"Abysses of Solitude": Chopin's intertextuality with Flaubert.
In becoming a mature artist, Kate Chopin was influenced by literary masters on both sides of the Atlantic. During her brief writing career (1889 to 1899), she responded deliberately to American writers such as Howells and Garland, and French writers such as Maupassant and Flaubert (Toth 118, 168, 123, 217). Unfortunately, The Awakening, probably a reaction to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, sparked controversy that ended her career and placed her in virtual obscurity until she was rediscovered by critics including Daniel Rankin (1932) and Cyrille Arnavon in France (1953), studied later by Larzer Ziff (1966), and boosted to canonical status by Per Seyersted (1969). Ziff notes the influence of French culture on Chopin's writing, explaining that "The community about which she wrote was.... far more French than American, and Mrs. Chopin reproduced this little world with no specific intent to shock or make a point" (297).
Besides her own maternal French ancestry, Chopin was a student of the French Realists, having studied their works in the original French, and having translated eight of Maupassant's short stories (Heath 11). Her deep familiarity with Maupassant is evident in her translations between 1892 and 1898 of "The Mad Stories," as she entitled them, during which period she also wrote The Awakening(Bonner xii). Thomas Bonnet, Jr. notes similarities in "psychological themes and distinct images," including Chopin's "sexual realism .... ironic denouement and the epistolary technique," evident in the Maupassant stories and The Awakening, suggesting that the translations helped Chopin develop her mature style. The stories, he explains, "are more important ... for what they reveal about her own work than for what they reveal of Maupassant's" (xii).
Richard Fusco's study of the various complex structures of Maupassant's stories offers further insight into Chopin's intimacy with the French masters. Fusco writes an exhaustive study of the various forms she employed in her works, concluding that "the expansive teachings contained in the Maupassant canon clarified her understanding of simple forms and introduced her to more challenging ones.... Amid his panorama of forms, she found no literary dogma but a credo" (145). At least in part as a result of her Maupassant translations, Chopin's reliance on French forms and themes, noted by many critics, is apparent in The Awakening.
Early French critic Cyrille Arnavon pointed out that much French fiction around 1900 depicted a theme of "suicide" (185), the title of one of the translated Maupassant stories. Suicide in French literature, Arnavon explains, was "the ultimate escape, generally as a result of idleness and disenchantment" (185). Calling The Awakening an "American Bovary" (181), Arnavon concluded that The Awakening was "modelled upon Flaubert's novel" (188). Chopin's familiarity with that novel in the original French, as well as similarities in theme, suggest Chopin's conscious intertextuality with Flaubert.
While critics tend to agree that, "well acquainted with the classics," Chopin certainly read Madame Bovary in the original French (Seyersted 86), The Awakening displays naturalistic elements informed by a vision different from Flaubert's. In her comparison of the novels, Susan Rosowski points out that whereas Flaubert "Maintains ironic distance" from Emma, Chopin "focuses strictly upon changes of consciousness" within Edna (316). Bernard Paris explains that while Flaubert "ridicules Emma's romanticism" (198), "Edna's is not a story of romantic folly but of a woman's awakening" (215). Lawrence Thornton adds to the discussion that, unlike Flaubert, who exposes "the dry-rot of romanticism," Chopin gives her protagonist "at least a partial understanding of the lie that animates her vision" (51). Thornton concludes that "Chopin goes beyond merely imitating Emma and the problems Flaubert imagined for his heroine" (50), an indication that she consciously responds to, as well as departs from, Flaubert.
Before Madame Bovary, the conventions of romance and their implication that direct, objective reality is essentially inexpressible had not been separated scrupulously from the novel, even though the novel form had existed for two hundred years. Adhering to rationalist notions of the "real," Flaubert was among the first to approach purity in his Realism, as he attempted to remove all traces of romance, all hints that there is anything about his characters or their motivations that we cannot know directly. Flaubert must avoid romance conventions since they open the reader to fantasy rather than to reality. He is determined in Madame Bovary to use precise language objectively presenting tangible reality. What we are presented of his characters and their world is all there is to see, or at least represents synecdochically all there is to see.
In Madame Bovary, rather than relying on the "passionate rhetoric" of romance that Bouilhet and DuCamp faulted him for in La tentation de saint Antoine (1849; Spencer 93), Flaubert relies wholly on externalities to convey thoughts and feelings. To this end, as George Becker explains of the objective realist, "the heaping up of physical data became important" (30). To accomplish the external perspective of Realism, not rhetoric but "facts... should speak for themselves as they do in life. There should be ... no authorial elbow nudging the reader in the ribs" (Becker 28). Madame Bovary, with its objective "heaping up" of details, was, according to Becker, the "touchstone by which to assess the new literature" of France in the 1850s (7). Critics generally agree that Madame Bovary, with its attention to minute details, was "the earliest masterpiece of fully deliberate modern Realism" (Van Doren 7).
Stripped of all romance conventions, Madame Bovaryis an example of Realism so pure that it finally becomes indistinguishable from deterministic Naturalism. Within the pages of that novel, according to Lars Ahnebrink, exists the very "inception" of Naturalism (21). A definition of the objectives and effects of the naturalist vision appears in A Handbook to Literature and describes Flaubert's vision in Madame Bovary so precisely that it may derive from it either immediately or remotely: The naturalist author strives to be "objective, even documentary ... amoral ... pessimistic in his view of human capabilities" (Thrall 303); in his "almost clinically direct" portrayal of man as subject to "fundamental urges," he portrays life as a "vicious trap, a cruel game" (Thrall 303-04), notions explicit in Madame Bovary.
