"Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book", by Elaine Showalter
The Awakening: A Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Nancy Walker, ed. Boston: St. Marten's Press, 1993: 169-189


Reviewed by Elizabeth Thompson


Elaine Showalter's essay, "Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book," which I found in The Awakening: A Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives edited by Nancy Miller and published in 1993*, explores the solitude of Kate Chopin and her character, Edna Pontellier. Showalter argues that "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;" thus, both experience solitude based on their unconventional ideas and practices (171). In other words, Edna Pontellier experiences ultimate solitude through death because of her rejection of culture and society, while Kate Chopin experiences solitude through society's rejection of her work.
In fact, Showalter highlights several interesting issues. She discusses three trends in women's writing in the mid to late nineteenth century, composed of sentimental, local color, and New Women writers. She then hypothesizes on two characters within The Awakening who might serve as "the proto-heroines of sentimental and local color fiction" (182). Representing the sentimental fiction, "Adelle'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" (182). On the other hand, Mademoiselle Reisz' story associated with local color fiction "suggests that Edna will lose her beauty, her youth, her husband, and children-everything, in short, but her art and her pride" (182). Moreover, Edna herself offers an example of a New Women writers' heroine, as she is explicitly sexual and dissatisfied with culture (175). Explaining these types of writing within her essay helps Showalter emphasize how Chopin indeed "breaks away from conventions of literary domesticity" by "writing about women's longing for sexual and personal emancipation," for Edna ultimately follows neither Adelle's nor Mademoiselle Reisz's example (170).
However, while I can appreciate Chopin's creation of a new genre, which describes the "terra incognita of a woman's 'inward life' in all its 'vague, tangled, chaotic' tumult," I do not agree that Edna endeavors to free herself from the roles specifically relegated to women (177). Instead, I agree with Professor Railton when he says this is a novel about all persons' dissatisfaction with cultural constraints. After all, everyone seems to be searching for happiness: Robert flees to Mexico; Leonce focuses on business, money, and sex to a degree; Mademoiselle Reisz, as Prof. Railton says, lives vicariously through Edna's desires; and Adelle spitefully asks Edna to witness her pain. Of these characters, Edna is the only one who refuses to recognize the separation between the romantic and the realistic. She desperately believes in the romantic, and when she realizes "that the day would come when [Robert], too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone," she discards her earthly existence (184). Thus, other characters cope and survive while Edna does not.
Truly, the conflict between reality and fantasy permeates the entire novel. While Showalter argues that Edna struggles with the inequality of the sexes as she dies by thinking of bees and flowers, a "standard trope for the unequal sexual relations between women and men," I read this passage as just one more example the narrator gives of the ever-continuing cycle of life; even while Edna dies, she romantically and symbolically imagines Nature's ability to survive (186-187). Or perhaps the bees and flowers do represent the unequal sexual relations. In that case, Chopin could be generating irony in that, while there is inequality, it is inconsequential because, as in Nature, the purpose of sexual relations is to reproduce and survive.
Furthermore, Chopin ends her story with a drowning that is "the traditional feminine literary death" and "the fictional punishment for female transgression" (186). However, Chopin also seems to create irony here: "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;" therefore, with Edna's inability to cope with "real life," she drowns in her own ability to reproduce (186).
Thus, while I do not believe that Showalter proves that The Awakening is a feminist novel or that Edna recognizes patriarchal culture, she does mention interesting points that may be discussed in the realist/romantic context. I especially appreciate one other remark she makes, which is that "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" (170). As we know, the novel was not widely read, and this quote reminds me of a discussion we had on whether it was necessary and right for an author to write within conventions or boldly attack conventions to state a case. In the context of The Awakening and this article, Showalter points out that if the culture will not accept the work, the revolutionary author may not succeed because "experimentation is retarded and repressed, and it may be several generations before the evolution of the literary genre catches up" (170). Thus, maybe Chesnutt's means of making a statement through known cultural tastes are in fact the more efficient and productive of an author's reaching his/her goal, for The Awakening and Kate Chopin were truly forced into literary solitude, not to be embraced until four decades later.
* I could not find the original date of Showalter's article, but, based on other bibliographical information I found, I believe it was probably written in 1985.

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