage.”24

But before long, Chopin looked beyond the oddities of the local colorists to more ambitious models. Her literary tastes were anything but parochial. She read widely in a variety of genres—Darwin, Spencer, and Huxley, as well as Aristophanes, Flaubert, Whitman, Swinburne, and Ibsen. In particular, she associated her own literary and psychological awakening with Maupassant. “Here was life, not fiction,” she wrote of his influence on her, “for where were the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making.”25 In a review of a book by the local colorist Hamlin Garland, Chopin expressed her dissatisfaction with the restricted subjects of regional writing: “Social problems, social environments, local color, and the rest of it” could not “insure the survival of a writer who employs them.”26 She resented being compared to George Washington Cable or Grace King.27 Furthermore, she did not share the female local colorists' obsession with the past, their desperate nostalgia for a bygone idealized age. “How curiously the past effaces itself for me!” she wrote in her diary in 1894. “I cannot live through yesterday or tomorrow.”28 Unlike Jewett, Freeman, King, or Woolson, she did not favor the old woman as narrator.

Despite her identification with the New Women, however, Chopin was not an activist. She never joined the women's suffrage movement or belonged to a female literary community. Indeed, her celebrated St. Louis literary salon attracted mostly male journalists, editors, and writers. Chopin resigned after only two years from a St. Louis women's literary and charitable society. When her children identified her close friends to be interviewed by her first biographer, Daniel Rankin, there were no women on the list.29

Thus Chopin certainly did not wish to write a didactic feminist novel. In reviews published in the 1890s, she indicated her impatience with novelists such as Zola and Hardy, who tried to instruct their readers. She distrusted the rhetoric of such feminist bestsellers as Sarah Grand's The Heavenly Twins (1893). The eleventh commandment, she noted, is “Thou shalt not preach.”30 Instead she would try to record, in her own way and in her own voice, the terra incognita of a woman's “inward life” in all its “vague, tangled, chaotic” tumult.

Much of the shock effect of The Awakening to the readers of 1899 came from Chopin's rejection of the conventions of women's writing. Despite her name, which echoes two famous heroines of the domestic novel (Edna Earl in Augusta Evans's St. Elmo and Edna Kenderdine in Dinah Craik's The Woman's Kingdom), Edna Pontellier appears to reject the domestic empire of the mother and the sororal world of women's culture. Seemingly beyond the bonds of womanhood, she has neither mother nor daughter, and even refuses to go to her sister's wedding.

Moreover, whereas the sentimental heroine nurtures others, and the abstemious local color heroine subsists upon meager vegetarian diets, Kate Chopin's heroine is a robust woman who does not deny her appetites. Freeman's New England nun picks at her dainty lunch of lettuce leaves and currants, but Edna Pontellier eats hearty meals of paté, pompano, steak, and broiled chicken; bites off chunks of crusty bread; snacks on beer and Gruyere cheese; and sips brandy, wine, and champagne.

Formally, too, the novel has moved away from conventional techniques of realism to an impressionistic rhythm of epiphany and mood. Chopin abandoned the chapter titles she had used in her first novel, At Fault (1890), for thirty-nine numbered chapters of uneven length, ranging from the single paragraph of Chapter 28 to the sustained narrative of the dinner party in Chapter 30. The chapters are unified less by their style than by their focus on Edna's consciousness, and by the repetition of key motifs and images: music, the sea, shadows, swimming, eating, sleeping, gambling, the lovers, birth. Chapters of lyricism and fantasy, such as Edna's voyage to the Chenière Caminada, alternate with realistic, even satirical, scenes of Edna's marriage.

Most important, where previous works ignored sexuality or spiritualized it through maternity, The Awakening is insistently sexual, explicitly involved with the body and with self-awareness through physical awareness. Although Edna's actual seduction by Arobin takes place in the narrative neverland between Chapters 31 and 32, Chopin brilliantly evokes sexuality through images and details. In keeping with the novel's emphasis on the self, several scenes suggest Edna's initial autoeroticism. Edna's midnight swim, which awakens the “first-felt throbbings of desire,” takes place in an atmosphere of erotic fragrance, “strange, rare odors … a tangle of the sea-smell and of weeds and damp new-ploughed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms” (Chap. 10). A similarly voluptuous scene is her nap at Chenière Caminada, when she examines her flesh as she lies in a “strange, quaint bed with its sweet country odor of laurel” (Chap. 13).

Edna reminds Dr. Mandalet of “some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun” (Chap. 23), and we recall that among her fantasies in listening to music is the image of a lady stroking a cat. The image both conveys Edna's sensuality and hints at the self-contained, almost masturbatory, quality of her sexuality. Her rendezvous with Robert takes place in a sunny garden where both stroke a drowsy cat's silky fur, and Arobin first seduces her by smoothing her hair with his “soft, magnetic hand” (Chap. 31).

Yet despite these departures from tradition, there are other respects in which the novel seems very much of its time. As its title suggests, The Awakening is a novel about a process rather than a program, about a passage rather than a destination. Like Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905), it is a transitional female fiction of the fin-de-siècle, a narrative of and about the passage from the homosocial women's culture and literature of the nineteenth century to the heterosexual fiction of modernism. Chopin might have taken the plot from a notebook entry Henry James made in 1892 about “the growing divorce between the American woman (with her comparative leisure, culture, grace, social instincts, artistic ambition) and the male American immersed in the ferocity of business, with no time for any but the most sordid interests, purely commercial, professional, democratic and political. This divorce is rapidly becoming a gulf.”31 The Gulf where the opening chapters of The Awakening are set certainly suggests the “growing divorce” between Edna's interests and desires and Leonce's obsessions with the stock market, property, and his brokerage business.

Yet in turning away from her marriage, Edna initially looks back to women's culture rather than forward to another man. As Sandra Gilbert has pointed out, Grand Isle is an oasis of women's culture, or a “female colony”: “Madame Lebrun's pension on Grand Isle is very much a woman's land not only because it is owned and run by a single woman and dominated by ‘mother-women’ but also because (as in so many summer colonies today) its principal inhabitants are actually women and children whose husbands and fathers visit only on weekends … [and it is situated,] like so many places that are significant for women, outside patriarchal culture, beyond the limits and limitations of the city where men make history, on a shore that marks the margin where nature intersects with culture.”32

Edna's awakening, moreover, begins not with a man, but with Adele Ratignolle, the empress of the “mother-women” of Grand Isle. A “self-contained” (Chap. 7) woman, Edna has never had any close relationships with members of her own sex. Thus it is Adele who belatedly initiates Edna into the world of female love and ritual on the first step of her sensual voyage of self-discovery. Edna's first attraction to Adele is physical: “the excessive physical charm of the Creole had first attracted her, for Edna had a sensuous susceptibility to beauty” (Chap. 7). At the beach, in the hot sun, she responds to Adele's caresses, the first she has ever known from another woman, as Adele clasps her hand “firmly and warmly” and strokes it fondly. The touch provokes Edna to an unaccustomed candor; leaning her head on Adele's shoulder and confiding some of her secrets, she begins to feel “intoxicated” (Chap. 7). The bond between them goes beyond sympathy, as Chopin notes, to “what we might well call love” (Chap. 7).

In some respects, the motherless Edna also seeks a mother surrogate in Adele and looks to her for nurturance. Adele provides maternal encouragement for Edna's painting and tells her that her “talent is immense” (Chap. 18). Characteristically, Adele has rationalized her own “art” as a maternal project: “she was keeping up her music on account of the children … a means of brightening the home and making it attractive” (Chap. 9). Edna's responses to Adele's music have been similarly tame and sentimental. Her revealing fantasies as she listens to Adele play her easy pieces suggest the restriction and decorum of the female world: “a dainty young woman … taking mincing dancing steps, as she came down a long avenue between tall hedges”; “children at play” (Chap. 9). Women's art, as Adele presents it, is social, pleasant, and undemanding. It does not conflict with her duties as a wife and mother, and can even be seen to enhance them. Edna understands this well; as she retorts when her husband recommends Adele as a model of an artist, “She isn't a musician and I'm not a painter!” (Chap. 19).

Yet the relationship with the conventional Adele educates the immature Edna to respond for the first time both to a different kind of sexuality and to the unconventional and difficult art of Mademoiselle Reisz. In responding to Adele's interest, Edna begins to think about her own past and to analyze her own personality. In textual terms, it is through this relationship that she becomes “Edna” in the narrative rather than “Mrs. Pontellier.”

We see the next stage of Edna's awakening in her relationship with Mademoiselle Reisz, who initiates her into the world of art. Significantly, this passage also takes place through a female rather than a male mentor, and, as with Adele, there is something more intense than friendship between the two women. Whereas Adele's fondness for Edna, however, is depicted as maternal and womanly, Mademoiselle Reisz's attraction to Edna suggests something more perverse. The pianist is obsessed with Edna's beauty, raves over her figure in a bathing suit, greets her as “ma belle” and “ma reine,” holds her hand, and describes herself as “a foolish old woman whom you have captivated” (Chap. 21). If Adele is a surrogate for Edna's dead mother and the intimate friend she never had as a girl, Mademoiselle Reisz, whose music reduces Edna to passionate sobs, seems to be a surrogate lover. And whereas Adele is a “faultless madonna” who speaks for the values and laws of the Creole community, Mademoiselle Reisz is a renegade, self-assertive and outspoken. She has no patience with petty social rules and violates the most basic expectations of femininity. To a rake like Arobin, she is so unattractive, unpleasant, and unwomanly as to seem “partially demented” (Chap. 27). Even Edna occasionally perceives Mademoiselle Reisz's awkwardness as a kind of deformity, and is sometimes offended by the old woman's candor and is not sure whether she likes her.

Yet despite her eccentricities, Mademoiselle Reisz seems “to reach Edna's spirit and set it free” (Chap. 26). Her voice in the novel seems to speak for the author's view of art and for the artist. It is surely no accident, for example, that it is Chopin's music that Mademoiselle Reisz performs. At the pension on Grand Isle, the pianist first plays a Chopin prelude, to which Edna responds with surprising turbulence: “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her” (Chap. 9). “Chopin” becomes the code word for a world of repressed passion between Edna and Robert that Mademoiselle Reisz controls. Later the pianist plays a Chopin impromptu for Edna that Robert has admired; this time the music is “strange and fantastic—turbulent, plaintive and soft with entreaty” (Chap. 21). These references to “Chopin” in the text are on one level allusions to an intimate, romantic, and poignant musical oeuvre that reinforces the novel's sensual atmosphere. But on another level, they function as what Nancy K. Miller has called the “internal female signature” in women's writing, here a literary punning signature that alludes to Kate Chopin's ambitions as an artist and to the emotions she wished her book to arouse in its readers.33

Chopin's career represented one important aesthetic model for his literary namesake. As a girl, Kate Chopin had been a talented musician, and her first published story, “Wiser Than a God,” was about a woman concert pianist who refused to marry. Moreover, Chopin's music both stylistically and thematically influences the language and form of The Awakening. The structure of the impromptu, in which there is an opening presentation of a theme, a contrasting middle section, and a modified return to the melodic and rhythmic materials of the opening section, parallels the narrative form of The Awakening. The composer's techniques of unifying his work through the repetition of musical phrases, his experiments with harmony and dissonance, his use of folk motifs, his effects of frustration and delayed resolution can also be compared to Kate Chopin's repetition of sentences, her juxtaposition of realism and impressionism, her incorporation of local color elements, and her rejection of conventional closure. Like that of the composer's impromptu, Chopin's style seems spontaneous and improvised, but it is in fact carefully designed and executed.34

Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz not only represent important alternative roles and influences for Edna in the world of the novel, but as the proto-heroines of sentimental and local color fiction, they also suggest different plots and conclusions. Adele's story suggests that Edna will give up her rebellion, return to her marriage, have another baby, and by degrees learn to appreciate, love, and even desire her husband. Such was the plot of many late-nineteenth-century sentimental novels about erring young women married to older men, such as Susan Warner's Diana (1880) and Louisa May Alcott's Moods (1882). Mademoiselle Reisz's story suggests that Edna will lose her beauty, her youth, her husband, and children—everything, in short, but her art and her pride—and become a kind of New Orleans nun.

Chopin wished to reject both of these endings and to escape from the literary traditions they represented; but her own literary solitude, her resistance to allying herself with a specific ideological or aesthetic position, made it impossible for her to work out something different and new. Edna remains very much entangled in her own emotions and moods, rather than moving beyond them to real self-understanding and to an awareness of her relationship to her society. She alternates between two moods of “intoxication” and “languor,” expansive states of activity, optimism, and power and passive states of contemplation, despondency, and sexual thralldom. Edna feels intoxicated when she is assertive and in control. She first experiences such exultant feelings when she confides her history to Adele Ratignolle and again when she learns how to swim: “intoxicated with her newly conquered power,” she swims out too far. She is excited when she gambles successfully for high stakes at the race track, and finally she feels “an intoxication of expectancy” about awakening Robert with a seductive kiss and playing the dominant role with him. But these emotional peaks are countered by equally intense moods of depression, reverie, or stupor. At the worst, these are states of “indescribable oppression,” “vague anguish,” or “hopeless ennui.” At best, they are moments of passive sensuality in which Edna feels drugged; Arobin's lips and hands, for example, act “like a narcotic upon her” (Chap. 25).

Edna welcomes both kinds of feelings because they are intense, and thus preserve her from the tedium of ordinary existence. They are in fact adolescent emotions, suitable to a heroine who is belatedly awakening; but Edna does not go beyond them to an adulthood that offers new experiences or responsibilities. In her relationships with men, she both longs for complete and romantic fusion with a fantasy lover and is unprepared to share her life with another person.

Chopin's account of the Pontellier marriage, for example, shows Edna's tacit collusion in a sexual bargain that allows her to keep to herself. Although she thinks of her marriage to a paternalistic man twelve years her senior as “purely an accident,” the text makes it clear that Edna has married Leonce primarily to secure a fatherly protector who will not make too many domestic, emotional, or sexual demands on her. She is “fond of her husband,” with “no trace of passion or excessive or fictitious warmth” (Chap. 7). They do not have an interest in each other's activities or thoughts, and have agreed to a complete separation of their social spheres; Leonce is fully absorbed by the business, social, and sexual activities of the male sphere, the city, Carondelet Street, Klein's Hotel at Grand Isle, where he gambles, and especially the New Orleans world of the clubs and the red-light district. Even Adele Ratignolle warns Edna of the risks of Mr. Pontellier's club life and of the “diversion” he finds there. “It's a pity Mr. Pontellier doesn't stay home more in the evenings,” she tells Edna. “I think you would be more—well, if you don't mind my saying it—more united, if he did.” “Oh! dear no!” Edna responds, “with a blank look in her eyes. ‘What should I do if he stayed home? We wouldn't have anything to say to each other’” (Chap. 23). Edna gets this blank look in her eyes—eyes that are originally described as “quick and bright”—whenever she is confronted with something she does not want to see. When she joins the Ratignolles at home together, Edna does not envy them, although, as the author remarks, “if ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union” (Chap. 18). Instead, she is moved by pity for Adele's “colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment” (Chap. 18).

Nonetheless, Edna does not easily relinquish her fantasy of rhapsodic oneness with a perfect lover. She imagines that such a union will bring permanent ecstasy; it will lead, not simply to “domestic harmony” like that of the Ratignolles, but to “life's delirium” (Chap. 18). In her story of the woman who paddles away with her lover in a pirogue and is never heard of again, Edna elaborates on her vision as she describes the lovers, “close together, rapt in oblivious forgetfulness, drifting into the unknown” (Chap. 23). Although her affair with Arobin shocks her into an awareness of her own sexual passions, it leaves her illusions about love intact. Desire, she understands, can exist independently of love. But love retains its magical aura; indeed, her sexual awakening with Arobin generates an even “fiercer, more overpowering love” for Robert (Chap. 28). And when Robert comes back, Edna has persuaded herself that the force of their love will overwhelm all obstacles: “We shall be everything to each other. Nothing else in the world is of any consequence” (Chap. 36). Her intention seems to be that they will go off together into the unknown, like the lovers in her story. But Robert cannot accept such a role, and when he leaves her, Edna finally realizes “that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him, would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone” (Chap. 39).

The other side of Edna's terror of solitude, however, is the bondage of class as well as gender that keeps her in a prison of the self. She goes blank too whenever she might be expected to notice the double standard of ladylike privilege and oppression of women in southern society. Floating along in her “mazes of inward contemplation,” Edna barely notices the silent quadroon nurse who takes care of her children, the little black girl who works the treadles of Madame Lebrun's sewing machine, the laundress who keeps her in frilly white, or the maid who picks up her broken glass. She never makes connections between her lot and theirs.

The scene in which Edna witnesses Adele in childbirth (Chap. 37) is the first time in the novel that she identifies with another woman's pain, and draws some halting conclusions about the female and the human condition, rather than simply about her own ennui. Edna's births have taken place in unconsciousness; when she goes to Adele's childbed, “her own like experiences seemed far away, unreal, and only half remembered. She recalled faintly an ecstasy of pain, the heavy odor of chloroform, a stupor which had deadened sensation” (Chap. 37) The stupor that deadens sensation is an apt metaphor for the real and imaginary narcotics supplied by fantasy, money, and patriarchy, which have protected Edna from pain for most of her life, but which have also kept her from becoming an adult.

But in thinking of nature's trap for women, Edna never moves from her own questioning to the larger social statement that is feminism. Her ineffectuality is partly a product of her time; as a heroine in transition between the homosocial and the heterosexual worlds, Edna has lost some of the sense of connectedness to other women that might help her plan her future. Though she has sojourned in the “female colony” of Grand Isle, it is far from being a feminist utopia, a real community of women, in terms of sisterhood. The novel suggests, in fact, something of the historical loss for women of transferring the sense of self to relationships with men.

Edna's solitude is one of the reasons that her emancipation does not take her very far. Despite her efforts to escape the rituals of femininity, Edna seems fated to reenact them, even though, as Chopin recounts these scenes, she satirizes and revises their conventions. Ironically, considering her determination to discard the trappings of her role as a society matron—her wedding ring, her “reception day,” her “charming home”—the high point of Edna's awakening is the dinner party she gives for her twenty-ninth birthday. Edna's birthday party begins like a kind of drawing-room comedy. We are told the guest list, the seating plan, the menu, and the table setting; some of the guests are boring, and some do not like each other; Madame Ratignolle does not show up at the last minute, and Mademoiselle Reisz makes disagreeable remarks in French.

Yet as it proceeds to its bacchanalian climax, the dinner party also has a symbolic intensity and resonance that makes it, as Sandra Gilbert argues, Edna's “most authentic act of self-definition.”35 Not only is the twenty-ninth birthday a feminine threshold, the passage from youth to middle age, but Edna is literally on the threshold of a new life in her little house. The dinner, as Arobin remarks, is a coup d'état, an overthrow of her marriage, all the more an act of aggression because Leonce will pay the bills. Moreover, she has created an atmosphere of splendor and luxury that seems to exceed the requirements of the occasion. The table is set with gold satin, Sevres china, crystal, silver, and gold; there is “champagne to swim in” (Chap. 29), and Edna is magnificently dressed in a satin and lace gown, with a cluster of diamonds (a gift from Leonce) in her hair. Presiding at the head of the table, she seems powerful and autonomous: “There was something in her attitude which suggested the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone” (Chap. 30). Edna's moment of mastery thus takes place in the context of a familiar ceremony of women's culture. Indeed, dinner parties are virtual set pieces of feminist aesthetics, suggesting that the hostess is a kind of artist in her own sphere, someone whose creativity is channeled into the production of social and domestic harmony. Like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, Edna exhausts herself in creating a sense of fellowship at her table, although in the midst of her guests she still experiences an “acute longing” for “the unattainable” (Chap. 30).

But there is a gap between the intensity of Edna's desire, a desire that by now has gone beyond sexual fulfillment to take in a much vaster range of metaphysical longings, and the means that she has to express herself. Edna may look like a queen, but she is still a housewife. The political and aesthetic weapons she has in her coup d'état are only forks and knives, glasses and dresses.

Can Edna, and Kate Chopin, then, escape from confining traditions only in death? Some critics have seen Edna's much-debated suicide as a heroic embrace of independence and a symbolic resurrection into myth, a feminist counterpart of Melville's Bulkington: “Take heart, take heart, O Edna, up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing, up, straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!” But the ending too seems to return Edna to the nineteenth-century female literary tradition, even though Chopin redefines it for her own purpose. Readers of the 1890s were well accustomed to drowning as the fictional punishment for female transgression against morality, and most contemporary critics of The Awakening thus automatically interpreted Edna's suicide as the wages of sin.

Drowning itself brings to mind metaphorical analogies between femininity and liquidity. As the female body is prone to wetness, blood, milk, tears, and amniotic fluid, so in drowning the woman is immersed in the feminine organic element. Drowning thus becomes the traditionally feminine literary death.36 And Edna's last thoughts further recycle significant images of the feminine from her past. As exhaustion overpowers her, “Edna heard her father's voice and her sister Margaret's. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air” (Chap. 39). Edna's memories are those of awakening from the freedom of childhood to the limitations conferred by female sexuality.

The image of the bees and the flowers not only recalls early descriptions of Edna's sexuality as a “sensitive blossom,” but also places The Awakening firmly within the traditions of American women's writing, where it is a standard trope for the unequal sexual relations between women and men. Margaret Fuller, for example, writes in her journal: “Woman is the flower, man the bee. She sighs out of melodious fragrance, and invites the winged laborer. He drains her cup, and carries off the honey. She dies on the stalk; he returns to the hive, well fed, and praised as an active member of the community.”37 In post—Civil War fiction, the image is a reminder of an elemental power that women's culture must confront. The Awakening seems particularly to echo the last lines of Mary Wilkins Freeman's “A New England Nun,” in which the heroine, having broken her long-standing engagement, is free to continue her solitary life, and closes her door on “the sounds of the busy harvest of men and birds and bees; there were halloos, metallic clatterings, sweet calls, long hummings.”38 These are the images of a nature that, Edna has learned, decoys women into slavery; yet even in drowning, she cannot escape from their seductiveness, for to ignore their claim is also to cut oneself off from culture, from the “humming” life of creation and achievement.

We can re-create the literary tradition in which Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening, but of course, we can never know how the tradition might have changed if her novel had not had to wait half a century to find its audience. Few of Chopin's literary contemporaries came into contact with the book. Chopin's biographer, Per Seyersted, notes that her work “was apparently unknown to Dreiser, even though he began writing Sister Carrie just when The Awakening was being loudly condemned. Also Ellen Glasgow, who was at this time beginning to describe unsatisfactory marriages, seems to have been unaware of the author's existence. Indeed, we can safely say that though she was so much of an innovator in American literature, she was virtually unknown by those who were now to shape it and that she had no influence on them.”39 Ironically, even Willa Cather, the one woman writer of the fin-de-siècle who reviewed The Awakening, not only failed to recognize its importance but also dismissed its theme as “trite.”40 It would be decades before another American woman novelist combined Kate Chopin's artistic maturity with her sophisticated outlook on sexuality, and overcame both the sentimental codes of feminine “artlessness” and the sexual codes of feminine “passionlessness.”

In terms of Chopin's own literary development, there were signs that The Awakening would have been a pivotal work. While it was in press, she wrote one of her finest and most daring short stories, “The Storm,” which surpasses even The Awakening in terms of its expressive freedom. Chopin was also being drawn back to a rethinking of women's culture. Her last poem, written in 1900, was addressed to Kitty Garesché and spoke of the permanence of emotional bonds between women:


It is not all of life
To cling together while the years glide past.
It is not all of love
To walk with clapsed hands from the first to last.
That mystic garland which the spring did twine
Of scented lilac and the new-blown rose,
Faster than chains will hold my soul to thine
Thro' joy, and grief, thro' life—unto its close.(41)

We have only these tantalizing fragments to hint at the directions Chopin's work might have taken if The Awakening had been a critical success or even a succès de scandale, and if her career had not been cut off by her early death. The fate of The Awakening shows only too well how a literary tradition may be enabling, even essential, as well as confining. Struggling to escape from tradition, Kate Chopin courageously risked social and literary ostracism. It is up to contemporary readers to restore her solitary book to its place in our literary heritage.


  1. Guy de Maupassant, “Solitude,” trans. Kate Chopin, St. Louis Life 12 (December 28, 1895), 30; quoted in Margaret Culley, “Edna Pontellier: ‘A Solitary Soul,’” in The Awakening, Norton Critical Edition (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 224.

  2. See the contemporary reviews in the Norton Critical Edition, pp. 145-55.

  3. “Confidences,” in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), Vol. II, p. 701.

  4. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Knopf, 1985), p. 28.

  5. Nancy R. Cott, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850,” Signs 4 (1978):233.

  6. Catherine Maria Sedgwick, manuscript diary, quoted in Cott, “Passionlessness,” 233.

  7. Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct, p. 69.

  8. See Mary P. Ryan, The Empire of the Mother: American Writing about Domesticity (New York: Haworth Press, 1982).

  9. Harriet Beecher Stowe, My Wife and I, quoted in Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 327.

  10. Ibid., p. 249.

  11. Mary P. Ryan, Womanhood in America from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Franklin Watts, 1983), p. 144.

  12. Nina Baym, Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America 1820-1870 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978), p. 32.

  13. Ibid., p. 32.

  14. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, “Art for Truth's Sake,” in her autobiography, Chapters from a Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1897).

  15. Sarah Orne Jewett, Letters, ed. Annie Adams Field (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), p. 47; quoted in Josephine Donovan, Sarah Orne Jewett (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980), p. 124.

  16. Susan B. Anthony, “Homes of Single Women,” 1877, quoted in Carol Farley Kessler, “Introduction” to Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Story of Avis (repr. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985), xxii.

  17. Phelps, The Story of Avis, pp. 126, 246.

  18. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, diary for 1883, quoted in Cott, “Passionlessness,” 236 n. 60.

  19. Linda Dowling, “The Decadent and the New Woman in the 1890s,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 33 (1979):441.

  20. Frances Porcher, “Kate Chopin's Novel,” The Mirror (May 4, 1899) and “Books of the Day,” Chicago Times-Herald (June 1, 1899), in Norton Critical Edition, pp. 145, 149.

  21. Martha Vicinus, “Introduction” to George Egerton, Keynotes and Discords (repr. London: Virago Books, 1983), xvi.

  22. George Egerton, “A Keynote to Keynotes,” in Ten Contemporaries, ed. John Gawsworth (London: Ernest Benn, 1932), p. 60.

  23. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (New York: Octagon Books, 1980), p. 18.

  24. Sandra Gilbert, “Introduction” to The Awakening and Selected Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 16.

  25. “Confidences,” in Chopin, Complete Works Vol. II, pp. 700-1.

  26. “Crumbling Idols,” in Chopin, Complete Works, Vol. II, p. 693.

  27. Seyersted, Kate Chopin, p. 83.

  28. Ibid., p. 58.

  29. Ibid., p. 209, n. 55.

  30. “Confidences,” in Chopin, Complete Works, Vol. II, p. 702.

  31. Henry James, November 26, 1892, quoted in Larzer Ziff, The American 1890s (New York: Viking, 1966), p. 275.

  32. Gilbert, “Introduction,” p. 25.

  33. Thanks to Nancy K. Miller of Barnard College for this phrase from her current work on the development of women's writing in France. I am also indebted to the insights of Cheryl Torsney of the University of West Virginia, and to the comments of the other participants of my NEH Seminar on “Women's Writing and Women's Culture,” Summer 1984.

  34. Thanks to Lynne Rogers, Music Department, Princeton University, for information about Fredéric Chopin.

  35. Gilbert, “Introduction,” p. 30.

  36. See Gaston Bachelard, L'eau et les rêves (Paris, 1942), pp. 109-25.

  37. Margaret Fuller, “Life Without and Life Within,” quoted in Bell G. Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1976), p. 349. See also Wendy Martin, An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pp. 154-9.

  38. “A New England Nun,” in Mary Wilkins Freeman, The Revolt of Mother, ed. Michele Clark (New York: Feminist Press, 1974), p. 97.

  39. Seyersted, Kate Chopin, p. 196.

  40. “Sibert” [Willa Cather], “Books and Magazines,” Pittsburgh Leader (July 8, 1899), in Norton Critical Edition, p. 153.

  41. Chopin, Complete Works, Vol. II, p. 735.

Nancy Walker (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2701

SOURCE: Walker, Nancy. “The Historical and Cultural Setting.” In Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening, edited by Bernard Koloski, pp. 67-72. The Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

[In the following essay, Walker explores ways to incorporate Chopin's New Orleans Creole setting into classroom discussion of The Awakening.]

One dimension of Kate Chopin's The Awakening likely to be overlooked in the classroom is the richness of the historical and cultural background against which the novel takes place. New Orleans Creole culture in the late nineteenth century constituted a world unto itself—a set of traditions, mores, and customs unlike any other in America. Indeed, Chopin's descriptions of this culture serve as more than mere backdrop; the contrast between Edna's upbringing in Kentucky and the Creole society of Léonce Pontellier creates a subtle but persistent thread in the novel, one that helps to explain Edna's restlessness and alienation from the society around her. Approaching the novel as—at least in part—an account of the clash between the dominant southern culture in which Edna was raised and the New Orleans Creole subculture in which she finds herself after her marriage allows students not only to better understand a part of American cultural history but also to see Edna as a woman influenced by her past as well as by the events and surroundings of her present.

As Per Seyersted's biography and the letters and diary entries in the Kate Chopin Miscellany make clear, The Awakening is far from autobiographical. Kate Chopin and Edna Pontellier were the products of very different backgrounds, and that difference influenced their individual responses to the mores and values of New Orleans Creole culture toward the end of the nineteenth century. Whereas Edna has come to her marriage directly from the stern Protestantism of her father's home, Chopin grew up immersed in the cosmopolitan life of the Creoles in both St. Louis and New Orleans. Chopin's maternal grandfather, Wilson Faris, was a Kentuckian, a circumstance that, though it may well have contributed to Chopin's understanding of southern life east of the Mississippi River, had little effect on the atmosphere in which she was raised. In addition, Chopin had traveled extensively before she settled in New Orleans, and her perspective on cultural variety was far wider than that of Edna. On her way to New York to embark on a several-month honeymoon tour of Europe, Chopin commented favorably on Cincinnati and its beer gardens but was not at all pleased by Philadelphia, which she described as a “gloomy puritanical looking city” (Seyersted and Toth 68). The breadth of Chopin's experience with travel and reading—especially by the time she wrote The Awakening in her mid-forties—distinguishes her from the unworldly Edna and provides her with a far greater sense of cultural relativism.

The setting of the novel derives from Chopin's residence in New Orleans from 1870 to 1879 as well as from earlier visits there with her family. Born in St. Louis to an Irish-Catholic father and a French-Creole mother, Kate O'Flaherty married Oscar Chopin, a Creole from Natchitoches, Louisiana, and the couple settled in New Orleans, where Oscar became a cotton merchant. The Chopins lived in what was known as the “American” part of the city, an area now known as the Garden District, across Canal Street from the French Quarter. Constantinople Street and Louisiana Avenue, where the Chopins had successive residences, formed part of a burgeoning suburb outside what most long-time residents considered “real” New Orleans: the Vieux Carré. In fact, Per Seyersted, Chopin's biographer, mentions that Oscar Chopin's father, who had come to Louisiana from France and had clung to his French heritage, disliked the fact that the couple chose to live in the American section of the city (37). Nevertheless, Kate Chopin explored New Orleans with a freedom unusual for women in the 1870s and became well acquainted with the colorful mixture of cultures and the bustle of trade in this port city.

Between 1860 and 1880, the population of New Orleans grew from 168,675 to 216,090 (nearly half of the residents were black), and the city was at that time “the only metropolis in the South” (Ezell 232). Founded in 1718, it was also one of the oldest cities in the southern part of the country. Age and size had their negative effects on life in New Orleans in the 1870s. Because the city lacked an adequate system of sanitation and stood below sea level, its narrow streets were filled with human and animal wastes and garbage; and epidemics of yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera were common, largely due to the miasmal swamps immediately adjacent to the city. The yellow fever epidemic of 1878, for example, claimed the lives of more than four thousand New Orleans residents. In an attempt to escape this threat, the wives and children of many Creole families, including those of Oscar Chopin, spent their summers on Grand Isle, which, because it is an island in the Gulf of Mexico about fifty miles south of New Orleans, enjoys gulf breezes that virtually remove the fever-carrying mosquitoes.