Such thoroughgoing Realism and pessimistic Naturalism suit Flaubert, who considers himself a cynical, disillusioned Emma Bovary: in his own words, "Madame Bovary, c'est moil" (Steegmuller 217). Everett Carter explains that, after the manner of the French masters, the pure realist strove to "write fiction that was largely autobiographical, that was one's own experiences clarified by the perspective of the fictional technique. The novel ... becomes the only true autobiography, for only by putting on the 'mask' of the teller of tales can a man show his real face beneath it" (386). Yet Flaubert never uses this narrator to mark a distinction of gender in terms of susceptibility to illusion. By saying "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," he reveals his belief that illusion is the bane of both man and woman.
Every "romantic" action Emma takes provokes a "realistic" or "naturalistic" reaction that implies a determinism that she neither escapes nor becomes aware of:
In the letters that Emma wrote [Leon] she spoke of flowers, verses, the moon and stars, naive resources of a waning passion striving to keep itself alive by all external aids. She was constantly promising herself a profound felicity on her next journey. Then she confessed to herself that she felt nothing extraordinary. This disappointment quickly gave way to a new hope, and Emma returned to him more inflamed, more eager than ever. (509)
Emma can never find satisfaction equal to her expectation since Flaubert's judgment that life is cruel and meaningless seems final and absolute.
In passing that judgment, Flaubert takes an outside perspective, such as God or a clinician defining a pathology would take. Since he admits that the creature he thus observes "c'est moi," the disease he defines must be of himself. Flaubert attacks this romantic pathology of the self from the dispassionate position of a scientist. Although the essence of life might be awareness and emotion, he must account for that awareness and emotion scientifically and unemotionally, with the result that "the writing of Bovary [becomes] a prolonged autopsy, an excision of the Romantic cancer" (Spencer 151) that plagued the author.
From such a realist perspective, the base motives of the human organism, such as greed and pride, are the only "real" motives. Emma's only possible hope would be to recognize her base motives and escape them to the extent of living at least without deluding herself. Yet while the reader is aware of Emma's motives, Emma never escapes her romantic vision and so never gains the realist's "truth" about herself, her motives, or her condition. If she experiences any growth, it is only on her death bed, when "she asked for her looking-glass, and remained some time bending over it, until the big tears fell from her eyes" (355).
While both the narrator and the reader of Madame Bovary are fully aware of Emma's motives, neither Edna Pontellier nor the narrator nor the reader fully comprehends the forces that motivate Edna. Rather, Chopin affords her yearnings a validity not available to Emma and conveys the sense that Edna, exercising some choice in her life, is not entirely caught by those incomprehensible forces that produce her yearning.
Carter explains that in the "presumed 'naturalist' of the younger generation of writers [of which Chopin was a harbinger], 'naturalism' in the sense of pervasive pessimistic determinism is ... hard to find" (402). Rather, evolving Naturalism in America was
a deepening and broadening of the realistic and critically realistic techniques and attitudes extended to larger areas of society. But ... one becomes aware of the beginnings of a difference in kind as well as degree, a difference in treatment as well as a difference in materials.... [T]he surface ... was beginning to break up, and through its fissures were welling strange new visions: ogres and demigods, grotesqueries, and distortions of time and space which we associated with the romantics of an earlier time.... [T]hese were the landscapes and creatures of the human mind. (403)
Such psychological and mystic forces join in Edna's actions, many of which are not the result of her conscious will. Edna markedly loses her sense of conscious control over her actions the morning after she learns to swim, when, the narrator tells us, "she was blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility" (32). Yet the fact that she "placed herself in alien hands" indicates limited choice, at least on a subconscious level.
Later the next day during the boat ride to Cheniere Caminada with Robert, "Edna felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening--had snapped the night before when the mystic spirit was abroad, leaving her free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails" (33). Again, Edna, who feels as if she is being "borne away" from her moorings, nevertheless maintains the ability to choose the direction to "set her sails." Yet, as she is "borne away" by a force other than her own will, the implication is that she has relinquished control to that force, a conscious choice in itself. The "mystic force" controls Edna even while it "leav[es] her free," as she simultaneously drifts and sets her sails. Chopin's use of the term "mystic" differs from any terms used by Flaubert. "Mystic" is a term we would be more likely to hear from Emma in her search for romance than from Flaubert's narrator in his description of her actions and motives. Instead, we might say that Chopin unearths some "landscapes and creatures of the human mind" in her use of mystic and psychological forces.
After Edna experiences the intersection of "mystic force" and conscious choice, she no longer attempts to conform her actions, thoughts, and feelings to convention. Rather, "She began to do as she liked and to feel as she liked" (54). She paints, she says, because "I feel like painting .... Perhaps I shan't always feel like it" (55). At the same time, her actions and moods seem to depend more on her surroundings than on her conscious choice: "When the weather was dark and cloudy Edna could not work. She needed the sun to mellow and temper her mood to the sticking point" (70).
Increasingly, Edna acts according to what seems to those about her, and even to herself at times, as whim, seemingly without conscious choice. Yet even while she asserts her will in a series of unconventional choices and actions, the force that controls her apparently leads her to her death: "she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her" (108).
In Chopin we see elements of a newly emerging Naturalism, "differen[t] in kind" from Flaubert's Naturalism, apparent in the "impulses" and the "vision inward" (Carter 403, 404) that move Edna. While we see in Flaubert's Realism an obsessive determination to avoid romance elements, except as they enter Emma's flawed perception, Chopin's Naturalism celebrates many romance elements she retained from her reading of novels such as Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott and The Days of Bruce, by Grace Aguilar, favorite books of her youth (Toth 20). The addition of romance elements accomplishes Chopin's purpose of presenting a more inter-subjective apprehension of Edna, her motive forces and desires.
