Kate Chopin awakening the body

The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published in 1899 was reviled and then ignored for decades after its release. Seen as “unexpected” from a writer of Chopin’s calibre, and controversial in that Chopin did not admonish or judge her main character’s actions – this book was censored and refused in many libraries. Although women’s rights were not a new concept – the suffrage movement was in full swing in America at the time of publication – male and female critics alike focused on the lack of morality in the novel, seemingly scandalized by the notion that women’s rights might include a refusal to rear children or stay in conventionally-prescribed marriages. And also, that it might include “adult sin” such as adultery.

One such representative reviewer said

In a civilized society the right of the individual to indulge all his caprices is, and must be, subject to many restrictive clauses, and it cannot for a moment be admitted that a woman who has willingly accepted the love and devotion of a man, even without an equal love on her part–who has become his wife and the mother of his children–has not incurred a moral obligation which peremptorily forbids her from wantonly severing her relations with him, and entering openly upon the independent existence of an unmarried woman.

The first time I read The Awakening, a couple of years ago, I found myself somewhat annoyed by the character of Edna Pontellier and felt that she represented a particular selfishness of middle-class existence during the late Victorian era. During this same period, unspeakable things were happening to working class people in the United States – only a few years later we have both the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in which dozens of women perished, and the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair which documented the horrific conditions for men and women living in the slaughterhouse district of Chicago. Edna, by comparison lives a life in which all the material things are available to her, and even the basic household work is carried out by the underclass of racialized people in New Orleans. While Edna is very much concerned with her own oppressive existence, she perpetuates that existence on her Quadroon nanny and cook with scolding and angry behaviour, never quite making the parallel between her existence and anyone else. Such are the limitations of early, middle-class feminism.

Since then, I have read quite a few works on this theme – most notably Madame Bovary and Henrik Ibsen’s The Dollhouse and so tried to approach the work this time with understanding the context in which Kate Chopin wrote her novel. In particular, an interview with Charlotte Perkins Gilman in response to why she wrote the story The Yellow Wallpaper gave me some insight into how the stifilling of women’s ability to work – particularly intellectual and creative work – created a kind of frustration and borderline madness. Certainly the character in that short story is imprisoned by a husband who believes she needs rest for her nervous condition, so is Edna imprisoned by the restrictions of social conventions while her own interests are seen as incidental to what’s important in the family life. As Madame Reisz points out, to break from this conventionality – the artist must have tremendous courage – “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.”

The Awakening is a book rich in literary language – and some particularly rich themes are found in narrative messaging regarding the body and nature. Smoking, the creative arts, and the portrayal of children also offer us some avenues of analysis – but for now – I am just going to focus on the body as it prefigures the modern feminism of the 1960s and 70s.

In The Awakening the body underscores Edna’s position in her partnerships, in her society and in her own conflict.

From the very opening scene of the book, Edna’s body is viewed as a possession of the husband – her burned skin looked upon by him as “a valuable piece of property which has suffered some damage.” This is a none-to-subtle positioning of Edna as object, later echoed in Leonce’s fascination with his other material belongings in the home.

Another central focus on the body takes place as Edna and Adele Ratignolle are making their way to the beach. It has already been established that Adele is a mother-woman and Edna is not – but here we get a description of the women that contrasts the distinctions even more clearly. “The women were both of goodly height, Madame Ratignolle possessing the more feminine and matronly figure. The charm of Edna Pontellier’s physique stole insensibly upon you. The lines of her body were long, clean and symmetrical.” (Chapter 7) Following the rest of the paragraph we get the sense that Edna is somewhat androgynous physically, yet still attractive (unlike Madamoiselle Reisz who is described in the most unflattering physical terms).

Much is made of hunger and food in the book – a physical hunger mirrored by Edna’s emotional hunger – she is depicted as being ravenous in at least two instances (upon waking one the Caminada Cheniere, and upon leaving Alcee Arobin after Madame Hightower’s dinner) that are closely linked with her physical and emotional adultery.

Likewise, a central bodily symbol is clothing which is mentioned throughout the book. What Edna wears, what she is comfortable in (dining in a peignoir for example), and finally her act of standing naked on the beach “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. How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious!” Prior to this she has a vision of a naked man, and the clothing of both men and women throughout the book is commented on as intrinsic to their characters.

I have appended some notes about the symbolic use of nature at the bottom of this article – for another literary look, but I want to leave this off with some  reflection on the central conflict of Edna’s tale. This is expressed early on in Chapter 7 when Chopin reflects of Edna – “At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions”. This can also be understood as the schism between the soul’s yearning and the physical conventions to which we all adhere. A counter-point to this is found in the many musings about the artist and the artistic temperament which arise from the character of Mademoiselle Reisz. This character is probably as important to the narrative as Edna Pontellier herself, as Reisz demonstrates that another life is possible for women – if somewhat unpalatable (from Edna’s perspective certainly). While Edna does not want to be “owned” she also does not want to be “outside” as Mademoiselle Reisz for the most part is. As Mademoiselle herself comments “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….. The brave soul. The soul which dares and defies.” (Chapter 21)

Ultimately Edna is not able to dare and defy, recognizing that she will be drawn back into her husband’s home if she cannot support herself physically or emotionally. Society and money hamper her from being able to resolve the conflict satisfactorily – and she finds even the struggle to do so exhausting – ultimately resulting in her final choices on the beach.

Notes on Nature

Nature is probably the most obvious source of symbol in The Awakening – birds, the sea, the beach, grasses and flowers, and domesticated plants all serve to reveal some aspect of Edna’s world and inner struggle.

Focusing here on the Sea – Edna’s source of emancipation (in learning to swim) and also the location of her suicide – the sea is described variously as — melting, sonorous, murmuring, loving, full of imperative entreaty, seductive, never ceasing, inviting, sensuous, enfolding the body in a soft close embrace, as speaking to the soul. The Sea also mimics the states of the characters – when Edna confides in Adele at the beach the sea is being whipped into a froth, when they all leave the dinner table for a late-night swim the sea is lazy and painted like a dream. When Edna is opened by music “her very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body.” Water, of course has birth and death connotations which Chopin draws on throughout the novel.

Besides the sea, setting locations are key to Edna’s internal states – if the sea is the location of emancipation and release, the beach is a site of openness and frankness, the cottages and the city are sites of oppressive conventionality. The women are freer with each other on the beach, particularly when their children and husbands are elsewhere. Once they re-enter the city, only Madameoiselle Reisz remains an open confidant, as she lives outside of the bounds all the time.

Birds also figure prominently in the narrative – from the opening scene with the parrot and mockingbird, to the end with a bird flying overhead Edna on the beach – one wing broken. A particularly poignant passage is found in the advice Edna relays from Mademoiselle Reisz – “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.

One Comment on “Kate Chopin awakening the body

  1. This was very thoughtful and eye-opening for me, as I originally was more unexpansive-minded in my appreciation for the story – I liked it for what it was, not considering the time frame of other, general social unrest – and whether Edna was actually very talented at all. (But I suppose the crux of the matter is she was not able to develop her talents). And I liked the sheer quality of the writing despite that grating sort of ‘well-accomodated-ness” (for lack of a better word at the moment) that underscored Edna’s dilemma (eg. the small house she retreated to in her rebellion was also owned by her husband; she was fairly indifferent to her children’s childrearing, existing in what appeared at times to be a soft, comfortable daze while many other people took care of the work). Now I am compelled to go back to the story and re-read it as well as explore other various accounts of events of that era. Such tumultuous times. Though I suppose they always are 🙂

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