It is in this languid, semitropical setting that Chopin places the beginning and the ending of The Awakening. Because Grand Isle's summer population was almost entirely Creole, Edna is first shown here immersed in a culture with which she feels at odds and yet to which she is strongly attracted. Unlike Kate Chopin, who grew up speaking French and who managed to charm her Gallic father-in-law, despite his displeasure with her half-Irish heritage, Edna was born to a Kentucky Presbyterian family with values far removed from those of the warm, easygoing Creoles. Early in The Awakening. Edna recalls a day in her childhood when she felt a pleasant sense of escape from the rigidity of her home, and she says to Mme Ratignolle, “Likely as not, it was Sunday, … and I was running away from prayers, from the Presbyterian service, read in a spirit of gloom by my father that chills me yet to think of” (7). Although Edna's family subsequently moved to Mississippi, her severe Calvinistic Protestant background underwent no apparent change, and she is again reminded of it in the novel when her father comes to New Orleans to visit. She is relieved when he finally leaves, taking with him “his padded shoulders, his Bible reading, his ‘toddies’ and ponderous oaths” (24).

Differences in values and behavior between the Catholic French Creoles of New Orleans and the Kentucky Presbyterians during the years before and after the Civil War could hardly have been more striking. Religious and political forces combined in the early years of the nineteenth century to alter southern Protestantism in ways that created a gulf between it and both Catholicism and northern Protestantism. As Ezell points out in The South since 1865, the “Great Revival” of 1800 strengthened evangelical Protestantism among the middle and lower classes of the South. Although this revival spirit initially fostered democratic and even liberal social attitudes, beginning in the 1830s northern criticism of the South—especially of the system of slavery—caused an increasing conservatism among southern Protestants that eventually led to the splitting of most denominations into northern and southern branches. “A great resurgence of religious orthodoxy began to regiment thought to protect Southern vested interests. … Liberalism brought threats to the status quo; therefore, Southern reaction was conservative in religion as well as in politics” (341). Edna's Kentucky Presbyterian father, who had been a colonel in the Confederate army, is a member of the generation of southerners who were most directly affected by this intense conservative trend in both religious and social attitudes.

The Catholic church, in contrast, was largely unaffected by the wave of southern conservatism in the middle years of the nineteenth century, and the Creoles of southern Louisiana, although many of them owned slaves, preserved through the century virtually the same traditions and social attitudes that they had developed during the years since their settlement of the area in the early eighteenth century. New Orleans, during the period of Chopin's residence there, was dominated by Creole culture, and the Creoles, who had developed a highly sophisticated society, were notably hostile toward the backwoods “Americans” who poured into this major port city with boatloads of timber, furs, and tobacco. To the refined Creole, these hunters and farmers seemed crude, dirty, and socially backward, and although they came down the Mississippi from a variety of states, Kentuckians must have seemed particularly offensive, because the Creoles calle all these outsiders “Kaintocks” (Chase 80).

From its street names and architecture to its Mardi Gras celebrations, New Orleans, under the influence of the Creoles, more nearly resembled a southern European than an American city. Edward King, a contemporary observer writing in Scribner's Monthly in 1873, stresses the European atmosphere of French New Orleans:

Step off from Canal Street, that avenue of compromises which separates the French and the American cities, some bright February morning, and you are at once in a foreign atmosphere. Three paces from the corner have enchanted you; the surroundings of a Southern-American commonwealth have vanished; this might be Toulouse, or Bordeaux, or Marseilles.


Long before the advent of jazz, music was an important part of the city's cultural life, and the French Opera House was the first in the country to stage productions of Wagner (Seyersted 42). Unconstrained by the Puritanism of their Protestant neighbors, for whom life was serious business, the Creoles played as hard as they worked. Indeed, to those from other parts of the country, Creole life seemed almost sinfully sensuous. Seyersted quotes Lafcadio Hearn, the author, who moved to New Orleans in 1877, as saying, “work … in this voluptuous climate … is impossible” (41). What appeared to some to be a hedonistic way of life, coupled with the Creole institution of concubinage with quadroon and octoroon women, gave New Orleans a reputation as a sinful city. As Clement Eaton notes in A History of the Old South, “Americans who came down the Mississippi were shocked at the Creole Sundays, when the Sabbath day was devoted to pleasure and commerce. Furthermore, these Latins were passionately fond of gambling, lotteries, and dancing” (183). Even those Americans living as neighbors to the French Creoles were vexed at their self-sufficiency, their lack of interest in political affairs. As Edward King describes the situation, “they seem as remote from New York and Washington as if limitless oceans rolled between” (12).

In keeping with this atmosphere of social freedom, women in Creole culture, as is evident in The Awakening, were far less affected by the Victorian strictures that dictated the behavior of middle-class women in other parts of the country. Although they tacitly supported a sexual double standard by their acceptance of their husbands' part-Negro mistresses and were legally as powerless as other women, Creole women participated fully in the sensuous atmosphere that surrounded them: drinking wine, enjoying music and literature, wearing bright colors, and entertaining lavishly. Well-educated, especially in the arts, these women were acquainted with literary trends, and many were accomplished musicians and painters. Although Creole culture was patriarchal in the extreme, women enjoyed life in ways that those subjected to Edna's father's “gloom” could not.

Teaching The Awakening with an awareness of the religious and social differences in Kate Chopin's cultural milieu enriches students' reading of the novel. It also removes Chopin from the narrow designation of “regionalist” or “local colorist” to which she has often been confined and demonstrates her understanding of the larger cultural patterns and problems of the late nineteenth century. Certainly Edna Pontellier's brave if doomed attempts at self-definition remain the central issue of the novel, but complicating those attempts are the romanticism that results from her rebellion against her rigid Presbyterian background and her inability to adjust that romanticism to the reality of her present environment.

Early in the novel, Chopin makes clear Edna's distance from the mores of the Creoles summering at Grand Isle: “Mrs. Pontellier, though she had married a Creole, was not thoroughly at home in the society of Creoles; never before had she been thrown so intimately among them. … A characteristic which distinguished [the Creoles] and which impressed Mrs. Pontellier most forcibly was their entire absence of prudery” (4). Edna is shocked by Mme Ratignolle's detailed recounting of her childbirth experiences, and she reads “in secret and solitude” an unnamed novel that the others read and discuss openly (4). The gossipy, confidence-sharing ways of the Creoles does not merge easily with Edna's Presbyterian reserve—“Mrs. Pontellier was not a woman given to confidences” (7)—yet she is seduced by the easy relations of this culture: “That summer at Grand Isle she began to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her” (7). Significantly, Chopin places the Pontelliers' New Orleans residence not in the Garden District, the “American” part of the city, but on Esplanade Street (actually, Avenue), at the edge of the French Quarter. Chopin had been familiar with this neighborhood since before her marriage, since it was noted for its grassy promenades where the part-black mistresses of white gentlemen strolled, often with their illegitimate offspring, just minutes from their homes on streets with such names as “Desire” and “Good Children.” Edna is thus immersed physically in the Creole world, both on Grand Isle and in New Orleans.

Edna's early desire to escape the grimness of her Kentucky home has led to her marriage to Léonce. Beneath her reserve lies a strain of romanticism and rebelliousness that early in her life manifested itself in imagined attachments to a series of unavailable men: the “dignified and sad-eyed cavalry officer,” the young man in Mississippi who was engaged to someone else, and finally the “great tragedian” whose picture she kept on her desk. Chopin makes it clear that Edna's marriage is not the result of any such grand passion: “Her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident” (7). One of her motives for marrying him, in fact, is her desire to flout the wishes of her father, who violently opposes her marrying a Catholic. Even after her marriage, her stern father attempts to dictate her values and her behavior. Though proud of her artistic talent, he takes credit for it, “convinced as he was that he had bequeathed to all of his daughters the germs of a masterful capability” (23). The Colonel disagrees with Léonce's rather liberal treatment of Edna's “moods”:

“You are too lenient, too lenient by far, Léonce,” asserted the Colonel. “Authority, coercion are what is needed. Put your foot down good and hard; the only way to manage a wife. Take my word for it.”

The Colonel was perhaps unaware that he had coerced his own wife into her grave.


Caught between the Puritanical sternness of her father's world and the relaxed familiarity of Creole culture, Edna can belong fully to neither. Mme Ratignolle recognizes Edna's position as an outsider early in the novel when she exhorts Robert Lebrum to stop flirting with her: “She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously” (8). Edna does, of course, take Robert seriously, just as he takes seriously her status as a possession of her husband, even though she tries to counteract this assumption toward the end of the novel: “I give myself when I choose. If he [Léonce] were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both” (36). Robert cannot understand this freedom, and so he does the “honorable” thing by leaving. And having effectively left her husband, Edna can imagine no future; therefore, she swims into the Gulf of Mexico.

Readers of The Awakening have tended, correctly, to see Edna as a “misfit” in several ways. She is not a “mother-woman” like Mme Ratignolle, nor is she a self-fulfilled artist like Mlle Reisz. She tries to be an artist—with Mlle Reisz's encouragement—but tragically, considering the milieu, fails for lack of sufficient talent and commitment. She feels unconnected to her marriage and wants independence, but divorce is not an option and she does not have the means to be financially independent. In these respects she is a woman who does not belong to her time, but it is equally important to realize that she does not belong to her place.

Margit Stange (essay date July 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7828

SOURCE: Stange, Margit. “Personal Property: Exchange Value and the Female Self in The Awakening.Genders, no. 5 (July 1989): 106-19.

[In the following essay, Stange discusses representations of the female self in The Awakening.]

In the beginning of The Awakening, New Orleans stockbroker Leonce Pontellier, staying with his wife, Edna, at an exclusive Creole family resort, surveys Edna as she walks up from the beach in the company of her summer flirtation, Robert Lebrun. “‘You are burnt beyond recognition’ [Leonce says], looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.”1 Leonce's comment is the reader's introduction to Edna, whose search for self is the novel's subject.2 To take Leonce's hyperbole—“you are burnt beyond recognition”—as literally as Leonce takes his role as Edna's “owner” is to be introduced to an Edna who exists as a recognizable individual in reference to her status as valuable property. This status appears to determine Edna's perception of herself: in response to Leonce's anxiety, Edna makes her first self-examination in this novel about a heroine who is “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (15). Edna, having been told “you are burnt beyond recognition,”

held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her lawn sleeves above the wrists. This reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm. She slipped them upon her fingers.


In the context of the property system in which Edna exists as a sign of value, Edna's body is detachable and alienable from her own viewpoint: the hands and wrists are part of the body yet can be objectified, held out and examined as if they belonged to someone else—as indeed, in some sense that Leonce insists upon very literally, they do belong to someone else. Edna's perception of her own body is structured by the detachability of the hand and arm as signs of Leonce's ownership of her. Her hands also suggest the possibility of being an owner herself when they make the proprietary gesture of reaching out for the rings that Leonce obediently drops into the palm (this gesture of Edna's contrasts with a bride's conventional passive reception of the ring). The hands are the organs of appropriation; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in a speech on female rights given in 1892, argued that “to deny [to woman] the rights of property is like cutting off the hands.”3 In having Edna put on the rings herself (a gesture Edna will again perform at a moment when she decisively turns away from her domestic role), Chopin suggests that the chief item of property owned by the proprietary Edna is Edna herself. Thus the opening scene foreshadows the turning point of the plot at which Edna, deciding to leave Leonce's house, resolves “never again to belong to another than herself” (80).

“Self-ownership” was a central project of feminist reformers of the second half of the nineteenth century. In the lexicon of late nineteenth-century women's rights reformers and feminist free love advocates, the term self-ownership, when applied to women, had a specific sexual meaning. First popularized by Lucinda Chandler in the 1840s and widely used by the feminist reformers who followed her, self-ownership signified the wife's right to refuse to have sex with her husband. According to Chandler, the practice of self-ownership would mean that “the woman … has control over her own person, independent of the desires of her husband.”4 Self-ownership was closely linked with “voluntary motherhood” and thus became a program for putting woman in control of sex and reproduction. “Self-ownership,” writes historian William Leach, “meant that woman, not man, would decide when, where, and how the sexual act would be performed. … It also meant that woman, not man, would determine when children would be conceived and how many.”5 Self-ownership became central to feminist ideology of the second half of the century. According to Linda Gordon, by the mid-seventies, advocacy of so-called voluntary motherhood—woman's “right to choose when to be pregnant”—was shared by “the whole feminist community.”6

This feminist community, in contradiction of its advocacy of choice and control for women, was unanimously opposed to the use of birth control devices. This opposition was shared by suffragists, moral reformers, and free love advocates alike. Various kinds of contraceptive technology were accessible to middle-class women. However, as historian Gordon notes, nineteenth-century birth control practice was determined by ideology rather than the availability of technology. In the prevailing ideology of even the most radical feminist reformers, motherhood was an inextricable part of female sexuality.7 Why did feminists, whose goal was to win for women the civil and proprietary rights that would make them equal to men, choose to deny women the freedom to have sex without pregnancy? As Gordon points out, the linkage of self-ownership with reproduction certainly reflects the reality of many women's lives, which were dominated by multiple births and the attendant realities of risk, disease, and pain.8 Some of the resistance to birth control technology, Gordon suggests, was motivated by material conditions: birth control devices, by separating sex from reproduction, appeared to threaten the family structure that provided most middle-class women their only social standing and economic security.9 But even among those reformers who were not concerned with upholding the family (free love advocates and nonmarrying career women, for example), there was a strong resistance to contraception—a resistance that amounts to a refusal to separate motherhood from female sexuality.

To put voluntary motherhood practiced without birth control devices at the center of self-ownership is to make motherhood central to a woman's life and identity. The capacity to bear children is the sexual function that most dramatically distinguishes the sexual lives—and the day-to-day lives—of women from those of men. The ban on contraceptive technology enforces a lived distinction between male and female sexuality: without effective contraception, sex for a woman always means sex as a woman because it means a potential pregnancy. The opposition to contraceptive technology (as well as the idealization of motherhood of which it is a part) reflects a commitment to the sexualization of female identity. Through the practice of self-ownership, this differentiated sexuality with motherhood at its core becomes the possession that a woman makes available or withholds in order to demonstrate self-ownership. To ask why the feminist reformers opposed contraceptive technology is, then, to ask how motherhood functions in the construction of the self-owning female self. In making motherhood a central possession of the self, the feminists were defining that self as sexual and as female. The possession of this sexualized self through self-ownership amounts to the exercise of a right to alienate (confirmed by a right to withhold). This selfhood, then, consists of the alienation of female sexuality in a market. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in her 1899 critique of this sexual market, attacked it as a market in which “he is … the demand … she is the supply.”10 The feminists' opposition to birth control technology reflects a commitment to this market: underlying their construction of female selfhood is the ideology of woman's sexual value in exchange.

Chopin's dramatization of female self-ownership demonstrates the central importance of the ideology of woman's value in exchange to contemporary notions of female selfhood. If, as Stanton declares in the speech on female selfhood quoted above, “in discussing the rights of woman, we are to consider, first, what belongs to her as an individual,” what Edna Pontellier considers as her property is, first, her body.11 Her body is both what she owns and what she owns with. She begins to discover a self by uncovering her hands and “surveying them critically” with her eyes, thus making an appropriative visual assessment of herself as a proprietary being. Her hands and eyes will serve her in her “venture” into her “work” of sketching and painting (54-55). Thus her hands, by remaining attached (and not cut off like those of the woman who is denied the rights of property), serve her visual appropriation of the world and provide the first object of this appropriation: her own body.

Edna's hands appear in two states: naked and sunburned, and ringed. In the first state, they are conventionally “unrecognizable” as signs of her status as Leonce's wife. Sunburned hands, by indicating the performance of outdoor labor, would nullify Edna's “value” as a sign of Leonce's wealth. In the terminology of Thorstein Veblen's turn-of-the-century analysis of the ownership system, Edna is an item of “conspicuous consumption” that brings “reputability” (a degree of status) to Leonce. Such status-bearing wealth must be surplus wealth: useful articles do not serve to advertise the owner's luxurious freedom from need. Edna must, then, appear to be surplus—she must appear to perform no useful labor.12 The rings—showy, luxurious, useless items of conspicuous consumption par excellence—restore her status as surplus. Yet this status is also constituted by the sight of her hands without the rings: the significance of the sunburned hands quickly collapses into the significance of the ringed hands when the sunburned, naked hands “remind” both Leonce and Edna of the ringed, value-bearing hands. And Edna's sunburn is directly constitutive of her “value,” for it results from her conspicuous, vicarious consumption of leisure on Leonce's behalf (what Veblen calls “vicarious leisure”): she has been enjoying a holiday at the respectable, luxurious resort frequented by Leonce's Creole circle.

Thus Edna's hands appear in their naked and exposed state as a reminder of Leonce's property interests while they also, in this state, suggest an identity and proprietary interests of her own. The appropriative survey of the female body as a sign of male ownership continues to engage Edna: her visual fascination fastens on the hands and body of her friend Adele Ratignolle, whose “excessive physical charm” at first attracts Edna (15). Edna “like[s] to sit and gaze at her fair companion.” She watches Adele at her domestic labors. “Never were hands more exquisite than [Adele's], and it was a joy to look at them when she threaded her needle or adjusted her gold thimble … as she sewed away on the little night drawers” (10). Here, the hands are the organs of labor—but again, gender determines possessive status. Adele's hands are perfectly white because she always wears dogskin gloves with gauntlets (16). The femininity of the laboring hands, their luxuriously aesthetic and spectacular quality, conspicuously signifies that the value of Adele's labor does not stem from production for use: Edna “[can]not see the use” of Adele's labor (16). Adele's laboring hands signify her consecration to her “role” within the family, and they are marked with the gold of a thimble as Edna's are marked with the gold of a ring.

In their white, “exquisite” beauty, Adele's hands are stably—organically—signs of her status as wealth. When Adele jokes “with excessive naiveté” about the fear of making her husband jealous, “that made them all laugh. The right hand jealous of the left! … But for that matter, the Creole husband is never jealous; with him the gangrene passion is one which has become dwarfed by disuse” (12). (This ownership is not reciprocal: the question of jealousy pertains only to the husband; the wife's jealous, proprietary interest in her husband is not evoked.) Adele's entire presence is a reminder of the property system in which woman is a form of surplus wealth whose value exists in relation to exchange. A woman of “excessive physical charm,” Adele is luxuriously draped in “pure white, with a fluffiness of ruffles that became her. The draperies and fluttering things which she wore suited her rich, luxuriant beauty” (15-16). Her body is as rich, white, and ornamental as her clothes: she appears “more beautiful than ever” in a negligee that leaves her arms “almost wholly bare” and “expose[s] the rich, melting curves of her white throat” (55).

In her rich and elaborate yet revealing clothing, Adele is excessively covered while her body, already a sign of wealth, makes such coverings redundant. Adele appears as a concretized feme covert. Under the Napoleonic Code which was still in force in Louisiana in the 1890s, wives were legally identical with their husbands; being in coverture, they had no separate legal or proprietary identity and could not own property in their own right.13 Adele's beauty is her conspicuousness as a form of wealth: her looks are describable by “no words … save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance.” These words—“gold,” “sapphires,” “cherries or some other delicious crimson fruit”—construct femininity as tangible property. The value of the woman is emphatically defined as social wealth that exists as an effect of the public circulation of the tropes—“the old [words] that have served so often”—that identify her as beautiful. Her beauty is the product and representation of its own circulation. Adele's “excessive physical charm” is a kind of currency that makes her the “embodiment of every womanly grace and charm” (10).

It is in public display that Adele's beauty manifests itself. The sight of woman as social wealth is the starting point of Edna's self-seeking. “Mrs. Pontellier liked to sit and gaze at her fair companion as she might look upon a faultless Madonna” (12). An amateur artist, Edna finds such “joy” in looking at Adele that she wants to “try herself on Madame Ratignolle” (13). Adele, “seated there like some sensuous Madonna, with the gleam of the fading day enriching her splendid color” (13), appears to Edna as a particularly “tempting subject” of a sketch. This sketch becomes the second sight that Edna “surveys critically” (the first being her hands); finding that it “[bears] no resemblance to Madame Ratignolle” (and despite the fact that it is “a fair enough piece of work, and satisfying in many ways”), Edna enforces her proprietary rights in regard to the sketch as she smudges it and “crumple[s] the paper between her hands” (13). Edna is inspired to make another try when she visits Adele at home in New Orleans and finds her again at her ornamental domestic labor (Adele is unnecessarily sorting her husband's laundry). “Madame Ratignolle looked more beautiful than ever there at home. … ‘Perhaps I shall be able to paint your picture some day,’ said Edna. … ‘I believe I ought to work again’” (55). The sight of Adele at home inspires Edna to do the work that will help her get out of the home. Later she will leave Leonce and support herself on the income from her art and from a legacy of her mother's.

In her insistence on owning her own property and supporting herself, Edna is a model of the legal opposite of the feme covert—she is the feme sole. Thus Chopin connects her to the Married Women's Property Acts, property law reforms instituted in the latter part of the century that gave married women varying rights of ownership. Edna comes from “old Presbyterian Kentucky stock” (66). Kentucky belonged to the block of states with the most advanced separation of property in marriage. In fact, Kentucky had the most advanced Married Women's Property Act in the nation, granting married women not only the right to own separate property and make contracts, but the right to keep their earnings.14

Thus Chopin connects Edna to the feminist drive for women's property rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her speech on female selfhood quoted above, makes possessive individualism the first consideration among women's rights: “In discussing the rights of woman, we are to consider, first, what belongs to her as an individual.”15 Chopin suggests that what a woman owns in owning herself is her sexual exchange value. The feme covert, in being both property and the inspiration to own, allows Edna to be a feme sole. The self she owns can be owned—is property—because it is recognizable as social wealth. Adele, who concretizes the status of the woman and mother as domestic property, makes visible to Edna the female exchange value that constitutes a self to own. Thus Edna's possessive selfhood looks “back” to the chattel form of marriage, valorizing (in a literal sense) the woman as property. In Adele, the “bygone heroine,” Edna finds the capital which she invests to produce her market selfhood.

The way that Edna owns herself by owning her value in exchange is a form of voluntary motherhood: “Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one. Then had followed a rather heated argument.” In this argument Edna “explains” to Adele, “I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself.” Adele's answer is, “a woman who would give her life for her children could do no more than that. … I'm sure I couldn't do more than that.” Withholding nothing, Adele cannot conceive of giving more than she already gives. Edna cannot at first identify what it is she has chosen to withhold: “I wouldn't give myself. I can't make it more clear; … it's only something which … is revealing itself to me” (48).

The self at first exists in the presumption of the right to withhold oneself as a mother. But Edna, like the feminist advocates of self-ownership, soon determines that voluntary motherhood means withholding herself sexually. After her first successful swim (during which she experiences a moment of self-support and the absolute solitariness of death), she stays on the porch, refusing Leonce's repeated orders and entreaties to come inside to bed (32). Later Edna stops sleeping with her husband altogether, so that Leonce complains to the family doctor, “she's making it devilishly uncomfortable for me … She's got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women; and—you understand—we meet in the morning at the breakfast table” (65). It is by withholding herself sexually, then, that Edna exercises the “eternal rights of women” in insisting that she has a self and that she owns that self.

The freedom to withhold oneself has its complement in the freedom to give oneself. No longer sleeping with—or even living with—her husband, Edna declares herself free to have sex with whomever she chooses. She tells Robert, “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose” (107). Edna supposes that her self-giving is chosen because she has presumed the choice of not giving—she has made her motherhood voluntary. Adele, in contrast, is the mother who never withholds and thus cannot choose but to give. Will and intention seem to be with Edna, whereas Adele exercises no will (and has no self). Yet Adele's giving is not an involuntary and therefore selfless reflex, but a consciously and intentionally developed identity. Adele is Grand Isle's greatest exponent of the “role” of “mother-woman,” a role that is produced through deliberate public staging (10). First presented to Edna as a beautiful vision of the “Madonna,” Adele produces her maternity through public discourse. Her children are “thoughts” brought out in speech: Adele “thinks” (out loud) of “a fourth one” and, after giving birth to it, implores Edna, in a phrase that Edna will not be able to get out of her mind, to “think of the children, oh think of them” (110).

“Madame Ratignolle had been married seven years. About every two years she had a baby. At that time she … was beginning to think of a fourth one. She was always talking about her ‘condition.’ Her ‘condition’ was in no way apparent, and no one would have known a thing about it but for her persistence in making it the subject of conversation” (11). Adele produces her “role” of “mother-woman” by thinking and provoking thought, but it is impossible to determine whether Adele thinks about getting pregnant; whether, that is, she practices self-ownership and voluntary motherhood by withholding herself from sex. The two-year intervals between her pregnancies might result from chance, or they might represent intentional spacing that keeps Adele in or nearly in the “condition” that provides her identity. This ambiguity characterizes the “condition” of motherhood that Adele is “always” producing for herself. Motherhood is a “role” and therefore consciously produced and paraded. Yet the intention and will that are used to stage the role conflict with its content, for the role of mother demands selflessness: the mother-women of Grand Isle “efface themselves as individuals” (10). Motherhood is never voluntary or involuntary. If motherhood is a social role that Adele intentionally inhabits, it is also a condition that she can never actually choose, since intending to become pregnant cannot make her so. Thus, motherhood has a kind of built-in selflessness that is dramatically expressed in the scene when Adele, who is usually in control of her presence, becomes pathetically hysterical and paranoic during labor and childbirth. Here, Adele's intentional embrace of motherhood gets its force from the unwilled nature of the “torture” that it attempts to appropriate. Hardly able to speak after her ordeal in childbirth, Adele whispers in an “exhausted” voice, “think of the children, Edna” (109).16

Adele and Edna embody the two poles of motherhood: Adele is the “mother-woman” and Edna is “not a mother-woman” (15, 10). The axis of motherhood gives Edna her original sense of identity. What makes her “not a mother-woman” is her refusal to “give” herself for her children. Unlike Adele, Edna does not embrace the role. Her motherhood seems arbitrary, externally imposed and unwilled, “a responsibility which she had blindly assumed.” She is “fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She [will] sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she [will] sometimes forget them” (20). Her “half-remembered” experience of childbirth is an “ecstasy” and a “stupor” (109, 108). Edna's refusal to give herself as a mother, rather than making her the controller and proprietor of her life, entails the passivity of thoughtlessness. In refusing to be a mother-woman she absents herself from the motherhood that is thus all the more arbitrarily thrust upon her.

Indeed, Edna is inescapably a mother. Motherhood is what Edna withholds and thus she, too, is essentially a “mother-woman.” Adele's presence is a provocation and reminder of the self-constituting function of motherhood. Adele's selflessness is an inducement to Edna to identify a self to give. For Edna, who “becom[es] herself” by “daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (57), the friendship with Adele is “the most obvious … influence” in the loosening of Edna's “mantle of reserve” (57, 14-15). The Creole community recognizes no private sphere. Adele's sexual and reproductive value is already located in the sphere of public exchange (or, the public is already like the private: the Creoles are like “one big family”) (11). In this Creole openness, Edna is inspired to resituate her sexual exchange value in an economy of public circulation.

“The candor of [Adele's] whole existence, which every one might read,” is part of a Creole lack of prudery that allows for the open circulation of stories about sex and childbirth. With “profound astonishment” Edna reads “in secret and solitude” a book that “had gone the rounds” and was openly discussed at table. “Never would Edna Pontellier forget the shock with which she heard Madame Ratignolle relating to old Monsieur Farival the harrowing story of one of her accouchements, withholding no intimate detail. She was growing accustomed to like shocks, but she could not keep the mounting color back from her cheeks” (11). The candor of Adele's motherhood provokes blushes that simultaneously constitute Edna's reserve and “give her away” to the public. Her body, whether sunburned or blushing, is red from an exposure that privatizes and valorizes that body as her domestic, private attributes—sexuality, modesty, reproduction—are manifested as social value.

Adele has nothing to hide because her body underneath her clothes is manifestly social wealth. Her bareness is as ornamentally “beautiful” as her ornamented, clothed self. The reserved, private, domestic self of Adele reveals itself to Edna as the valuable product of circulation, and this revelation prompts Edna to explore her own possessive privacy. She becomes aware of having “thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They belonged to her and were her own” (48). Her erotic longings belong in this category. “Edna often wondered at one propensity which sometimes had inwardly disturbed her without causing any outward show or manifestation on her part” (18). This is a propensity to become silently infatuated with various men. These “silent” possessions of the self are owned in a way most clearly illustrated in the story of Edna's greatest infatuation, whose object was a “great tragedian.”

The picture of the tragedian stood enframed upon her desk. Anyone may possess the portrait of a tragedian without exciting suspicion or comment. (This was a sinister reflection which she cherished.) In the presence of others she expressed admiration for his exalted gifts, as she handed the photograph around and dwelt upon the fidelity of the likeness. When alone she sometimes picked it up and kissed the cold glass passionately.


Edna's comment upon the fidelity of the likeness recapitulates the book's opening, in which Leonce's anxiety about Edna's lapse from recognizability, and his restoration of her recognizability via the wedding rings, consists of a discourse that constantly remembers and reinscribes her as a sign of him in his proprietary office. Her “fidelity” in this marital, possessive sense is her recognizability as such a sign. Edna's photograph is to Edna as Edna is to Leonce. It represents her possessive identity, her selfhood as an owner (thus there is a mirrorlike quality in the “cold glass” which shows her herself kissing herself). The photograph embodies and reflects Edna's erotic desire for the tragedian. It objectifies her sexuality in an image that is handed around, praised for its “fidelity,” and kissed in private.

Like Adele, the photograph concretizes erotic value that is both publicly produced and privately owned. The erotic availability and desirability of the actor whose photograph “anyone might possess” is a product of reproduction and circulation, as Edna's own kisses are incited by and followed by the circulation of the object. The mode of owning it is “handing it around” while she praises the “fidelity” of the likeness. That is, she assumes an individual possessive relationship to the photograph only in the context of its possession by any number of other owners, whose possession produces the “sinister reflection” of her own possessive, cherishing privacy. But Edna's position as an owner is not that of Adele's husband—or of her own. Edna gives up possession in order to have this possessive relationship. In praising the “fidelity of the likeness” she does not praise its likeness to her but emphasizes that the photograph represents and thus “belongs to” its original—a man whose inaccessibility makes her infatuation “hopeless.” Edna can see her photograph as property only by seeing it as male property—just as her own hands, in their function as signs of Leonce's ownership of her, appear detachable and therefore ownable. Yet the absence of Edna in what the photograph represents allows her to imagine a possessive self that is somehow hidden and concealed—and therefore her own. Alone with her photograph, she imagines it circulating. Circulating it, she is able to imagine being secretly alone with it. In her ownership of the photograph, Edna establishes her possessive relationship to her sexuality.

“I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose,” says Edna to Robert (106-107). She has withheld herself from her husband in order to give herself. Instead of being property “to dispose of or not,” she intends to be property that is necessarily disposed of. The forms of value in which Edna exchanges herself are the duties and functions of the woman and wife—female sexual service, motherhood, and the performance of wifely domestic/social amenities. Edna reprivatizes and reserves this value by giving up her social and domestic duties as the lady of the house, by moving out of the impressive family home into a private domestic space, the “pigeon house” (91), and by withholding sex from her husband. This reserved self is what she gives away at her “grand dinner,” when she launches her sexual exchange value into wider circulation.

Whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself. “I shall give a grand dinner before I leave the old house!” Edna exclaimed.


At the dinner, the “glittering circlet” of Edna's wedding ring (57) is now her crown.

“Something new, Edna?” exclaimed Miss Mayblunt, with lorgnette directed toward a magnificent cluster of diamonds that sparkled, that almost sputtered, in Edna's hair. …

“… a present from my husband. … I may as well admit that this is my birthday. … In good time I expect you to drink my health. Meanwhile, I shall ask you to begin with this cocktail, composed … by my father in honor of Sister Janet's wedding.”