One implication of the mystic in newer Naturalism is the return to the Romantic belief in providential ordering. Before Flaubert, many nineteenth-century writers, such as Aguilar and Scott, allowed their plots to work out providentially. When we look at events arranged in such a providential perspective, we find an order that, to a thoroughgoing Realist like Flaubert, does not exist. In rejecting a vision of providence, Flaubert, in essence, replaces God and disallows a successful providential resolution. As a Realist, Flaubert attempts to re-create subjects, according to Erich Auerbach's definition of Realism, "as God sees them, in their true essence.... the universe is a work of art produced without any taking of sides ... [so] the realistic artist must imitate the procedures of Creation" (487). Flaubert's scientific, God-like perspective enables him to name, identify, and make definitive conclusions about what it means to live a temporal existence, bounded by a beginning and an end.
Chopin is also concerned with temporal limitations. As Edna's awareness grows, she begins to recognize that what she desires to escape are the temporal limitations of the flesh. However, Edna's dilemma includes her awareness that, having some free will, she still cannot escape constraints inherent in a temporal existence, such as the children who had become "antagonists" (108) and the inevitability, as a woman, of further procreation. Symbolic of all the constraints that delimit her as a human being and as a woman, the night she learns to swim, "she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself' (28). Yet awareness quickly intercedes, and "by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land" (28).
Such an awareness of limitations is precisely what Emma never chieves, even as events of her temporal existence form and delimit her. The narrator's attention to temporal limitations in Madame Bovary is antithetical to the vision that drives Emma. Emma hates and tries continuously to escape boring details, such as where the money will come from to pay for "a black barege, twelve yards, just enough to make a gown" (277), or how she would return the "five-franc pieces" she "borrowed" from Monsieur Derozeray's account: "'Pshaw!' she thought, 'he won't think about it again'" (206).
Rather, Emma wants her life to be full and rich in the same way it is in the romance novels she reads. It matters little what form the fullness takes, whether it be in religion, marriage, or illicit lovers, so long as it is an escape from the tedious, mundane reality that stifles her. She should be the heroine in a Balzac romance, in which Balzac, unlike Flaubert, takes "every entanglement as tragic, every urge as a great passion; he is always ready to declare every person in misfortune a hero or a saint; if it is a woman, he compares her to an angel or the Madonna" (Auerbach 482). Despite Emma's best efforts to pattern her life after such a romantic passion, she can never achieve such an outcome within temporal limitations.
Emma's romantic ideal proves inadequate after she consummates her relationship with Rodolphe. She is ecstatic as "the heights of sentiment sparkled under her thought, and ordinary existence appeared only afar off" (176). She has opted, as usual, for sentiment over "ordinary existence." Flaubert immediately equates her choice of sentiment with her choice of reading material:
Then she recalled the heroines of the books that she had read, and the lyric legion of these adulterous women began to sing in her memory with the voice of sisters that charmed her. She became herself, as it were, an actual part of these imaginings, and realized the love dream of her youth as she saw herself in this type of amorous women whom she had so envied. (176)
Yet almost immediately, Rodolphe pulls the rug from under her fantasy, declaring "with a serious air that her visits were becoming imprudent--that she was compromising herself" (178).
While Emma is denied any glimmer of self-awareness, Edna becomes aware both of the inalterability of her temporal limitations and of her intense desire--even need--to alter or escape those limitations. After consummating her relationship with Alcee, "She felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality" (80). Like Emma, Edna can find no circumstance to satisfy her needs. The difference is that Edna recognizes that she can never satisfy, in the temporal world, her deepest longings. As Yonogi Reiko notes, "unlike Emma Bovary, Edna believes that romantic love is not in the realm of this world" (625). A more modern sensibility than Emma, Edna shares Emma's vision but knows that even if her lover would conform, it would not help. Even though she cannot escape the yearning, she finally comes to know that "the day would come when [Robert] too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone" (108). A comparable realization never comes to Emma, who continues to invent passion in its absence.
Critical also to Flaubert's vision of objective Realism is the proper use of concrete language, or in his own words, the mot juste, the perfect word, that would convey the corresponding reality as directly as possible. The pure realist adhered to the principles of John Locke, who argued that "all the artificial and figurative application of words ... are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment, and so indeed are a perfect cheat" (Bk 3, ch 10, sect 34). Flaubert must avoid the analogical, symbolic language of romance if he is to re-create reality and present his characters with detached, scientific objectivity. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert remains, to the best of his ability, true to his vision of Realism, including its related use of concrete language.
Perhaps best expressing Flaubert's concerns with language, Maupassant refers to his apprenticeship under Flaubert in the introduction to Pierre et Jean. Flaubert taught him, he says, in "long and patient lessons" (xv), that
there is only one noun to express [whatever one wishes to say], only one verb to give it life, only one adjective to qualify it. We must search, then, till that noun, that verb, that adjective, are discovered; never be content with an approximation, never resort to tricks, even clever ones, or to verbal pirouettes, to escape the difficulty. (xvi-xvii)
Flaubert complains that as a result of such an obsession, his "head reels and throat aches with chasing after, slogging over, delving into, turning round, groping after, and bellowing, in a hundred thousand different ways, a sentence that I've at last finished" (Spencer 125).
Chopin, too, was much concerned with proper expression in her work. Emily Toth has found evidence, in the "Rankin-Marhefka Fragments," that Chopin rewrote and revised her stories more than she or her children would have had us believe: "Chopin was far more disciplined and thorough than she claimed. The fragments are scrawled in pencil, with words crossed out and inserted.... The fragments show that she was a diligent reviser who thought deeply about minute changes in wording" (167).
