By: Kate Chopin
The story that I chose to focus on was The Awakening by Kate Chopin. This was a revolutionary novel that focused mainly on the themes of marriage, infidelity, and sexual freedom. When The Awakening first was published, it received an array of criticisms. Some were extremely positive. For example, literary historian Van Wyck Brooks deemed it to be “one small, perfect book that mattered more than the whole life work of many a prolific writer”(Gibbons, vii). Even today, this book is considered a classic work among many. But all the reactions to this novel were not positive. It was considered by some to be taboo and even explicit. For example, the St. Louis Daily Globe said, “It is not a healthy book. If it points any particular moral or teaches any lesson, the fact is not apparent” ( St Louis Daily Globe Democrat 13 May 1899). Literature magazine echoed this idea, calling it “…an essentially vulgar book” ( Literatur e 4 23 June 1899). This is extremely similar to some of the reactions first given to the short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, as well as other stories that were considered shocking at the time of publication.
To focus my report, I will be looking at three main topics. These include: Edna's personal awakening, the idea of “The Madwoman in the Attic”, and finally, a closer look at Edna's “suicide” at the end of the novel. To start, I will look at what I saw to be Edna's own awakening within the story. In their book No Man's Land: Vol. 2, Sexchanges , Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar recognize a change in Edna as well when they say, “At the novel's start, Edna's awakening is both domestic and prosaic. She awakened from the romantic dreams of girlhood first to find herself a married woman, and then to find the meaning of marriage is quite different from what she expected” (100). They then go on to remark about how Edna is awakening to “her domestic confinement” (101). Almost immediately, we find that Edna is evolving and becoming truly aware of what her situation truly is.
Some important issues contributed to this ‘awakening'. According to Gilbert and Gubar, men of this time were allowed to be social, traveling, and working. But women, especially of this social standing, were often isolated in their homes. But this story presents us with a much different scenario. Here, Edna is living on the vacation island of Grand Isle . This becomes a sort of community of women, often left alone together all week while the husbands worked. This allowed Edna to learn from and socialize with other women, which helped her better understand the power of her femininity. Also, part of her changing can be seen in the way she turns away from her religion. Gilbert and Gubar say, “She has abandoned the suffocation of the traditional Christian (that is, patriarchal) theology for the rituals of an alternative (female and feminist) religion” (105).
As Edna says herself, she “begins daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (Ch.19). Throughout this story, we see a lot of instances of role-reversal. I immediately noticed how she didn't come across as the “typical” mother and wife. For instance, she often tells her husband to “go away” if he was bothering her, as well as she will play with her children for a short time, but then send them of with the nursemaid. In her book Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing , Elaine Showalter observes this as well, saying “Edna is a robust woman who doesn't deny her appetites” (72). At one point, we see Edna at the home of a guest, and, finding herself hungry after her nap, she discovers some bread in the kitchen and “bit a piece from the crusty brown loaf, tearing it with her strong, white teeth. She poured some of the wine into the glass, and drank it down” ( Ch. 13). It seems to me that as Showalter said, Edna doesn't deny her physical appetites, whether they are sexual or sensual in nature. Also, we find Edna painting, gambling, and visiting horse races. All of these seem to be an attempt from Edna to further define her self as a strong, independent woman.
The next idea that I will look at is the concept of “The Madwoman in the Attic”. This is a title of a book written by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. In the preface of this book, they define the “madwoman” to be “the dark double who haunted many 19 th century women writers, who are artists trapped in the architecture of patriarchal society and confined by male-devised literary conventions”. They go on a bit later to discuss “patriarchal poetry” (7). They say that within this type of poetry, women are always portrayed as either “angels”, for attractive women who behave as they should, or as “monsters”, unattractive females who act outside of expected manners (17).
According to Gilbert and Gubar, it is debilitating for women, especially creative women, to live in a society that stresses these expectations. They say that the stress caused by this can actually make women physically and mentally ill. These illnesses include hysteria, anorexia, and agoraphobia (53). To tie this idea into Edna's story, I looked at a passage from the book, located in Chapter 22. Here, we find Mr. Pontellier consulting with a doctor named Dr. Mandelet. Mr. Pontellier is telling the doctor how he wishes him to visit his wife, for she seems to be acting strangely. When asked about her behaviors, Mr. Pontellier responds, “Well, it isn't easy to explain. She lets the housekeeping go to the dickens.” He then goes on to mention how Edna has “some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women…” When presented with this, the doctor laughs, and as “Has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women—super-spiritual superior beings?” It is obvious the degree of scorn with which the doctor says this. It is also clear at this point that within this story, these men see any attempt at independence or enlightenment by women as laughable or as a mental illness.
While reading “The Madwoman in the Attic” and some of the ideas I pointed out, I was reminded of a critical article in our textbook that I reported on. It was called “Convention Coverage or How to Read Your Own Life” by Jean E. Kennard. In it, Kennard says, “if the images of woman as child, cripple, or prisoner are the images men had if women and hence women had of themselves, it is not surprising that madness and suicide bulk large in the work of 19 th century writers” (332). Elaine Showalter furthers this point in her book A Literature of Their Own by noting how “many women writers of this time found it difficult to finish their books or to write more than one. In this time period, female suicides became conspicuous for the first time” (194).
