First Chopin Lecture

Generation of writers after Civil War = generation of Realists. Twain, James, Howells -- committed to weaning readers from conventions and idealizations of literary romance. But American literary realism in general very "shy" when it came to the reality of sex, the "facts of life" (I'm quoting "shy" from what James says on the middle of p. 655 in our anthology).

Not Kate Chopin. In The Awakening she tries hard to avoid offending late 19th-century American readers, treats her subject with euphemism & tact, says "neck" & "throat," for ex, instead of "breasts," &c. But her novel about a married woman's discovery of her sexuality simply too much for Americans at the time. Like Daisy Miller, she had gone "too far." Novel ostracized, unread and (except for a small edition in 1906) out of print from its publication in 1899 to 1964.

Since 1964, more & more widely reprinted & read. But to me, read in wrong context -- ours, as "feminist" novel about Edna as victim of oppressive patriarchal culture. Context in which I'll talk about it -- as "realist" novel about collision between Edna's romantic desires & actual circumstances. I know this is an unpopular way to read the novel, so I tried to be persuasive without being contentious, & in any case you don't have to accept my interpretation . . .

I started, though, by saying I thought the case for Chopin as Edna's partisan has to essentially overlook the novel itself, ignoring how Chopin tells her protagonist's story & the distance both the narrative & the narrator keep from Edna. I started with the way the novel itself describes Edna's marriage (p. 693) -- not as a result of coercive structures of patriarchal society, but rather as a product of Edna's various "infatuations," her "fancy," & her youthful rebellion against her father -- all of which "we" are presumed mature enough both to understand & patronize. I went on from that passage to look at how novel organized around familiar realist axis, "world of reality"/"realm of romance & dreams." And at how the narrator's style, perspective, eye constantly keep track of the realities that Edna's fantasies lead her to long to escape from. And at way (like Mark Twain with Tom Sawyer & his books, or James with Daisy's romantic moonlit evening in the Colisseum) Chopin's novel is an unwriting of romance, &c. We looked, for example, at rhythm of fantasies being exploded by reality, as at end of Chapter 14 and beginning of Chapter 15.

To me Awakening is obviously indebted to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Emma, whose two lovers, Leon & Rudolphe, have a lot in common with Edna's Robert & Alcee. But (again to me!) Awakening more insightful than Bovary. Like Mark Twain or Howells, Flaubert seems to believe that unrealistic ideas & longings are created by literary romance, so if people didn't read, for ex, Walter Scott, they'd be more "realistic." Chopin's point: that romantic texts are created by human longings, frustrations, desires. Where Flaubert puts Emma's reading (which is a lot like Tom Sawyer's), Chopin puts "the voice of the sea" (p. 689 and so on).

This got me talking about the other style inside Chopin's narrative, the lyrical passages where the same sea that arouses Edna's longing for "life's delirium" amidst all the "maladies of the quotidian" speaks directly to us. As much as Chopin is using reality to keep Edna's quest in a larger perspective, she's also using Edna, and her desire for fulfillment, to explore the price adulthood in society exacts of all of us. That's the issue I'll start with Friday.

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