Yet Chopin professed to prefer "the integrity of crudities" (Works 722) to a precision achieved at the price of eclipsing essential dimensions of her characters' appearance and awareness. Unlike Flaubert, who implies that reality is expressible, Chopin appreciates the inexpressibility of some part of reality. A certain spontaneity, or the appearance thereof, that we find in Chopin's work is consistent with the traditional romantic sense of the mysterious source and reference of language. She implies that the reality beyond the observable "real" can never be expressed totally, but can better be expressed in images arising from its apprehension, however comparatively vague and indistinct.
Conversely, in Madame Bovary, Flaubert avoids a spontaneous flow of language as he attempts to remove all romance elements, including imagery. That is, he avoids imagery and figurative language for his narrator, but allows Emma the use of such in order to reveal its futility. He uses a bird metaphor, for example, only as it enters Emma's romantic perspective. When Charles first courts Emma, his presence "had sufficed to make her believe that she at last felt that wondrous passion which, till then, like a great bird with rose-colored wings, hung in the splendor of the skies of poetry" (43). We are aware that the "skies of poetry" are a sham to Flaubert and only "make her believe" otherwise. Yet later, as Leon and Emma are tiring of each other, she wishes, again futilely, "that, taking wing like a bird, she could fly somewhere, far away to regions of purity, and there grow young again" (319). Emma finds neither the lasting "wondrous passion" nor the way to grow young or pure again that the bird imagery has represented to her. Flaubert reveals the romantic illusion as it manifests itself in imagery, an illusion to which Emma succumbs and against which Flaubert fights.
In her reconsideration of Madame Bovary, Chopin restores the romance element of imagery to her Naturalism, affirming that imagery in language can express the unknown dimensions of reality in a way the discursive language of Realism cannot. Adapting Flaubert's bird metaphor to her purposes, she gives it a resonance in experience that it lacks when Flaubert uses it to convey Emma's illusions. Whereas for Emma the metaphor symbolizes the passion and escape from temporal limitations that she seeks, Chopin's use of several different bird metaphors opens us to deeper levels of awareness: first to the narrator's sympathy for Edna, then to Edna's yearning for freedom from constraints, then to Mademoiselle Reisz's sympathetic awareness of Edna, and finally to Edna's rejection of temporal limitations.
In the first instance, the "mother-woman" is represented metaphorically as a hen with her brood, as the narrator demonstrates her empathy with Edna's rejection of such a nurturing image for herself:
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman.... 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. (9)
The narrator's opinion of the net result of being a mother-woman and her empathy with Edna's departure from that ideal are revealed in the negative connotations associated with the word "efface." Edna, unlike Addle Ratignolle, does not have the hen's plumage.
A different bird image had appeared to Edna prior to events in the novel, when Adele played the piece Edna named "Solitude." The recollection places in the reader's mind Edna's image of a primordial desire for freedom that the past event evoked: "the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him" (25-26). Here, the bird highlights synechdochically the insurmountable constraints of human existence. Much later, Mademoiselle Reisz introduces a very different bird, possibly a hawk or an eagle, as a metaphor for strength. In revealing her own strength, Mademoiselle Reisz also reveals that, in her desire to escape certain temporal limitations, she too is a "romantic" figure. In Mademoiselle Reisz's image, "The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth" (79). Mademoiselle Reisz is speaking of Edna's need for strength if she is to overcome constraints placed on her. Yet, while Mademoiselle Reisz tries to soar above "tradition and prejudice," she lives a conventional Bohemian lifestyle and avoids all human bonds. For Edna to live as Mademoiselle Reisz lives would be to give up some of her self, something she has told Adele Ratignolle she cannot do (46): in this case, to conform to Mademoiselle Reisz's nonconformity. Edna is no more suited to Mademoiselle Reisz's reclusive lifestyle than to Adele's nurturing one.
When Edna contemplates her final walk into the sea, she has realized the futility of Mademoiselle Reisz's comparatively abstract image of a "bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition." In contrast to this abstract concept, and symbolizing the futility of its pursuit, Edna sees a concrete image as she herself stands naked on the shore, in a scene reminiscent of her earlier vision upon hearing "Solitude." This time, however, "a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water" (108). This figure that simply presents itself before her embodies something of her own sense of herself and foreshadows her imminent surrender to the sea. This final naturalistic image allows the reader sensibly and metaphorically to apprehend and take the measure of Edna's circumstances--a fragile, broken bird against all the forces of wind and wave--and so to experience a profound sympathy for her.
We should not leave behind a discussion of birds in the novels without mentioning the symbolism of a parrot in another of Flaubert's works, "Un Coeur Simple." As a student of the French realists, Chopin would certainly have read "Un Coeur Simple" in its original French and known Loulou, who, according to Anthony Gottlieb, was "[t]he most celebrated parrot in 19th-century literature." Chopin appears also to understand the significance of the parrot in French literature, making symbolic reference to Loulou in the opening scene of The A wakening. Gottlieb explains that "parrots in French literature are always identified with language itself, that they subvert the notion of absolute truth and that they point the way to challenges to the status quo," all characteristics, as we shall see, that are manifest in The A wakening.
Loulou's owner, a servant named Felicite, becomes attached to the talking bird and decides it must be the divine Holy Spirit, since both parrots and Holy Spirits can speak. Walter Redfern explains the result of this identity--"The parrot is sanctified and the Holy Spirit made more user-friendly"--effectively raising the question of whether Flaubert is ironically "debas[ing] Catholic worshipping of images" (86). Curiously, Redfern compares Emma to Felicite, the latter being "saved" rather than "spoiled," since "her error is triggered by an image rather than a text. In this respect, the plastic arts are less corrupting than the written word" (86-87). Unlike Emma, the dying Felicite is "transport[ed] ... to heaven" by the parrot qua Holy Spirit (87). "Humans," Redfern contends, "are mere uncomprehending transmitters, a very bleak slant on the standard view of language as communication" (89).
