Thursday, June 24, 2010

Who would bear the whips and scorns of time?

Current book: The Awakening
Pages read: 137 - 176 (end)

Well, in the end, Robert comes back, if only briefly. Alcée Arobin has, in the meantime, managed to kiss Edna. She is dismayed to find her physical passion kindled at the kiss, regardless of the fact that no love lies behind it. (She is so ready, in other words, to have her world opened and made exciting and different and new that she doesn't need the purity of love or real emotion to do it. The simple physical novelty of arousal is enough. (Ten bucks says the critics of the period were pretty ticked off about that little notion.)) Nothing more comes of it.

Upon his first returning, Robert avoids Edna, but eventually they meet several times by accident, and she discovers that he left, as suspected, because he was in love with her. They end up at her house, smitten with each other and professing their mutual love, but she has to leave for the evening to attend to a dying friend. She exhorts him to wait for her, and he agrees. When she finally comes back, in the small hours of the morning, Edna finds Robert gone. He has left only a note that reads "I love you. Goodby - because I love you." The next day, Edna takes the boat back to Grand Isle, where she drowns herself in the ocean.

So, the real question is, does Edna have any real agency? If you're not an English major, let me explain the literary concept of agency. Basically, it is a character's will and ability to change his or her life - to make choices and follow them through with specific intent. When you ask if a character has agency, you're asking whether he or she is moved by circumstance, or if he or she moves him or herself. It's easy to write Edna off and say that she killed herself because Robert would not love her, but it's simply not true. Chopin makes a point of having Edna realize that though she feels that Robert is the only one in the world worth living for, the only one who can understand her need to be herself, she will eventually tire of him. He is not, then, the reason that she kills herself.

What is? Again, it'd be easy to write it off as simple depression - to call Edna unbalanced and leave it at that. But she's struggling with trying to be the real person that she is, and she realizes, in the end, that it is impossible to do so in her position in the world. So here's where the question of agency comes in. Does she have agency because she takes matters into her own hands, and, knowing that she can never be herself, ends the agony of a false existence? Does she have agency because she throws off the needs of her husbands and, especially, children and kills herself despite them? (Edna maintains, to a friend, that she would die for her children, but she will not lose her sense of self for them. It's rather an excellent point, actually, and one that some modern mothers could stand to take into account.) Or is she robbed of agency by the society that has forced her hand, made her kill herself because there is no other option? Is she robbed of agency, in other words, because there is no way out of her situation, and she has had to choose what she considers the best of bad options? I suppose my answer is that it's a matter of degrees. Does she have more agency than the women who accept their lot and bow to the confines of society? Certainly. Would she have had more agency if she had simply gone out on her own, like Nora Helmer? Indeed. But then again, is it realistic that she would have been able to function on her own, with little money? She might have, but she's not independent enough a character for that. She is, after all, still the flawed and histrionic woman she has always been; she needs, in a way, to be taken care of. It's simply that she also deserves a chance to realize who she really is.

There is a moment, just before her suicide, when she stands naked on the beach. Chopin makes a point of the fact that it is the first time she has ever been outside and naked. That thought alone was enough to sway my sympathies completely to Edna's side. To stand naked and feel the sun and wind on your skin and know that you can never have it again, if you go back to the life you are considering leaving behind? It's reason enough to walk into the ocean.

Superbly worthy of the list, in my opinion. This book raises a thousand questions and provides few, if any, comfortable answers.

Also, guest post time again!

Guest post from Fish
Chapters 1 - 23

I read The Awakening in High School at some point, and resented having to do so. I think I knew, deep down, I was too young and untrammeled to understand much of what was going on in Edna Pontellier, and it irritated me. With the impatience of youth I dismissed it wholecloth, and I remember how utterly I had failed to predict the ending, which added to my impatience. It seemed to come out of nowhere and for no reason.

Now, married, more educated, unemployed and having had to compromise my share of dreams, Edna is a much more sympathetic character for me, and now the end seems not just persistently foretold in the prose, but inevitable. What I do not identify with in Edna is her inability to self-analyze, but I have that philosophers' sickness and have spent perhaps too much of my life under my own microscope and could benefit from a little personal blindness sometimes.

Though, I am still of one mind with Edna and my teenaged self - I am not the mothering kind, and surely I felt the horror Chopin meant to evoke in this passage, though in her own life it was surely taken as shots over the bow:
The motherwomen seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.
I also adored the deliberate callousness of not disclosing the names of the Pontellier children until chapter 14.

Kate Chopin's prose is frequently spare, almost brusque at times. I found it brisk and refreshing, like quick moving stream (a freshet, if you ask Cather), and whatever brief unpleasantness encountered or experienced by Edna is soon whisked away. Her growing infatuation with Robert Lebrun is almost titillating in its tameness; I often reread flirtatious passages just to savor their understatement.

