"The Second Coming of Aphrodite", by Sandra M. Gilbert
Modern Critical Views: Kate Chopin, New York: Chelsea House
Publishers, 1987: 89-113.
Reviewed by Bianca Roters
Gilbert begins her reading of Chopin's novel with a dinner party scene which has been often neglected by
many critics who, like Lawrence Thornton, focus more on the
novel as a "political romance". Gilbert questions and redefines the assumption of the novel as a merely realistic
work and concentrates on the symbolic structure of the novel which alludes to a fairy tale or a romance, especially in its language, images and allusions. According
to Gilbert, the novel not only depicts and revises fin de siècle's art of living but also suggests a feminist reading of Edna's development throughout the novel in which she is born as a new Aphrodite, a powerful goddess of love and art. In variation to Wolff's reading of Edna's fantasy as an expression of a split personality, Gilbert interprets the fantastic elements in the novel as part of a whole fantasy novel in itself and a vision what would have happened to a woman claiming self assurance and independence in the reality of the 19th century.
Starting with the opening scene of the novel at
a seaside resort, Gilbert notes the objectification of Edna
through her husband Léonce who views his wife as a valuable thing to possess. Though most of the novel is narrated from
Edna's point of view, this scene already at the beginning introduces the main motifs Gilbert concentrates on: objects, activities, figures, places and crucial relationships which all serve a specific symbolic function.
Chopin not only places her character in this so-called "Women's sphere" but also in the tradition of English female writers like Jane Austen. Thus, Edna's awakening becomes twofold: domestic and prosaic. On her way to escape
her fate in domesticity, Edna liberates herself from real, physical and spiritual confinement. Ultimately, the novel becomes a record of Edna's visionary awakenings. According to Gilbert, Chopin purposely positions her heroine in a female colony in which the fragmentation of middle-class women's culture becomes obvious.
The summer colony is controlled by certain rules of behavior which determine and shape Edna's quest for the fulfillment of her desire. Important in Gilbert's interpretation are the images of the sea out of which Chopin's Aphrodite will be born, apparently positioned outside patriarchal society and constantly on her quest for
an alternative theology, as Gilbert puts it. Thus, Edna's swimming is not only viewed as an escape from social constraints but also as a meeting with the other, her counterpart through which she is reborn, as a person and a literary figure, pointing at feminist modernism.
Gilbert reads Edna's stay with Robert on a nearby island in the context of a feminist mythology in which religious instruction, together with rituals of bathing, sleeping and feasting transforms Edna into the goddess of Aphrodite. Encouraged to encounter her other -independent and autonomous self, Edna revolutionarily attempts to destroy the props of her domesticity. Her way to self-definition reaches its climax at the dinner party already mentioned at the beginning. The article suggests a very religious reading of the scene, namely a symbol for the Last Supper in which Edna's autonomy, self-responsibility and subjectivity reach its peak and during which she realizes her instrumentality in the net of
people she is surrounded with. Thus, her only solution to escape and be her own, true self is the sea. Gilbert not only reads Edna's last swim as suicide but also as a resurrection of the new Aphrodite Edna has transformed into.
Of course, Gilbert is aware of the combination of mythical and realistic reading of the novel and positions Chopin's novel in the realm of other writers like
Whitman and Emily Dickinson in their emphasis on the individual self. Moreover, Chopin was a contemporary of Isadora Duncan and Jane Ellen Harrison whose paintings and dances often alluded to ancient mythology like the goddess Aphrodite. Influenced by these intertextualities in their broadest sense, Gilbert positions Chopin into the realm of feminist confidence expressed in art.
Our reading of the novel in class is to some extent opposed to such a feminist reading of the novel since it presupposes that the writer Chopin and the character Edna correlate in the novel. Instead, we read the
novel as writing against such a congruence and especially explored the distance of the novel from Edna's passionate emotions.
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