Her wedding rings had “sparkled,” but the tiara (a conventional adornment of the “young matron”) “sputters.” This dinner marks the exploding of the intramarriage market, in which she repeatedly sells herself to the same man, into the public market, in which she circulates as the owner of her own sexual exchange value. In its very conception, the dinner collapses the private and public: “though Edna had spoken of the dinner as a very grand affair, it was in truth a very small affair and very select” (85). The absent beloved, Robert, is represented by Victor, his flirtatious younger brother. Flanking Edna are representatives of two modes of the market in sex value: Arobin, the gambler and playboy, represents adulterous and extramarital serial liaisons, while Monsieur Ratignolle enjoys the quasi-organic bond of Creole marriage.

The wealth of the Pontellier household is conspicuously displayed and offered to the guests. On the table “there were silver and gold … and crystal which glittered like the gems which the women wore” (86). The women, like the accoutrements, are presented as forms of wealth, and Edna is the queen among them. In her diamond crown, she both embodies and reigns over Leonce's riches. This dinner at which, like all women under exogamy, she leaves “the old house” is a version of the woman-giving potlatch, the marriage feast at which the father gives away the virgin daughter. The cocktail “composed” by the father for the daughter Janet's wedding is explicitly compared by Edna's lover Arobin to the gift of Edna herself: “it might not be amiss to start out by drinking the Colonel's health in the cocktail which he composed, on the birthday of the most charming of women—the daughter whom he invented” (87). Edna is thus the gift not just of Leonce, who makes her into a form of wealth by marking her as value, but of her father, too; that is, she is a bride. As a bride, she is an invention—man-made, brought into the world for, by, and on the occasion of the staging of ownership in the conspicuous consumption of a wedding/potlatch.

An “invention,” Edna is thoroughly representational. As a sign of value she is hailed as a sign of her father's wealth of inventiveness in making signs/wealth. The dinner dramatizes the richness of her market-determined transformations: ceremonial drink, invention, queen, luxurious gift. To say that it is her “birthday” is to say that her self is born through exchange and consists of these multiple signs which circulate in the market. What Edna wears marks her as value:

The golden shimmer of Edna's satin gown spread in rich folds on either side of her. There was a soft fall of lace encircling her shoulders. It was the color of her skin, without the glow, the myriad living tints that one may sometimes discover in vibrant flesh. There was something in her attitude, in her whole appearance … which suggested the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone.


The gold of her dress makes reference to the value in which she is robed. The lace “encircling” her shoulders refers to the skin which at the novel's opening effects Edna's transformation into “surplus.” It is as if the lace is an extra skin—a conspicuously surplus skin—which in its decorative insubstantiality mirrors the meaning of Edna's skin. But the lace is not a true mirror. It points out the superior capacity of the “real” skin to change, to have “myriad tints” which allow it to be continually dissolved and recreated as a sign of value.

Edna as a sign of value is the referent of all the surrounding signs of value. She sits at the head of the table in her crown like “the regal woman, the one who rules, … who stands alone,” as if she were the principle (and principal) of value that reigns over all its manifestations—the gold, silver, crystal, gems, and delicacies. Now Edna is like Adele, the regal woman who has the “grace and majesty which queens are … supposed to possess” (14). And like Adele, who is tortured and “exhausted” by childbirth, Edna experiences the complement of regal power in the exhausted passivity that overcomes her after the dinner, when the celebration of private wealth moves into the realization of value through the ceremonial enactment of breakage and loss.

Edna leaves the Pontellier house with Arobin, who pauses outside the door of the “old house” to break off a spray of jessamine, enacting this defloration. He offers it to Edna: “No; I don't want anything,” she answers. Emptied, she says she feels as if “something inside of me had snapped.” This metaphorical defloration empties Edna of the erotic desire whose ownership constitutes her selfhood. Edna's shoulders are bare of the encircling lace and Arobin caresses them. Edna is passive, but Arobin feels the “response of her flesh,” which, in its consecration to value, embodies the sexuality that is created in circulation. Now, after Edna's ceremonial “self-giving,” this eroticism no longer constitutes a sensation that Edna can appropriate as her own desire (91).

The loss of the self in maternal bloodshedding is enacted at the end of the dinner when the ceremony changes from a potlatch to a sacred, sacrificial rite. The desirous Mrs. Highcamp crowns Victor with a garland of yellow and red roses, effecting his magical transformation into a bacchanalian “vision of Oriental beauty.” One of the transfixed guests mutters Swinburne under his breath: “There was a graven image of Desire / Painted with red blood on a ground of gold.” This “graven image,” like Edna's photograph, reflects her desire. Victor publicly sings the secret song that expresses the production of Edna's “private” desire as a suspicious reflection of circulation, si tu savais ce que tes yeux me disent (“if you knew what your eyes are saying to me”) (90). She reacts with such consternation that she breaks her wine glass, and the contents—either red or gold, like the roses and the graven image—flow over Arobin and Mrs. Highcamp. Arobin has consecrated the evening's drinks as analogues of Edna, who has invited the guests to “drink her health”—that is, drink her—on her “birthday.” In involuntarily shattering the glass, which, like the “cold glass” covering the photo, contains a possessive reflection of her value, Edna shatters the “mantle of reserve,” symbolically releasing the maternal blood that constitutes her value.

The maternal quality of her self-giving—its involuntary and selfless aspects—overwhelms Edna again some time after the potlatch when, just as she is about to “give” herself to Robert, Edna is called away to witness Adele enduring the agonies of childbirth. The sight of Adele's “torture” overwhelms Edna (as does Adele's exhausted plea to “think of the children”), leaving her “stunned and speechless” (109-111). When she returns to her little house, Robert is gone forever. Deprived of the chance to “give” herself to her desire, she spends the night thinking of her children. Later, she walks to the beach from which she will swim to her death “not thinking of these things” (113). Withholding herself from motherhood, insisting on her right to refuse to “sacrifice” herself for her children, Edna owns herself. In the logic of self-ownership and voluntary motherhood, motherhood is itself the ground on which woman claims ownership of her sexual value. Edna seizes the most extreme prerogatives of this self-ownership, withholding herself from motherhood by withholding herself from life and thus giving herself in a maternal dissolution.

Edna's death in the ocean dramatizes the self-ownership rhetoric of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton argues that “self-sovereignty” is the existential birthright of both women and men, for every human being “launched on the sea of life” is unique and “alone.” But women's self-sovereignty specifically denotes sexual self-determination.17 And women—that is, mothers—earn a special presumptive self-sovereignty: “alone [woman] goes to the gates of death to give life to every man that is born into the world; no one can share her fears, no one can mitigate her pangs; and if her sorrow is greater than she can bear, alone she passes beyond the gates into the vast unknown.”18 At the moment of extreme maternal giving, the moment when motherhood takes her life, the woman owns her self by withholding herself from motherhood.


  1. Kate Chopin, The Awakening, ed. Margaret Culley (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 4. All further references are given in the text and refer to this edition.

  2. Many critics who have discussed the search for selfhood in The Awakening argue that Chopin opposes selfhood to socially imposed feminine roles that entail passivity, relative identity, and other-centeredness. See, for example, Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1969) and Margaret Culley, “Edna Pontellier: ‘A Solitary Soul,’” in The Awakening, ed. Culley, pp. 224-228. Susan Rosowski and Cynthia Griffin Wolff argue that Chopin depicts the difficulty of resisting the infantilizing, fantasy-prone narcissism encouraged by the feminine role in order to achieve autonomy in the realm of the real. See Susan Rosowski, “The Novel of Awakening,” Genre 12 (Fall 1979): 313-332, and Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin's The Awakening,American Quarterly 25 (October 1973): 449-471. Sandra M. Gilbert locates the achievement of selfhood outside of the existing, male-dominated social order. Chopin's heroine, Gilbert argues, achieves symbolic “rebirth” by departing for a mythical matriarchal realm. See Sandra M. Gilbert, “Introduction: The Second Coming of Aphrodite,” in The Awakening and Selected Stories by Kate Chopin, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), pp. 7-33.

  3. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “The Solitude of Self,” in Ellen Carol DuBois, ed., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches (New York: Schocken, 1981), p. 249. In this speech Stanton gave in 1892 on the occasion of her regination from the presidency of the suffrage movement, Stanton argued for full civil rights for woman on the grounds of her aloneness and existential “self-sovereignty.” In its argument and rhetoric, this speech of Stanton's is strikingly similar to Chopin's presentation of female selfhood (The Awakening's original title was A Solitary Soul). Like the self Chopin's heroine discovers, Stanton's self is an absolute, possessive self whose metaphorical situation is that of a lone individual “on a solitary island” or “launched on the sea of life” (247-248). In Stanton and in Chopin, female subjectivity and women's rights are grounded in absolute selfhood. For an account of early English feminists' commitment to absolute selfhood, see Catherine Gallagher, “Embracing the Absolute: The Politics of the Female Subject in Seventeenth-Century England,” Genders 1 (Spring 1988): 24-39.

  4. Lucinda Chandler, “Motherhood,” Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, May 13, 1871. Quoted in William Leach, True Love and Perfect Union: The Feminist Reform of Sex and Society (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 89. Leach sees the drive for women's property rights as an attempt to codify self-ownership through property law. He writes, “Chandler believed so strongly in the principle of self-ownership that she wanted it fixed in the law; she joined the moral educationists of Washington in an attempt to repeal the law of couverture in the District of Columbia and to give every woman the ‘legal … custody and control of her person in wifehood to govern according to her wisdom and instincts the maternal office and protect her child … from the dangers of selfish passion, alcoholism and vice’” (89).

  5. Ibid.

  6. Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: Birth Control in America (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 109. On voluntary motherhood, see Gordon, Woman's Body, chap. 5, “Voluntary Motherhood: The Beginnings of the Birth Control Movement,” pp. 95-115. William Leach writes, “by the 1870s, self-ownership … had become the stock in trade of feminist thinking on birth control” (Leach, True Love, p. 92). Daniel Scott Smith notes that “the theme of the wife's right to control her body and her fertility was not uncommon” in Victorian America. Smith quotes Henry C. Wright as follows: “it is a woman's right, not her privilege, to control the surrender of her person; she should have pleasure or not allow access unless she wanted a child.” Henry C. Wright, Marriage and Parentage (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1853), pp. 252-255, quoted in Daniel Scott Smith, “Family Limitation, Sexual Control and Domestic Feminism in Victorian America,” in Clio's Consciousness Raised, ed. Lois Banner and Mary Hartman (New York, 1974), pp. 119-136, 129. Smith also quotes Dido Lewis on the advocacy of the Moral Education Society for the right “of a wife to be her own person, and her sacred right to deny her husband if need be; and to decide how often and when she should become a mother.” Dido Lewis, Chastity, or Our Secret Sins (New York: Canfield Publishing Company, 1888), p. 18, quoted in Smith, “Family Limitation,” p. 129.

  7. Gordon, Woman's Body, pp. 106-111.

  8. Ibid., pp. 109-111.

  9. Ibid., p. 110.

  10. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics: The Economic Factor between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, ed. Carl Degler (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 86. For a twentieth-century critique of the market in woman, see Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” in Rayna R. Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975, 157-210) p. 177.

  11. Stanton, “The Solitude of Self,” p. 247.

  12. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions (New York: Macmillan Company, 1899). Veblen argues that the purpose of the ownership of personal property is to achieve social status (or “reputability”); all property is a version of that original property whose “usefulness” was to serve as a trophy marking the “prepotence,” or social superiority, of the trophy's owner (23, 29). Objects that are appropriated for use do not cause reputability or prepotence to accrue to their possessors, and such objects are not owned in the conventional sense but are instead subject to “use-appropriation” (23). Ownership, and the reputable self it produces, exists only when the community has reached a point of social and economic organization that allows for the production of a surplus. The first form taken by this “margin worth fighting for” is woman. The original form of ownership was the ownership of women by men. Veblen's account depends upon the idea that woman is already property, for the first ownership came about when the men of one tribe stole the women of another tribe in order to hold them as trophies (20, 23). To be a woman, then, is to be an object of exchange, a social product, surplus. In Veblen's famous characterization of the contemporary domestic ownership system, the bourgeois wife advertises her status as surplus in her role as the chief item of household property as she earns “reputability” for her husband through vicarious consumption and by performing vicarious leisure (usually in the form of nonproductive domestic and social functions) (65-67). This reading of Veblen suggests that ownership and the male selfhood it constitutes are produced by and reflect not the self but others, whose over-shifting perceptions and positions create and destroy the effect of reputability and thus of selfhood. Surplus is a product of social/economic organization; to own (surplus) is thus to establish a mediated relationship with the world. Like Veblen, Chopin pokes fun at the figure of the male owner whose relationship to the world is thus mediated. In the opening pages of The Awakening, Leonce rather ridiculously governs himself according to his notions of property rights; for example, he grants the caged birds the right to sing because they are owned by Mme. Lebrun and grants himself the right to retreat to “his own cottage” (3). The surplus and mediating character of personal property is manifested in the woman's femininity. While femininity reflects the oppressive system that makes woman property, for Edna, the unstable, nonessential, and representative character of her status as Leonce's property becomes suggestive of the possibility of a self-determination that paradoxically remains within the bounds of the male ownership system: she can herself put her wedding rings on or take them off.

  13. Margaret Culley, “The Context of The Awakening,” in The Awakening, ed. Culley, p. 118.

  14. Leach, True Love, p. 175.

  15. Stanton, “The Solitude of Self,” p. 247.

  16. Motherhood (which includes the abstention from motherhood) is thus a form of a speculative risk taking. The intention to become a mother is the kind of “weak” intention that Walter Benn Michaels connects with “acts that take place in the market, such as speculating in commodities.” See chapter 7, “Action and Accident: Photography and Writing,” in Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 237. Michaels argues that for the self in the market, “self-possession” and “self-interest” are grounded in “the possibility of intention and action coming apart” (244, 241). My discussion of the logic of voluntary motherhood—like Michaels's own example of Lily Bart as a self-speculating self—emphasizes that this self-interest is gendered. For women, self-speculation is sexual; that is to say that sexuality is the content of the female self in the market. Contrary to what Michaels claims, Lily is “a victim of patriarchal capitalism” in a way that the male entrepreneurs in the novel are not (240). The “voluntariness” of female self-speculation is merely an effect of the commodity system, which constructs value along the polarities of accessibility and rarity. The woman cannot choose whether to speculate or what to speculate in; by being a woman she is already sexually at risk. The speculative risk taken by Lily Bart in the marriage market includes the risk of withholding sexual accessibility from the market—a risk that results in her death (complete with hallucinated motherhood). “Voluntary motherhood” concretizes female self-speculation as the risk of pregnancy—which is the risk of life—and points to the enforced nature of female self-speculation by identifying all women as mothers.

  17. Ellen Carol Dubois writes, “everywhere [Stanton] lectured, she held parlor meetings of women only on ‘marriage and maternity.’ … Her central point was that women ought to be able to control their own sexual lives, a right which she called ‘individual’ or ‘self’ sovereignty.” Ellen Carol Dubois, Introduction in Stanton, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, p. 95.

  18. Ibid., pp. 248, 251.

Ellen Peel (essay date June 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5880

SOURCE: Peel, Ellen. “Semiotic Subversion in ‘Désirée's Baby.’” American Literature 62, no. 2 (June 1990): 223-37.

[In the following essay, Peel provides a semiotic and political interpretation of “Désirée's Baby.”]


At first “Désirée's Baby,” published in 1893 by Kate Chopin, seems no more than a poignant little story with a clever twist at the end.1 Yet that does not fully explain why the tale is widely anthologized, why it haunts readers with the feeling that, the more it is observed, the more facets it will show. In “Désirée's Baby” Chopin, best known as the author of The Awakening, has created a small gem, whose complexity has not yet been fully appreciated. As I explore that complexity, my broader goal is a theoretical one: I plan to show not only that a semiotic and a political approach can be combined, but also that they must be combined in order to do justice to this story and to others like it, stories that lie at the nexus of concerns of sex, race, and class.

A semiotic approach to the work reveals that, despite its brevity, it offers a rich account of the disruption of meaning, and that the character largely responsible for the disruption is Désirée Aubigny, who might on a first reading seem unprepossessing.2 She is a catalyst, however, for the subversion of meaning. When the semiotic approach is supplemented by a political approach, it can be seen that, in particular, Désirée casts doubt on the meaning of race, sex, and class.3 In this drama of misinterpretations, she undermines smugness about the ability to read signs, such as skin color, as clear evidence about how to categorize people.

The disruption culminates when Désirée, whom everyone considers white, has a baby boy who looks partly black. When she is rejected by her husband, Armand, she takes the infant, disappears into the bayou, and does not return. Armand later finds out, however, that he himself is black, on his mother's side. Désirée, though unintentionally, has devastated him by means of these two surprises, one concerning her supposed race and one concerning his own.

Using a combined semiotic and political approach, my analysis consists of four steps: I trace how the surprises to Armand disrupt signification; question whether they are actually as subversive as they first appear; shift the focus more definitively to Désirée to show how the story associates her with certain enigmatic, subversive absences; and, finally, discuss how the story criticizes, yet sympathetically accounts for, the limitations of Désirée's subversiveness.

The story takes place in an antebellum Creole community ruled by institutions based on apparently clear dualities: master over slave, white over black, and man over woman. Complacently deciphering the unruffled surface of this symbolic system, the characters feel confident that they know who belongs in which category and what signifies membership in each category. Moreover, as Emily Toth has observed, in the story the three dualities parallel each other, as do critiques of their hierarchical structures.4

Within this system of race, sex, and class, the most complacent representative is Armand Aubigny. Confident that he is a white, a male, and a master, he feels in control of the system. In order to understand how his wife challenges signification, we must take a closer look at the surprises that Armand encounters.

The tale begins with a flashback about Désirée's childhood and courtship. She was a foundling adopted by childless Madame and Monsieur Valmondé. Like a queen and king in a fairy tale, they were delighted by her mysterious arrival and named her Désirée, “the wished-for one,” “the desired one.” She, like a fairy-tale princess, “grew to be beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,—the idol of Valmondé.” When she grew up, she was noticed by Armand, the dashing owner of a nearby plantation. He fell in love immediately and married her. She “loved him desperately. When he frowned she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God.” They were not to live happily ever after.

Soon after the story proper opens, Armand meets with the first surprise. He, other people, and finally Désirée see something unusual in her infant son's appearance. She asks her husband what it means, and he replies, “It means … that the child is not white; it means that you are not white.” Désirée writes Madame Valmondé a letter pleading that her adoptive mother deny Armand's accusation. The older woman cannot do so but asks Désirée to come home with her baby. When Armand tells his wife he wants her to go, she takes the child and disappears forever into the bayou.

Thus, Armand's first surprise comes when he interprets his baby's appearance to mean that the child and its mother are not white. What seemed white now seems black. Désirée, with the child she has brought Armand, has apparently uncovered a weakness in her husband's ability to decipher the symbols around him.

Ironically, Désirée's power comes from the fact that she seems malleable. Into an established, ostensibly secure system she came as a child apparently without a past. As a wild card, to those around her the girl appeared blank, or appeared to possess nonthreatening traits such as submissiveness. Désirée seemed to invite projection: Madame Valmondé wanted a child, Armand wanted a wife, and both deceived themselves into believing they could safely project their desires onto Désirée, the undifferentiated blank screen. Actually, however, her blankness should be read as a warning about the fragility of representation.

One aspect of Désirée's blankness is her pre-Oedipal namelessness. As a foundling, she has lost her original last name and has received one that is hers only by adoption. Even foundlings usually receive a first name of their own, but in a sense Désirée also lacks that, for her first name merely reflects others' “desires.” In addition, namelessness has a particularly female cast in this society, since women, including Désirée, lose their last name at marriage. Namelessness connotes not only femaleness but also blackness in antebellum society, where white masters can deprive black slaves of their names. Although Désirée's namelessness literally results only from her status as a foundling and a married woman, her lack of a name could serve figuratively as a warning to Armand that she might be black.

But he sees only what he desires. Before the wedding he “was reminded that she was nameless. What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?” On this virgin page Armand believes he can write his name, the name he inherited from his father or, more broadly, the patriarchal Name of the Father. In addition, as a father, Armand wants to pass on that name to his son. Before he turns against his wife and baby, she exclaims: “Oh, Armand is the proudest father in the parish, I believe, chiefly because it is a boy, to bear his name; though he says not,—that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know it isn't true. I know he says that to please me” (emphasis added).

The approaching downfall of Armand's wife, and hence of his plans for his name, is foreshadowed by the relationship between Désirée's blankness and another name, that of the slave La Blanche. The mulatta's name refers to the whiteness of her skin, but “blanche” can also mean “pure” or “blank,” recalling Désirée's blankness. La Blanche is Désirée's double in several ways. Neither has a “proper” name, only a descriptive one. During the scene in which Armand rejects his wife, he explicitly points out the physical resemblance between the women:

“Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand,” [Désirée] laughed hysterically.

“As white as La Blanche's,” he returned cruelly. …

The story also links the two women through their children, for the mistress first notices her son's race when she compares him to one of La Blanche's quadroon sons. And perhaps Armand is the father of La Blanche's son.5 The two women—and even their sons—may have parallel ties to Armand because of the possible sexual connection between slave and master. So much doubling hints that the slave's racial mix has foreshadowed that of the mistress.

Because La Blanche's name refers to her in the visual but not the racial sense, her appearance illustrates the contradiction of a racial system that is based on color but does not consider visual evidence conclusive. In this discourse a person who looks white but has a “drop” of black “blood” is labeled black. As Joel Williamson says, the “one-drop rule” would seem definitive but in fact leads to the problem of “invisible blackness.”6

Miscegenation, which lies at the heart of the contradiction, marks the point at which sexual politics most clearly intersect with racial politics. Theoretically either parent in an interracial union could belong to either race. Nonetheless, “by far the greatest incidence of miscegenation took place between white men and black female slaves.”7 Even when the white man did not technically rape the black woman, their relationship tended to result from, or at least be characterized by, an imbalance of power in race, sex, and sometimes class. Ironically, descendants of such a union, if their color was ambiguous, embodied a challenge to the very power differential that gave birth to them.

“Désirée's Baby” calls attention to the paradoxes that result from miscegenation and the one-drop rule. La Blanche and Désirée look white but are considered black, while “dark, handsome” Armand—whose hand looks darker than theirs—is considered white. Désirée's entry into the symbolic system forces Armand to confront the contradiction he ignored in La Blanche, another white-looking woman. A form of poetic justice ensures that the same one-drop rule that enables him to keep La Blanche as a slave causes him to lose Désirée as a wife. After the first surprise, Armand sees Désirée's blankness as blackness, not blanche-ness.

It is crucial to note that Désirée is disruptive, not because she produces flaws in the signifying system but because she reveals flaws that were already there. Long before her marriage, for instance, Armand was considered white and La Blanche was considered black. In a sense, Désirée acts as a mirror, revealing absurdities that were always already there in the institutions but repressed. Her blankness has reflective power.

In another sense, Désirée's potential as a mirror was one of her attractions for Armand, for he wanted her to bear a child that would replicate him—in a flattering way. Armand blames and smashes the mirror that has produced a black reflection. An outsider observing Armand's generally harsh treatment of slaves might, however, see his baby's darkness as another instance of poetic justice, the return of the oppressed.

Similarly, if the baby's darkness comes from his mother, whom Armand dominates, then the child's appearance represents the return of another oppressed group, women. To reproduce the father exactly, the child would have to inherit none of his mother's traits. In a metaphorical sense the first surprise means that Armand learns that his son is not all-male but half-female. The infant is an Aubigny but has inherited some of Désirée's namelessness as well, for we never learn his first name (nor that of his double). More generally, paternal power, the name of the father, seems to have failed to compensate for the mother's blackness or blankness.

To blame someone for the baby's troubling appearance, Armand has followed the exhortation, “Cherchez la femme.” In particular, he is looking for a black mother to blame. He is right to trace semiotic disruption to Désirée, but the trouble is more complex than he at first realizes.

The end of the story brings the second surprise—black genes come to the baby from Armand, through his own mother. Early on, readers have learned that old Monsieur Aubigny married a Frenchwoman in France and stayed there until his wife died, at which point he brought eight-year-old Armand to Louisiana. Only after Désirée and her baby have disappeared and her husband is burning their belongings, do he and the readers come across a letter from his mother to his father: “… I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.” As Joseph Conrad suggested, the “heart of darkness” lies within the self: the letter unveils Armand's “dark, handsome face” to himself.

At this point, several shifts occur. One takes place between wife and husband. For Armand, his wife was originally a screen onto which he could project what he desired. When he found a black mark on the screen, he rejected it. Now he has learned that the mark was a reproduction of his own blackness. The mark, which he considers a taint, moves from her to him.

Another shift takes place between sons and fathers. As Robert D. Arner implies, Armand at first rejects his baby for being the child of a white man and a black woman but then finds that the description fits himself.8 With blackness, the half-female nature attributed to the baby has also moved to Armand. An intergenerational shift occurs between women as well as men, for the role of black mother has gone from Armand's wife to his mother.

Thus two surprises have profoundly disturbed Armand. As in the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave, these two surprises have shaken the structure of white over black, male over female, and master over slave. Armand, the figure who seemed to belong to the dominant race, sex, and class, is shown to be heir to blackness and femaleness and to belong to the group “cursed with the brand of slavery.” The repressed has returned and drained meaning from the established system of signification.


Nevertheless, these surprises are less subversive than they first appear. The fact that they shake Armand's concept of meaning and punish his arrogance does not mean that they actually change the inequality of power between the sexes, between the races, or between the classes, even on his plantation. Armand might be less sure of his ability to tell black from white, but he probably will not free his slaves. Moreover, through the traumas experienced by Armand, the story invites readers to pity the suffering caused by inequalities of power but not to wonder how those inequalities could change. In other words, the surprises are more disruptive in a semiotic than a political sense; they endanger the system of signification more than the system of domination.

The text directs sympathy less toward black characters than toward characters on the margin between black and white. The story urges us to consider it a pity that Désirée and Armand, brought up as white, must undergo the trauma of receiving the news that they are black. But we are hardly urged to pity the much larger number of people who have lived as enslaved blacks since birth. The implication is that being black might deserve no particular sympathy unless a person was once considered white. The broader effects of race and its relation to slavery remain unexamined.

The problem arises in part because Chopin is using the Tragic Mulatto convention, which appears repeatedly in American literature.9 It is often easy for white readers to identify with the Tragic Mulatto, because she or he is typically raised as white and only later discovers the trace of blackness. Yet the invocation of “tragedy” introduces problems, partly because it implies resignation to the inevitable. The very idea of a Tragic Mulatto also suggests that mulattoes may be more tragic, more deserving of pity, than people of purely black ancestry.

Moreover, the very notion of pity is inadequate as a political response and can even have a conservative effect. The limitations of pity are best observed by looking at the traces of sexism that, like traces of racism, appear as a residue in the text. The parallel between racism and sexism in the story is complicated, because insufficient concern for blacks and slaves corresponds to excessive concern for women. Excessive concern can be debilitating for women by defining them solely as victims.

When Désirée walks away, apparently to her death, the tale most strongly urges readers to show such concern for women. This arises because of the sympathetic way in which the entire story has represented her. She is good: “beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere.” She is appealing: “‘Armand,’ she called to him, in a voice which must have stabbed him, if he was human.” She is vulnerable: “Her hair was uncovered and the sun's rays brought a golden gleam from its brown meshes. … She walked across a deserted field, where the stubble bruised her tender feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin gown to shreds.” This doe-like character joins a long line of women who, by dying at the end of a story or a novel, call forth readers' tears. In particular, Tragic Mulattoes tend to be mulattas.

But scrutiny of such endings raises the discomfiting possibility that they rely on feminine vulnerability in order to move readers. A strong, rebellious, surviving heroine might not provide such tidily tragic closure. I am not suggesting that Désirée's pain should be presented less sympathetically; rather, I am questioning the implication that a less vulnerable woman would deserve less concern.

The connection of pity with race, class, and sex is noteworthy in the double of Désirée's baby—La Blanche's quadroon son. In contrast to Désirée's bruised feet, his bare feet are described merely as coming in contact with a polished floor, for the story presents only Désirée as suffering from the lack of sturdy shoes. Here the stress on feminine vulnerability combines with the acceptance of black slavery, as if it were a pity for a person such as Désirée to suffer: a member of the weak sex, someone who at least used to belong to groups that do not deserve such treatment—the race with “a golden gleam” in their hair and the class with the right to “tender feet.”

For these reasons, even though the meanings of race, sex, and class are threatened by Armand's surprises, those two events do not seriously disturb the system of power relations. The story invites sympathy for Désirée partly on the sexist grounds that feminine women are weak and on the racist grounds that white members of the master class do not deserve to be treated like black slaves.

Twentieth-century readers may be troubled to find that Armand's surprises have a less subversive effect than at first seemed possible. The ideologies behind them can be better understood if placed in historical context. Because the story is set in the era of slavery, its verisimilitude would falter if Armand suddenly reformed and freed his slaves. We must also consider the era in which the story was written and originally read, for the late nineteenth century in the United States was marked by a rebounding prejudice against blacks. Attitudes towards women also differed substantially from those of the late twentieth century: even the women's movement drew on notions of female purity and martyrdom that sound strange today but were part of nineteenth-century discourse. Thus it would be anachronistic to expect more subversiveness from the traumas experienced by Armand.


Some of these problems can be mitigated, however, by thinking more carefully about the text—or rather about what is missing from the text. Shifting the focus more definitively to Désirée discloses certain enigmatic, disruptive absences.

Almost everyone who has written on the story has mentioned, favorably or unfavorably, the concluding revelation about Armand's mother. This final twist recalls the surprise endings of Guy de Maupassant, who strongly influenced Chopin.10 While evoking sympathy for Désirée, the twist essentially turns backward to tradition and male power: the very presence of a plot twist may reflect Chopin's inheritance from de Maupassant, a literary forefather; in the ending the focus of narrative point of view is Armand, upholder of conservative values; and the female character earns sympathy largely through a sentimental convention—through powerless, victimized innocence. In fact, my discussion itself has so far concentrated on surprises undergone by Armand, a figure of male conservatism. I agree with Cynthia Griffin Wolff that we should cease analyzing the surprise ending and look elsewhere.11

Instead of concentrating on the ending, with its conservative, male orientation, we should turn to Désirée, who is absent from the ending. Although submissive, the young woman does have some power. Her boldest action is disappearance, but she does act. While she neither desires nor anticipates the havoc she wreaks, she does catalyze the entire plot.12

Through Armand, we have already started to see how the meanings of race, class, and sex are crumbling. Désirée offers two greater challenges to meaning, because she may not be wholly white and because she may not die in the bayou. These are enigmas, in the sense used in S/Z,13 and they remain inconspicuously unsolved, both for readers and, apparently, for other characters. The enigmas are silent, formless absences that cannot be found in any specific location.

To begin with, Désirée may be black—and thus a black mother—after all. If she is black, that mitigates some of the racism I discussed earlier. Instead of being a white character who deserves sympathy for unjust treatment that includes the accusation of being black, she is a black character whose unjust treatment, minus the accusation, on its own account deserves sympathy. Whether or not Désirée is black, the impossibility of knowing her race reveals the fragility of meaning more than Armand's knowable race does. The presence of a traditional, male-oriented twist located at the end of the story veils a troubling, female-oriented absence—of knowledge based on skin color or on writing—that has no particular location.

Désirée is troubling in another way as well. The tale says, “She disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again,” but it never actually says she dies. Just as it is possible that she is partly black, so it is possible that she (with the baby) is alive. If so, that survival mitigates some of the sexism I discussed earlier. Désirée deserves sympathy even if she does not pay for it with her life. In addition, if she does not kill herself, she is saying in effect that life is worth living even if she is black and has lost Armand's love. Indeed, by escaping she has freed herself from those who once projected their desires on her. Even if she does kill herself and her child in the bayou, it is significant that the deaths are absent from the text, because in this way the work allows some hope, however slight, for the race, class, and sex the characters represent. Like the impossibility of knowing Désirée's race, the impossibility of knowing her death offers a challenge to complacency about knowledge.

As the two unsolved enigmas suggest, the challenge to meaning, like Désirée, tends to operate negatively, through non-sense. She sometimes cries out unconsciously and involuntarily or remains completely silent. These traits appear in the scene where she notices her baby is black:

“Ah!” It was a cry that she could not help; which she was not conscious of having uttered. …

She tried to speak to the little quadroon boy; but no sound would come, at first. When he heard his name uttered, he looked up, and his mistress was pointing to the door.