I cheated and read Claire's post, even though I told myself I wouldn't. I agree that Edna is meant to have ambiguity, but I also think to a certain extent she is trying to become nothing more than an instrument of feeling. I'm frustrated that her unrest with herself doesn't lead to any internal reflection. While I have to allow that she's had little opportunity to practice self-actualization, I think we have a responsibility to know ourselves as well as we can and do something about it, not float through life like a luxuriant jellyfish.

It helps if I think of Edna as a teenager herself, working through the mental fog and uphill battles of late adolescence, learning to be who she is. It's chilling to think that experience rare among women of her time. The whole story then becomes a tragic account of women as persons who are never allowed to have or invent the instruments of becoming whole.


  1. I'm really enjoying reading your co-posts. It's great to get two viewpoints. Also you both write well so that makes your comments fun to read. I managed to find the book at the library with the help of the resource librarian. Its number was mistyped in the online catalog (813.4 CH instead of 813.54 CH) and, not surprisingly, it wasn't where it was supposed to be. Thanks to her perseverance though, it came to light. She remarked that it was on her list to read too. I have to say it's fun to check out books that are "respectable" and have a real librarian see you do it. She's probably the first person in the library I've spoken to in at least six months even though I'm there on a very regular basis. What with auto-checkout and everything else do-able by email there is little opportunity for actual conversation. Sad. More efficient no doubt, but sad.

  2. Thanks! And I agree with you entirely on being seen to check out important books. I don't even feel a little bit bad, though perhaps I should.

    Macalester's library only had 1 copy of My Antonia, in the rare books section, that was not available to check out at all, and an audio recording of The Awakening with no physical books at all. What the heck, Macalester?



A Clockwork Orange (5) A Good Man Is Hard to Find (4) A Passage to India (6) A Room with a View (3) A Separate Peace (2) Absalom Absalom (6) Achebe (5) Adams (3) All the King's Men (8) An American Tragedy (17) Atlas Shrugged (16) Babbitt (8) back from hiatus (1) baking (11) Baldwin (4) Baum (3) Bonfire of the Vanities (6) borderline (12) Brideshead Revisited (9) Burgess (5) Burroughs (1) canon (1) Capote (6) Cat's Cradle (3) Cather (19) cheesecake (4) Chopin (4) Conrad (5) cooking (25) Death Comes for the Archbishop (6) DeLillo (6) Dreiser (17) du Maurier (2) Edith Wharton (1) emergency (2) Ethan Frome (1) excuses (141) Faulkner (9) Felicia DeSmith (3) Finnegan's Wake (1) Fitzgerald (24) For Whom the Bell Tolls (3) Forster (19) Fowles (7) Franny and Zooey (2) Go Tell It on the Mountain (4) Grahame (2) Guest post (3) Hammett (2) Hemingway (5) hiatus (4) holiday (5) horrible (4) Howards End (6) In Cold Blood (6) In Our Time (1) Irving (6) James (25) Jazz (1) Joyce (1) Keneally (7) Kerouac (5) Kim (7) Kipling (7) Knowles (2) Lady Chatterly's Lover (6) Lawrence (26) Lewis (13) Light in August (3) London (3) Look Homeward Angel (9) Lord Jim (5) Mailer (7) Main Street (5) Midnight's Children (9) Miller (6) Morrison (1) Mrs. Dalloway (3) My Antonia (6) not a novel (4) O Pioneers (7) O'Connor (4) On the Road (5) Orlando (4) other books (7) page updates (1) Rabbit Run (4) Rand (24) Rebecca (2) recap (1) Rhys (6) Rushdie (18) Salinger (2) Schindler's List (7) Sinclair (6) Sons And Lovers (12) Sophie's Choice (10) Star Trek (1) Stein (5) Styron (10) Tender is the Night (10) The Age of Innocence (4) The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (5) The Awakening (4) The Beautiful and the Damned (8) The Bostonians (9) The Call of the Wild (3) The Fellowship of the Ring (5) The Fountainhead (8) The French Lieutenant's Woman (7) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2) The Jungle (6) The Lord of the Rings (16) The Maltese Falcon (2) The Naked and the Dead (7) The Naked Lunch (1) The Old Man and the Sea (1) The Portrait of a Lady (10) The Return of the King (6) The Satanic Verses (9) The Two Towers (5) The War of the Worlds (4) The Wind in the Willows (2) The Wings of the Dove (6) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (3) The World According to Garp (6) Things Fall Apart (6) This Side of Paradise (6) Thomas Wolfe (9) To the Lighthouse (3) Tolkien (16) Tom Wolfe (6) Triv (2) Tropic of Cancer (6) unworthy (33) Updike (4) vacation (2) Vonnegut (3) Warren (8) Waugh (9) Wells (4) Wharton (4) Where Angels Fear to Tread (4) White Noise (6) Wide Sargasso Sea (6) Women In Love (8) Woolf (10) worthy (25)