Thursday, September 14, 2006

Week 04, Chopin

Kate Chopin. The Awakening (633-723).

Page-by-Page Notes on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (633-723).

Sections 1-4 (633-40)

633-35. We open with a parrot—a natural thing that mimics human speech. The scene consists of a married woman, a laid-back, shallow husband, and an unattached young man—it seems obvious enough where the plot must tend. It’s “only natural.” Even so, awakening to desire (to what is “natural”) turns out to be the hardest thing of all. Was there ever a state of nature in which pure impulse and free eroticism went without restraint? After all, even animals have social structures that demand otherwise.

Well, the story is about Edna’s realization that desire has the power to transform perception and behavior. That’s probably why the story must unfold rather slowly. Edna’s “awakening” to herself happens through stages that require time, reflection, and interpretation on her part. Neither Robert nor Edna is particularly self-aware at the outset.

636-40. Edna’s Protestant upbringing makes her an outsider in Catholic Creole society, with its easygoing aristocratic morals. As yet, she has only a vague sense that something is wrong—see 637 2/3 way down. Mr. Léonce Pontellier is a gentle tyrant. He has a genteel object-relation to his wife. She is a pretty possession. He’s not a bad man; he is instead a typical, shallow, club-going man.

Sections 5-6 (640-43).

641-42. Edna is drawn to the easy-mannered Madame Ratignolle, whom Robert adores at the moment. She wants to paint the Madame’s portrait, to capture her spirit on the canvas, so to speak. This desire to represent Madame Ratignolle introduces Edna to us as an artist, as someone driven to see things clearly and to express them. But artistic media or materials are opaque and tend to resist those who try to shape them. See 642, Section 6, where Edna is said to seek clarity; she shows a need to realize, situate, and “think” herself. As things shape up, Edna will confront what Freud calls “the task of civilization”—a task that draws upon the libidinal or erotic energy of individuals like Edna for the purpose of larger, communal needs. Freud’s 1939 Civilization and Its Discontents emphasizes the tension between a given society and the individuals who must do its bidding—communal harmony and purposiveness seem to be at odds with the happiness of the individual and the erotic couple. Young men like Robert can at least project themselves into the world and seek self-verification in that way, but Edna faces much more difficulty in attempting to do the same thing. It’s worth considering the motif of music in this novel as well. Why does it occur so often?

Sections 17-18 (671-76).

672-76. Edna skips her reception day, rejecting domesticity very pointedly. At 673 bottom, she begins to find herself, but we are told that the “voices were not soothing.” On 674 top, she stomps on her wedding ring, but is unable to destroy it. On 675-76, the Ratignolles’ perfect union doesn’t impress her at all.

Sections 19-21 (677-83).

677-82. Madame Reisz and the Atelier. On 677, Léonce becomes angry, and Edna decides to go upstairs to her loft or atelier to paint. On 678, painting again reveals a need to attain clarity and to express one’s inner self. This kind of expression brings Edna happiness. But shadowing her escape into art is a void, a dark vision of devouring worms. On 682, Frederic Chopin’s crisp music gives way to Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod”: death-in-passion.

Sections 22-24 (683-90).

684. The issue here is “how to handle Edna.” Dr. Mandelet’s C19 view emerges: woman is a “delicate organism.” The New Woman is all aflutter with strange notions, and so forth. All the same, the good doctor suspects that Edna is having an affair.

687-88. Mandelet notices Edna’s animal vitality, partly due to the passion she shares with her Colonel father for horse-racing, a sport involving chance and free-spiritedness. Mandelet tells and old tale about straying and returning, while Edna invents a less trite story. The doctor sees her “inner life” awakening. Is it due to Alcée? The Colonel, meanwhile, advises Monsieur Pontellier to be stern with his wife.

689-90. Edna, now alone, enjoys the objects in her once-bustling domestic space in a new way. This moment prefigures her attainment of what Virginia Woolf will later call “a room of one’s own.” Then Edna reads Emerson, the philosopher-poet who wrote “whimsy” above his study door and who always preached about self-improvement and self-reliance.

Sections 25-28 (690-98).

690-91. Edna meets Alcée the handsome young man of fashion, who is conventional and not much of an independent thinker. They head for the horse races, where the horses “intoxicate” Edna. What matters about horse-racing isn’t analysis—it is consequentiality, chance, the chase.

693-94. Robert has now replaced Léonce in Edna’s affections. Alcée is only her narcotic, an upper of sorts. Alcée is frank and appeals to her animalism, as on 694 middle.

694-96. While Edna speaks of her caprice in taking a small house, Mademoiselle Ratignolle wants to know the reason for this decision. At 695 bottom, Edna becomes clearer on the point, and makes a central statement: she is determined “never again to belong to another than herself.” So it is not just that she loves Robert. On 696 bottom, Madame Reisz understands that matters are not so simple; she asks Edna pointedly is she in fact loves Robert.

697-98. The intellectual and emotional elements of awakening come together here. Reisz’s metaphor of a fledgling bird shows her “feminist” grasp of Edna’s situation—the older woman is said to be “wonderfully sane,” whatever Alcée thinks. Edna feels no shame or remorse; rather, she feels regret. She regrets that the “accelerant” of her awakening has been pure eroticism, not love. Romantic or forever-style love is turning out to be too binding. Only frank sexuality liberates a person, it seems—but this freedom isn’t that kind that brings comfort or security. In Section 28, Edna’s realization seems very clear. She needs an other, an object, but knows she hasn’t found an adequate one.

Sections 37-39 (718-23).

718-19. Madame Ratignolle’s labor is witnessed by Edna with agony—she interprets it as the ancient curse of womankind. Edna falls to indifference for now, and offers a confused explanation to the sympathetic Mandelet. Soon will come her final awakening.

720. The passage on the necessity of illusion seems almost Nietzschean, and looks forwards to Freud on the problem of adequate relations between individual and society. Edna insists on waking up and on not being duped. Even so, she remains romantically entangled, as if spiritual striving can never get free of the need for embodiment, for relations with other material beings. She places her hopes in Robert, putting aside the tug she feels at the thought of her children. But Robert has abandoned her with a trite sentiment. Edna lies awake and does her thinking, which thinking may “script” her fatal action later.

722-23. Edna makes her way mechanically to the seductive, sensuous ocean, and is naked before the sun and waves. All the objects of her desire she now knows to have been transient. It appears that an undelimited awakening is deadly. The inadequate objects propelling her forwards have been necessary, but Edna doesn’t want to return to her attachment with them. This fact certainly doesn’t amount to a condemnation of her—Edna is bold enough to exhaust her powers on “the ancient problem of desire” as something we can never really satisfy, at least not permanently.

Edition: Baym, Nina et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vols. C, D, E. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN 0393977943.


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