Second Chopin Lecture
In Wednesday's class, I emphasized how KC uses "reality" to comment on Edna's desires. Today, I started with how KC uses Edna's longings to comment on reality, including the "reality" that culture constructs. "Mrs. Pontelier was an American woman" -- i.e. an outsider in the Creole culture, which is like the way Twain uses Huck, or even more recognizably, James uses Daisy ("an American girl"). As an outsider, Edna is less acculturized, maybe even, as "Protestant," more determined to find meaningful inner life than "Catholics," who find themselves through rituals of society. Novel exposes the partiality of those rituals. Begins, for example, with an animal in a cage, doing the same thing over and over -- and then reveals way adult life in society is largely summed up in that symbol: repetitions, encagements, frustrations and sublimations.
Leonce seems perfect in role of husband, if you think husband = just a role (as apparently he does), but it's not only clear that he cannot satisfy the longings of Edna's spirit or body, it's also clear from details that he's frustrated himself (cf. the bedtime scenes between him and her). As are the two women who represent opposite possibilities within this culture: Adele, the "mother-woman," and Mlle. Riesz, the "artist" figure. Adele's hypochondria, dramatization of her body, and Mlle. R's craving for chocolate & similar desire vicariously, & even a bit vampirish-ly, to feed off Edna's aroused passions, indicate how neither extreme (conformist Adele or individualist Mlle R) leads to satisfaction. But except for Edna, all the characters find ways to sublimate their frustration. She refuses or rebels against this partial life.
So back to Edna's quest. I always respond very powerfully to it, but find it hard to say exactly what it's for. To me -- she's not questing for self-expression; if that, has her art, her painting. Nor for freedom -- compared to every other 19th century treatment of theme of woman who is "unfaithful," Awakening striking for way it doesn't have "society" come down on Edna; in fact, she's given more and more space as story proceeds (husband to NYC, children off to mother-in-law's, own house, even own potential career as painter). Nor for identity -- instead, to me, significant that when she first learns to swim, she's looking for the "unlimited" in which to "lose herself." Questing for "delirium," ecstasy, the "beloved one" (cf. p. 749) who'll take her to a realm beyond longing.
Edna's "flight" as a fleeing from, a regression -- & way novel associates her quest with "childhood" from beginning (esp. that field in which she walked as a child running away). But this leads straight to novel's most pointed, even painful structural and thematic irony: the parallel between Edna's quest and Adele's next baby -- both begin at same time, and novel's climax occurs when, just after Edna tells Robert that now that they love each other "nothing else is of any consequence" (765), Chopin forces her & reader to confront the "Natural," inevitable consequences of romantic passion -- children, motherhood, adult roles and responsibilities. The scene of Adele's labor probably most graphic account of childbirth in 19th century American lit, and it forces the "child" in Edna to confront the inevitability of "adulthood."
That Edna is in revolt "against the ways of Nature," and so cannot win, does not, however, make her quest any less powerful, compelling. Sea is seductive even at end, when it drowns her. In last chapter novel tries to keep its distance -- through irony, symbol, point of view -- but it also does suggest that Edna finds some satisfaction at last, in death. To some, ending = victory of her spirit (like way Huck lighting out for territory can be read). To me, the narrative presents her more as a parent running away from her children -- i.e. not heroic, but human. And why is Chopin writing it? Way Edna's nakedness at end reveals what people typically keep repressed, hidden, disguised -- I don't think Chopin is saying we can live without the cage, but rather writing to get her contemporaries to see, to begin to deal with, what they've put in the cage. The novel dramatizes the conflict between civilization & its discontents without suggesting that conflict can be resolved, but I suggested that Edna's last fully conscious thought -- "perhaps Dr. Mandelet might have understood" -- leads to project of the Realist novel: to tell the truth about what culture evades or represses. Edna never talked with Dr. Mandelet, but by reading novel we see the truth about our inner selves that society denies and that Edna enacts.