To Geoffrey Braithwaite, the protagonist in Julian Barnes's postmodern historical novel Flaubert's Parrot, Loulou was ironically "a fluttering elusive emblem of the writer's voice" (182-83). Conversely, in The Awakening, I would suggest, the parrot's voice first represents the female voice as it effectively removes Leonce from a female space, Madame Lebrun's main house, and symbolizes Leonce's imminent change in status quo through the course of the novel. Later, only the entitled parrot can castigate the Farival twins' talent and musical selection. Only the parrot is immune from "les convenances."
Interestingly, Loulou was green with a golden throat, while the parrot in The Awakening was also "green and yellow" (3). Flaubert's parrot was modeled after one he had borrowed from a museum in order to be familiar with "l'idee perroquet" (Redfern 84), or as Julian Barnes translates it, "parrothood" (Barnes 184), while Chopin was also familiar with parrothood, having owned one herself (Heath 11). According to Redfern, Flaubert's parrot illustrates that "appearances can be deceptive. ... realism cannot be the be-all and end-all of literary representation" (84), a premise Chopin would certainly espouse. Additionally, the parrot "can only repeat, at second-hand" as it "harps on the three phrases [Felicite] has taught it," as Redfern notes, its shrillness "reinforc[ing] Emma's vertigo when she is feeling suicidal" (85).
Stephen Heath goes on to explain that "Parrots for Flaubert, as for Chopin, are habitually ... a touchstone for stupidity and the grotesque comedy of life" (22). What the parrot says in The Awakening is "as good as whatever else is said--as good as Mr. Pontellier's conversation" (20). Patricia Yaeger notes additionally that Chopin's parrot, which spoke French, "a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood" (3), indicates a "lack of meaning in words themselves" and represents not the Holy Ghost but Edna herself, in Edna's lack of a language to articulate her "relation to her own desire" (407) and a symbol of her "limiting life" (411).
I would like to suggest further that with the addition of the green and yellow parrot, Chopin pays tribute to Flaubert's similar parrot at the same time as her parrot ironically signifies that the lack of a satisfactory language is in fact antithetical to the divine. Whereas the divine in Chopin is manifest in love and sexual desire (Chopin, Private Papers 219), women's inability to articulate that desire in acceptable terms in fact causes the central tension of the novel.
Certainly, the dominant governing instance of Chopin's figurative use of language in the novel is her image of "awakening," the image that serves as her title and that I have discussed at length in a previous study. Again, Chopin's use of the image markedly contrasts with Flaubert's use of the same image. For Flaubert, "awakening" always denotes recognition of Emma's present, concrete situation, of which she is never fully or accurately aware. When the priest attempts to apprehend Emma's distress, "she looked like one awakening from a dream" (125, emphasis added), rather than actually awakening to any understanding.
For Chopin, on the other hand, the image of awakening expresses an actual inner, spiritual awakening. Paris describes this awakening as "a process of liberation and psychological growth" (216). Deborah Felder adds that Edna awakens "to an expanded sense of her individuality and sexuality" (81). The first time Edna refuses her husband's command to come to bed, she begins to "feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul" (31). Although Edna experiences a clash with reality similar to Emma's, she is aware immediately that her dream is "impossible," an awareness never available to Emma.
While imagery gives voice to the disparate visions of the two authors, another concern closely related to language is narrative point of view, more critical in Realism than in romance. Flaubert's narrator assumes authority for the information we are given. Yet Flaubert's narrator is vexing, being at once omniscient and first-person. The omniscient perspective allows the narrator to enter any character and report her awareness, while the first-person perspective establishes the narrator as a story-teller whose authority is limited to events that he himself has been present at and observed. Both these perspectives are essential if Flaubert is to maintain the detachment and authority of a scientist and yet develop the full impact of the story. Flaubert's intention is to express observable, tangible reality fully, including motives of characters, while he suggests that truth is accessible by the careful observation of which any intelligent person is capable. His goal is a report of truth that conforms to his reader's experience and perceptions.
Madame Bovary opens as the first-person narrator, an eyewitness who was Charles's classmate, recalls the "new fellow" from childhood: "We were in class when the head master came in, followed by a 'new fellow,' not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every one rose as if just surprised at his work" (3). The opening scene appears to be the first person narrator's distant memory of Charles recalled years later: "The 'new fellow,' standing in the corner behind the door so that he could hardly be seen, was a country lad of about fifteen, and taller than any of us.... Although he was not broad-shouldered, his short school jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have been tight about the armholes" (3).
The narrator's observation that the jacket "must have been tight" suggests that the eyewitness is recollecting the incident rather than witnessing it in the present. This first-person narrator displays no subjective attachment to the character as he recalls the event, presenting himself as neither Charles's friend nor an intimate acquaintance. At the same time, an eyewitness can establish credibility by reporting events actually seen. The fact that the events occurred some time ago allows the narrator to distance himself from them and from his subjective, boyhood perspective of that moment.
Five pages later, the narrator appears to assume a different perspective, introducing Charles's father from an omniscient point of view. The apparent shift is disconcerting since our eyewitness seems to know Charles, Sr. intimately:
Once married, [Charles, Sr.] lived for three or four years on his wife's fortune, dining well, rising late, smoking long porcelain pipes, not coming in at night till after the theatre, and haunting cafes. The father-in-law died, leaving little; he was indignant at this, "went in for the business," lost some money in it, then retired to the country, where he thought he would make money. (6)
Since the omniscient narrator presumably knows more about Charles, Sr. than a classmate of Charles could know, it is tempting, as John Williams has done, to explain away the dichotomy: "Once Flaubert has exploited [first-person narration] for the effect it has to offer, he abruptly shifts the viewpoint to the omniscient narrator who breaks in to give background information about Charles and his family, facts which the first-person observer could not have known" (32). Williams seems to avoid the perplexing inconsistency of the narrative point of view by simply explaining it away. Nowhere, however, is there evidence that a new narrator is breaking in. Three pages later the first-person narrator again identifies himself as such. We are told that Charles was sent to school at Rouen, where "it would now be impossible for any of us to remember anything about him" (9, emphasis added).
