Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

[A short note of housekeeping. I often fail to give even a cursory synopsis of the plots and characters of the books I talk about, and I imagine this may be vaguely frustrating. I'll try to amend things a little by linking to the Wikipedia page for the novel if it contains an adequate summary, or to a review somewhere if not. Here's The Awakening. Also, here is the webpage for the Kate Chopin International Society, which has loads of great information about Chopin and her work.]

I think this book is most often taught in high school courses, which is admirable, since its subtlety and grace is probably lost on most teenagers. Perhaps some of it is even lost on me. But at any rate, I'm tempted to ask if it isn't wasted on high schoolers, or even on college kids, since I think it is often taught there as well.

I don't wonder why educators have come to see The Awakening as a valuable text for this age-range. There are very considerable advantages which make it appealing—it's short, it's written very well and very evenly, and it's quite compelling, even suspenseful when you get involved with the characters. It also feels a good twenty, maybe thirty years newer than its 1899 publication date, a temporal jump which is much more substantial than from say, 1869 or 1879 to 1899. And the themes commonly invoked when teaching or interpreting the novel are accessible, very coherent, and make for rich discussion.

So I suppose in almost every important way it's an ideal novel for teaching these age groups. But I also found it to be more than ideal, as it has depths which are difficult to bring out in a classroom, or for that matter, a blog post.

What I mean to say is that Chopin's novel does things which need to be read rather than described. Part of it is the way interiority and exteriority shift into one another or stand in conflict with one another, or the way one or the other become blocked to the reader or to a character. And by interiority and exteriority, I mean both physical and mental/emotional spaces and surfaces inhabited by the character and rendered for the reader.

Chopin is masterful at suddenly shutting the reader out to a character's consciousness but simultaneously offering a telling but inconsequential physical gesture or word that reveals more than access to the character's thoughts or emotions. Sure, there are melodramatic moments of blocky overdetermination as well, but they are awfully well-balanced by the subtlety of these minute flickers between the character's interiority and exteriority.

The physical side of this interior/exterior dialectic is less prone to fluctuating and a little bit more straight-up symbolic. Four contests of wills take place between Edna and her husband Léonce, and all are predicated on and are acted out by conflicts of access to or control of exteriors and/or interiors. The first is when Léonce comes back late after he grumpily took off to play billiards at his club and now finds his son has a fever. He reprimands Edna, who bursts out of the room onto the porch to cry, but is driven back in by mosquitoes. The second instance also begins when Léonce returns home late, this time to find Edna asleep outside in a hammock. She wants to remain out and sleep there, he will not have this and smokes a lung-collapsing number of cigars waiting for her to come inside. She eventually concedes, but this struggle, compounded with the previous encounter provokes more and more vigorous acts of resistance from Edna over the rest of the novel.

The third contest occurs when Edna refuses to leave New Orleans to attend her sister's wedding in Kentucky, an absence which would coincide with her husband's business trip to New York. Edna refuses to give up the small amount of control and freedom she has claimed—particularly her ability to walk about the town at leisure and to paint or draw indoors. Her husband settles the matter by dropping in on the sister's wedding himself on his way to NY. The last significant contest of wills takes place when Edna decides to vacate the large family house in New Orleans and repair to a small, apparently shabby house nearby. She informs her husband, who's still in New York, of her intention and throws a lavish dinner party at his expense. Léonce, fearful that a vacant house will start a rumor that his finances have dwindled, immediately acts from New York to order repairs made to the house which are carried on in a very public and ostentatious manner. Edna accepts this action and remains in her "pigeon house."

In all these confrontations, we see power relations as part of life, as part of basic spatial experience. It's done tremendously well—not just because it's done subtly, but because it's done convincingly. Chopin's characters try to control spaces or try to leave or enter spaces for compelling reasons, and Chopin makes clear the reasons they can or cannot fulfill their desires.

In short, The Awakening is a novel that frustrates the kind of criticism which argues that a truly great novel transcends bald identity themes and issues, the kind of thinking that says great literature is ethereally pure, genderless. The Awakening doesn't shy away from polemical readings; rather, it demonstrates how polemicized issues like gender are intrinsically part of our most basic relations in life, but also intrinsically part of the most basic relations of character and setting.


Andrea said...

Mythology is simply defined as stories about a set of principles, beliefs, and religion. Although not traditionally considered a myth, Kate Chopin’s bildungsroman novella, The Awakening, shares some similarities to mythological writings. Chopin’s piece is the narration of a woman who breaks free of society’s ignorant restrictions. The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, listens to her heart instead of the strict Créole community in which she belongs. This results in a major dissension between her and her friends and family. After thoroughly dissecting Chopin’s work, many aspects of mythology can be found within the text. Although every facet of mythology is not present within this controversial novella, these stories of oral tradition and The Awakening do overlap in various areas including: the use of symbolism, representation of worldview, and presentation of social structures. The intense incorporation of symbolism integrated throughout the text is extremely relatable to the constant use of metaphors found in mythology. Just as the birds are used to represent Edna’s struggle within her community, myths are hardly ever found without some sort of symbol to display societal issues or creation motifs. The representation of a worldview is another aspect which is almost always present within a myth. Gender roles, sexuality, creation motifs, and the roles of gods are just a few other examples of the many different areas that myths aided in explaining. This is like The Awakening because the novella displays the worldview of the oppression of women. The goal of myths are often to preserve the traditions and social norms of ancient cultures. The goal of myths are often to preserve the traditions and social norms of ancient cultures. The non-western belief of matrilinial societies is the goal that the Edna is striving for, although she fails, due to the fact she is one individual attempting to lead a revolution in a tradition based community. Although the social structures of The Awakening may not fit perfectly into a myths paradigm, it is obvious that The Awakening may someday be considered a myth to future generations.

David said...

That is a very interesting analysis. I would have never considered The Awakening to relate to mythology, but your comment has a lot of validity to it. Chopin's novella overflows with symbolism, something that mythology is known to have. Your example of the symbolism of birds is very true and plays a big role in Chopin's work. Very interesting insight you have provided here.

Britnee said...

Although you have a good idea here, I feel like you wouldn't be able to supply enough proof to support your claim. Mythology is about the ancient Greeks, not about feminism and societal restrictions. Your statement is hard to believe until good evidence is provided.

Andrea said...

The relation between The Awakening and mythology is one that allows speculation, however, it is impossible to deny some of the similarities between the two. Anyone who has read The Awakening knows that symbolism is a major rhetorical strategy utilized by Chopin. Likewise, myths, from all regions not only Greece, are often primarily composed of symbolism and metaphors. Also, a defining characteristic of myths is the representation of social and cosmological structure in a figurative manner. Chopin's The Awakening does a fine job in introducing the up and coming social structure of the world. Although this novella was controversial when first published, readers today are confused about the heavy restrictions placed on woman. It is clear that the worldview and attitudes described are ones from that time period, just like those displayed in myths.

Anonymous said...

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