She at first seemed no threat to the signifying structure she had entered, but the very inarticulateness of this blank card reveals that the system of signification sometimes breaks down.

By creating Désirée's enigmas—the possibility that she is black and the possibility that she and her baby are alive—Chopin to some extent resists the racism and sexism to which she was urged by much in her historical moment. It is important that the enigmas are not just difficult but decipherable puzzles that, when solved, would clearly state that Désirée was black and alive. Instead, the enigmas have the elusive indeterminacy typical of Désirée.

As we have seen, Armand first thinks his wife is white, but he decides he has misinterpreted her. He thinks his wife is black and solely responsible for their son's blackness, but again Armand finds he has misinterpreted. Although unsettling, both incidents leave intact the hope that knowledge can correct misinterpretations. Yet the absences associated with Désirée erode some of that semiotic hope. Because the readers—and probably the characters—never know whether she is partly black and whether she survives the bayou, the story throws into question the very possibility of knowledge, at least in some cases.


It would be satisfying to end on that note, but I must add that Désirée still disrupts the practice of domination less than semiotic practice. While sympathetic to her, Chopin reveals the limitations of some of the character's values. Of course the author does not hold twentieth-century beliefs; yet she is far enough from Désirée's antebellum era to present a critique indicating that the young woman, as a product of her society, has internalized so many of its values that she can never fully attack it. Chopin subtly indicates that, in spite of the disruptiveness of Désirée's enigmas, her subversiveness remains limited, for three main reasons.

To begin with, Désirée is excessively dependent on the unconscious. She is “unconscious,” in the sense that she is unaware. For example, Désirée is the last to realize that her child is not white, and it never occurs to her that her baby's blackness comes from her husband. On another level, she often seems unaware of herself, driven by her own unconscious. Her actions after discovering the baby's race seem trancelike, as if in a dream—or nightmare. And, as has been shown above, she sometimes cries out involuntarily. On still another level, Désirée's lack of political consciousness could also be seen as a kind of “unconsciousness.” None of this detracts from her raw power, but uncontrollable power can be as dangerous to those who wield it as to others.

The second restriction on Désirée's subversiveness comes from a certain negative quality. Through her silence (and inarticulateness), through the story's silence about her enigmas, and through her final absence, she disrupts her society's signifying system by revealing its contradictions and meaninglessness. She does destroy complacency about knowledge. Yet all this is not enough. Destruction often must precede creation but cannot in itself suffice. Désirée creates nothing but a baby, whom she certainly takes away, and perhaps kills.

Even Désirée's destructiveness is limited, for she possesses another negative trait: she is “essentially passive.”14 She is discovered by Monsieur Valmondé, she is discovered by Armand, she is filled with joy or fear by her husband's volatile moods, and, while lying on a couch and recovering slowly from childbirth, she is visited by Madame Valmondé. Désirée is immersed in her husband's value system and never stands up to him, not even to interpret the meaning of his dark skin or the baby's, much less to criticize his racism, his sexism, or his treatment of slaves. When she finally acts, she pleads ineffectually with her husband, writes ineffectually to her mother, and then takes the most passive action possible—she disappears. Like the suicide of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, Désirée's disappearance is hardly a triumph.

The third weakness lies in Désirée's lack of a sense of political solidarity. She acts only individually or as part of a nuclear family, never as part of a broader group. She fails to acknowledge ties with anyone outside the family who belongs to her sex or to her newly attributed race and class. Her similarity to La Blanche, for instance, fills her with horror. In fact, in Désirée's final efforts to win back Armand she is seeking someone she thinks is her diametric opposite—a white male, assured of his place as master. The only exception to Désirée's final solitude is her baby. But even he cannot represent any kind of political bonding. Even if she does not murder him, nothing indicates that she sees him as linked to her in shared oppression.

Désirée's individualism resembles that of other characters.15 For instance, the general condition of blacks and slaves never really comes into question. Madame Valmondé, like Désirée, regrets that one individual, Armand, treats his slaves cruelly, but not that he or other people own slaves in the first place. Instead of recognizing the institutional nature of exploitation based on race, class, and sex, Désirée and others seem to feel that problems stem from the lack of certain personal qualities, such as pity or sympathy. “Young Aubigny's rule was a strict one … and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master's easy-going and indulgent lifetime.” Indulgence rather than emancipation is presented as the alternative to Armand's harshness. In a similar vein, individualizing love is shown as the “antidote to the poison of Armand's racial abstraction.”16 His love for his wife and baby causes him to treat the slaves well for a while. This makes Désirée happy, but she does not question whether one man's moods should have such power over other people.

Chopin sympathetically but critically shows that her characters define problems in terms of the lack of individualistic qualities such as love and mercy, not in terms of the subordination of one group by another. I do not mean to say that individual virtues totally lack value, only that they may not suffice to solve certain problems. In short, though some characters feel pity for slaves, blacks, and women, the assumption that they are inferior goes unquestioned.

In this ideology, superiors should have a sense of noblesse oblige, but they remain superior. Concerning sex, race, and class, Désirée upsets systems of meaning but—by failing to connect the personal with the political—stops short of attacking hierarchical power structures. Disruption of meaning could lead to, and may be necessary for, political disruption, but Désirée does not take the political step.

Instead of attacking the meaningfulness of racial difference as a criterion for human rights, Désirée takes a more limited step: she reveals that racial difference is more difficult to detect than is commonly supposed. In this view, suffering can result if people classify each other too hastily or if, having finished the sorting process, people treat their inferiors cruelly. But the system of racial difference, with its built-in hierarchy, persists. In this system, superiority is still meaningful; the only difficulty lies in detecting it. It is no wonder that those viewed as inferior do not unite with each other.

Chopin presents these three reasons—unconsciousness, negativeness, and lack of solidarity—to help explain why Désirée does reveal her society's lack of knowledge but fails to change its ideological values, much less its actual power hierarchies.17 She poses so little threat to the dominant power structures that she holds a relatively privileged position for most of her life. Yet subversiveness need not be bound so tightly to traits such as unconsciousness that make it self-limiting.

Désirée's semiotic subversiveness should be taken seriously. Her disruption of meaning may even be necessary, but Chopin skillfully suggests it is not sufficient.


  1. “Désirée's Baby,” in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969), I, 240-45. I would like to thank Robert D. Arner, William Bush, Gillian C. Gill, Margaret Homans, and Gila Safran-Naveh for their comments on this paper.

  2. I am using “semiotic” to refer to the study of signs in the broad sense, to the study of the systems by which we create signification, decipher meaning, and gain knowledge.

  3. I am using “political” in the broad sense to refer to concern with societal power relations, not just electoral politics.

  4. “Kate Chopin and Literary Convention: ‘Désirée's Baby,’” Southern Studies, 20 (1981), 203; and see Robert D. Arner, “Kate Chopin,” Louisiana Studies, 14 (1975), 47.

  5. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “Kate Chopin and the Fiction of Limits: ‘Désirée's Baby,’” Southern Literary Journal, 10 (1978), 128.

  6. New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York: Free Press-Macmillan, 1980), p. 98. To avoid confusion, I generally follow the terminology of the society shown in the story, using the one-drop rule in deciding how to refer to characters' race. I refer to “mulattoes” only when the context demands it. Important parallels exist between Chopin's story and Pudd'nhead Wilson, which Mark Twain published the next year. Eric Sundquist puts Twain's novel in historical context, explaining that the work both grows out of and protests against growing racism in the United States in the late nineteenth century, an era that sought to redefine “white” and “black” by concepts like the “one-drop rule” (“Mark Twain and Homer Plessy,” Representations, No. 24 [1988], 102-28).

  7. James Kinney, Amalgamation! Race, Sex, and Rhetoric in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985), p. 19; see Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1968), p. 138; and Judith R. Berzon, Neither White Nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1978), p. 9.

  8. “Pride and Prejudice: Kate Chopin's ‘Désirée's Baby,’” Mississippi Quarterly, 25 (1972), 133.

  9. For more information on the Tragic Mulatto, see Berzon, pp. 99-116; Toth; Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers (New York: Pergamon, 1985), pp. 3-4 and passim; and Jules Zanger, “The ‘Tragic Octoroon’ in Pre-Civil War Fiction,” American Quarterly, 18 (1966), 63-70.

  10. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1969), p. 73; Wolff, p. 126.

  11. Wolff, p. 125.

  12. Arner makes a similar point (“Pride and Prejudice,” p. 137).

  13. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang-Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), pp. 209-10.

  14. Barbara C. Ewell, Kate Chopin (New York: Ungar, 1986), p. 71.

  15. Wolff makes a similar point (p. 127).

  16. Arner, “Kate Chopin,” p. 52.

  17. The force of just one of the three influences can be seen by comparison with Pudd'nhead Wilson. Unlike Désirée, Roxana is conscious and takes positive action, but both characters lack unity with a group. Roxana, who suffers from only one of the three disadvantages I have explained, still cannot manage to bring about notable subversion.

Douglas Radcliff-Umstead (essay date summer 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8396

SOURCE: Radcliff, Douglas. “Literature of Deliverance: Images of Nature in The Awakening.Southern Studies 1, no. 2 (summer 1990): 127-47.

[In the following essay, Radcliff-Umstead explores the sociopolitical aspects of The Awakening as illustrated by Chopin's nature imagery.]

Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening belongs to the nineteenth-century tradition of “literature of images” where description of nature relates to and advances the narrative's major themes and characterizations. The American novel shares with the works of authors like Chateaubriand, Balzac, Flaubert and Charlotte Bronte a similar emphasis on natural description as a primary instrument to express fundamental psychological and social conflicts.1 As a female author portraying the revolt of her heroine against a restrictive society, Chopin employs nature to illustrate the entrapment of women under patriarchy and their battle to achieve deliverance.2 Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of The Awakening, seeks to liberate herself from the traditional womanly roles of wife, mother or lover in order to experience an unbounded fullness of being. Rather than being a pictorial, decorative element, nature description in Chopin's novel is intrinsic to the development of plot, motives and point of view. Hers is a technique of focalization where images of nature convey the actual scene as physically viewed by certain characters and as mentally perceived by those same actors in the narrative. Behind the psychological portrait of the heroine in revolt against genteel bondage is a sociopolitical dimension to be represented in those focalizing natural descriptions. The goal of this essay will be to study the function of images of nature in The Awakening so as to explore the narrative's semiotic complexities.

Chopin builds the novel on the opposition between interiors and the exterior where the heroine struggles to escape an imprisoning reality. Doors, real or metaphorical, are always shutting to confine Edna (Toth, “Feminist Criticism,” 246). The protagonist comes to discover the Otherness of both the physical and social worlds apart from an inner self of which she was scarcely conscious before the start of the novel's events.3 Her spiritual awakening consists of gaining insight into a disquieting truth in her being while she recognizes in outer nature a sympathetic (although troubling) correspondence with her newly stirred emotions. There also arises an opposition in the cultural distance between Edna's Kentucky Presbyterian background and the values of the Louisiana Creole community where the central character is an uneasy member as a result of her six-year marriage to the New Orleans broker Léonce Pontellier. That Creole society founds itself on racism (the labor of quadroons and “darkies” as children's nurses, cooks, maids, and servant-boys) and sexism, reducing adult females to the status of “mother-women.” While Chopin records the racist situation without criticizing it, she makes of her novel a frontal assault on the male domination of women. Although Edna enjoys general acceptance and even sympathy among the Creoles, she considers herself a psychological and linguistic outsider in their Francophone company. As an anthropologist has analyzed the paradox of culture (Hall 87), the heroine is caught between her present status in a social system with its various demands (Tuesdays at-home for receptions, an air of solicitude in managing a household) and her past experience of Protestant self-reliance on a Kentucky horse farm and a Mississippi plantation. Edna would have to combat an image of the delicate and obedient Southern lady that had its origins in the rhetoric supporting slavery during the antebellum period when writers like George Fitzhugh upheld a social hierarchy where white women existed between white masters and slaves. According to Fitzhugh, “[A husband] ceases to love his wife when she becomes masculine or rebellious.”4 While conforming to the mores of Creole society does bring a sense of psychological security, the heroine rejects the spiritual desiccation caused by complying with custom, and she seeks to assert independence at the cost of being on the outside.

Even when the Creoles leave New Orleans for their summer vacations on Grand Isle (the setting at the novel's opening), they reproduce their urban environment there to make of the beach world a scene of social integration. Even amidst the apparently unlimited horizon and spaciousness of the seashore retreat, there predominates an impression of narrowness as vacationers must observe “les convenances.” Though living in cottages, the Creoles are connected to each other by narrow bridges linking the buildings together. They also dine at a common table where they practice their ceremonious rituals to complete their self-contained world. A spirit of remoteness also prevails on Grand Isle, a place so out of time that Sunday newspapers arrive late from town. But since the island stands between the restrictions of the city and the boundlessness of the sea, this enchanting setting on the Gulf of Mexico does stir in the protagonist feelings of revolt that no appeal to social convention will ever suppress. There by the sea Edna awakens for the first time to the contradiction between the outward demand for conformity and the inner desire to challenge convention: “the dual life—the outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (277). The restless waves of the gulf illustrate the conflicting character of landscape in the novel that correspond to the currents of unresolved emotions in the heroine's heart.

Edna's movement toward self-realization becomes evident on a Sunday excursion to the small island Chênière Caminada in the company of her young admirer Robert Lebrun. One of the customs of Creole society that always astonishes the protagonist with her Calvinist prudery is the chaste gallantry between married women and younger single males. As long as those relationships are conducted within the bounds of New Orleans propriety, no husband objects to the innocent attentions paid to his wife. But Chopin's novel studies exactly the psychological need to transcend arbitrary limits and the role that nature plays in promoting the escape from confining conditions. The passage by water to Chênière Caminada is a rite of liberation: “Sailing across the bay …, Edna felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast” (299). As the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard demonstrates in his text Water and Dreams, the principle of water is an ambivalent source of renewed life and menacing death. For freedom at sea also bears with it the danger of a bewildering sense of being lost, of drifting aimlessly. Here the seascape shows life's duality. The protagonist's break from a past of bondage to institutions and customs occurs when she hastily departs from the suffocating interior atmosphere of morning mass at the island's parish church. Society and the church are here fused to stifle genuine feelings of rebelliousness. Edna must flee the company of worshipers like the symbolic “lady in black” forever holding her velvet prayer-book in an attitude of deathlike mourning usually associated with the woman's closely following after two insouciant young lovers as if to suggest Thanatos in pursuit of Eros (Wolff 454). The hours that Edna and Robert spend wandering the Chênière Caminada and enjoying the hospitality of a humble cottage renew the pastoral tradition of the locus amoenus: the pleasant shelter of seeming eternal peacefulness (Curtius 195). But instead of suspending the novel's principal action, this pastoral interlude advances the heroine's sensual transformation. Although the landscape initially appeared caught in an unchanging sameness, upon Edna's “awakening” from slumber in the white purity of Madame Antoine's cottage she sees the island as if turned into a land of enchantment. Significantly the sheets of the white bed in Madame Antoine's rustic cabin are made fragrant by laurel, sacred to Apollo in this novel whose heroine will briefly be elevated in the brilliance of a fatal dawn to a state resembling that of a pagan goddess. The opposition between inner and outer vanishes magically (but only momentarily) in this bucolic episode where nature gently pervades the protective and nourishing shelter.

Upon awakening the protagonist brings to mind Sleeping Beauty having rested for a century in the guard of a faithful knight. For here Robert Lebrun, unlike Edna's husband, can share the radiance of the country setting because of his sensitive character. Whereas Léonce Pontellier thinks of land as a commodity to be exchanged for profit or to stand as a sign of material success, young Lebrun joins the heroine in appreciating the wondrousness of the island. While Edna earlier felt compelled to run from the artificially instituted church services, here she celebrates a natural mass by taking bread and wine (Casale 79). Going outside the cottage, the protagonist plucks an orange that she throws to Robert in a rite that leads to his illumination as he comes to her under the orange tree. The ambrosial fruit with its sweet fragrance and pungent taste is part of a moment of glowing light when nature calls Edna and Robert to the dream of a romantic union that will never be realized. In what began as a flight across a long line of gray, weather-beaten houses on a “low, drowsy island” (301) culminates in a meeting of souls during the sun's resplendent descent:

It was very pleasant to stay there under the orange trees, while the sun dipped lower and lower, turning the western sky to flaming copper and gold. The shadows lengthened and crept out like stealthy, grotesque monsters across the grass.


Stylistically the rather abstract “It was” construction serves to veil the slow movement of time and the advance of luminosity (Treichler 241). But with the coming of nocturnal shadows the reader of this landscape grows aware of a possible menace of bizarre monsters letting loose previously repressed and socially forbidden emotions. For Edna life itself will be the ultimate monster of beauty and brutality. The wondrous magic of the pastoral moment will pass to the fairytale nightmare of illicit and finally fatal romance. Reading an episode such as the outing to Chênière Caminada is never an isolated act since Chopin will later have Edna refer to Madame Antoine's tale of pirates on the Baratarian Islands. The excursion will forever stay with Edna, not only as a promise of love to be fulfilled but also as a vision of lovers lost sailing among those Baratarian Islands surrounded by treacherous currents.

Gardens also serve in this narrative as miniature examples of the locus amoenus, areas that can mediate between inside and outside, between city and country. The Lebrun townhouse on Chartres Street at first appears prison-like due to the iron bars before the front door and lower windows, but a side gate opens into a garden enclosed by a high fence. Even in late autumn the Lebrun garden remains a welcoming enclave with its civilized furnishings of wicker chairs, chaise lounge and table for refreshments in the afternoon. The immured garden is a zone of protection and repose. Although Edna ordinarily regards the Pontellier home as a place of alienation, her husband's most conspicuous possession, at certain moments when the other members of her family are away, she delights in strolling the damp garden walks and attending to trimming the plants: “The garden smelled so good and looked so pretty in the afternoon sunlight” (339). Fragrance and glowing light stimulate in her the vibrant sensations of a being first awakening to the earth's beauty. In this novel of emancipation the protagonist eventually assumes that attitude of sensuous availability to the outer world (instead of passive receptivity) that Chopin's contemporary André Gide called “disponibilité” in his poetic tract Les Nourritures Terrestres. But because the house on Esplanade Street seems to be a “forbidden temple” (352) erected in Léonce's idolatry of financial prosperity, Edna takes advantage of her husband's prolonged absence on a business trip to New York to rent a small dwelling in the immediate neighborhood as a refuge from her social obligations. Ironically the heroine never comes to know in the tiny garden of her own home the ecstatic promise of a passionate rapport with Robert that she at last experiences by a chance meeting with him at a modest suburban garden restaurant:

… a small leafy corner, with a few green tables under the orange trees. An old cat slept all day on the stone step in the sun, and an old mulatresse slept her idle hours away in her chair at the open window, till some one happened to knock on one of the green tables.


Many of the elements of the episode at Madame Antoine's cottage are present here: orange trees, an atmosphere of slumber, checkered sunlight filtering through quivering leaves. Here as elsewhere in the novel the setting responds to Edna's tremendous need for nourishment and rest.5 Both the cat and the rustic cook are somnolent guardians of this suburban oasis midway between the city and the country. Whereas other gardens have permitted Edna the privilege of communicating with her innermost thoughts, the restaurant garden offers her the opportunity for intimate directness with her beloved Robert to clear away the tensions caused by his abrupt departure during the summer at Grand Isle for a commercial venture in Mexico. The orange trees become emblematic of the forbidden love that they at last are about to acknowledge to each other. While one's private garden may be a site for establishing control over the physical world through horticultural labors, this garden restaurant in a public but relatively secluded location permits Edna and Robert to achieve briefly a loving closeness through the understanding that they finally reach. The refreshing enclosure of gardens verdant with hope makes possible the transparent immediacy of formerly repressed sentiments.6

Gardens and open fields both display the flowers whose bright colors and sweet fragrances arouse Edna to an awareness of her hidden self. Borders of yellow camomile mark the limit between the vacationers' cottages on Grand Isle and the seashore as if to indicate the dividing point between urban culture and the endless gulf. The heroine frequently picks flowers to decorate the interior of her home with their beauty, a blossoming loveliness with which she can be identified in her awakening and opening to new, powerful sensations.7 Edna's closest female friend, the Creole Adèle Ratignolle, in the ebullient fullness of her role as a traditional mother-woman expecting still another baby, resembles the great, sweet roses adorning the hearth of her salon. Red and yellow roses also embellish the twenty-ninth birthday party that the heroine celebrates on the eve of her moving away from her husband's house. On that festive occasion a female guest crowns Robert's younger brother Victor with a garland of those roses as if he were Eros incarnate until Edna removes the wreath and flings it away:

There was a graven image of Desire
Painted with red blood on a ground of gold.


The crown of victory truly belongs to the protagonist, not to any male pretender among her guests.

Of all the flowers mentioned in the novel the one most closely associated with the heroine is jessamine with its seductive fragrance that becomes the emblem of her “sensual development” (Dyer 192). Sprays of jessamine grow on the trellis by the front verandah of her townhouse for Edna to inhale the perfume and thrust the blossoms into the bosom of her white morning gown. That same, heavy fragrance predominates at the birthday party, engulfing the dining room through open windows. Shortly after the celebration the roué Alcée Arobin, soon to be the heroine's adulterous lover, offers her a sprig of jessamine that she refuses in continuing hesitation before erotic involvement. But Arobin fully recognizes how Edna is opening to sexual fulfillment: “He had detected the latent sensuality, which unfolded under his delicate sense of her nature's requirement like a torpid, torrid sensitive blossom” (373). For flowers symbolize in ambivalent fashion not only sensual awakening but also the protagonist's vulnerability to temptation that could compromise and destroy her. The polysemic role of flowers is evident within two pages of the text at the end of Chapter 17 and the start of the following chapter. As Edna gazes out at the garden of her home one bewitching night, she beholds:

… the dusky and tortuous outlines of flowers and foliage. She was seeking herself and finding herself in just such sweet, half-darkness which met her moods.


Amidst the flowers the heroine is becoming an “I” independent of her husband or any other man. Out in the flowering garden she might elude the prison of her domestic life (White 103). But also here emphasis falls on the entanglement of the plant life that threatens to endanger her in a new existence. On the very morning that Edna plucks the jessamine, a sense of alienation passes over her:

The street, the children, the fruit vender, the flowers growing there under her eyes, were all part and parcel of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic.


Chopin's narrative art consists in recapturing all the conflictual nature of the protagonist's being torn between the hope of enriching but menacingly entangling vital relationships. Like flowers, Edna possesses alluring beauty but also a fragility of being.

One of the few persons who perceived the heroine's vulnerability and encouraged her in facing herself and society is the often irascible pianist Mlle Reisz. When Edna informed the musician of her intentions to become a painter, Mlle Reisz cautioned her, “… to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul” (330). The flower that is associated with the pianist is violets, that she wears in a bunch on the side of her head. One critic finds violets to be emblematic of “rites of protection” since artists must be solitary creatures defending their absolute and original gifts from a Philistine world (Dyer 192). But Chopin also wishes to stress the shabbiness of the pianist's willful retreat from company by noting that the violets are artificial and well-worn. Not until Edna sends Mlle Reisz a fresh bunch of violets with black lace trimming for the birthday party does the lonely artist yield ever so slightly from her spiritual isolationism. In her small apartment the pianist tries to overcome the drabness of her private life by filling her windowframe with pots of rose geraniums. It is there by that window, when the apartment's tenant is away, that Edna is occupied with picking dry leaves from the geraniums just as in total surprise Robert enters there two days after his return from Mexico. The scene between the two has a quality later to be realized in films where the heroine tensely repeats Robert's elliptic and elusive answers to her probing questions while the reader seems to see a camera close-up shot of her nervously playing with the flowers: “… the reality was that they sat ten feet apart, she at the window, crushing geranium leaves in her hand and smelling them, he twirling around on the piano stool” (366). The anxious strain in their not-as-yet-confessed love for each other reveals itself in her angry hand movements with the flowers. Through color, fragrance, and leafy texture, flowers provide a varied imagery of temptation, menace, tension, disappointment and artistic aloofness.

In communicating from the interior to the exterior, windows can serve in the novel as symbols of expectation or of frustration (Brombert 57-61). Not only do windows permit a view to the outside, but they also allow light and nature's perfumes to pervade inner spaces. Through their exposure of the outer world, windows relieve the cluttered atmosphere of rooms full of ostentatiously expensive furnishings, as at the Pontellier house where in a rebellious mood Edna breaks a vase purchased by her husband and she calms down by looking out into the night. Sometimes a solitary window observation post offers a sense of peace and an impression of gaining control over circumstances, as with Dr. Mandelet, the family physician that Léonce Pontellier consults in husbandly concern over his wife's erratic behavior. This neutral but deeply reflective character enjoys his semi-retirement reading by his study's window and gazing out to the garden whose long expanse shelters the doctor's home from street traffic. The meditative serenity achieved by the physician at his window watch enables him to peer objectively but sympathetically into the hidden emotions of his troubled patients.

Windows also illustrate the ambivalence typical throughout this narrative. Mlle Reisz' top-floor apartment reveals a contrasting dinginess and almost transcendent feeling of release:

There were plenty of windows in her little front room. They were for the most part dingy, but as they were nearly always open it did not make so much difference. They often admitted into the room a good deal of smoke and soot; but at the same time all the light and air that there was came through them. From her windows could be seen the crescent of the river, the masts of ships and the big chimneys of the Mississippi steamers.


This whole passage rests on a series of oppositions: shabbiness versus enthralling perspective, grime versus the bright glow of daytime, the anti-social seclusion of an apartment reached by steep stairs versus the immediate contact with the vast outlying world of rooftops and river, the stasis of the interior setting and the dynamism of sea and river vessels. As an emancipated woman the artist Mlle Reisz controls her environment, where at her keyboard she nearly hypnotizes the protagonist by interweaving Wagner's “Liebestod” with an “Impromptu” by Frederic Chopin to express the destructiveness of passionate desire (Thornton 55). The light that the windows provide functions as a positive force, causing the heroine on her many visits to be invaded by a feeling of repose. While window views from on high may grant an aesthetic appreciation of present time and space, Chopin's art of ambiguity also represents how a window post can be a scene of frustration as already demonstrated by the strained reunion of Edna and Robert in Mlle Reisz's apartment upon his return from Mexico. Although characters may temporarily ease the anxiety in their hearts by looking beyond their narrow, closed existences, the privileged view from windows does not always liberate them from imprisonment.

Foremost among the spectacles seen from windows is the progress of the seasons, the major structuring device of this novel. More than from its formal arrangement into thirty-nine chapters, the narrative gains coherence from the underlying structure based on the change of seasons. Seasonal time, because of its cyclical rhythm, surpasses chronological time to take part in eternity (Poulet 377). But the round of seasons in The Awakening will never achieve its completion on account of the heroine's suicide. The seasons as qualities of human experience rather than an objective recounting of temperatures and climatic conditions prevail to express the drama of a woman coming alive to a physical world that she must quit rather than accept the daily compromises of society. At the novel's start summertime is more than a period of exhausting heat and biting mosquitoes but a state of mind full of undefined yearning and conflict:

An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul's summer day.


Here Chopin not only describes the Louisiana summer in the manner of a regional realist (the one degree of critical recognition that she received for many decades), but she also makes summer a metaphor of Edna's psychological turmoil. The heroine becomes an object passed across by the Southern summertime (Treichler 241). Marriage is the oppressive force obscuring the soul's bright summer day (Thornton 59, 62). A transparent existence in conformity with social conventions ends with the darkness of troubling inner questions. Seasonal moods point to the transformation taking place in the protagonist, who will never know another summer with its sultry hope for liberation from deadening customs.

Summer reaches its climax with the outing to Chênière Caminada, with a swift decline following upon Robert's sudden departure to Mexico and the subsequent breaking up of the vacationing colony for the return to New Orleans. Autumn settles gently upon the city, not as a season of natural crisis and deepening coloration but as a period of lingering warmth that permits entertaining on the verandah into November while giving pause to reflect on fundamental changes in attitude. In the eyes of acquaintances Edna appears a totally transformed being, made radiant in the glow of autumn afternoons (Ch. 20). Then winter strikes as a time of frigid invasion “when treacherous drafts came down chimneys and insidious currents of deadly cold found their way through key-holes” (272). Adjectives like “treacherous” and “insidious” represent the ethical qualities of a time of deceit and entrapment. Winter mists are perceptual screens that obscure reality and diminish hope. The gloom of winter skies causes Edna's artistic creativity as a painter to languish in the dark improvised studio at the Pontellier townhouse. Darkness objectifies the despair in the protagonist's heart during Robert's visit to Mexico. But the clouded atmosphere lifts at the thought of Lebrun's imminent return: “The murky, lowering sky, which had depressed her a few hours before, seemed bracing and invigorating as she splashed through the streets on her way home” (349). From swimming at Grand Isle during the summer Edna's principal recreation changes to walking throughout the autumn and winter in New Orleans (Treichler 246). Edna's radical changes in reacting to the wintry weather reflect the novel's basic stylistic ambivalence in the play of emotions from disappointment to expectation.

Wintertime proves to be a season of extreme decisions for Mme Pontellier, with her move from Léonce's house occurring in late January or early February (Ch. 32), the ensuing sexual liaison with Arobin, and the definitive departure of Robert after their confession of reciprocated love. Just before Edna learns of Lebrun's second flight from her, nature seems to smile at her with a deceptive spirit of hope:

… the stars were blazing. The air was mild and caressing, but cool with the breath of spring and the night.


For by the penultimate thirty-eighth chapter the early warmth of the southern springtime can be felt in the stellar brilliance of the night, yet with a tinge of coolness to restrain ardent emotions. On that delightful night Edna's strolling companion is Dr. Mandelet, on their way back from Adèle Ratignolle's delivery. The physician cautions Mme Pontellier that nature remains indifferent to the moral consequences of human decisions and actions. Although the point of view of Chopin's protagonist toward nature is to project her own emotions in its phenomena, outward physical nature pays no heed to the ardent sentiments and passions of the heroine or any other character. Then on coming to recognize the emptiness of false dreams of happiness with her beloved Robert, the heroine drowns herself at Grand Isle in the indifferently roseate dawn of an early spring day when the sun's heat belies the icy cold of the waters where she vanishes. Just as nature's dormant energies are about to burst forth in renewed vitality, Edna Pontellier elects to withdraw from its ceaseless round of promise and betrayal.

Throughout this narrative the heroine is constantly attempting to establish a space of her own. The move to the rented house constitutes just such an effort to define a sphere where she might be in full control, but the move represents a decline in the social hierarchy along with the opportunity for increased freedom of action. There are two episodes, however, in Chapters 23 and 25, when visits to the race track fire Edna with an enthusiasm that transforms her from morbid sullenness to vibrant animation. The equestrain setting is an environment of intermediate nature: outdoors with powerful and beautiful animals in competition, but absolutely human-made in construction and purpose with horses trained for the sport of humans. As a child of the Kentucky blue grass country Edna displays a close bond to the Confederate colonel father against whom she is usually in rebellion. Nearness to horses arouses an intense libidinal energy in her, to be associated with her adulterous lover Arobin and his high-spirited steeds (Dyer 195). In the thoroughly social arena of the race track Edna's expertise in equine matters puts her at an advantage over everyone else, men and women alike who struggle to hear her excited comments in the hope of emulating her good fortune in betting on the horses. Like some of the fastest running and most independent horses, the heroine has become full of mettle and somewhat unmanageable, to her husband's regret. Ambivalently the race track is a zone for the unleashing of primitive forces and at the same time an artificial showcase setting for the social elite to divert their idleness with gambling. Edna knows to the supreme degree the total sense of power and possession of her social group only when she is in that racing milieu.8 When Dr. Mandelet sees Mme Pontellier at an intimate dinner party after the first visit to the race track, the physician marvels at her metamorphosis into an impassioned creature: “She reminded him of some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun” (336). Through horses Edna comes into contact with the ultimate source of vital energy.