At the same time, the omniscient narrator remembers something about him after all:
His mother chose a room for him on the fourth floor of a dyer's she knew, overlooking the Eau-de-Robec. She made arrangements for his board, got him furniture .... and bought besides a small cast-iron stove with the supply of wood that was to warm the poor child. Then at the end of a week she departed, after a thousand injunctions to be good now that he was going to be left to himself. (9-10)
Had Flaubert intended to introduce a different narrator, considering his obsession with accuracy and exactness, he would have wanted his readers to be aware of the shift. Rather, he seems consciously to maintain a first-person omniscient narrator. This unusual narrative perspective is appropriate for Flaubert's purpose and does not need to be explained away, since the realist perspective implies that it is possible, without calling on a higher power, to know reality exhaustively in essence if not in detail.
The reason for Flaubert's choice of narrator seems to be epistemological, correlating with the language concerns of his "Realism." An omniscient narrator can perceive Emma as she is rather than through the tint of a necessarily distorting subjective consciousness. A first-person narrator can explain her motivations and behavior from the perspective of a scientist--like a psychoanalyst--who is witness to her life. Flaubert can maintain authorial distance from the character while he reveals everything about the character. At one and the same time, Flaubert can remain objective and external to characters as he knows and tells all about them, implying the possibility that a human can know reality--even the reality of human emotion and motivation--fully and dispassionately.
Yet the narrator never expresses sympathy concerning Emma's motivations, relying instead on the reader's awareness of what it means to be human and the possibilities of life as we live it. According to Felder, the realist writer must be "invisible and all powerful: he must be everywhere felt but never seen," avoiding any "subjective narrative guidance" (45). Flaubert's observations and conclusions about his characters' behavior and motivations may be corroborated and certified only by the reader's recognition--from his or her own experience--of their accuracy. The reader can see, in every instance, the correlation between a character's motive and action, and between an action and its consequences. Flaubert's first-person omniscient narrative perspective allows him and his readers to look at Emma with objective detachment; make observations about her behavior, motives, desires, and guiding vision; and withhold sympathy, until he finally arrives with the reader at an exhaustive accounting of her disposition, her intentions, and her incapacity to grow in awareness.
The implications of this realist perspective account for the reaction against the book. While from Flaubert's realist perspective, real motives are base motives, the conventional majority insists on dissimulation of those motives. Flaubert's narrator, then, seems to tell us all there is to know about Emma, including her base, "real" motives, leaving no part of her awareness that we have not penetrated and seen the whole of. Flaubert's ultimate intention seems to be to present all there is of Emma. With dramatic irony, Flaubert's narrator allows us to know Emma and her motives in a way she never knows herself.
In contrast, we can know Edna and her motives no better than she herself knows them. Several critics have made cursory comparisons between narrative perspectives in the two novels. Critics such as Erik Margraf see in the Naturalism of The Awakening an adherence to the idea that the naturalist novel necessarily "describe[s] human life with the detachment and impartiality of a scientist rather than pass[ing] moral judgments over the conduct of a story's characters" (96). Margraf further contends that Chopin's "retraction" after negative criticism of the novel "stresses her conviction that the relation of a writer to his or her characters ought to be characterized by a sense of scientific detachment as well as an attitude of moral 'non-intervention'" (97). Yet, while Chopin avoids passing moral judgment, she is far from detached. When we compare The Awakening to Madame Bovary, I would argue, we discover greater narrative sympathy for the protagonist in The Awakening. Such sympathy, uncharacteristic of Flaubert's detached objectivity, is an element of romance returning to Chopin's Naturalism. Here, then, is a major intentional point of departure from Flaubert's novel.
In her expression that the mother-women "efface themselves" (9), Chopin reveals her narrative sympathy for one who is not a mother-woman. In saying "How few of us emerge from such beginning" (14), Chopin's narrator specifically reinforces her identification with Edna, a characteristic antithetical to the strict realists' detachment from characters. Patrick Shaw observes that we are not "authentically inside [Edna's] head ... until we walk down the white beach and enter the Gulf water" (219) with her, conceding that we finally move beyond objective detachment at the novel's end. I contend, however, that we depart from the detachment of Realism and acquire a subjective understanding and sympathy much earlier in the novel, in fact by page nine at the latest. Conversely, as Chopin's first biographer, Daniel Rankin, explains, "One review suggested that [Chopin's] sympathies in The A wakening were with Edna (the Los Angeles Times, June 25, 1899). I believe they were" (174). Whereas Chopin perhaps never overtly sympathizes with Edna, clearly her subjective narrative sympathy surpasses that of Flaubert for Emma.
In a similar vein, Ruth Sullivan and Stewart Smith suggest that Chopin "dramatizes two almost contradictory views of her heroine, one of the m critical and the other sympathetic" (155). The sympathetic view illustrates "a romantic vision of life's possibilities" while the critical view illustrates "a realistic understanding ... of human limits" (156). The sympathetic stance, then, appeals "to the child ... that would reach beyond its grasp no matter what the tragic consequences," while the critical stance "appeals most to the reader's adult self' (157). Yet in nearly every instance, the narrator steps back to reveal that limitations, though Edna becomes aware of them, are precisely what are intolerable, indeed what would "efface," this particular woman.