The idea of female suicide brings me to my final and last topic, being Edna's suicide. Here, we find Edna returning to Grand Isle. It says that she feels a great sense of despondency. Edna is found thinking that “there was one thing in the world she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her, except for Robert, and she even realized that the day would come when he too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence and leave her alone” (Ch. 39). It seemed to me at this point that Edna had lost all hope for the future, as well as the excitement of her everyday living.
Edna continues to walk down to the shoreline, and strip naked. This idea of females stripping themselves of their clothing seems to be a reoccurring theme in literature of this time. One example is the short story I read earlier this semester by Sherwood Anderson, titled “Adventure”. In it, the female character feels confined and cheated of life experiences. This leads to a breakdown of sorts, where the woman strips off her clothes and runs in a rain storm. It seems to me this is an attempt at empowerment, a way of revealing one's true self to the world that so often confined them. Edna thinks 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” (Ch.39).
After stripping, Edna began to enter the ocean, noting how the foamy waves “coiled like serpents around her ankles”. This was an extremely symbolic passage for me. It first made me think of the story of Adam and Eve, and how Eve gave into the temptations by the devil, which was portrayed a snake. Perhaps it was meant to show how Edna can be seen as an Eve-like character, whose attempt at rebellion leads to darkness and death. Also, as soon as the “serpents” were mentioned, I had the feeling something bad and tragic was about to occur. In many novels and stories, serpents, like I said previously, are symbols of the devil and wickedness, and often omens of things to come.
Edna begins to wade farther out into the ocean. As the text reads, “she did not look back now, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end” (Ch.39). She soon begins to tire of swimming. The text also notes that she thinks of her husband and children. She says, “They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought they could possess her, body and soul.” Exhaustion overpowers her, and she eventually drowns out in the sea.
This final passage leads to an interesting debate among readers and literary critics alike. For an example, I looked at the critical essay entitled “Edna's Suicide: The Problem of the One and the Many” by Suzanne Wolkenfeld. In this essay, Wolkenfeld examines some the positive and negative feedback on the topic of Edna's suicide. According to the author, some had some very high views of Edna's final gesture. For example, Kenneth Eble and Per Seyersted both proclaim the nobility of Edna's achievements as well as the “heroic grandeur” of her suicide. Seyersted notes that her suicide was a sort of “spiritual emancipation”, and the act is the “crowning glory of her development” (242). On the opposite end, many had extremely negative views of Edna's character after her suicide. For example, George M. Spangler regards Edna's suicide as “a pathetic defeat that is inconsistent with the depiction of her previous strength and achievements” (242). He goes on to say the novel's ending is a result of “feminine self-pity” (210).
I found both sides of the debate over Edna's suicide to be a bit extreme. This idea is echoed in the views of Kenneth M. Rosen, when he speaks of the “purposeful ambiguity” of the ending of the novel (243). This is something that I picked up on when I first read the novel. To me, the death of Edna came as a bit of a shock. I was left thinking, “Did she kill herself purposely or was this an accident?” Right before she takes what turns out to be her final walk down to the beach, the last thing she says to Mariequita and Victor is “I hope you have fish for dinner” (Ch. 39) To me, this insinuated that Edna had planned to be present for that night's dinner. Also, while swimming out, as I mentioned earlier, she connected it to an early childhood memory, where she was running through a field that seemingly had “no beginning and no end”. It seems to me that Edna got lost in the moment, in the thrill of testing her absolute limits, and when she does finally realize how far she is out in the sea, gives up her struggle. “…but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone” (Ch.39)
Wolkenfeld seems to echo many of my impressions. She says that “Edna's suicide is not a conscious choice”, and note how the text claims that Edna was “not thinking as she walked down to the beach” (246). Her going to the “sensuous, embracing” sea, it is almost as if Edna is returning to a symbolic womb for a sort of rebirth. In the text, we find how after Edna stripped herself naked, she felt like “some new-born creature”. Wolkenfeld also notes how her final thoughts are childhood memories, “to her first fantasy lover, and to a walk into the meadow of infinity” (246).
It seems as though the debate over the issue of Edna's suicide may never be solved. Opinions vary from reader to reader. In a sort of response to these issues, the author herself, Kate Chopin writes: “In short, 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…But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in the tumult!” (244).
Culley, Margo, ed. The Awakening: A Norton Critical Edition . New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.
Gibbons, Kaye, ed. The Awakening and Other Stories . New York : Random House Inc., 2000.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: Volume 1, The War of the Words. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1988.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: Volume 2, Sexchanges . New Haven : Yale University Press, 1989.
Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1979.
Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own. New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 1977.
Showalter, Elaine. Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing. New York : Oxford University Press, 1991.