It is in fact the sun which in the novel symbolizes the warm release of sexual forces within the heroine. To overcome the chilly darkness of psychological conflict the protagonist seeks the illumination of both the sun and the moon. On rainy days she cannot pursue her painting, feeling deprived of the mellowing sunlight. To her the sun signifies hope, and she views Robert's absence for even a brief period as similar to a cloud's darkening a sunny day. During the time of her most intense activity as a painter Edna would occasionally conquer feelings of alienation and experience a state of spiritual transcendence:

She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day.


The sun plays an instrumental role in elevating her soul to know harmony with the physical universe. As the consequence of her struggle to win freedom she at times acquires a solar radiance that causes others like Mlle Reisz to associate her with the comforting rays of the sun: “Ah! Here comes the sunlight!” (346). But just as the myth of Hyacinth illustrates, the protective Apollo also possesses the power to destroy with his merciless heat. The adjective that in this novel most usually describes the sun's intense summer heat is “biting,” to represent the star's ferocious force. As a model of urban circumspection Léonce scolds his wife for allowing the sun at Grand Isle to burn her beyond recognition,9 and Robert is always trying to shield Edna with a sunshade. A parasol also serves to protect her from the intense light, but such “accessories” as sunshades and parasols block her view and cut her off from desired physical sensations (Toth, “Feminist Criticism,” 245). The heroine's suicide will occur at the dynamic moment of sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico where in dying she will be spiritually reborn in the renewing solar rays.

Edna is just as much a creature of the night as a luminous figure of daylight. During that fateful summer on Grand Isle she learns to swim, taking lessons from Robert by moonlight. Both the moon and the swimming symbolize her initiation into an authentic eros that she never knew in her conjugal life. The moon constantly tempts the heroine to swim out into distant and strange waters whose mystery veils any threat of danger. When the moon casts its clarity over the restless gulf, it also brings Edna a sense of peace: “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 softness of sleep” (291-92). The impression here is that of the gentle, soft quality of the brilliant nocturnal scene that frees the world and its sensitive inhabitants of feelings of oppressiveness. The sun and moon are two vital principles of cosmic direction to guide the protagonist in her path of liberation. In The Awakening the moon is never that placid sphere described by the early nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi as being indifferent to the sufferings and aspirations of humans trapped on earth. Instead, the moon restores Edna to the realm of romance and dreams that the spectacle of marriage took from her.10 Under the mystic lunar rays bayou legends relate how spirits haunt the gulf's shores and cast their spells on elect souls like the protagonist. But in this novel's ambiguous moods even gentle moonlight may mark the sadness and pain of separation, as on the night of Robert's departure from Grand Isle when his boatsman waits for the moon to illuminate their sailing back to the mainland. As various critics have noted (Dyer 199), the moon in Chopin's writings is an emblem of Woman and also here of enlightening truth. In the soft nocturnal light of the moon, as in the sun's biting rays, Edna Pontellier yearns to know the mystery of the infinite.

This novel emphasizes the horizon of the apparently boundless sea that forever lures the heroine in daylight and at night. Images of enclosure alternate with visions of infinity to characterize Edna's battle to escape the sterile stasis of life as mother and wife. The sea in this narrative possesses contrary human qualities of being restless, serene, inviting, endangering, invigorating and enervating. Its waters are always calling enticingly to the protagonist:

The voice of the sea is seductive; 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.


Stress here falls upon the sound instead of the sight of the Gulf that insists in speaking in its multi-modulated voice to the just awakening heroine. Throughout the novel Chopin uses the refrain of the sea's voice with subtle variation to depict the “oceanic” yearnings of the protagonist toward a totally engulfing experience (Wolff 469). The image of “mazes” suggests the menace of labyrinths and caverns to annihilate Edna if she loses herself in the quest for deliverance. Her constant sleeping takes her to wander in mazes of romantic dreams away from mediocre waking reality. But in Edna's intense longing to end her social bondage the sea represents a vision of endless freedom.

For the protagonist her immersion in the waves of the Gulf not only leads to knowledge of the infinite but also of that solitary self that until the summer at Grand Isle she unconsciously repressed in conformity to the mores of late nineteenth-century American society. The sea does not just speak to Edna, but it also touches her quivering body with a sensuous caress that awakens her formerly dormant passionate spirit. The very person who teaches her to swim and who arouses dreams of romance in her, Robert Lebrun, shares her awareness of the sea's capacity for passion, recalling an earlier infatuation of his for Mme. Ratignolle one summertime vacation when the very waves sizzled at the contact with his body burning from frustrated desire. Only one character in the novel displays an aversion for the sea—Mlle Reisz, whose disliking for the water others attribute to her artistic temperament but whose private keyboard performances for Edna excite the most powerful emotions: “… the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (290). The association between the sea and the arts continues during the protagonist's pursuit of painting. Sometimes when working from an attractive female model, Edna would be stirred by a subtle narcissism inspired by the classic lines of her subject's body, her singing the haunting song “Ah! si tu savais!” and above all by remembering the sea: “She could again hear the ripple of the water, the flapping sail. She could see the glint of the moon upon the bay, and could feel the soft, gusty beating of the hot south wind. A subtle current of desire passed through her body, weakening her hold upon the brushes and making her eyes burn” (324). Painting, music, the whole range of sensations made available by the Gulf merge in a synaesthetic experience of a supreme jouissance joining orgasm and artistic creativity. Chopin's heroine anticipates that ecstasy which the present-day feminist writer Hélène Cixous celebrates when women learn to write with their bodies:

I … overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard of songs. Time and again … I have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst …


In learning to swim the protagonist moves on those very luminous torrents as her body becomes part of the natural flow in the Gulf's expanse. Mastering how to swim signifies her acquiring physical and spiritual strength (Spacks 74). But gaining the skill to swim deludes Edna into defying the power of the sea by going out alone far into the waters, although without her knowledge Léonce observes her patronizingly and protectively. For the threat of integration with the liquid whole is loss of self (Treichler 245). The sea's true invitation that Edna will eventually accept is death, the final spiritual elation that the heroine senses late at night when the waters sing a mournful lullaby to her. Leopardi's poem “The Infinite” similarly relates how thought is drowned in immensity and the soul undergoes a sweet shipwreck in the sea's infinity (cf. Ringe 583). In Chopin's novel the gulf is more than a decorative border or limit, more than a privileged state of containment (Jameson 210). The sea is the fatal challenge of the siren's song promising the deliverance of sweet annihilation.

Though an adult, Edna Pontellier must undergo a form of infantile regression in order to recapture a child's receptivity to physical experience. The ability to swim does not come easily to her, and she often thrashes about in the waves like a clumsy infant lacking basic motor skills. What the adult is seeking to know again is that impression of the infinite which she once felt as a child wandering in the high and spacious blue grass fields of her native state:

… a summer day in Kentucky, … a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water.


The third-person reference to the little girl indicates a schizoid divisiveness menacing the heroine as she contemplates her past (Roscher 295). The image of the Kentucky meadow remained with Edna all her life, so that the effort of mastering how to swim compels her to reexperience the boundlessness of the grassy fields before a child struggling to make her way across vast spaces. Just as the high grass seemed to close in upon the child, the sea with the turmoil of its waves can engulf the adult swimmer. Both the grass in childhood and the sea in adulthood can overwhelm the solitary individual. The abysses of the sea's seductive invitation loom as womb-like enclosures for an infant or for the dead. That passionate “unity of emotions and will” (Treichler 244) achieved in learning to swim bears a deadly threat. As the heroine descends to the darkness of her desires, undefined caverns menace to entrap her. Death by drowning will take Edna back to the childhood moment in the meadow without beginning or end.

Suicide would lift Mme Pontellier out of the dark abysses of physicality to fly on the sunlit breezes of the infinite. Throughout the novel the image of birds symbolizes either captivity or the striving toward freedom. The book begins with the description of a caged parrot calling out to a Whitmanesque mockingbird an order of separation and resignation: “Allez-vous-en! Allez-vous-en! Sapristi! That's all right!” (265). In her marital condition Edna resembles a caged bird at first accepting the bars imprisoning her but longing to escape. Confined to the “cage of marriage” (White 98), initially she barely suspects a way of freedom. From time to time the plaintive refrain of an owl hooting amidst sheltering oak trees creates a haunting nocturne that expresses spiritual inquietude. On hearing a melancholy musical composition entitled “Solitude,” the protagonist envisions a lonely young man standing naked on a shore and looking desolately at a distant bird flying out of sight. Neither the naked youth nor the heroine possess the wings to bear them to freedom.

Ironically the mother-women appear as bird-like angelic creatures whose wings flutter protectively around their young (Fletcher 123). When Edna tells Mlle Reisz of her decision to act freely of the opinion of others, the artist warns her about the problems involved in defying conventions: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (350). The heroine never rises to that declaration of inalienable human rights that Jane Eyre once stated in forceful reply to her being compared to a bird tearing its plumage in the imprisonment of a cage: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will” (Jane Eyre, 270). When Edna does flee from Léonce's home, she calls her small rented dwelling the “pigeon house.” It is in that tiny building where she holds her carnal liaison with Arobin and where she and Robert go to exchange a kiss and embrace of mutual love after their reconciliation at the suburban garden restaurant. But the “pigeon house” also becomes the site for the protagonist's disillusionment on returning there from Adèle's delivery to discover Lebrun's note of farewell in order to safeguard her reputation. On the morning of her suicide Edna sees a bird reeling in the air with a broken wing and moving slowly down to the sea. For while men can dream of birds with strong wings to take them to faraway shores, a solitary woman must seek another form of flight.

Throughout the novel Edna's increasing availability to sensations of the physical world finds expression in the adjective “delicious,” the key seme for this narrative of discovery and deliverance. Not only are foods and beverages delicious, but so are the picture of the bay at Grand Isle, the refreshing waves of the gulf, the countryside for small children eager to be away from the monotonous pavements of the city, February days warm with the promise of summer, a scribbled note from one of Edna's infant sons, the memory of a familiar song and the dream of an impossible desire to taste life's delirium. Even a mother-woman like Adèle Ratignolle with her cherry lips looks delicious. Sometimes the adjective occurs three times on one page, only to be repeated on the following page. When the heroine returns to Grand Isle and stands naked at dawn before the sea, in her divestment of artificial garments and customs Edna knows the absolute deliciousness of rebirth to nature. Her dying in the bay recalls the ocean's final summons in Whitman's “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking” where the sea at daybreak whispers “the delicious word death.” For a woman who once beheld with aversion the sand and slime between the toes of the sensuous Spanish servant-girl Mariequita, Edna now arrives at her own total contact with physical reality on that fatal shore with the delicious touch of her bare feet on the sand before she walks out into the water. Her cosmic yearning reaches its passionate consummation as she discovers what Rimbaud in Une Saison en Enfer calls eternity in the merging of the opposed forces of the sun and sea. Edna's willful death causes her to transcend the solely political implications of woman's revolt from social constrictions which only Dr. Mandelet with his sage detachment perceived as inspiring her flight from Léonce's control. She acquires the negative power of an awakening unto death by refusing to return to that shore of patriarchal reality (Watson 118). Woman's free role in or outside society must acknowledge that She is part of a natural order with birds, horses, the ocean, the sun, moon and waving meadows. Chopin's novel employs a narrative syntax based on images of nature to represent a heroine's delicious realization of her struggle for deliverance.


  1. My methodological guide here is Doris Kadish's work on the relational reading of nineteenth-century European novels. The primary difference between Chopin's style and that of authors like Balzac, Chateaubriand and Flaubert (among those studied by Kadish for their development of images of nature as narrative strategy and not stylistic decor) is that the American writer uses greatly condensed descriptions in comparison to the lengthy and complex nature description of the European novelists. The first important attempt to relate Chopin to major European novelists was Emily Toth's doctoral dissertation.

  2. Kristeva analyzes imprisonment in these terms, “The difficulty a mother has in acknowledging (or being acknowledged by) the symbolic realm—in other words, the problem she has with the phallus that her father or her husband stands for—is not such as to help the future subject leave the natural mansion” (13). Edna Pontellier originally rebelled against her father by marrying a Roman Catholic, and she will fight against her husband's attempts to reduce her to one of his precious possessions. In her Jungian analysis Marina Roscher attributes a demon of death to the animus that Edna's father imprinted upon his daughter (295).

  3. Although I have reservations about his use of Erikson's rather sexist distinctions between “male outer space” and “female inner spaces,” White's essay convincingly probes the polaritiies on which Chopin's novel is constructed. Lattin asserts that, “Chopin's characters cannot know themselves until they understand their surroundings” (225). May sees Edna as becoming a victim of the sensuousness of the Louisiana setting (1037). Ringe notes how Edna must become aware of what is not-herself: the physical world and other persons (582).

  4. Leslie cites Fitzhugh in her study of pro-slavery rhetoric (42). White comments upon the continuity of patriarchal thought about woman's role by Southern writers well past the Civil War until the end of the century when Wilbur Fisk Tillett asserted in The Century Magazine that, “The Southern woman loves the retirement of her home …” (99). Walker argues that Edna's plight arises from her daily contact with the Louisiana Creole setting (97).

  5. Arms comments how Edna's frequent sleeping reduces her “reawakening” to a form of death (219-20). In a psychoanalytical approach, Wolff sees the heroine's sleeping and eating patterns as part of her orally destructive personality (461-64).

  6. Starobinski in studying Rousseau's narrative calls transparent those sites that lead to intimacy and immediacy (14).

  7. Zlotnick views Edna as a newly blossomed flower, with dead leaves as remnants of a past time without meaning (no pagination). Dyer regards flowers as symbolic of carnal awakening in the heroine (72), as well as in other characters in Chopin's short stories. The novel ends with Edna's drowning and reliving the “musky odor of pinks” (384).

  8. Gerrard observes how the protagonist associates Arobin with the strength and sensuality of horses (136).

  9. Casale views Léonce as an inhabitant of the land, most at ease in New Orleans (79). Mr. Pontellier, who spends only weekends on Grand Isle where he frequents Klein's hotel to play billiards and talk about business with male friends, does swim, usually early in the morning before the sun bites. For Treichler the heroine in swimming becomes both active subject and simultaneously passive object (256).

  10. Zlotnick speaks of the moon's sexual-mystical influence on nature and compares the lunar role in D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow and Sons and Lovers (no pagination).


Arms, George. “Kate Chopin's The Awakening in the Perspective of her Literary Career.” In Essays on American Literature in Honor of Jay B. Hubbell. Ed. Clarence Gohdes. Durham: Duke UP, 1967. 215-28.

Bachelard, Gaston. Water and Dreams. Trans. Edith Farrell. Dallas: Pegasus, 1983.

Brombert, Victor. The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: The Modern Library, 1933.

Casale, Ottavio. “Beyond Sex: The Dark Romanticism of Kate Chopin's The Awakening.Ball State University Forum, 19 (1978), 76-81.

Chopin, Kate. ‘The Stormand Other Stories, withThe Awakening’. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1974.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs, 1 (1976), 875-93.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953.

Dyer, Joyce. “Chopin's Use of Natural Correlatives as Psychological Symbols in her Fiction.” Diss. Kent State University, 1977.

Fletcher, Marie. “The Southern Woman in the Fiction of Kate Chopin.” Louisiana History, 7 (1966), 117-32.

Gerrard, Lisa. “The Romantic Woman in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: A Comparative Study of Madame Bovary, La Regenta, The Mill on the Floss, and The Awakening.” Diss. University of California, Berkeley, 1979.

Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1977.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Kadish, Doris Y. The Literature of Images: Narrative Landscape from Rousseau to Flaubert. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1986.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror, An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Lattin, Patricia Hopkins. “The Search for Self in Kate Chopin's Fiction: Simple versus Complex Vision.” Southern Studies, 21 (1982), 222-35.

Leslie, Kent Anderson. “A Myth of the Southern Lady: Antebellum Proslavery Rhetoric and the Proper Place of Women.” Sociological Spectrum, 6 (1986), 31-49.

May, John R. “Local Color in The Awakening.Southern Review, 6 (1970), 1031-40.

Poulet, Georges. Studies in Human Time. Trans. Elliot Coleman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1956.

Ringe, Donald A. “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin's The Awakening.American Literature, 43 (1972), 580-88.

Roscher, Marina. “The Suicide of Edna Pontellier: An Ambiguous Ending?” Southern Studies, 23 (1984), 289-97.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Female Imagination. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: la transparence et l'obstacle. Paris: Gallimard, 1971.

Thornton, Lawrence. “The Awakening: A Political Romance.” American Literature, 52 (1980), 50-66.

Toth, Emily. “The Outward Existence which Conforms: Kate Chopin and Literary Convention.” Diss. Johns Hopkins, 1975.

———. “Comment.” Signs, 1 (1976), 1005.

———. “Kate Chopin's The Awakening as Feminist Criticism.” Louisiana Studies, 15 (1976), 241-51.

Treichler, Paula A. “The Construction of Ambiguity in The Awakening.” in Women and Language in Literature and Society. Ed. S. McConnell-Ginet, R. Borker and N. Furman. New York: Praeger, 1980, pp. 239-57.

Walker, Nancy. “Feminist or Naturalist: The Social Context of Kate Chopin's The Awakening.Southern Quarterly, 17 (1979), 95-103.

Watson, Barbara Bellow. “On Power and the Literary Text.” Signs, 1 (1975), 111-18.

White, Robert. “Inner and Outer Space in The Awakening.Mosaic, 17 (1984), 97-109.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin's The Awakening.American Quarterly, 25 (1973), 449-71.

Zlotnick, Joan. “A Woman's Will: Kate Chopin on Selfhood, Wifehood, and Motherhood.” The Markham Review, 3 (October 1968), no pagination.

Manfred Malzahn (essay date spring 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3489

SOURCE: Malzahn, Manfred. “The Strange Demise of Edna Pontellier.” Southern Literary Journal 23, no. 2 (spring 1991): 31-9.

[In the following essay, Malzahn examines the narrative of The Awakening for an explanation of Edna's motives for committing suicide.]

For a long time, critics have been puzzled by the self-inflicted death of Edna Pontellier, the heroine of Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899). At the end of her process of awakening, which begins with a summer infatuation and leads to a breakaway from the family home and from the role of wife and mother, Edna is not a victorious New Woman, leading an independent life of spiritual and sensual fulfillment. She is quite simply dead, to the relief of contemporary commentators such as the unnamed author of the “Book Reviews” column in Public Opinion of 22 June 1899, who presents himself as the representative of the general reading public when he asserts that “we are well satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf.”1

The reason given is that Edna comes across as an “unpleasant person,”2 a selfish, adulterous woman for whom the author has failed to secure the reader's sympathy. This is a view based on a moral judgement about Edna's actions rather than a close reading of the novel. The fact that the heroine of the book is the one focal character whose thoughts and emotions are described at great length is proof enough of “an undercurrent of sympathy for Edna,” which the more perceptive, though still disapproving, reviewer of the New Orleans Times-Democrat of 18 June detects.3

Besides, does Edna Pontellier really kill herself deliberately? The narrator suggests possible reasons in the final chapter, describing the heroine's thoughts in one of the moments of gloom to which she has been prone; however, there is a disclaimer following close upon the one phrase that definitely seems to hint at what is to follow. One would have expected a new paragraph to begin, as the narrative moves from flashback to actuality, from the preceding night to Edna's last day: the lack of such a caesura makes the juxtaposition all the more striking:

Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near except Robert; and she even realised that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her, who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them. She was not thinking of these things when she walked down to the beach.4

From this point onwards, there is no indication that Edna is acting with deliberate intent to end her life there and then. She puts on her swimming costume and leaves her clothes in the bath-house, just as if she were going for “a little swim, before dinner,”5 as she declares she will. Previously she has announced that she is hungry and stated her preference for the evening meal. This is perceived as a sign of an undiminished healthy appetite by the same critic who plainly states two pages earlier that “Edna resolves to commit suicide,” failing to remark upon her paradoxical behavior.6 Is she intentionally deluding her addressee?

I would suggest another explanation for the contradiction. In the final chapter, Edna Pontellier is described as acting “rather mechanically.”7 The thinking is over and done, though after all the reflections of the previous night, Edna is not consciously carrying out a plan but, rather, absent-mindedly walking towards her death. She is like a somnambulist, mesmerised by her ultimate seducer, the sea, of which she would have been more wary if she—like the reader—had been made aware of the satanic quality in its voice by the plethora of sharp “s” sounds in the description:

The water of the gulf stretched before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.8

There is no way around it: Edna Pontellier was misled, her awakening ends with the Big Sleep, whether this be Suzanne Wolkenfeld's “union with the One,”9 or Christina Giorcelli's “absolute fulfillment.”10 Such recent evaluations of the novel's end, motivated by feelings diametrically opposed to those which early reviewers had towards the heroine, are equally prone to be blinkered. Ultimately, Edna's rebellion is a failure: she does not find a new place in society, having given up her old one for good. She is not an Adèle Ratignolle, who can content herself with being a leisured housewife and mother. Neither is she a Mademoiselle Reisz, capable of sublimating her desires in search for artistic achievement. She wants to follow her impulses and to be independent: the people around her, including her husband, let her have her way to an extent that shows an exceptional amount of tolerance, given the time and the place of the story. Still, she fails to find a new life worth living, and dies in a way which Dorothy Dix's Women's Page in the Daily Picayune of 8 October 1899 describes as a “coward's deed,”11 and a typically male one at that.

I think that it is not the failure to see the duplicity inherent in the symbolic significance of the ending—after all, the symbolism is very hard to miss in any part of the book—which caused George M. Spangler to say that “Mrs. Chopin provided a conclusion for a novel other than the one she wrote.”12 Underlying this evaluation is the simple fact that he did not find a convincing reason for the suicide on the level of the narrated action. Edna's symbolic union with the elements is indeed suggested by the narrative, but it takes place in the mind of the reader and the critic. Edna herself does not think in such categories any more than Huck Finn is bothered by the metaphorical meaning of his journey down the river. In The Awakening, it is the narrator who interprets the heroine's thoughts, ever at pains to show the reader the limits of Edna Pontllier's understanding.

The one hypothesis that Spangler has to offer for the ending of the novel drags in not only the narrator but the author herself. The wish to fend off the condemnation by narrow-minded moralists, he claims, may have led Kate Chopin to mete out a kind of “poetic justice”13 that would drown all objections in a sea of tears, thus diminishing the figure of her heroine and her own artistic achievement while failing to achieve the desired effect on reviewers. It is possible that Chopin herself felt she had swum out too far in writing The Awakening, and that she was not just talking tongue-in-cheek when she wrote that by the time she had found out where the story was going, “the play was half over and then it was then too late.”14

The writing of the novel proved to be, ultimately, the rebellious author's literary suicide. The parallels between Kate Chopin and Edna Pontellier are, however, limited. Most importantly, there is the question of artistic ambition, something Edna does not possess to a sufficient degree. In view of this, the identi-fication of the heroine with the author can only go as far as seeing Edna the free giver of love as one side of Chopin's personality, with Adèle Ratignolle the faithful wife, and Mademoiselle Reisz the celibate recluse representing the other two mutually exclusive roles. But even so, Edna Pontellier as a fictional character stands alone, and her actions must be explained in terms of her own mind.

The mind is largely dominated by instinct and impulse, messages from the center of her being, that elusive “self” which according to Edna is the only thing she will never give up. In her awakening, she does indeed become a more natural being, but her growing freedom from social restraints is accompanied by a growing subjection to moods changing with the weather and the time of day. “The weather [is] dark and cloudy,” and she finds herself unable to paint;15 her lover, Arobin, finds her in an exceptionally happy mood, sitting in front of the fire with the mere prospect of a barometric improvement. Her highs get higher and her lows get lower; she becomes as changeable and unpredictable as the elements, even acquiring a “seductive voice”16 like the sea itself.

Now, we all know that the sea does not speak, and at the same time we are all too accustomed to metaphors which give it a voice. But this voice exists in the mind of the user of the metaphor, in our case, the narrator of the novel. The voice of the sea is described as the alluring, tantalizing, persistent utterance of a potentially dangerous natural force. If Edna has herself acquired such a voice at last, is not the suggestion even stronger that it was something within her which spoke to her in the first place? As a parrot will only reflect such language as it has been taught, the sea will only tell the listener what he or she wants to hear, and the message is ultimately that from a human being. In the case of the parrot, with which the story begins,17 it may be one from another person; in the case of the sea, it can only be from oneself, or one's self. Edna begins indeed to become one with the elements: she can be the sea, her own destroyer, as well as she can be “the sunlight” to Mademoiselle Reisz.18

Edna's progressive identification with nature comes with the progress she makes toward the center of her being. But there seems to be a self-destructive force there, which is released as the heroine frees her self in freeing herself. When she takes that last swim in the ocean, she abandons herself to this force, whereas before, fear of death had intervened and kept her within reach of the shore as well as within reach of society.19 Her liberation from fears of moral disapproval coincides with a liberation from the fear of death: in her striving for self-fulfillment she loses the instinct of self-preservation and follows another, darker impulse. She casts off her clothes and then even the swimming costume which she had put on out of habit. Standing naked in the sun, she feels like a completely natural being for the first time, “like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.”20

The image is of the animal kingdom; Edna has become “some … creature,” an “it” rather than a “she.” Consequently, she goes to drown herself with as much determination as a lemming, and with only marginally more awareness of the significance of her act. Her thoughts are kaleidoscopic recollections governed by childish logic that makes the ocean shrink to the size of the “bluegrass meadow”21 of one of her early memories. Her satisfaction at the notion of escape from the tyranny of husband and children, and from the scorn of Mademoiselle Reisz, has an equally infantile ring. Only the thoughts of her beloved Robert and the sympathetic adviser Dr. Mandelet reawaken her for a moment, reintroducing the possibility of salvation, if not through love then through understanding. But the natural fear of dying returns too late and subsides as Edna's thoughts return to earlier memories.

Viewed in this light, the ending makes perfect sense within the symbolic structure of the novel. Edna sees a “bird with a broken wing … circling disabled down, down to the water,”22 before she herself performs a similar motion. Though she lives in a “pigeon house,”23 she is not the bird with strong wings, the one “that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice,”24 who could succeed against the odds, according to the pianist Mademoiselle Reisz. But again, it may all look meaningful enough from a critic's point of view; however, that does not mean that the internal narrative logic of the story is explained. Why did she do it? remains the question that still demands a satisfactory answer.

One possible answer is that Edna is just cracking up, that her husband in his well-meaning superficiality and naiveté has actually come fairly close to the truth when he tells the old family doctor that his wife is somehow “peculiar.”25 At least there are plenty of instances of behavior which may be regarded as evidence of a psychological disturbance. There is a quick succession of radically different moods with Edna, and at least one occasion when such a change is perceived by those in Edna's company as an embarrassment. This is the dinner party which she gives in the family home on the occasion of her twenty-ninth birthday. It is a fairly conventional affair apart from the absence of the husband, the atmosphere is jolly, the wine has been flowing, and then Robert's brother Victor is coaxed into singing a song:

“Ah! si tu savais!”

“Stop!” [Edna] cried, “don't sing that. I don't want you to sing it,” and she laid her glass so impetuously and blindly upon the table as to shatter it against a carafe. The wine spilled over Arobin's legs and some of it trickled down upon Mrs. Highcamp's black gauze gown.26

It is not only Edna's rebellion against social conventions but also her erratic conduct that contributes to her growing isolation, and Doctor Mandelet, the physician who knows “that inner life which so seldom unfolds itself to unanointed eyes,”27 comes to see the connection during another dinner party. Edna is a changed person, exuberant, radiant, but losing touch with reality, and thus the high flight foreshadows a long fall. On the night when Mandelet realizes this, Mrs. Pontellier presents herself as a capable inventor and teller of stories. She enthralls her audience, but at the cost of getting lost in her own inventions: it is certainly legitimate to see this as a reference to the dangers of Kate Chopin's own chosen calling, especially when one considers the number of times the word “fictitious” is used in a pejorative sense in the novel. As much as the author of her story, Edna is treading on thin ice. Her doom is sealed when “all sense of reality had gone out of her life; she had abandoned herself to Fate, and awaited the consequences with indifference.”28

But her death is not brought on by fate, and neither is it merely the inevitable consequence of her own actions. The final departure of Robert, the man she loves, obviously has a lot to do with it, but equally important is the event which is reported in Chapter 27, the birth of a child to Edna's friend Adèle Ratignolle. Before venturing an explanation of the significance of this episode, I would like to quote a comment by Lewis Leary on the symbolic structure of the novel, which appears to me an adequate assessment: “Almost every incident or reference in The Awakening anticipates an incident or reference that follows it or will remind a reader of something that has happened before.”29

There are plenty of prior references to children in the book, but only one to childbirth in an early chapter, when Edna is shocked by the frankness with which Creole women talk about pregnancy and birth even in the presence of men. Edna finds it hard to comprehend the “entire absence of prudery”30 concerning matters of procreation. She is also, self-avowedly, extremely squeamish about blood and wounds; even touching a scar on Arobin's wrist is too much for her to bear.31 When she is persuaded by Adèle to be with her at the birth, she stays and watches “with a flaming, outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature,”32 finally being admonished by her friend to “think of the children.”33

The births of her own two sons are by that time only dim memories of pain, the occasions almost devoid of meaning:

She was seized with a vague dread. Her own like experiences seemed far away, unreal, and only half remembered. She recalled faintly an ecstasy of pain, the heavy odor of chloroform, a stupor which had deadened sensation, and an awakening to find a little new life to which she had given being, added to the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go.34

The explicit use of the word “awakening” in this context is crucial. The awakening is not only a return from a sleeping to a fully conscious state, but a return to a changed reality, a different “little new life.” In Edna's case, this may be herself, a rebirth of her as the “little unthinking child … walking through the green meadow,”35 unconscious of danger. However, another possible meaning is that this “little new life” is another child to which Edna will give birth. She has been sleeping with Arobin, and there is at least the possibility that this has resulted in pregnancy. Before dismissing this as a far-fetched interpretation, one should consider that it would ultimately make sense of the ending: Edna revolts against Nature itself by destroying herself as a means of procreation, but ironically by following another natural impulse that is directed at self-destruction, the impulse that drives a lemming, or, in the vision of Edna herself, “humanity like worms struggling blindly towards inevitable annihilation.”36

As an authorial comment, it appears to prove that Kate Chopin was indeed one who had chosen to “pluck from the Darwinian tree of knowledge and to see human existence in its true meaning.”37 From Edna's point of view, though, this is an instinctive vision coming from within. Edna has not read Darwinian theory, but half-consciously played with fire, half-conscious of the dangers of breaking social rules, but not of those incurred by tapping into forces hidden deep within her self. By doing so, she has taken on something bigger than she, something elementary, connected with the beyond into which she finally drifts. In the light of Kate Chopin's obvious interest in psychology, demonstrated in not only her fiction, but also her essays,38 consider the following description by her contemporary William James:

There is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir. Our “normal” consciousness is circumscribed for adaptation to our external earthly environment, but the fence is weak in spots, and fitful influences from beyond leak in, showing the otherwise unverifiable connection.39

To me, there is a commensurability between James's explanation and Kate Chopin's demonstration of the attraction and the danger of the “mother-sea.” James locates this sea, the root of the danger, in the “beyond,” in a manner that reminds one of ancient folk beliefs about werewolves and moonstruck people, as well as of H. P. Lovecraft stories. A Jungian might substitute “generic memory” for “cosmic consciousness,” but in any case, it is clear that we are talking of the normally hidden depths within the human psyche. As a psychological novel, The Awakening is the story of an exploration of those depths by an explorer ill equipped for the journey. It is a tale of terror, all the more effective because it operates within the realm of the credible; the story of a woman who tries to discard a “fictitious self,”40 only to find that she has unleashed forces beyond her control, as, in another sense, the author herself did by the publication of the novel, which ended her literary career in an environment where social and artistic freedom were particularly difficult to attain for a woman, even for one stronger than Edna Pontellier.


  1. In Kate Chopin, The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, edited by Margaret Culley (New York: Norton, 1976), 151.

  2. Culley.

  3. Culley, 150.

  4. Kate Chopin, The Awakening: Introduction by Helen Taylor (London: 1978), 188.

  5. Taylor, 188.

  6. Michael T. Gilmore, “Revolt Against Nature: The Problematic Modernism of The Awakening,” in Wendy Martin, ed., New Essays on The Awakening (Cambridge: 1988), 62.