Perhaps Nancy Walker summarizes the differences most accurately: "Parallels between the novels are not precise, and it is especially significant that whereas Flaubert takes an external view of Emma Bovary, presenting her rather like a case study, Chopin allows the reader to view events from Edna's consciousness" (144). Similarly, Rosowski explains that "the ironic distance of Madame Bovary is replaced by a high degree of narrative sympathy" in The Awakening (46). Unlike Emma's inability to know what the reader and the narrator know, the simultaneous awakening of Edna, the narrator, and the reader to Edna's interior sensibility and awareness results in a sympathetic apprehension of her motives.
Chopin's narrator initially introduces characters from an external, objective perspective. Our first vision of Edna is not until after Leonce sees the "white sunshade that was advancing at snail's pace from the beach" (4). On page seven, the narrator first reveals her internal awareness of Edna's consciousness. Edna "could not have told why she was crying. An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish" (7). As we become more intensely involved with Edna, Chopin appeals to the reader's sympathy for her departure from conventional manners and morals: "A certain light was beginning to dawn within her,--the light which, showing the way, forbids it" (14). Frank Norris might call Chopin's evocation of our involvement with Edna a romance element, explaining that romance is not fabricated only to "amuse and entertain you, singing you sweet songs." Romance can also "call to you from the squalor of ... a disorderly house, crying 'Look! listen! This, too, is life. These, too, are my children! Look at them, know them and, knowing them, help!'" (344).
Edna's poverty, of course, is not material but spiritual. She has been deprived, in some sense, of herself:
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.... But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult! (14)
Chopin's narrator employs romance conventions of representation and intervenes to invite us to learn something of ourselves as we apprehend Edna's motives. In a striking departure from the realist notion that real motives are necessarily base motives, Chopin's sympathetic narrator in The Awakening portrays, but then defends, some less conventional motives and morals. In fact, as early critic Kenneth Eble suggests, "what convinced many critics of the indecency of the book.., was not simply the sensuous scenes, but rather that the author obviously sympathized with Mrs. Pontellier. More than that, the readers probably found out that she aroused their own sympathies" (81).
Chopin's inter-subjective narrative perspective offers a premise unlike that of Flaubert, whose narrator does not express the possibility of any emergence from a meaningless life other than an awareness of its meaninglessness, of an inchoate "beginning" beyond our observable actions and determinable motives into which our reason cannot penetrate. Conversely, Chopin's narrator evokes empathy from the reader for Edna's growing intimacy with her own mystery.
Even on the rare occasion that Chopin's narrator sees events through Leonce's consciousness, she intervenes to reveal Leonce's misapprehension:
It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier's mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world. (55)
We briefly enter Leonce's consciousness, but a subjective narrator intervenes to assure us that mental unbalance is not Edna's problem; rather, Edna is becoming "Edna" and rejecting society's imposed role of wife and mother that she has only worn "like a garment." Leonce cannot apprehend that with which the narrator and the reader sympathize.
Through a subjective narrator, not only do we see Edna's perspective, but also we see from within Edna's perspective, in a way we never see from within Emma's. We see how Edna sees things and something of what she sees. Our awareness of her interior dimensions and capacities grows along with her own awareness. Chopin gives credence and validity to something expressed in Edna's longings and visions, whereas for Flaubert, all of Emma's romantic visions are illusory. For example, although Emma's immediate motivations are apparent, Flaubert never validates nor invites us to sympathize with her need that results in her suicide, however ill-apprehended or expressed. Yet we never doubt that she purposely takes her life since Flaubert spares no gruesome detail:
"Ah! it is beginning," she murmured.... Drops of sweat oozed from her bluish face, that seemed as if rigid in the exhalations of a metallic vapor. Her teeth chattered, her dilated eyes looked vaguely about her.... Gradually, her moaning grew louder; a hollow shriek burst from her; ... she was seized with convulsions and cried out-- "Ah! my God! It is horrible!" (345-46)
Flaubert's clinical details place the horror of Emma's death before us with detached precision.
Chopin's view of Edna as she walks into the sea is notably different from Flaubert's clinical account of Emma's suicide. Chopin struggles to give expression to Edna's simultaneous yearning for something she cannot name or imagine and her inability to overcome temporal limitations: "She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children" (108). At the same time, Edna's motivations are more vexing.
Because her motivations are more ambiguous, they are more of an issue for critics. Judith Fryer suggests that "Edna chooses to die because it is the one, the ultimate act of free will open to her" (257). Soledad Herrero-Ducloux Jasin says that while Emma "opts for death" because of the "loss of honor associated with insolvency in bourgeois society" (21), Edna's suicide results since "she can only attain love as an object rather than as a subject" (23). Helen V. Emmitt argues that Edna's fatigue "suggests that while her actions free her from her old life, her swim is not meant to be a swim of death, and thus her death is not an act of free will" (324). In a slightly different vein, Sandra Gilbert argues that "Edna's last swim is not a suicide--that is, a death--at all, or if it is a death it is a death associated with resurrection.... She is still swimming when we last see her.... Chopin seems determined to regenerate Edna through a regeneration of romance, of fantasy" (327-28).
Yet, even though critics fail to agree whether Edna makes a conscious decision to take her life or whether she simply swims too far into the sea, her thoughts are open to the reader: "How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known" (108). Edna's awareness is open to us until the end because we have not been denied awareness of her motive forces as she experiences them. The ambiguity of her final motive gives us the sense that she, too, feels ambivalence. Yet while the subjective narrator appears to sympathize with Edna's plight, she is unable finally to let Edna's departure from "les convenances" go unatoned, instead imposing the cautionary ultimate sacrifice for such and illustrating finally that few of "us" may emerge unscathed.