  7. Taylor, 188.

  8. Taylor, 189.

  9. “Edna's Suicide: The Problem of the One and the Many,” in Culley, 223.

  10. “Edna's Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging,” in New Essays on The Awakening, 126.

  11. “Women and Suicide,” in Culley, 134.

  12. “Kate Chopin's The Awakening: A Partial Dissent,” in Culley, 187.

  13. Culley, 189.

  14. Author's note on The Awakening, in “Aims and Autographs of Authors,” in Culley, 159.

  15. Taylor, 123.

  16. Taylor, 179.

  17. Taylor, 5.

  18. Taylor, 131.

  19. Taylor, 48.

  20. Taylor, 189.

  21. Taylor, 190.

  22. Taylor, 189.

  23. Taylor, 142.

  24. Taylor, 138.

  25. Taylor, 110.

  26. Taylor, 150.

  27. Taylor, 118.

  28. Taylor, 172.

  29. “Kate Chopin and Walt Whitman,” in Culley, 197.

  30. Taylor, 19.

  31. Taylor, 127.

  32. Taylor, 182.

  33. Taylor.

  34. Taylor.

  35. Taylor, 30.

  36. Taylor, 97.

  37. Per Seyersted, “Introduction,” in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Edited and with an Introduction by Per Seyersted. 2 vols. (Baton Rouge: 1969), vol. 1, 23.

  38. Seyersted, vol. 2, 691 ff.

  39. “A Psychical Researcher,” in John J. McDermott, ed., The Writings of William James: A Complete Introduction (Chicago: 1977), 798 ff.

  40. Taylor, 96.

Catherine Morgan-Proux (essay date winter 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6388

SOURCE: Morgan-Proux, Catherine. “Athena of Goose? Kate Chopin's Ironical Treatment of Motherhood in ‘Athénaïse.’” Southern Studies 4, no. 4 (winter 1993): 625-40.

[In the following essay, Morgan-Proux argues that Chopin's apparent glorification of childbirth and motherhood in the story “Athénaïse” is ironic.]

When Edna Pontellier leaves the childbirth scene in the penultimate chapter of The Awakening, stunned by the “scene of torture” that she has just witnessed, Doctor Mandelet articulates her thoughts: “Youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race.”(996)1 He could not have described Athénaïse more accurately. My challenge in this paper is to demonstrate how, contrary to prevailing critical views, the apparent glorification of motherhood in the short story “Athénaïse” is pure irony. Edna's lucidity at the end of The Awakening is a striking contrast to what we see as Athénaïse's self-delusions, but the narrative stance that deflates—albeit covertly—the monolithic myth of motherhood is consistent with a general pattern in Chopin's fiction.

It has generally been agreed that “Athénaïse” relates the story of how a rebellious young wife, dissatisfied by the institution of marriage, is suddenly and overwhelmingly redeemed by pregnancy, which turns her into a mature woman and reconciles her to her estranged husband. The happy ending has been interpreted by critics as proof of Kate Chopin's belief in maternal instinct. Critics generally point out that its comment on motherhood is ultimately rather conventional and adheres to the nineteenth-century ideology of the sanctifying effect of pregnancy. This interpretation is tempting but misguided and fails utterly to take into account the subtle ways Chopin, in fact, subverts this ideology and challenges the very idea of maternal instinct.2

Irony is the literary device used par excellence by the short story writer, and we know that Maupassant, that master of the ironic dénouement, was one of Chopin's major influences.3 However, the aspect of irony that is under discussion here is not the ironic twist at the end of the plot but rather “the awareness of a discrepancy or incongruity between words and their meaning, or between actions and their results, or between appearance and reality” (Cudden, 338). The use of irony is particularly relevant for this study in a number of ways. Firstly, it enriches our understanding of Chopin as a dialectical writer who prefers an interplay of narrative stances rather than authorial absolutism. Secondly, and more significantly, the very notion of disparity between words and meaning reflects the inherent split that deconstructionism has taught us is inherent in language. In language that aims to articulate the mother, the effect of this split is all the more evident, for as we shall see in Kristeva's theory of semiotics, patriarchal culture and its concomitant language has fixed maternity in a discourse of the cult of the mother, removing it from actual, lived experience.

In Chopin's fiction the discrepancies exposed by irony are subtle and have been a source of critical inquiry.4 The first major dissertation on Kate Chopin,5 by Emily Toth, analyzed the way she ostensibly conformed to existing literary traditions and prerogatives but at the same time developed strategies within those frames that enabled her to express her own artistic voice. It would seem that the same technique functions here. While outwardly celebrating marital and maternal joy in the story of Athénaïse in a way that would conform to the tastes of her nineteenth-century audience, and especially to the editors of Atlantic magazine which published the story,6 Chopin also succeeds in creating irony that undercuts the nineteenth-century cult of motherhood.

Chopin's contemporary critics were so outraged by The Awakening's frank treatment of female sexuality and what they consider a lack of moral integrity on the part of the protagonist that they seemed generally to overlook this realistic version of the experience of motherhood that undercuts the nineteenth-century ideal.7 However, when one considers the quasi-universal reverence for motherhood that prevailed at this period and most particularly in the South, Chopin's words are outspoken ones indeed. All commentators of the Southern Lady make it quite clear that both models arise from a patriarchal society that seeks justification for its own existence. Even Cash labels this myth-making process as “gyneolatry” (Cash, 86). Southern women's conduct was prescribed by the cult of domesticity, or, as Barbara Welter identifies it, the cult of true womanhood that defined a white woman as pious, pure, submissive and domestic.8 Any challenge to the prevailing ideology that women's source of happiness was anything other than fulfilling a sacred mission to provide large numbers of healthy, morally upright children that would contribute to the prosperity of the region amounted to sacrilege. Any vision of childbirth and childbearing that cast doubt upon the idealized version and dared present the sometimes grim realities9 that women faced must have been considered highly subversive. A “violation of Southern Womanhood was also, ipso facto, a violation of the South” (Jones, 11). Little wonder, then, that Chopin's treatment of pregnancy in “Athénaïse” requires at least a veneer of respectability for it to be accepted by potential editors and a largely conservative public.

The point is that if Athénaïse does indeed, through maternity, renounce her childhood to become a woman and take her place in adult society according to Freudian and Lacanian paradigm, her true growth as a woman is questionable. What makes this story so interesting is its Kristeverian suggestion that the social order reserves little place for the pre-symbolic mother and merely recognizes the culturally constructed, ideological mother, one that Athénaïse ultimately complies with. By the end of the story, we do not see Athénaïse as a fulfilled mother-to-be who is awakened to some mystical maternal knowledge but—to borrow the description made by the bank clerk—more as an immature “goose.”

An intertextual reading of Chopin's work puts the reader on guard against making the quick assumption that “Athénaïse” amounts to a vision of motherhood as having a pacifying effect on impulsive emotions and entailing a restoration of normalcy and serenity. On the contrary, there is a strong pattern of anxiety associated with being a mother in Chopin's fiction where having children not only constrains but physically threatens women's lives. “Désirée's Baby” is a powerful reminder of how the nineteenth-century Southern Lady's primary function as a mother was to maintain the impeccable pedigree of the white family. When her husband suspects that Désirée may possibly have deviated from her duty, his accusation—later revealed to be unfounded—leads to her banishment and tragic end. “La Belle Zoraïde” is a painful demonstration of the paradox of the southern slave economy, which declared that the household duties of slave women were natural extensions of their roles as wives and mothers but demanded they answer to a master (or a mistress in this case) who would act according to imperatives that had no consideration for the slaves' own family.10 The prerogatives of Madame Delisle who wants total devotion from her servant-companion are incompatible with La Belle Zoraïde's desires to start her own family. The depth of the deprivation that Zoraïde experiences when she is falsely told that her baby has died drives her to insanity. The nature of her dementia is particularly ironic: She is locked into a permanent state of taking care of her adopted rag doll baby and even fails to recognize her true child who is momentarily restored to her. “Mrs. Mobry's Reason” is a disturbing story that also links maternity to madness.11 This time, anguish is not caused by the contradictory demands of a patriarchal society, nor even by nature itself but by a woman's secrecy about her medical condition. Here, it is a mother who knowingly passes on a hereditary illness to a daughter and perhaps to her son. This story conveys the idea that motherhood without a sense of responsibility—or even a voice—can have disastrous results. If it is true that this story refuses to adopt a moralistic tone and that Chopin's interest “is not so much in the hereditary madness as in the awakening love which brings it out” (Seyersted, 108), the reader is still left with the overwhelming sense of a mother's guilt who describes her act as a “crime” and a “curse” (79).

Other stories provide portraits of mothers whose experiences of childbearing has had a devastating effect on their bodies and their souls. The once coquettish Mentine in “A Visit to Avoyelles,” who has brought up four children, is a pitiful sight to her visitor and one-time paramour, Doudouce. Her change of appearance has become part of town lore. Her voice has become “shrill” from screaming at children and her figure is “misshapen” (229). Mrs. Sommers in “A Pair of Silk Stockings” has led such a self-effacing existence for her children that she has been starved of books and theater as well as food and clothes. Her wonderfully self-indulgent shopping spree during which she briefly becomes a subject again—she contemplates her limbs and realizes they are a “part of herself”—is all the more poignant because it is so pathetically limited in time and in scope.

The theme of motherhood in The Awakening, Chopin's masterpiece, is complex and challenging. The rich web of metaphors that evoke birth and regeneration provide much of the novel's exquisite poetry and sensuality.12 Various stages of Edna's personal awakening, for example, are described in images of new life such as a child learning to walk, or renewed life: the sea sustains her like amniotic fluid. This pattern of images culminates in the powerful, final beach scene in which she sheds clothes like old skin as part of the process of giving birth to herself: “How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (1000).

However, this exultant, lyrical language finds its counterpoint in the raw realism that characterizes Edna's actual experience of mothering. The myth of the glorious and joyful mission of motherhood is seriously subverted by Chopin's heroine. In contrast to the devoted “mother-women” at Grande Isle who, loyal to the maudlin, self-sacrificing mother archetype, ministering like angels to their offspring, Edna's feelings towards her own children are void of sentimentalism and oscillate between the love of a “good enough mother” and plain resentment. She admits to her friend Adèle that she would give up her life but not her “self” for her children. In the end, she gives up both when she realizes that her own children, her “antagonists” (999) are the major obstacle preventing her from experiencing unconditional freedom. The childbirth scene itself is chilling in its realism. Adèle's labor is described as “torture” (995); Edna remembers her own labor as a chloroformed stupor and her newborn as one of “the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go” (994). Edna's rather cynical awakening to motherhood as a “decoy” after witnessing Adèle giving birth, referred to at the beginning of this discussion has a decidedly modern ring, is and prefigures Sylvia Plath: “They oughtn't to let a woman watch. You'll never want a baby if you do. It's the end of the human race,” says a doctor to Esther, heroine of The Bell Jar (Plath, 53; Stone, 31).

Just how does this irony operate? Firstly, the irony of the protagonists' names sets the tone for the rest of the story. Emily Toth identifies the source of the heroine's name as Chopin's maternal grandmother, Mary Athénaïse Charleville Faris, who, like her fictional name-sake, went into marriage naively and was wounded by it (Toth, 18). However, like Per Seyersted, we are reminded of Athena, the Greek goddess whose characteristics include her triumphant independence from men (Seyersted, 114). A virgin goddess, “legend would submit her to no-one among the male gods” (Hopper, 5). The city's protectress, she is closely associated with urban, intellectual and civilized pursuits. Chopin's character would seem to stand as the antithesis of her mythical counterpart. Throughout the story, she relies heavily on men who supervise her every movement, including at the end of the story when she supposedly “knows her own mind.” We realize that this portrayal of women reflects historical fact: a lady in the late nineteenth century seldom ventured out unaccompanied. But in Chopin's fiction heroines significantly find tremendous pleasure in finding freedom of movement: we remember Edna's joy at walking alone in the streets of New Orleans13 and we recall Chopin's earliest sketch, “Emancipation: A Life Fable,” which tells the story of an animal who leaves his cage for the first time and, despite the risks of being outside, never returns to his home but instead joins the real world, “seeking, finding, joying, and suffering” (38). In this light, Athénaïse's unwillingness to chart her own itinerary is striking. As the story opens, we learn that she has left her husband to run back home to her parents, as she is prone to do, and Cazeau, as he thinks of “means to keep her home thereafter” (428), prepares to fetch her. Despite her resolve never to return with him, Athénaïse yields to his appeal, and realizing the “futility of rebellion against a social and sacred institution” (432), she does indeed return. Her next escape plan—to live in New Orleans—is masterminded by her brother, Montéclin, in whose hands she puts herself entirely: “Her only hope for rescue from her hateful surroundings lay in Montéclin. Of herself she felt powerless to plan, to act, even to conceive a way out of pitfall the whole world seemed to have conspired to thrust her” (436). Montéclin embraces the role of “grand seigneur” (441), coming to the assistance of his sister who has cast herself as a damsel in distress. He devises a plan that leaves nothing to chance and which Athénaïse follows “implicitly” (441).

Once installed in New Orleans, she places herself in a similar manner in the hands of another man—Gouvernail. All her needs, practical and emotional, are met by him. He runs errands for her, provides her with reading matter, consoles her when she feels lonely, and takes her on her first trip outside the boarding house. When it is time for her to leave the city, it is Gouvernail who takes her to the station, supervises her boarding the train, and, in effect, parcels her off back to her brother in a reverse trajectory of her arrival. She is conveyed from husband, to brother, to potential lover and back again with each man taking care of the logistics. We are left with an impression of dependency that jars with her mythical namesake, Athena the self-sufficient goddess.

Cazeau's name also seems to be used ironically. It would seem to stand for “caza” or chateau. His house, however, is no castle but bluntly described as “squat, square and one-story” (427). It is not much of a home either, with its “bare floor and huge rafters, and its heavy pieces of furniture that loomed dimly in the gloom of the apartment” (426). We realize early on that, in fact, this house is emblematic of Athénaïse's feelings of entrapment.

Gouvernail's name carries its share of irony, too, in this particular story. This French word suggests a rudder, an instrument used for steering. From our reading of other stories, we are aware that this “sensitive bachelor” (Dyer, 46-55) is indeed capable of changing direction in women's lives. In “A Respectable Woman,” for example, his sensuality awakens passionate impulses that have been dormant in Mrs. Baroda, who thereafter becomes a sexually active woman planting a long, languorous kiss on her husband's lips and looking forward to Gouvernail's next visit. In “Athénaïse,” our heroine appears distinctly indifferent to Gouvernail's amorous desires: she finds him weeping but does not investigate and she finds the touch of his hands merely “friendly” (450). He amounts to little more than a comfortable shoulder for her to cry on during periods of homesickness. Gouvernail is so totally absent from the watershed “annunciation” scene during which Athénaïse learns of her pregnancy, that she afterwards feels a little pang of guilt “for having forgotten him so completely” (453). So, in a curious turn of irony, the one whom we anticipated to be Athénaïse's “guide” or mentor turns out to be little more than a sub-plot character providing love interest in the narrative but not for our heroine.

To finish with the subject of names, it is perhaps possible that the third syllable of Montéclin's name also had an ironic twist. “Clin” evokes the French expression, “clin d'oeil” meaning a wink; a playful hint of connivance between narrator and reader as we recognize, like Montéclin does at the end of the story, that Athénaïse's happy reconciliation with the father of the child she is carrying is altogether a cliché and really rather “commonplace” (454).

The crux of the story is the “annunciation scene” during which Athénaïse, feeling “body-sick” (449) and “not herself” (451) goes to Sylvie, the fifty-year-old, portly quadroon proprietress of the boarding house, and learns that her unusual condition is due to the fact that she is pregnant. It is the pivotal event around which the narrative structure evolves. Yet, remarkably, it hangs upon an ellipsis. “Sylvie was very wise and Athénaïse was very ignorant” (451). On an immediate level, this phenomenon can be taken simply as poetic device that increases the dramatic intensity of the moment. In an extended interpretation of motherhood in Chopin's fiction, we see it as part of a pattern whereby motherhood escapes literary expression.

Most often this “annunciation scene” has been interpreted as marking an epiphany for our heroine who thereafter gains profound insight into the mystery of creation and matures into womanhood because of it. Certain allusions are made to the Biblical story: Athénaïse has been previously linked to Gabe or Gabriel and the effect of the good news upon her is a “miracle” (451). However, these references are perversions of the original annunciation. Black Gabe is no archangel on a holy mission to whisper the news of a future birth, but a runaway slave who pauses to take breath as he is brought back by his master, Cazeau's father. Likewise, the “miracle” of this annunciation does not lie in the fact that the future mother is a virgin but in the arousal of “her whole passionate nature” (451), announcing the beginning of Athénaïse's awareness of her sensual impulses. Hungry now with desire for Cazeau, she is satiated only by their reunion, “he felt the yielding of her whole body against him. He felt her lips for the first time respond to the passion of his own” (454). In a subtle subversion of the Christian story, the virgin has been supplanted by a sexually active mother who does not offer redemption for mankind but finds herself saving her own marriage.

Other elements of this scene invite us to consider it as a humorous parody of the Biblical text. For this part of the discussion, I am particularly indebted to Jacqueline Olson Padgett's article, “Kate Chopin and the Literature of the Annunciation, with a Reading of Lilacs.” Padgett focuses on another short story, “Lilacs,” which she sees as drawing upon the details and symbols of the Annunciation story in a way that “mocks a tradition prizing virginity and separating the cloistered from the secular” (Padgett, 97). This interpretation enhances the reading of “Athénaïse” as a mockery of the patriarchal myth-making process that idealizes motherhood in order to maintain it (but which is far removed from the experience of mothering or the psyche of mothers).

Padgett helpfully points out the leitmotifs of Annunciation literature inspired by the Biblical text. She notes the dove representing the Holy Spirit; the fluttering of the wings of that dove and of the archangel Gabriel; the rush of wind as the dove and the angel intrude on and transform Mary's ordinariness; the evocation of a benign and purposeful God: the words spoken by Gabriel and Mary; music belonging to celestial harmony; and flowers like the Madonna or Annunciation lily suggestive of purity, fecundity and perfection. In Chopin's hands these determinants are given tongue-in-cheek treatment. The only birds that are present in this scene are as far removed from evoking the Holy Spirit as one could find: a “mocking bird that hung in a cage outside the kitchen door, and a disreputable parrot that belonged to the cook next door” (451). The rush of wind is more genteel than transformational: “the short uneven breathing that ruffled her bosom” (451). As opposed to heavenly harmony, we find “turmoil of her senses” (451) and the cacophony of a blasphemous dove-parrot that “swore hoarsely all day long in bad French” (451).14 Athénaïse is associated not with flowers emblematic of fertility, but with an urban courtyard where she spends time “weeding and pottering” (451) in a rather desultory manner.

As Padgett remarks, “Annunciations … blend word and flesh, but they typically emphasize word” (Padgett, 98). It is all the more significant for the reading, then, that the word announcing Athénaïse's maternity is conspicuously absent, superseded by the sound of paternity. As Athénaïse repeats the name of the father she articulates her departure from the Imaginary and her initiation into the Symbolic Order of the Father. “She half whispered his name … She spoke it over and over, as if it were some new, sweet sound born out of darkness and confusion, and reaching her for the first time” (451). According to Lacanian theory, the Imaginary corresponds to the pre-Oedipal period when the child feels itself to be a part of its mother and cannot conceive of a state of separateness. The Oedipal crisis, brought about by the intervention of the father, marks the child's entry into the Symbolic Order. The acquisition of language is made possible by the loss of the mother which is internalized as a lack and the acceptance of the phallus as the representation of the Law of the Father.15

Re-reading the section of the story which immediately precedes the annunciation scene in the light of the Lacanian paradigm endorses the idea that Athénaïse undergoes this rite of passage to emerge as a speaking subject in a patriarchal order. Athénaïse contemplates herself in her mirror, thus gaining a unitary body image or “body ego” before the father intervenes to form a family triad. Significantly, Athénaïse's first act as speaking subject is to pen a letter which she does effortlessly, “with a single thought, a spontaneous impulse” (451), and she is filled with a desire to speak: “She wanted to talk to someone, to tell some person” (452). For the first time since her arrival at the boarding house, she steps into the public street, marking her entrance into the social world of adults. After gaining acceptance from her spiritual father—she is “God-blessed” (452) on the street corner—one of the first principles she practices is commerce. She goes to her husband's bank and demands money with confidence. The “air of … proprietorship” (452) that she acquires seems to be a convincing imitation of the men she has encountered whose relationships and behavior are often defined by money. The cause of Montéclin's hatred for Cazeau, for example, is a grudge against the latter's refusal to lend him some money. Her other brothers, on the other hand, admire Cazeau for his business dealings with city merchants. Montéclin relishes his role of financial provider, paying for his sister's lodging in the city. As for Gouvernail, he enjoys “haggling” (444) over transactions with Sylvie. Moreover, when he takes Athénaïse out for dinner, the waiter receives Gouvernail and Athénaïse as a married couple, but, according to the narrator, this is an understandable error: “No wonder he made the mistake, with Gouvernail assuming such an air of proprietorship!” (447) Equally versed now in the handling of money, Athénaïse's parting gift to Pousette the maid is, appropriately enough, a silver dollar.

However, just as we detected irony in the narrator's treatment of the annunciation, we can't help but notice the derisive tone that permeates Athénaïse's entrance into womanhood. Religious sanction is bestowed upon her by an Irish oyster woman, a surprising representative of the church. She is carrying a fat, dirty baby that Athénaïse embraces. From the narrator's use of exclamation marks we deduce that she deigns to do so condescendingly: “She even kissed it!” (452, my emphasis)

Athénaïse herself is convinced that she has gained her place in society and has matured into womanhood. In a mental reply to the accusation from “[P]eople [who] often said that Athénaïse would know her own mind one day, which was equivalent to saying that she was at present unacquainted with it” (433), she is now able to declare, “No one could have said now that she did not know her own mind” (452). The final section of the story leaves us unconvinced. She carries herself with a “new dignity and reserve” (453) that would please her parents who were hoping that marriage (and concomitant motherhood) would “bring the poise, the desirable pose, so glaringly lacking in Athénaïse” (433). It seems to us that this is exactly what Athénaïse does, she strikes a pose. Assuming the part of a culturally constructed mother, she is necessarily fixed in the permanent childlike state which that culture confers upon her. If there is an evolution in Athénaïse, she changes from being a capricious child to a needy infant in precisely the way the southern myth conceived women: “constantly chaperoned, economically dependent, denied development” (Jones. 22).

The narrator has announced early on that if Athénaïse were to gain self-knowledge, “it would be by no intellectual research” but through the sensuality of nature, “as the song to the bird, the perfume and color to the flower” (433). After her enlightenment we could therefore anticipate an intense involvement with nature. However, even after her supposed awakening to passion, Athénaïse's relationship with nature seems rather tame. The sight of the country is merely a tonic or “balm” to her excited senses; she is “charmed” by the sugar plantations and rows of neat little (Negro) cabins “like little villages of a single street” (454)17. In fact, Athénaïse's vision of nature is truncated. In keeping with her culturally constructed role of wife and mother, she is drawn to what is cultivated or even domestic in the landscape and is out of touch with the darker forces of the wilderness. Her fancy caught by the grandeur of the houses, she sees only “sudden glimpses” of the bayou, “creeping sluggishly out from a tangled growth of wood, and brush, and fern, and poison-vines, and palmettos” (454). The accumulation of so many wild, even menacing plants suggests the uncontainability of nature and serves as a foil to our posing heroine. Athénaïse reverses the foreign, “complicated design” (453) of the sewing patterns from Sylvie but is unable to see the “tangled” undergrowth. Eventually, the landscape becomes “monotonous” (454) and she ends up closing her eyes and shutting herself off completely.

The final image of Athénaïse is like a self-styled tableau. She withdraws from her husband's embrace, “arrested” by the sound of a baby Negro crying in a faraway cabin. Her attention captured by the distant sound far from suggesting her connectedness with the world, seems more like another pose in keeping with her picturesque tastes. Her question, which forms the final lines of the story, only stresses her naïveté for us.18

Julia Kristeva's exploration of maternity offsets the Freudian and Lacanian emphasis on the father by emphasizing the importance of the maternal presence in the make-up of an individual before being necessarily repressed by the Oedipal crisis. She sees motherhood in terms of positionality or relativity; the patriarchal order, she argues, has separated it into an essence and fixed the concept of Mother. By way of illustration, in her analysis, “Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini,” she distinguishes two methods of representation of motherhood in Western culture: the idealized, fetishized Madonnas of Leonardo da Vinci and the iconographic configurations of Bellini in which she finds “a luminous spatialization, the ultimate language of jouissance” (Kristeva, 269) that corresponds to the maternal experience. Athénaïse's own form of self-representation—the poses she adopts—are borrowed from the cultural construct of a romanticized maternal image. Athénaïse, just like Adéle in The Awakening, is an example of the split between image and reality, object and subject, myth and experience that is inevitable in a patriarchal economy. In the later work, Chopin also portrays a heroine who wakes up to the inauthenticity of idealized motherhood. In her final swim in the ocean, Edna is able to shed herself of the figural and revive something of elusive, fragmentary pre-Oedipal mother.

Identifying irony as the dominant voice makes sense of this intriguing story. The use of irony suggests that the version of motherhood presented is not a universal, exclusive one and that the writer and reader are aware of discrepancies. Endowed with her knowledge of the Law of the Father, Athénaïse feels “as if she had fallen heir to some magnificent inheritance” (452), but the ironic tone that permeates the story invites us to wonder if she will not eventually feel the weight of paternal law that she, like the fallen Eve she identifies with, is the self-sacrificing support. Chopin's statement on motherhood is a highly subversive one: culture must deify motherhood in order to maintain it and that genuine awakened passion—not awakened acquiescence to social order—is its natural expression. This interpretation also sheds light on Kate Chopin's treatment of motherhood in her fiction as a whole. The narrative distance that is set up by irony is symptomatic of the female writer's struggle to incorporate the mother into the text. Neither Athena nor goose, the pre-Oedipal mother while providing creative impetus, basically resists literary expression, like the sinuous bayou allowing only glimpses of herself through the text.19


  1. All quotations from Chopin works in this article have been taken from Per Seyersted, ed., The Complete Works of Kate Chopin (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1969).

  2. Bert Bender admits that Athénaïse's awakening to her biological destiny is not Kate Chopin's general solution to women's anxieties but suggests that it is the most socially acceptable one. “Kate Chopin's Lyrical Short Stories,” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 11, (1974): 257-66. Larzer Ziff states that the plot is slightly daring but ends “conventionally” and that the reader gathers that Athénaïse's emotional maturity will continue to grow after giving birth. The American 1890's: Life and Times of a Lost Generation (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1966): 299. Robert Arner contends that the confirmation of her biological role as mother allows Athénaïse to accept her social role as wife. Louisiana Studies, Special Kate Chopin Issue (Spring 1975): 72. Barbara Ewell argues that Athénaïse gains a two-fold sense of self-recognition: firstly, the emotional fulfillment of motherhood and secondly, the self-possession that comes with sensuality. She concludes that this story is evidence that Kate Chopin is “sensitive to deeply satisfying pleasures of motherhood and the rich sensuality of reproduction.” Kate Chopin (New York: Unger Publishing Company, 1986), 111.

  3. As an exception, Emily Toth does point out the “ironically couched comments on marriage in general” in “Athénaïse.” “Kate Chopin Thinks Back Through Her Mothers,” Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, eds., Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 19.

  4. For a discussion of the influence of Maupassant on Chopin, see Jean Bardot, “L'Influence Française dans la Vie et l'Oeuvre de Kate Chopin,” Ph.D. Thesis, Université de Paris IV, 1985-86, 172-219.

  5. See, for example, James E. Rocks, “Kate Chopin's Ironic Vision,” Louisiana Review (1972): 110-20.

  6. Emily Toth, “That Outward Existence Which Conforms: Kate Chopin and Literary Convention,” Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1975.

  7. Elsewhere Toth points out that the only other two stories (out of more than a dozen submitted) that were accepted for publication by the rather conservative magazine Atlantic were “Tante Cat'rinette” (1894) and “Neg Creol” (1896, 1897). Both stories are based upon the conventional idea of slaves' loyalty to their white masters. “Chopin Thinks Back,” 19-20.

  8. One reviewer who did focus on Edna's role as mother concentrates on her deviance from society's set of priorities: “[Edna who] fails to perceive that the relation of a mother to her children is far more important than the gratification of a passion which experience has taught her is, by its very nature evanescent, can hardly be said to be very awake.” New Orleans Times Democrat, reproduced in the Norton edition of The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticisms, ed. Margaret Culley (New York and London: Norton, 1976) 150.

  9. For further discussion of the cult of domesticity, see Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18 (1966): 151-74; Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Anne Goodwyn Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936 (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1981).

  10. According to Sally McMillan, southern women were knowledgeable about the risks of childbirth and did express privately their apprehension. See Motherhood in the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 55-56. See also, Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady, 64.

  11. See chapter 4 of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988) for a discussion of gender conventions of the slave system.

  12. See Susan Wolstonholme, “Kate Chopin's Sources for ‘Mrs. Mobry's Reason,’” American Literature, 51.4 (1980): 540-43 for a discussion of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts and Richard Wagner's Ring as possible influences.

  13. For a fuller discussion of the birth metaphor in The Awakening, see Carole Stone, “The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's ‘The Awakening’: Birth and Creativity,” Women's Studies 13 (1986): 23-32; Ivy Schwietzer, “Maternal Discourse and the Romance of Self-Possession in Kate Chopin's ‘The Awakening,’” Boundary 2, 17.1 (1990): 158-86.

  14. She tells Robert, “I always feel so sorry for women who don't like to walk; they miss so much—so many rare little glimpses of life; and we women learn so little of life on the whole” (990).

  15. These birds remind us of the parrot and the mockingbird that hang outside the main house of Mme Lebrun's boarding house at Grand Isle in The Awakening. For a fascinating discussion of the psychoanalytical implications of their enigmatic form of communication, see Patricia Yaeger, “‘A Language Which Nobody Understood’: Emancipatory Strategies in ‘The Awakening,’” Kate Chopin: The Awakening in series Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, ed. Nancy Walker (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993), 270-96.

  16. For a clear exposition of Lacanian theory, see Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), 99-101.

  17. We are reminded of Leonce Pontellier's similar attitude towards Edna. He looks at her “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property.” The Awakening, 882.

  18. This anodyne, picturesque vision of the southern landscape makes us think of the grandmother in Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find who is charmed by the pickaninies she sees from the car window.

  19. For an opposite view, see Ziff, 299, who states “the wife will go on growing in her attempts to discover her nature.”

Works Cited

Arner, Robert. Special Kate Chopin issue. Louisiana Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South, 14.1 (1975): 11-139.

Bardot, Jean. “L'Influence Française dans la Vie et l'Ouevre de Kate Chopin.” Ph. D. Thesis; Université de Paris IV, 1985-86.

Bender, Bert. “Kate Chopin's Lyrical Short Stories.” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 11, 1974.

Boren, Lynda S. and Sara deSaussure Davis, eds. Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Cudden, J. A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1976.

Culley, Margaret, ed. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticisms. New York and London: Norton, 1976.

Dyer, Joyce. “Gouvernail, Kate Chopin's Sensitive Bachelor.” Southern Literary Journal, 14.1 (1981): 46-55.

Ewell, Barbara. Kate Chopin. New York: Unger Publishing Company, 1986.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Jones, Anne Goodwyn. Tomorrow is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Hopper, R. J. “Athena and the Early Acropolic Partenos and Parthenon.” Greece and Rome. Supplement to Vol. X. Clarendon Press, 1963.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Trans. Leo S. Roudiez; New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

McMillen, Sally. Motherhood in the Old South. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London and New York: Methuen, 1968.

Padgett, Jacqueline Olson. “Kate Chopin and the Literature of the Annunciation, with a Reading of Lilacs.” Louisiana Literature, 2.1 (1994): 97-107.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Rocks, James E. “Kate Chopin's Ironic Vision.” Louisiana Review, 1 (1972); 110-20.

Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin. A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

———, ed. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Schweitzer, Ivy. “Maternal Discourse and the Romance of Self Expression in Kate Chopin's ‘The Awakening’.” Boundary, 2, 17.1 (1990); 158-86.

Scott, Anne Firor. The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics 1830-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

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

Toth, Emily, “That Outward Existence Which Conforms: Kate Chopin and Literary Convention.” Diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1975.

———, “Kate Chopin Thinks Back through Her Mothers.” Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou. Eds. Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood 1820-1860.” American Quarterly, 18 (1966): 151-74.

Wolstonholme, Susan. “Kate Chopin's Sources for ‘Mrs. Mobry's Reason’.” American Literature, 51.4 (1980); 540-43.

Yaeger, Patricia. “‘A Language which Nobody Understood’: Emancipatory Strategies in ‘The Awakening’” in Kate Chopin, The Awakening in series Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Nancy Walker; Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Ziff, Larzer. The American Nineties: Life and Times of a Lost Generation. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Dieter Schulz (essay date spring 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3333

SOURCE: Schulz, Dieter. “Notes toward a fin-de-siècle Reading of Kate Chopin's The Awakening.American Literary Realism 25, no. 3 (spring 1993): 69-76.

[In the following essay, Schulz explores similarities between The Awakening and other works written at the end of the nineteenth century.]

The ending of Chopin's The Awakening signals Edna Pontellier's failure to resolve the conflict between her urge toward self-realization and the constricting conventions of society. Most critics, as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has remarked, treat the novel “as a problem novel that cries out for a ‘solution.’”1 They see Edna's conflict in cultural terms—in the framework of late Victorianism and the post-bellum South—or as a version of the Romantic quest for transcendence. From these perspectives, Chopin's protagonist appears as either a failed New Woman or a failed Romantic, with the blame being variously placed on society or Edna or both.

Useful as these approaches are, they tend to obscure the literary dimension of Chopin's art. As we know from her biography, Chopin's taste was cosmopolitan. She was an avid reader of British, German, Italian, and, above all, French fiction, and she had a strong interest in music (notably Wagner) and the arts. According to Daniel Rankin, “[Chopin] absorbed the atmosphere and the mood of the ending of the century, as that ending is reflected in Continential European art and literature.”2 Rankin's reservations about what he considered to be the morbid elements in Chopin's novel should not blind us to the relevance of his insight. Taking my cue from the title of a recent collection of Chopin criticism, I wish to encourage readers and critics to go not only “beyond the bayou” but also beyond the U.S. by drawing attention to some of the international trends that intersect in The Awakening.3 Published in 1899, the book is an important example of a fin-de-siècle sensibility. Chopin's original title was “A Solitary Soul.” Edna's solitude bears strong resemblances to many other solitary figures in the literature and art produced around 1900. From a comparative perspective, The Awakening appears as a novel of moods rather than as a piece of social fiction; Edna's “problem” has the distinctive flavor of turn-of-the-century mood poetry and art nouveau.


In an important interpretation of Chopin's novel, George Arms underscores the vagueness of Edna's rebellion and her tendency to lapse into sleep: “On the whole, as she reveals herself, her aimlessness impresses us more than her sense of conflict. […] Edna appears not so much as a woman who is aware of the opposition of two ideals but rather as one who drifts—who finally, even in death, is drifting when she again recalls having wandered on the blue-green meadow as a little girl.” Arms goes on to comment on Edna's “sleepiness from reading Emerson” and her “inordinate amount of sleeping throughout the novel, in spite of her underlying vitality.”4

Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream as well as Thoreau's Walden suggest that the fully realized self requires a double awakening: The first is a movement from everyday consciousness to a dream world; the second marks the completed initiation, the achievement of an authentic self.5 Edna never moves beyond the first stage; she remains in a state of half-slumber. As her senses are awakened, her soul, as it were, sinks into her body. The result is a frame of mind that is close to somnambulism. Even when she appears to take note of her surroundings, Edna's gaze is inward rather than outward: “Mrs. Pontellier's eyes were quick and bright; they were a yellowish brown, about the color of her hair. She had a way of turning them swiftly upon an object and holding them there as if lost in some inward maze of contemplation or thought.”6 As her sensuality unfolds itself, she turns more and more inward: “Edna looked straight before her with a self-absorbed expression upon her face. She felt no interest in anything about her. The street, the children, the fruit vender, the flowers growing there under her eyes, were all part and parcel of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic” (54).

Edna's gaze combines an intense inner life with drowsiness and ennui. One of the earliest and most striking versions of this combination of inwardness and alienation was offered by Balzac in his description of the Marquise d'Aiglemont in La Femme de trente ans (1834):

La marquise, alors âgée de trente ans, était belle quoique frêle de formes et d'une excessive délicatesse. Son plus grand charme venait d'une physionomie dont le calme trahissait une étonnante profondeur dans l'âme. Son œil plein d'éclat, mais qui semblait voilé par une pensée constante, accusait une vie fiévreuse et la résignation la plus étendue. Ses paupières, presque toujours chastement baissées vers la terre, se relevaient rarement. Si elle jetait des regards autour d'elle, c'était par un mouvement triste, et vous eussiez dit qu'elle réservait le feu de ses yeux pour d'occultes contemplations.7

Chopin was familiar with Balzac's writings, and the parallels are striking indeed, but an even more immediate model for Edna's pensive look may have been the Pre-Raphaelite portraits of women by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Edvard Burne-Jones. Commenting on these portraits in 1900, Rudolf Kassner, one of the leading fin-de-siècle figures in Germany, was struck by the dreamy, melancholy expression and the peculiar sensuality of the women: Body and soul seem to have become one, or rather, the body has become a symbol of the soul; by the same token, these women exist in a sphere of their own, unrelated to society, and separated even from the male who may have aroused their sensuality.8 A key concept in Kassner's analysis is the notion of mood (“Stimmung”). The women depicted in Pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry embody a mood—a mysterious, unfathomable disposition of the psyche. Hugo von Hofmannsthal had made much the same point when he reported on the 1894 Vienna Exhibition. He marveled at the “soulfulness” in the eyes of Rossetti's and Burne-Jones' women; there was a depth and a mystery in these eyes, combined with melancholy, that provided a fitting emblem of the modern artist's sensibility.9

Mood was a central category in fin-de-siècle literature and art. In the writings of Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, and Arthur Symons, mood advanced to a privileged concept. Reality was considered as a product of moods; hence poetry inevitably focused on a mood or several moods. According to Yeats' essay “The Moods,” “[l]iterature differs from explanatory and scientific writing in being wrought about a mood, or a community of moods, as the body is wrought about an invisible soul.”10

Edna's awakening involves both the discovery of a new inner life and an escape from ordinary, conventional reality. This nexus of intensity and alienation is characteristic of mood poetry. In his book on William Blake, Symons relates the modern idea of moods to Blake's concept of states: “By states Blake means very much what we mean by moods, which in common with many mystics, he conceives as permanent spiritual forces, through which what is transitory in man passes, while man imagines that they, more transitory than himself, are passing through him.”11 Mood thus provides the modern equivalent of transcendence. In German literature around 1900, mood became a privileged notion to suggest the blurring and expanding of perceptual boundaries. The early poetry of Hofmannsthal, Rilke, and Stefan George focuses on transitory psychic states in an effort to shift or indeed suspend the limitations of ordinary experience. As Helmuth Koopmann has pointed out, these poems project neither utopias nor artificial paradises, but an intra-psychic world of dreams and vague, floating desires. The process of transcendence, in short, is neither upward nor outward but inward into the recesses of the soul.

While the poets, thanks to the subjective quality of their genre, express powerful visions of great intensity, the prose writers, in contrast, tend to develop the escapist and self-defeating components of inward transcendence. In the early fiction of Thomas and Heinrich Mann, the clash of subjectivity with social norms leads to alienation and death. Withdrawal, defeat, and death are the inevitable consequences of the protagonists' adherence to their moods.12

From this perspective, The Awakening dramatizes less the failure of a would-be New Woman than the gradual, step-by-step deepening of a mood. If Chopin's protagonist challenges society in her final swim, she does so by remaining true to her dominant mood. Her psychic disposition involves an intense though vague fantasy life and, at the same time, a withdrawal from social obligations. If Edna's stance is affected by her being a woman and a wife, we should also recognize that her final gesture would have been understood by Thomas Mann's Aschenbach and many other solitary souls in turn-of-the-century literature.


Edna's withdrawal from society is completed by her immersion in the natural element of water. Critics usually point to the Romantics and Walt Whitman as the chief sources of inspiration for Chopin's use of nature images.13 The reference to the Romantic tradition is helpful but ultimately misleading. According to Benita von Heynitz, Chopin's treatment of nature and the relationship between the protagonist and nature has strong affinities with art nouveau or Jugendstil, a trend in turn-of-the-century art and literature that marks a departure from late Romanticism as well as décadence and anticipates elements of modernism and expressionism.14

The nature symbolism of art nouveau differs both from the romantic symbol with its ontological underpinning and from the objective correlative or modernism which cancels the expression of the subject. The fundamental assumption underlying Romantic nature imagery and symbolism is the ontological analogy between the human mind and nature. Due in part to the writings of Charles Darwin, this analogy collapsed in the second half of the nineteenth century. No longer in (even potential) harmony with nature, the self withdraws into an interior space. Nature continues to provide a wealth of imagery, but nature symbolism now serves as a chiffre—a kind of shorthand for subjective moods. No longer grounded in an ontology, the connection between mind and nature turns into a suggestive relationship anchored in the psychic state of the protagonist.15

Edna experiences the sea as alluring and threatening. Few readers will miss the crucial passage in Chapter 7, if only because it is repeated almost verbatim at the end of the novel:

The voice of the sea is seductive; 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.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.


Suicide by drowning was a popular motif in nineteenth-century fiction, particularly in novels dramatizing the plight of the “fallen woman.” Another, and more pertinent, antecedent to Chopin's novel is Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (1852): Perhaps for the first time in American fiction, drowning is stylized into an aesthetic act (albeit an abortive one) on the part of the woman.16 The aesthetic potential of the motif was fully exploited in the second half of the century. John Everett Millais' famous Ophelia painting of 1852 inspired a host of literary responses, among them Rimbaud's equally famous “Ophélie” (1870).

While the many variations on the theme of the fallen woman explore the moral implications of the motif, artists and writers became more and more fascinated by what they perceived to be the aesthetic affinity between the female body and water. As the sinuous line replaced the techniques of impressionism as a structural device, painters developed the analogy between female and watery outlines to the point where body and element became fused into one. G. J. V. Clairin's Wave (1890) and Aristide Maillol's woodcut with the same title (1898) are only two of the most famous examples of what one could almost call an obsession in the artistic community. In 1889 Paul Gauguin painted Undine, the water spirit of German folklore who, after a temporary stay among ordinary mortals, returns to her watery realm. Undine became one of the most common motifs in 1890s painting and graphic art. The English translation of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's Undine (1811) was enthusiastically reviewed by Poe in 1839. On one of his tours of Great Britain, Theodor Fontane noted the extraordinary popularity of the romance in England.17

Kate Chopin owned a copy of Undine.18 Like Undine, Edna retreats to the water after a disappointment in love. More importantly, The Awakening, much like the Undine versions in literature and the arts, suggests a natural affinity between woman and water—“natural” in aesthetic, indeed decorative, terms. As von Heynitz points out, the emphasis, in art nouveau, on naturalness marks an important departure from the Pre-Raphaelite and décadence renderings of the female body. The paintings of Rossetti, for instance, often seem to capture a moment of great expectancy; Kassner suggests that it is the moment before the woman is embraced by the male. Strongly tinged by the male gaze, some of Rossetti's women exude the allure and the threat of the femme fatale. One reviewer of The Awakening was obviously under the impression of this type of portrait when he felt reminded of “one of Aubrey Beardsley's hideous but haunting pictures with their disfiguring leer of sensuality […].”19 It is precisely this “leer of sensuality” that is missing from Chopin's protagonist. Thus the reviewer's remark alerts us to the distinctiveness of Edna's awakening. Chopin's treatment of Edna's sensuality is as far removed from the moralizing tradition of the “fallen woman” literature as it is from the lasciviousness of décadence. The emphasis she places on the healthiness and naturalness of erotic impulses puts her protagonist into the company of Undine and the numerous other mermaids that populate art nouveau literature and art.

Disappointed in her associations with men, Edna in the end withdraws into her natural element. Despite momentary doubts and regrets, her dominant mood appears to be one of exaltation. Written in highly sensory prose, the final scene of the novel projects a Gesamtkunstwerk, a synaesthetic experience combining visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile sensations:

Edna heard her father's voice and her sister Margaret's. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.

If this ending, as has been argued, amounts to a regression to childhood or a surrender to social forces,20 we should also note that Edna's last swim has the distinct flavor of an experience of oneness and totality that was the highest goal of many fin-de-siècle artists and writers. Nature, in this context, has lost its status as a medium of transcendence in the Romantic sense. Water does serve a symbolic purpose, but it functions in a decorative way, not as an ontological analogue of the soul.

The next generation of writers would go on to employ nature imagery in straightforward mythic and archetypal terms. In modernist writing, nature is often correlated to the sub- and pre-conscious strata of the psyche. As the protagonist of D. H. Lawrence's “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1925) abandons her self-will in the Mexican wilderness, she achieves an archetypal consciousness.21 Such a breakthrough is not for Edna Pontellier. Just as one should note Chopin's distance from Romantic pantheism, one should be wary of confusing her literary strategies with the modernist use of myth. Edna was no Venus or Psyche.22 Chopin's sensibility was equally close to, but also equally remote from Romanticism and modernism. The Awakening absorbs elements of the former and anticipates features of the latter, but its “moment,” as the publication date of the novel suggests, is in between. The novel expresses a turn-of-the-century sensibility that has an integrity of its own.


  1. Fox-Genovese, “The Awakening in the Context of the Experience, Culture, and Values of Southern Women,” Approaches to Teaching Chopin's “The Awakening”, ed. Bernard Koloski (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988), p. 34.

  2. Rankin, Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories (1932), rpt. in the Norton Critical Edition of The Awakening, ed. Margaret Culley (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 164.

  3. Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, ed. Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1992).

  4. Arms, “Kate Chopin's The Awakening in the Perspective of Her Literary Career” (1967), rpt. in Norton Critical Edition of The Awakening, pp. 176-177.

  5. See Andreas Höfele, “Erwachen in Shakespeares A Midsummer Night's Dream,Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 228 (1991) 41-51; Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden, expanded ed. (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981), pp. 99-103.

  6. The Awakening, Norton Critical Edition, p. 5. All further page references in the text are to this edition.

  7. Balzac, La Femme de trente ans, ed. Maurice Allem (Paris: Garnier, 1965), p. 107.

    “The Marquise had reached her thirtieth year. She was beautiful in spite of her fragile form and extremely delicate look. Her greatest charm lay in her still face, revealing unfathomed depths of soul. Some haunting, ever-present thought veiled, as it were, the full brilliance of eyes which told of a fevered life and boundless resignation. So seldom did she raise the eyelids soberly downcast, and so listless were her glances, that it almost seemed as if the fire in her eyes were reserved for some occult contemplation.”

    (Honore de Balzac, A Woman of Thirty in A Study of Woman, Honore de Balzac in Twenty-five volumes, Vol. II [New York: Peter Fenelon Collier & Son, 1900], 407.)

  8. Kassner, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Sonette und Frauenköpfe,” Sämtliche Werke, ed. Ernst Zinn (Pfullingen: Neske, 1969), pp. 149-176.

  9. Hofmannsthal, “Über moderne englische Malerei,” Die Präraffaeliten, ed. Gisela Hönnighausen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1992), pp. 367-372.

  10. Quoted from Lothar Hönnighausen, The Symbolist Tradition in English Literature: A Study of Pre-Raphaelitism and “Fin de Siècle” (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), p. 94.

  11. Quoted from Hönnighausen, The Symbolist Tradition, p. 94.

  12. Koopmann, “Entgrenzung—Zu einem literarischen Phänomen um 1900,” Fin de siècle: Zu literatur und Kunst der Jahrhundertwende, ed. Roger Bauer et al. (Frankfurt-am-Main: Klostermann, 1977), pp. 73-92.

  13. See, e.g., Donald A. Ringe, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin's The Awakening” (1972), rpt. in Norton Critical Edition of The Awakening, pp. 201-206; Joyce Dyer, “Symbolism and Imagery in The Awakening,” Approaches to Teaching Chopin's “The Awakening,” pp. 126-131.

  14. Von Heynitz, Literarische Kontexte von Kate Chopins “The Awakening,” Diss. University of Heidelberg, 1993, ch. 7. Originally limited to the arts, the terms art nouveau and Jugendstil have recently become accepted by literary historians as well. See Joachim W. Storck, “‘Jugendstil’—ein literaturgeschichtlicher Epochenbegriff? Aspekte und Kriterien,” Im Dialog mit der Moderne: Zur deutschsprachigen Literatur von der Gründerzeit bis zur Gegenwart, ed. by Roland Jost and Hansgeorg Schmidt-Bergmann (Frank furt-am-Main Athenäum, 1986), pp. 106-130.

  15. Hönnighausen, The Symbolist Tradition, p. 19.

  16. On the theatrical elements in Zenobia, see Dietmar Schloss, “The Art of Experience in Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance,Amerikastudien 36 (1991) 309-310.

  17. On the paintings mentioned above see Jean-Paul Bouillon, Der Jugendstil in Wort und Bild (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1985), pp. 34-35, 98. On Fontane and Undine see Renate Schäfer, “Fontanes Melusine-Motiv,” Euphorion 56 (1962) 69-104, esp. 72.

  18. See her “List of Books” in A Kate Chopin Miscellany, ed. Per Seyersted and Emily Toth (Natchitoches, LA: Northwestern State Univ. Press, 1979), p. 88.

  19. Rpt. in Norton Critical Edition of The Awakening, p. 152.

  20. For representative examples of either view see Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin's The Awakening” (1973), rpt. in Norton Critical Edition of The Awakening, pp. 206-218; Andrew Delbanco, “The Half-Life of Edna Pontellier,” New Essays on The Awakening, ed. Wendy Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 89-107.

  21. Thomas Kullmann, “Exotic Landscapes and Borderline Experiences in Twentieth Century Fiction: D. H. Lawrence, Karen Blixen and Malcolm Lowry,” Anglistentag 1992: Proceedings (Tübingen: Niemeyer, forthcoming). See also Michael T. Gilmore, “Revolt Against Nature: The Problematic Modernism of The Awakening,New Essays on The Awakening, pp. 59-87.

  22. See the myth readings by Rosemary Franklin, Wayne Batten, and Sandra Gilbert listed in the “Bibliographical Essay” of Thomas Bonner's The Kate Chopin Companion (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), p. 242.

Jack Branscomb (essay date spring 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

SOURCE: Branscomb, Jack. “Chopin's ‘Ripe Figs.’” The Explicator 52, no. 3 (spring 1994): 165-66.

[In the following essay, Branscomb discusses the importance of time in “Ripe Figs.”]

Kate Chopin's “Ripe Figs” (1:199), though one of the most interesting pieces in A Night in Acadie (1897), has received relatively little critical comment, possibly because of its brevity (under three hundred words) and its apparent simplicity. In the only extended treatment the story has received, Elaine Gardiner calls it “barely … a sketch” (379), although she effectively makes the case for its charm and its importance among Chopin's works. Like others who comment on the story (Ewell 100; Skaggs 27), Gardiner emphasizes the importance of contrasts, natural imagery, and cyclical patterns in the plot and argues that the story presents a harmonious relationship between the representatives of youth and age within the natural cycles of human life. While acknowledging the importance of the motifs Gardiner points out, I shall argue that another sense of time is crucial in “Ripe Figs” and that the work is not so rudimentary as it may at first seem. Far more than a sketch, it subtly presents much deeper conflicts and richer themes than have hitherto been observed. The relationship between the two characters is less harmonious than Gardiner suggests, and the calendar of the church is as important to the story as the cycles of nature.

The plot of “Ripe Figs” is simple. A young girl, Babette, wants to visit relatives on the Bayou-Lafourche, “where the sugar cane grows” (1:199). Her godmother, Maman-Nainaine, says she may go when the figs ripen. Time passes slowly for the impatient girl, and when the figs finally are ripe she thinks they are late, while Maman-Nainaine is surprised at how early they are. Nevertheless, Maman-Nainaine says that Babette may go, and that she is to tell her Tante Frosine that Maman-Nainaine expects to see her (Frosine) “at Toussaint—when the chrysanthemums are in bloom” (1:199). The story is graceful and quietly humorous, and the theme of youth and age in relation to time is clearly conveyed.

Chopin gives Maman-Nainaine the last word in the story, and the crux of my argument lies in her concluding words about seeing Aunt Frosine at Toussaint. Gardiner, like most readers of the story, assumes that Toussaint is a place name. While this is indeed possible, it is far more likely, in the context of this time-ridden story, that Maman-Nainaine is using the French term for All Saints Day, November 1, as the time of the meeting to come. She thus reinforces her reference to a season in nature by naming a specific day in the religious calendar. Recognizing the time reference has important implications for the character of Maman-Nainaine and her relationship with her goddaughter, and for the theme of the story as a whole.

It is tempting to see Maman-Nainaine as embodying merely a benevolent aspect of the rhythms of nature—“the tranquil energy of nature's continuity,” as Gardiner characterizes her (381). She does, after all, first tie Babette's visit to Bayou-Lafourche to the ripening of the figs, and when the fruit appears, she relishes it. However, through the specification of Toussaint, which was both a major feast and also a socially important day when families customarily met to visit family graves (Bonner 150), Chopin reinforces the dominant pattern of religious references made about Maman-Nainaine: She is Babette's godmother; she is stately, with patience like that of a statue of the Virgin; and her cap stands “like an aureole about her white, placid face” (1:199). The cumulative images and her naming of Toussaint suggest that she represents not just a mature phase of a natural cycle; she embodies even more a belief in the world of the spirit and an awareness of death that are unknown to the ripening girl. She knows that the chrysanthemum is the flower of the dying year, the time when the family reunites, not to eat the sugar cane of Bayou-Lafourche, but to commune with the dead.

Besides broadening the thematic concerns of the story, this aspect of Maman-Nainaine's personality contributes considerably to both the sense of conflict and the humor in the story. At first the conflict seems to involve merely the different perspectives of age and youth on the passage of time and the coming of maturity. Maman-Nainaine says that the girl may eat sugar cane at the proper season, when the figs ripen. Though the narrator says with mock naivete, “Not that the ripening of figs had the least thing to do with it” (1:199), the common association of the fig with female sexuality suggests that Maman-Nainaine's restriction goes beyond a simple lesson in patience. Rather than being just markers of the seasons, as Gardiner suggests (381), the figs, like the chrysanthemums, are thus significant in themselves. When Babette produces the long-awaited figs for her godmother, Maman-Nainaine arches her eyebrows and says the fruit has ripened very early. She is perturbed at the disruption of her timetable for Babette, and her peeling “the very plumpest figs with her pointed silver fruit-knife” (1:199) sets a slightly ominous tone for the conclusion of the story. Her final instruction to Babette is therefore only partially an acquiescence in the girl's departure and all that it symbolizes; it is also a drily witty assertion of control and a veiled suggestion that though ripeness may be all, Babette's understanding of the nature of ripeness is incomplete. The reunion in the fall will come not just whenever the flowers of autumn choose to bloom, but on the appointed holy day, All Saints. The story thus concludes with the implication that there are other seasons than those of nature and that the desires of youth must be balanced by the deeper understanding of age.

Works Cited

Bonner, Thomas. The Kate Chopin Companion. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

Chopin, Kate. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Vol. 1. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 199. 2 vols.

Ewell, Barbara. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Gardiner, Elaine. “‘Ripe Figs’: Kate Chopin in Miniature.” Modern Fiction Studies 28 (1982): 379-82.

Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

David Steiling (essay date spring 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1308

SOURCE: Steiling, David. “Multi-Cultural Aesthetic in Kate Chopin's ‘A Gentleman of Bayou Teche.’” The Mississippi Quarterly 47, no. 2 (spring 1994): 197-101.

[In the following essay, Steiling discusses Chopin's use of irony to address regional and ethnic stereotypes in “A Gentleman of Bayou Teche.”]

“A Gentleman of Bayou Teche” by Kate Chopin is seldom read and has attracted virtually no critical attention, but the subject and design of this sketch amply demonstrate that its author understood how subcultures can be particularly sensitive to the way they are perceived and recorded by outsiders. This sketch shows that Chopin had thoughtfully considered how the drawing of “local” characters can easily be distorted into the creation of stereotypes. But Chopin, writing a hundred years ago, not only illustrates the problems of writing about regional American life but poses a solution to these problems that readers today might find extraordinary for its manifestation of current pluralist and multicultural ideals.

This sketch, along with Chopin's own remarks1, clearly indicates her ambivalence toward the “local color school” of American writing. A certain amount of this ambivalence may reflect Chopin's perception of how the term “local color writing” was becoming a means of diminishing the work of women and regional writers of the period. What this sketch makes clear is that this ambivalence goes deeper and is a reaction to the ethical and aesthetic problems of representing distinct ethnic and regional cultures.

“A Gentleman of Bayou Teche” appeared in Chopin's first published collection, Bayou Folk (1894), and relates the story of Mr. Sublet, an artist visiting the Hallet plantation looking for “bits of ‘local color.’” There Sublet is taken with the decidedly “local” appearance of a Cajun, Evariste Bonamour, and contracts to draw his picture, giving him two silver dollars to secure the contract. Evariste and daughter Martinette fail to make much sense of why Sublet wishes to draw Evariste dressed just as if he had emerged from the swamp, but Evariste gives the two dollars to Martinette to buy more substantial clothes for the winter. On her way to the store, Martinette stops to brag about the matter to Aunt Dicey, who reacts to the news by snickering at what she sees as the simplicity of Martinette and her father. In Aunt Dicey's view, Sublet intends to use the picture of Evariste to illustrate the “lowdown 'Cajuns o'Bayeh Teche!” Dicey recounts how Sublet's son had entered her cabin unannounced and asked to take her photograph while she was ironing. “I 'lowed I gwine make a picture outen him and dis heah flati'on, ef he don' cl'ar hisse'f quick,” recalls Dicey. “An' he say he baig my pardon fo' his intrudement. All dat kine o'talk to a ole nigga 'oman! Dat plainly sho' he don' know his place.”2 Dicey comments that if she were to have her picture taken, she would want “‘im to come in heah an' say: ‘Howdy, Aunt Dicey! will you be so kine and go put on yo' noo calker dress an' yo' bonnit w'at you w'as to meein', an' stan' 'side f'om dat i'onin'boa'd w'ilse I gwine take yo' photygraph.’” Martinette believes Aunt Dicey's construction of Sublet's intention, and instead of going to the store returns home, ashamed.

The next day Martinette goes to the plantation house to return the money while her father goes fishing. Prevailed upon by Sublet to provide an explanation, Martinette finally blurts out, “My papa ent one lowdown 'Cajun. He ent goin' to stan' to have that kine o' writin' put down un'neath his picture!” (p. 299). Bolting from the house, Martinette runs into her father, who is ascending the steps bearing Sublet's son in his arms. Evariste has rescued the boy from the lake, where he had overturned in a pirogue. Sublet proposes to Evariste that he still draw his picture but subtitle it “a hero of Bayou Teche” (pp. 300-301), but Evariste demurs because to him saving the child was just an ordinary, not an extraordinary act. Sublet's host suggests a compromise whereby Sublet should draw the picture but Evariste would be allowed to title it. Evariste will return in his best pants and coat for the sitting, and the picture will be titled “Mista Evariste Anatole Bonamour, a gent'man of de Bayou Teche” (p. 303).

This tale is more than a sketch of the pride and nobility that lie beneath the facade of the impoverished Cajun, or even a well-observed study of class relationships in the bayou community; it is a narrative of the artist's relationship with the subject and a moral tale for the local colorist.

Chopin evokes the conventions of the local-color school in the plantation setting, the presence of the chivalric noble savage, and the use of dialect, but the reader is invited to see beyond these conventions through the narrative's irony. The evocation of the plantation as setting is completed in the picture of the household of Evariste, where pride and gentility are valued as highly as they are in the household of the landowner. Similarly the chivalric actions of Evariste and his daughter are contrasted to the rudeness, impetuousness, and thoughtlessness of Sublet and his son. But the effect of these simple strategies, combined with the action, is to focus the story, not on the account of the heroic act of the Cajun but on the education of the artist. While the reader is entertained by the eccentric detail of the speech and setting, this fascination is undercut by a growing awareness of how such regard is perceived by the subjects of that condescending, if well-intentioned, study.

Sublet and his son betray an ignorance of custom and local manners that results in near tragic consequences. The capsizing of the pirogue is an effective trope for the subtle balance required in navigating the cultural backwaters of the bayou, and tragedy is only averted by the knowledge, tolerance and diplomacy of the locals. The story is a warning to the writer/artist who would venture into the bayou after “bits of local color.” The substance of the tale is that the rendering of individuals as “types” is a literary exploitation. Chopin seems determined to build on her association with the conventions of “local color” while disassociating herself from its exploitative qualities.

Of course Chopin manages in this tale to have it both ways. She shows us the petty one-up-manship between the classes in the community and the sometimes comical extremes of pride—for example, when Evariste traces imaginary characters on the tablecloth with an imaginary pen to simulate writing even though he can neither read nor write. But these pictures are balanced by their opposites: the casual, everyday heroism, the persistence of pride in self-image despite poverty. Chopin's central perception is of the need to be sensitive and respectful to the culture being observed. Anthropologists and folklorists of Chopin's day were learning the same lesson. What was to result was a new observational technique that emphasized tolerance and respect for cultural diversity, the foundation for today's pluralist and multicultural ideals.

It is in the title of the story that Chopin's fictional framework finds its distillation. The proposal she places in the mouth of the plantation owner is that finally the decision as to how to mediate the inherent differences between local and outsider, observed and observer, between the dominant and the sub-culture—the decision as to who or what is to control the image—must reside in the local, the subject, the subculture. The subject must be permitted to explain itself. This is the particular breakthrough embodied in this sketch. It shows that Kate Chopin could and did use the techniques of the local-color school to deconstruct and transcend the limitations of the local-color writer.


  1. See Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1980), p. 83.

  2. Kate Chopin, “A Gentleman of Bayou Teche,” Bayou Folk (Ridgewood, New Jersey: Gregg Press, 1967), p. 295.

Heather Kirk Thomas (essay date spring 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5913

SOURCE: Kirk Thomas, Heather. “Kate Chopin's Scribbling Women and the American Literary Marketplace.” Studies in American Fiction 23, no. 1 (spring 1995): 19-34.

[In the following essay, Thomas examines works in which Chopin satirized the life and career of the typical nineteenth-century American woman fiction writer.]

“I want the book to succeed,” Kate Chopin wrote in an 1894 diary entry about her short story collection, Bayou Folk. Five years later—despite disappointing reviews of her novel, The Awakening—she nonetheless queried her publisher, Herbert Stone, “What are the prospects for the book?”1 Chopin's private and public writings confirm that she considered herself a professional writer. But her sense of herself as a woman writer, her comprehension of women's literary tradition, and her relationship with her literary foremothers—that “d_____d mob of scribbling women” Hawthorne lamented in the 1850s—are other, perhaps more interesting, questions.2

In Private Woman Public Stage, Mary Kelley documents the publishing travails of mid-nineteenth-century scribbling women, the “literary domestics” whose professional identities were upstaged by “their primary self-identification as private domestic women.”3 And in Doing Literary Business, Susan Coultrap-McQuin finds that Chopin's literary foremothers, despite formidable success and devout career commitment, “still had to contend with limiting stereotypes of women.”4 Thus it seems surprising that Chopin, who inherited these stereotypes when she began writing in the 1890s, would also propagate them. In three career-spanning works—“Miss Witherwell's Mistake,” The Awakening, and “Elizabeth Stock's One Story”—Chopin satirizes women writers in ways that strongly imply she wished to dissociate herself from the traditional female litterateur.”5 These caricatures provide insight not only into Chopin's own career but also into the status of the female professional writer in late nineteenth-century America.