Although Flaubert and Chopin achieve different effects through narrative perspective of the deaths, neither Emma's nor Edna's death is the direct result of a failed relationship. Throughout their marriage, Emma has been embarrassed by Charles's lack of success. Always trying to live the life she thought she deserved but that Charles could never offer her, she goes deeper and deeper into debt. Her final humiliation is the "distraint" against the Bovarys (323) and the fact that no one is willing or able to bail her out. After Rodolphe refused to lend her money.
Madness was coming upon her; she grew afraid, and managed to recover herself, in a confused way, it is true, for she did not in the least remember the cause of the terrible condition she was in, that is to say, the question of money. She suffered only in her love, and felt her soul passing from her in this memory, as wounded men, dying, feel their life ebb from their bleeding wounds. (342)
While the "cause" of her "condition" eludes her, her grief is not because of "insolvency," as Jasin argues; nor is it for her loss of Rodolphe or of Leon. Rather, Emma's grief is for her lack of an ineffable "love" that would have made her whole.
She decides to escape by the only means available to her: "Now her situation, like an abyss, rose up before her. She was panting as if her heart would burst. Then in an ecstasy of heroism, that made her almost joyous, she ran down the hill.., and reached the chemist's shop" (343). Consistent with Emma's valuing only that which evokes intense feelings, she becomes "almost joyous" at the prospect of destroying her world by leaving it "in an ecstasy of heroism." Flaubert, however, cannot be true to his objective realist perspective and yet allow Emma's death to be an act of heroism. Instead, he describes extensively the physical horror of her suicide and her changed perception of her action, neither sympathizing with her nor condemning her.
Although Edna's motives for suicide are more ambiguous, no more than Emma's is her suicide caused by one or another failed relationship. Edna knows that wholeness is not within her range of possibilities, which are limited by the social conventions imposed on her as a woman and by the temporal constraints of being human. She rejects dependency on anyone for definition, as she thinks:
To-day it is Arobin; to-morrow it will be someone else. It makes no difference to me.... She even realized that the day would come when [Robert], too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.... She thought of Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul. (108)
A subtle but fundamental difference is that Emma never comes to an apprehension similar to Edna's that it is not a particular lover who has brought her to this moment.
Although Edna's conscious effort is to "think of the children" (106), she knows she could "never sacrifice herself for her children" (46, 108), and now the two boys "appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days" (108). Here Chopin inserts the one line that might imply an intentional suicide: "she knew a way to elude them" (108). Rather than escaping the grief of a failed relationship, Edna escapes being possessed "body and soul" by any human being as she escapes her own limitations as a human being by quitting her existence.
Clearly, Edna's suicide is not as definitively premeditated as is Emma's. After her return to Grand Isle, and immediately before her fatal swim, she asks Victor about dinner:
"What time will you have dinner?" asked Edna. "I'm very hungry; but don't get anything extra."
"... [D]o you know, I have a notion to go down to the beach and take a good wash and even a little swim before dinner?...
"... I'd better go right away so as to be back in time." (107)
This scene may imply that, rather than intending suicide, she intended simply to pass the time until dinner. On the other hand, by saying, "don't get anything extra," she could be indicating her awareness that she will not return. A third and most likely possibility is that Edna herself is not fully aware of her intentions.
As Edna swims farther into the sea, she reaches a point at which she knows she is not strong enough to turn back. She recalls mastering her fear when she learned to swim, and unlike Emma, who grew afraid when death became imminent, at this point Edna is no longer afraid. Whether her death is premeditated or not, she acquiesces to it, allowing the sea to seduce and possess her in a way she has not allowed any person to possess her:
The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft close embrace. She went on and on. She remembered the night she swam far out, and recalled the terror that seized her at the fear of being unable to regain the shore. She did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the blue grass meadow. (109)
Although we are constantly in Edna's consciousness in her final moments, we come away unsure of her intentions, just as she may be unsure of her own intentions, in a way we are never unsure of Emma's intentions. Flaubert's narrator does not suggest the possibility of Emma or anyone emerging from a meaningless life, only of acquiring an awareness of its meaninglessness. In contrast, Edna's awareness is open to us until her death because we have not been denied awareness of her motive forces as she experiences them. The ambiguity of her final motive gives us the sense that she, too, feels ambivalence. Chopin's sympathetic narrator offers the more self-conscious Edna the tools to a growing self-recognition. Neither protagonist survives, but the reader feels more sympathy for Edna than for Emma. The greater sympathy we feel for Edna is evoked by the interior apprehension of her "awakening" provided by a more sympathetic narrator.
Flaubert gives us an exhaustive account of Emma, but he writes against the implications of his own genre. Despite his conscious intention to explain all, Flaubert could never satisfactorily explain Emma's motivating force within the genre. Nothing Flaubert tells us, in all his external, clinical details of Emma, ever fully explains or even probes what force moves her. In light of The Awakening, we may presume that it is a force like the one that moves Edna. The ultimate outcome, of which Flaubert is certainly aware, is that, even with a full psychological case study of a person, something of that person is left over and unaccounted for. We are left with the paradox of knowing all yet not knowing all about Emma. Even though Flaubert does not overtly invite our sympathy, we come away sympathetic to Emma, whose lack of growth in the face of reality results in her futile death by suicide.
It is likely that Chopin, too, was sympathetic to Emma and that she expressed that sympathy in her response to Flaubert. She asks the hypothetical question, "What if Emma were to grow in awareness?" In her intertextual reconsideration of Flaubert, she makes us conscious of Edna's motivating forces through a subjective apprehension of Edna's growing awareness and anticipates the gradual softening of Naturalism to follow. Wrestlings of Edna's mind could be wrestlings of our minds. We come away profoundly sympathetic to Edna who, even though she grows in awareness, is no more able to escape temporal limitations than can Emma realize her romantic illusion.
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Louisiana State University
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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