Chopin specifically ridiculed women writers in only three works, but as Barbara Ewell notes, even her first novel At Fault (1890) managed to “manipulate effectively the techniques of romance [read women's popular fiction] to mock its conventions.”6 Elizabeth Ammons has proposed that Chopin belonged to a group of writers in the 1890s who desired to be “artists” as well as professionals. Breaking with the past, these women assailed “the territory of high art traditionally posted in Western culture as the exclusive property of privileged white men.”7

In light of this premise, Chopin seems less atypical in her censure of scribbling women. Willa Cather, for example, claimed she expected little of women writers until they could produce “a stout sea tale, a manly battle yam, anything without wine, women and love.”8 Ironically, Cather treated The Awakening to a similarly uncharitable review. Objecting to its “trite” retelling of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Cather (in a revealing trope) compares Chopin's narrative decisions to a man acquiring a mate: “An author's choice of themes is frequently as inexplicable as his choice of a wife. It is governed by some innate temperamental bias that cannot be diagrammed. This is particularly so in women who write.”9

Cather's criticism, however, might be considered poetic justice, since Chopin had herself dunned her sister scribblers. Her first parody of the literary woman, “Miss Witherwell's Mistake,” was completed in November 1889 at the beginning of her literary apprenticeship. Chopin's third published story, it appeared in February 1891 in the St. Louis magazine Fashion and Fancy.10 Echoing the spirit of Hawthorne's oftquoted remark, “Miss Witherwell's Mistake” derides scribbling women's “trash” and mocks their female readers. The story recounts the career of Miss Frances Witherwell, an unmarried journalist of a seasoned age who contributes fiction and women's articles to a small-town newspaper, the “Boredomville Battery.” Notwithstanding Chopin's gesture in christening her character “Wither-well,” she also derides the female journalist's hackneyed production: flagrantly Southern “tale[s] of passion” and self-important essays like “The Wintering of Canaries,” “Security Against the Moth” (The Complete Works of Kate Chopin [hereafter abbreviated as CW], p. 59), and “The Use and Abuse of the Corset,” the last title mockingly described as “an unusually strong thing … handled in that free, fearless, almost heroic style, permitted to so well established a veteran in journalism as Miss Witherwell” (CW, p. 63). The story also critiques Boredomville's matrons for their unconditional fidelity to the Woman's Page. These gullible readers are sheep naively “beholden to the spinster, Miss Witherwell” for her essay “A Word to Mothers” (CW, p. 59).

The story's plot revolves around Witherwell's wealthy niece, whose outraged father has forbidden her to marry the man she loves. Seeking her aunt's advice in her love affair, the niece pretends she requires a story resolution. Exceedingly dense about real lovers (the “mistake” of the title), Witherwell is nonetheless delighted to suggest a fictional solution. Chopin provides a deft satire of nineteenth-century critical schools with Witherwell's recommendation that in problems of the heart the hero must “perform some act to ingratiate himself with the obdurate parent.” When the niece appropriately rejects her advice, Witherwell retorts: The poison of the realistic school has certainly tainted and withered your fancy in the bud. … Marry them, most certainly, or let them die” (CW, p. 65). Needless to say, the niece marries, but the story's conclusion authentically addresses the dilemma faced by women working in traditionally male fields. In a few years the new husband rises to editor-in-chief of the newspaper, although Witherwell herself held “a moneyed interest” (CW, p. 59). Witherwell's joy in her niece's happiness and her work on the paper seem sufficient reward. Flourishing her blue pencil and churning out her “brilliant articles for the Battery,” she grows “older in years, but not in reality” (CW, p. 66). Presumably she still keeps a spotless house.

The tale's disparagement of women writers and their readers anticipates statements Chopin made nearly a decade later about her own, by then, relatively successful literary career. In an autobiographical essay appearing November 26, 1899, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (six months after the publication of The Awakening), Chopin describes her writing as an occupation she pursues only when not inclined “to struggle with the intricacies of a pattern” or “if the temptation to try a new furniture polish on an old table leg is not too powerful to be denied” (CW, pp. 721-22). Chopin clearly satirizes the notion that a woman writer's scrupulous housekeeping enhances her literary credentials. The early story “Miss Witherwell's Mistake” likewise substantiates Mary Kelley's position that in mid-century the “‘female writer’ was considered a contradiction in terms, that such a being was seen as unnatural, such a woman as unfeminine.”11 The proper sphere for a woman was the house. But since Boredomville can observe Miss Witherwell's “neat and pretty home,” her domesticity apparently tenders proof that she holds “nothing in common with that oft-cited Mrs. Jelleby [sic], who has served not a little to bring the female litterateur into disrepute” (CW, p. 59).

Miss Witherwell, in fact, adores tidying up, professing that her “most pungent conceptions” were conceived

whilst engaged in some such domestic occupation as sprinkling camphor in the folds of the winter curtains, or lining trunks with tarpaper, to prevent moths. And she herself tells of that poetic, enigmatic inspiration “Trust Not!” having flashed upon her, whilst she stood at the pantry-shelf washing with her own safe hands, her cut-glass goblets in warm soap-suds.

(CW, p. 59)

Chopin's lampoon of the Muse of Housekeeping parodies comparable representations in nineteenth-century women's fiction. Mrs. A. D. T. Whitney's novel The Other Girls (1873), for instance, describes a young servant girl who becomes a successful poet. Despite her new prosperity, the girl continues her employment because, as she informs her mistress, “The best and brightest things I've ever thought have come into my head over the ironing-board or the bread-making.”12 As a widow attempting to write in a household of six children, Chopin had surely encountered this archetypal female conflict between a woman's work and her workmanship. An anonymous poem that appeared in St. Louis Life a few months before the publication of “Miss Witherwell's Mistake” probably more accurately depicts Chopin's boisterous household and composition habits. Since the magazine's editor Sue V. Moore, Chopin's close friend and another scribbling woman, probably wrote the poem, the professional ironies are manifest:

MRS. _____, OF ST. LOUIS.
The novelist sat at her desk at work,
Surrounded by scattered scraps of paper,
And her little son tossed them all about,
With merry skip and caper.
Now struck by a thought he stops his play,
“Mama,” he cries, and his bright eyes glitter,
“Do they call you literary because
You work in such a litter?”(13)

Interestingly, the story's mockery of Miss Witherwell's literary product—those heady Southern romances and essays on corsets and canaries—might display Chopin's self-consciousness over her own recent endeavors. Her meticulous log-book records confirm that she too exploited Southern settings in her early fiction but, more significantly, that she earned nothing from her writings in 1890, the same year she published At Fault at her own expense (a route Hawthorne also pursued with Fanshawe). By the time “Miss Witherwell's Mistake” appeared in February 1891, from January through April that year Chopin had been translating essays from the French to sell to local newspapers—pieces whose irrelevant titles resemble Miss Witherwell's but delineate a more masculine turf: “The Shape of the Head”; “A Trip to Portuguese Guinea”; “A Visit to the Planet Mars”; “A Transfusion of Goatsblood”; “Revival of Wrestling”; and “Cut-Papier Figures.”14 Reconsidered in light of Chopin's artistic quandary in the initial years of her literary apprenticeship, “Miss Witherwell's Mistake” documents Chopin's quarrel with her readers and her exasperation with her stymied career. It also proclaims her distaste for the constrictive range of subjects and genres—domestic fictions, housekeeping essays, children's literature—allotted to literary women. Chopin along with other “New Woman writers of the 1890s,” in Elaine Showalter's assessment, “had an ambivalent or even hostile relationship to women's culture, which they often saw as boring and restrictive.”15 If Chopin's early experience with editorial rejection taught her what kind of women's writings sold, this story appears to dramatize her doubts that she wanted success at any price.

Chopin's next female journalist, Miss Mayblunt, appears nearly a decade later in The Awakening. Even less than a ficelle, Mayblunt does not figure in Barbara Solomon's extensive compilation of the novel's major and minor “foils” to Edna Pontellier.16 In fact, Mayblunt's function in the narrative has remained something of a puzzle. The journalist's ironic characterization, however, suggests that Chopin might have intended Mayblunt as another avatar of The Awakening's effaced narrator, the novelist herself If so, Mayblunt might personify Chopin's decade-long experience as the token “literary woman” at Louisiana and St. Louis soirees. Chopin's writings yield interesting precedents for this interpretation. Her review of the writer Ruth McEnery Stuart in the February 27, 1897, St. Louis Criterion is undoubtedly modeled after Chopin's own reception on her return visits to provincial Natchitoches parish, Louisiana. Chopin sarcastically quips that Stuart's literary genius has been “recognized throughout the length and breadth of these United States—everywhere, except in one small parish in Louisiana” (CW, p. 712). Chopin's 1899 autobiographical essay for the Post-Dispatch also expressed her exasperation with being treated as a dilettante: “How hard it is for one's acquaintances and friends to realize that one's books are to be taken seriously, and that they are subject to the same laws which govern the existence of others' books!” (CW, p. 722).

If the germ for Miss Mayblunt's characterization was Chopin's experience as St. Louis's or Natchitoches' token woman writer, then the mean-spirited passage introducing the journalist, a guest at Edna's bacchanalian banquet, becomes doubly ironic: Mayblunt is a woman “no longer in her teens, who looked at the world through lorgnettes and with the keenest interest. It was thought and said that she was intellectual; it was suspected of her that she wrote under a nom de gueree” (CW, p. 970).17 Monsieur Gouvernail, a journalist “connected with one of the daily papers” (CW, p. 970), escorts Mayblunt to Edna's dinner; his accompaniment might even authenticate his female colleague's credentials.18 At least when the banquet commences, the guests concede Mayblunt a modicum of expertise. Edna asks Mayblunt directly if the term “composed” might be used to describe a garnet-hued drink that her father concocted (CW, p. 971). Although asked a usage question, however, Mayblunt is not allowed to respond. Edna's lover Alcee Arobin interrupts, insisting that since Edna's father composed the cocktail, it should be drunk in honor of “the daughter whom he invented” (CW, p. 971). During the ensuing hilarity, Mayblunt fails to taste her drink, begging instead to contemplate its exquisite color. But Chopin makes the point in the exchange that it matters little whether Mayblunt was embarrassed by Arobin's earthy quip about Edna's conception, irritated by his implication that men “invented” women, or merely posturing as an artiste; a female journalist's opinions are superfluous. While Mrs. Merriman is “talking ‘books’ with Mr. Gouvernail and trying to draw from him his opinion upon current literary topics” (CW, p. 972), no one solicits Mayblunt's judgments. Universally ignored, she pretends to enjoy Mr. Merriman's boring business stories, so “lame and lacking point” (CW, pp. 971-72) that even his wife rarely allows their conclusion.

Like Miss Witherwell, Miss Mayblunt never rises above stereotype; even her name, “May-blunt,” appears designedly allegorical, connoting subservience and tactlessness. Chopin further parodies the female journalist's insecurity when the guests, in a rare instance, include her in the conversation, and she obsequiously panders to her hostess. Celebrating Edna's amateur artistic talent over her own rhetorical skills, she gushes: “Oh! to be able to paint in color rather than in words!” (CW, p. 973).

Deborah E. Barker interprets Mayblunt as Chopin's version of the woman writer whose fiction “lacks color” or who fears “to enter fully the public sphere and use her own name for her writing.”19 But Mayblunt's demeanor remarkably resembles Chopin's in her 1899 autobiographical essay, in which she initially dismisses her writing as an ancillary whim but later asks to be taken seriously. If the successful Chopin hesitated to expose the scope of her ambitions to her St. Louis readers, Mayblunt's characterization suggests that Chopin acknowledged her own reticence and was able good-naturedly to mock her literary self as public persona. In fact, her private writings manifest a tenuous relationship with the public throughout her professional life. In a May 4, 1894, diary entry, for example, she deplores missing her weekly euchre club to promote her new collection Bayou Folk:

I fear it was the commercial instinct which decided me. I want the book to succeed. But how immensely uninteresting some “society” people are! That class which we know as Philistines. Their refined voices, and refined speech which says nothing—or worse, says something which offends me.

(CM [A Kate Chopin Miscellany], p. 89)

Despite Chopin's discomfort, her commercial instinct apparently drove her to give countless readings at local guilds, clubs, and private soirees. Five years after this diary entry, an 1899 Atlantic essay, “In the Confidence of a Story-Writer,” reiterates her uneasiness among the Philistines: “And very much out of place did I feel in these intellectual gatherings. I escaped by some pretext, and regained my corner, where no ‘questions’ and no fine language can reach me” (CW, p. 704).20 Like Edna Pontellier, Mademoiselle Reisz, and Miss Mayblunt—The Awakening's three alienated female artist-figures-chopin obviously knew the loneliness of the outsider.

Chopin's third woman writer appears in “Elizabeth Stock's One Story,” completed in March 1898, a few months after the publisher Way & Williams had accepted The Awakening.21 The sketch's anonymous narrator, a summer sojourner in the Missouri village of Stonelift, sifts through the papers of the lately deceased Elizabeth Stock. Formerly the village postmistress, Stock also enjoyed a local reputation as one “much given over to scribbling” (CW, p. 586). When the visitor—perhaps herself a successful literary woman in the manner of Jewett's narrator in The Country of the Pointed Firs—scrutinizes Stock's writings, she encounters only “scraps and bits of writing in bad prose and impossible verse” (CW, p. 586).” The single autobiographical manuscript she judges “a connected or consecutive narration” (CW, p. 586) discloses the creative confinement, paltry self-esteem, and general indigence of would-be scribbling women.

Stock's manuscript confesses that her lifelong dream is “to write stories.” But when she asks her uncle (a man for whom she otherwise holds scant respect) to read her account of a local villager, he retorts, “I reckon you better stick to your dress making: this here ain't no story; everybody knows about old Si' Shepard” (CW, p. 586). Taking her uncle's criticism to heart, Stock fails to enter a short story contest because she fears that “the story had to be original, entertaining, full of action and Goodness knows what all. It was no use. I gave it up” (CW, p. 587). The one story she feels competent to relate is the angst-ridden story of her fall: “I feel as I'd like to tell how I lost my position [as postmistress], mostly through my own negligence, I'll admit that” (CW, p. 587). Stock's self-disparaging tale reveals her fierce dedication to her work, despite her dream of a literary life. But in an ironic twist of fate, she undermines her health after reading a postcard's urgent message and delivering it during an ice storm, and she loses her employment after resulting accusations that she reads people's mail. With this final calamity, she relinquishes all hopes of a writing career. Realizing that “the truth is, I got no more money, or so little it don't count” (CW, p. 591), she can no longer afford to dream22.

According to Elizabeth Ammons, turn-of-the-century American women writers exposed in their fiction the link between institutional and sexual exploitation of women and “female muteness.”23 Chopin's story records Stock's analogous powerlessness and muteness when she loses her government position to the son of a wealthy St. Louisian. The resulting loss of income—far greater than that enjoyed by Freeman's starving New Englanders—signifies the literal end of Stock's independence. Chopin herself experienced financial instability both during her marriage to Oscar Chopin, a struggling Louisiana cotton factor, and afterward as a widow with six children. But Stock's unemployment silences her authorial voice.

Barbara Ewell finds that Stock represents “one of Chopin's strongest, most self-possessed females,”24 but the story delivers a dismaying portrait of the rural woman with literary aspirations. Perhaps Chopin used the surname “Stock” to evoke the countless anonymous women who hoped their writing might pay the bills—isolated women awaiting acceptance from distant editors and eminent Eastern publishers.25 The story attempts a rustic Missouri vernacular and includes a comic segment on Stock's difficulties with plot-making, but it is not a funny sketch.26 Its initial paragraph divulges the protagonist's fate and voices, in the manner of a Greek chorus, her final tragic silencing:

Elizabeth Stock, an unmarried woman of thirty-eight, died of consumption during the past winter. … The physicians say she showed hope of rallying till placed in the incurable ward, when all courage seemed to leave her, and she relapsed into a silence that remained unbroken till the end.

(CW, p. 586)

Chopin's prologue echoes a newspaper obituary's stoicism but also marks, in a metafictional sense, the suppression of a culturally defeated female writer, one of the “Judith Shakespeares” later memorialized by Virginia Woolf. Despite the narrator's cynicism about Stock's literary potential, as an example of the scores of scribbling women who failed to reach an audience, this portrait stands as Chopin's most realistic and consequently compassionate depiction of the would-be female litterateur. Ten years earlier, Chopin had portrayed Miss Witherwell as a hopeless romantic but as an editor/writer fortunate enough to publish. By contrast, Stock's later and more darkly ironic characterization delineates an impoverished and lonely woman who fails as a writer because she is such a good reader”27.

Chopin's three scribblers contribute meaningfully to our sense of her artistic development within her brief career. Miss Witherwell, Chopin's first female journalist, produces romantic fiction and didactic housekeeping articles devoured by loyal female fans. If Witherwell's characterization never rises above stereotype, it does record Chopin's aversion to the traditionally sentimental “schools” as well as to the genres commonly open to, even reserved for, scribbling women. Chopin also burlesques the female reader's interest in and expectations for the woman writer's private domestic life and exhibits a narrative confidence that an ideal reader would decipher her irony and share her disdain. In mocking Witherwell, Chopin manifests what she, as female “artist,” is not. At the same time, her censure of scribbling women distances her from the previous mainstream of women professionals (in Nina Baym's characterization of that wave) and confirms she sought to identify with the realists whose membership, except for Easterners like Wharton, Jewett, or Freeman, was typically male.28

Created a decade after Witherwell, the fawning Miss Mayblunt serves as comic relief at Edna's banquet. An obsequious, nearly invisible literary woman, she is universally ignored by the other guests and never mentioned again after the gala. If she serves no obvious narrative function, perhaps she registers Chopin's own social experience as a public persona, perhaps a mocking admission (like Flaubert's): “Miss Mayblunt, c'est moi!” The novelist reinscribes her own name in the novel in selecting Frederic Chopin's music for Mademoiselle Reisz, the only artist who “dares and defies.” A wry wink at the public's perception of female writers would be characteristic of Chopin's self-reflexive irony.

Chopin completed her third portrait, Elizabeth Stock, while awaiting publication of The Awakening. She undoubtedly suspected that the novel might become her magnum opus, capable of confirming or destroying her literary standing. “The Haunted Chamber,” a poem composed in February 1899 while awaiting or reading proofs of the novel, strongly suggests she anticipated mixed reviews:

Of course t'was an excellent story to tell
Of a fair, frail, passionate woman who fell.
So now I must listen the whole night through
To the torment with which I had nothing to do—

Whatever her suspicions about the novel, Chopin's confidence in its artistry tempered with the knowledge that its themes would outrage some reviewers might have furnished the germ for “Elizabeth Stock's One Story” and elicited its strong statement about female silence and professional disappointment.

“Kate Chopin's literary evolution,” Showalter observes, “took her progressively through the three phases of nineteenth-century American women's culture and women's writing”; Chopin's career hinged on “the legacy of domestic fiction to work against, and the models of the local colorists and New Women writers with which to experiment.”29 In this light, Stock personifies Chopin's departure from the earlier literary domestics' sentimentalized depictions of rural life and female avocation. In their hands, Stock would have married the new postmaster or her longtime suitor, Vance Wallace, and sold stories to augment their livelihood. Her portrait also moves Chopin beyond the archetypal local colorist who would have returned Stock to her dressmaking and vegetable garden. Stock rejects marriage to Wallace (calling him “a fool”), accepts the new postmaster, and welcomes death: “I'd like to sit right on here,” she concludes, “and forget every thing and go to sleep and never wake up” (CW, p. 591). Of Chopin's three scribbling women, only Stock's characterization anticipates modernist angst.

By contrast to Chopin's fictional portraits, her other writings accord her female colleagues more respect. She praised the work of Sarah Orne Jewett, Octave Thanet (Alice French), and Ruth McEnery Stuart, and considered Mary E. Wilkins Freeman “a genius.”30 Like other professional writers of her era, she also mentored would-be literary women, among them a neighbor, Mrs. Hull, who asked her advice about some manuscript stories. Unfortunately, Chopin found Hull's stories in “the conventional groove” (CM, p. 90), and she valued originality even more than she derided sentimentalism, perhaps an over-reaction since she also wrote romantic fiction herself.31

Chopin assiduously promoted her own literary career and could be tough on the competition. More fortunate in her career than Elizabeth Stock, Chopin nonetheless battled hard to win readers and establish her reputation as a woman of letters. Her professional ambitions were early and constant. She sent a copy of her first novel, At Fault, to William Dean Howells, gave numerous readings at clubs and guilds, and at her own expense travelled to New York, Boston, and Chicago in search of publishers.32 Considering Chopin's own sacrifices, it is curious that she was so hard on female writers in her fiction. We might predict some sororal charity from the creator of the passionate Calixta in “The Storm,” the mysterious Mrs. Baroda in “A Respectable Woman,” and the joyously if only briefly emancipated Mrs. Mallard in “The Story of an Hour.” In Reinventing Womanhood, however, Carolyn Heilbrun argues that some women who have successfully challenged male bastions act like “honorary males.”33 Once admitted to traditionally masculine spheres, they defend their territory from others of their sex, particularly from those they consider dilettantes. Chopin's desire to distance herself from traditional women's writing—conceivably her impulse in creating these three disparaging portraits—appears to link her to the ranks of these “honorary males.” But whatever her design, her career-long practice suggests an ambivalence about her ambitions to be a serious writer. If Chopin's sense of the women's literary marketplace was bleak, she must have occasionally questioned the quality of her work when it sold. Recollecting Hawthorne's response to the triumph of women's “trash,” her three characterizations also imply that she might have been uneasy when she did succeed. “Polly,” Chopin's last published story before her untimely death in 1904, returns the female protagonist (who initially worked in a real estate office) to the kitchen, a more appropriate sphere for the literary domestics, and concludes with the nursery-rhyme cliche, “Polly, put the kettle on!” (CW, p. 684). Chopin no doubt tailored the story for the audience of The Youth's Companion, which had proved a reliable outlet for her local color and didactic fiction since the early 1890s.34 But Miss Witherwell could have written “Polly” for the Battery.35

Viewed together within Chopin's extensive corpus, her three scribbling women chart the development of her literary life. Miss Witherwell represents a genre that Chopin obviously abhorred but still produced throughout the decade, either out of financial need or in order to keep her career alive; Miss Mayblunt symbolizes the writer as public personality, the commercial aspect of the marketplace that the serious artist instinctively resents; finally, Elizabeth Stock's portrayal immortalizes the failed literary woman who questions her talent, loses her reputation and health, and dies alone in “unbroken silence.” Serving as negative foils for Chopin, these caricatures imply she experienced a distinctive and prolonged ambivalence about her career. They also suggest that other nineteenth-century literary women harbored significant doubts about their profession, which undoubtedly contributed to their competition within the marketplace.

In that sense, our reconsideration of Chopin's fiction is more meaningful than any final certitude vis-a-vis the impetus for these three portraits. In our rush to (re)judgment of nineteenth-century women writers, we must address their inadequacies along with their strengths. Chopin's fiction commonly effaces women of color. Her marked aversion to the women responsible for the enormous body of sentimental/popular literature functions as a comparable literary silencing. Chopin craved her own moment on the public stage, but cast as “artist” rather than as female scribbler. In her 1894 diary, with her career on the rise, she confessed her amusement when she met a woman who “hasnt the slightest idea that I write. Its delicious” (CM, p. 94).36 But in “A Reflection,” composed six months after the publication of The Awakening, Chopin laments “being left by the wayside; left with the grass and the clouds and a few dumb animals” (CW, p. 622). “The Artist” in her clearly expects some recognition in the aftermath of her literary rebellion; for whatever reason, she never wrote as daringly again. If she resented being left behind, seemingly forgotten by the literary world, she might have pondered the scribbling women her own fiction endeavored to suppress. For these women's staunch conventionalism not only elicited her break with the past but also, as these three portraits imply, shaped her aesthetic future.


  1. For Chopin's May 4, 1894, diary entry and her June 7, 1899, letter to Herbert S. Stone, see Per Seyersted, ed., A Kate Chopin Miscellany (Natchitoches: Northwestern State Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 89 and 137. Hereafter cited parenthetically as CM. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the American Literature II Section, “Doing a ‘Man's’ Job: Women and the Professions in American Realism” at the MMLA conference, November 1991; my thanks to Tom Quirk for suggestions for revision.

  2. Hawthorne's complete remark was “America is now wholly given over to a d_____d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash—and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.” For his January 19, 1855, letter from Liverpool to William Ticknor, see The Letters, 1853-1856, ed. Thomas Woodson, James A. Rubino, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson, in The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Vol. 17 (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1987), p. 304.

  3. Mary Kelley, Private Woman Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), p. 189.

  4. Susan Coultrap-McQuin, Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1990), p. 198.

  5. Of the two short stories, only “Miss Witherwell's Mistake” appeared during Chopin's lifetime; it was not included in either of her story collections, Bayou Folk (1894) or A Night in Acadie (1897). For the bulk of Chopin's fiction, essays, and poetry, see The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1984), hereafter cited parenthetically as CW.

  6. Barbara Ewell, Kate Chopin (New York: Ungar, 1986), p. 47.

  7. Elizabeth Ammons, Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 4-5. See also Dieter Schulz, “Notes Toward a fin-de-siecle Reading of Kate Chopin's The Awakening,ALR, 25 (Spring 1993), 69-76.

  8. Bernice Slote, ed., The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896 (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1966), p. 409.

  9. Signed “Sibert” [Catherl, “Books and Magazines,” Pittsburgh Leader, July 8, 1899, p. 6; reprinted in Kate Chopin, The Awakening, ed. Margaret Culley (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 153.

  10. According to Chopin's records, the story was rejected by five other publishers before its appearance in Fashion and Fancy; hence Chopin might have revised the story along the way. Her two log books (1888-1902), which date her literary compositions, submissions, rejections, acceptances, and earnings, are at the Missouri Historical Society Archives in St. Louis.

  11. Kelley, p. 190.

  12. Reprinted in Ann Douglas Wood, “The Scribbling Women' and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote,” Hidden Hands: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1790-1870, ed. Lucy M. Freibert and Barbara A. White, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1988), p. 363.

  13. Anonymous, “To Mrs.———,of St. Louis,” St. Louis Life, 2 (November 22, 1890), 9.

  14. Of the six translations recorded in Chopin's log books, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed “The Shape of the Head,” January 25, 1891; “Revival of Wrestling,” March 8, 1891, signed “C”; and “How to Make Manikins” (“Cut-Papier Figures”), April 5, 1891. If the other three were published, they have not been located. See CM, p. 204.

  15. Elaine Showalter, Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 68.

  16. Barbara Solomon, “Characters as Foils to Edna,” in Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening, ed. Bernard Koloski (New York: Modern Language Association, 1988), pp. 114-19.

  17. Chopin had published two stories herself under the pseudonym “La Tour”: “Miss McEnders,” completed March 7, 1892, and published March 6, 1897, in the St. Louis Criterion (CW, p. 1011) and “Fedora,” completed November 19, 1895, and published February 20, 1897, also in the Criterion (CW, p. 1026).

  18. Gouvernail, to whom Chopin gives the famous Swinburne lines at Edna's banquet, also appears in “A Respectable Woman” and “Athenaise.”

  19. Deborah E. Barker, “The Awakening of Female Artistry,” in Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, ed. Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1992), p. 70.

  20. Since Chopin revised this essay several times between 1896 and the version published in the January 1899 Atlantic, presumably her dislike of society functions remained acute.

  21. The story was not published during Chopin's lifetime, but her log book indicates it was to be included in a proposed collection, “A Vocation and a Voice,” which likewise never found a publisher. In November 1898, The Awakening was transferred to Herbert S. Stone & Company, Chicago and New York, and published by them on April 22, 1899.

  22. I read the narrator as female, although Chopin's description is ambivalent. By contrast, Elaine Showalter sees a “male editor, who may be either her nephew or her longtime suitor,” Sister's Choice, p. 158.

  23. Ammons, p. 5.

  24. Ewell, p. 167.

  25. For a superb treatment of the economic distress of nineteenth-century American women writers, see Virginia L. Blum, “Mary Wilkins Freeman and the Taste of Necessity,” AL, 65 (1993), 69-94.

  26. See Ewell, P. 166, who notes that Chopin shared Stock's problems with plot. For Chopin's literary impediments, see her October 1896 essay (published 1899), “In the Confidence of a Story-Writer”, (CW, p. 704), and her November 26, 1899, essay, “On Certain Brisk, Bright Days” CW, p. 722).

  27. I am indebted to an anonymous source for suggesting this nuance in Chopin's story.

  28. Nina Baym, Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978), on women's didacticism and sentimental fiction; see also Kelley and Coultrap-McQuin.

  29. Showalter, pp. 69, 67.

  30. In a May 12, 1894, diary entry, Chopin mentions both Jewett and Freeman: “I know of no one better than Miss Jewett to study for technique and nicety of construction. I don't mention Mary E. Wilkins for she is a great genius and genius is not to be studied. We are unfortunately being afflicted with imitations of Miss Wilkins ad nauseum” (CM, p. 90). Chopin also admired Ruth McEnery Stuart's stories, which sound a “wholesome, human note,” and especially her humor because it has “nothing finical or feminine about it” (CW, p. 711). Chopin credited Mary Halleck Foote with “excellent work” of a “fine literary quality, damaged somewhat by a too conventional romanticism,” but a writer who, nonetheless, “knows her territory.” Chopin also acknowledged the talents of Octave Thanet (Alice French), whose “heart is essentially with the plain, everyday people.” For Chopin's remarks on Foote and Thanet, see Heather Kirk Thomas, “‘Development of the Literary West’: An Undiscovered Kate Chopin Essay,” ALR, 22 (Winter 1990), 71-72.

  31. Some examples of Chopin's more romantic fiction are the stories “Love on the Bon-Dieu” and “A Sentimental Soul”; the one-act play, “An Embarrassing Position”; and her first novel, At Fault. Most critics find her poetry, in general, egregiously sentimental.

  32. For Chopin's trips to New York and Boston in May 1893, see CM, pp. 107-08. For a March 1898 trip to Chicago, see Per Seyersted, “Kate Chopin's Wound: Two New Letters,” ALR, 20 (Fall 1987), 72, and Emily Toth, Kate Chopin (New York: William Morrow, 1990), pp. 305-06. In addition, a clipping from an unidentified newspaper of December 25, 1898 (describing Chopin's recent visit to Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana) claims she planned to spend “the rest of the winter [or the early months of 1899] in New York.” For unknown reasons, Chopin never made this New York excursion. Clipping is in Melrose Scrapbook No. 69, Louisiana Room Archives, Eugene Watson Library, Northwestern Louisiana State University, Natchitoches.

  33. Carolyn Hedbrun, Reinventing Womanhood (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 43.

  34. Completed in January 1902, “Polly” appeared on July 3, 1902, in The Youth's Companion (CW, p. 1029). Chopin's first sale to this magazine was “For Marse Chouchoute,” published on August 20, 1891; she sold at least eleven stories in total (see CW, pp. 1004-29).

  35. Citing the commonly-held belief that “Chopin did not write much after The Awakening because the hostile reviews of the novel devastated her,” Elizabeth Ammons concludes that she is “sure that is true” (p. 75). I argue elsewhere, however, that illness, rather than authorial depression after mixed reviews of her novel, caused Chopin to alter her impressionistic style and thematic focus in the declining years of her life. See Heather Kirk Thomas, “‘What Are the Prospects for the Book?’: Rewriting a Woman's Life,” in Beyond the Bayou, pp. 36-57.

  36. Reproduced from Chopin's May 28, 1894, diary entry, including punctuation errors.

Barbara Claire Freeman (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14614

SOURCE: Freeman, Barbara Claire. “The Awakening: Waking Up at the End of the Line.” In The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women's Fiction, pp. 13-39. Berkley: University of California Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Freeman explores the notion of the sublime in The Awakening.]

The sublime does not so properly persuade us, as it ravishes and transports us, and produces in us a certain Admiration, mingled with Astonishment and with Surprize, which is quite another thing than the barely pleasing, or the barely persuading: that it gives a noble Vigour to a Discourse, an invincible Force, which commits a pleasing Rape upon the very Soul of the Reader.

(John Dennis, The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry)

You can't make a political “program” with it, but you can bear witness to it.—And what if no one hears the testimony, etc.?

(Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend)

Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore.

(Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God)

These waters must be troubled before they can exert th