"Into realms of the semi-celestials": from mortal to mythic in The Awakening.
IN ATTEMPTING TO UNDERSTAND EDNA PONTELLIER'S TRANSFORMATION IN The Awakening, which begins with "A feeling of exultation ... as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul" (49) critics have relied on various archetypal characterizations to elucidate the mystery of these primitive influences. These "Muses" of Edna's transformation, from Phaedra and Aphrodite to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, metamorphose with such Ovidian rapidity that Edna's character is as elusive to the reader as these "powers" are to Edna's understanding.
Writing in the middle of the last century, in an effort to enlighten readers to the overlooked merits of the novel, Kenneth Eble noted that "Mrs. Pontellier, too, has the power, the dignity, the serf-possession of a tragic heroine" (81). Per Seyersted notes that Edna is "goaded on by sexual hunger much in the manner of Euripides' Phaedra" and argues that the key difference between the two heroines is in how they view their own passion (145). Phaedra, Seyersted argues, "feels shame and tries to fight her passion" (145) whereas Edna feels "neither shame nor remorse" (107). Seyersted continues by declaring that Edna is "is not tragic in the sense that she struggles with fate and loses." Although I am not in complete agreement on this point, Seyersted does recognize that Edna is "fused with a Greek tragic sense of the cosmically inevitable" (158).
More recently, critics such as Wayne Batten, Sandra Gilbert, Rosemary Franklin, and Cynthia Griffin Wolff have incorporated the archetypal and have moved beyond to its next logical step, the archetype as assimilated into the subconscious or "Psyche." As Batten notes, Edna's vulnerability is due to "the perilous cross between the mortal and divine" necessary for any "psychic development" (80-81).
Why then does literary criticism see Edna as Phaedra, Aphrodite, Psyche, or Snow White? It would be difficult to deny, given the history of critical analysis only briefly discussed here, that Chopin uses references, whether consciously or not, to classical mythology and to archetypal characters of fairy tale to shape the reader's understanding of Edna's transformation. How then is our understanding of Edna's particular circumstances furthered by recognizing the "semi-celestial" aspect of her nature (51)? I would argue that it is because there is no place for her fully realized and passionate self on the mortal plane, no place where she can be free of the "soul's slavery" that is her only earthly option (138). Chopin's skill in using the archetypal images of women and love does more than characterize Edna's doomed task of finding a perfect expression of love on earth; precisely these same images (or illusions, as Batten calls them) plant the seeds of the tragic flaw which Seyersted denies. Edna's romantic notions of love, sown in her as a child, blossom into the overwhelming sense of passion that she is unable fully to achieve. She is a mere mortal trying to achieve something available only to the gods.
Edna's first touch of the celestial begins, as Gilbert notes, at Grand Isle in a decidedly "woman's sphere" where "every object and figure has not only a literal domestic function and a dreamlike symbolic radiance but a distinctively female symbolic significance" (322). In the opening scene at Grand Isle, Mr. Pontellier notes his wife's "advancing at a snail's pace." She is protected by her sunshade "with its pink-lined shelter" (23). Much has been made of the capitalistic and materialistic significance of this scene (Stange 275), and it does work on that level; but beneath this more obvious commentary on Mr. Pontellier's character and the culture he represents is the birth of the goddess, her appearance on her pink-lined sea shell. Chopin subtly crafts this image from the observation of a snail [shell] to the feminine pink-lined interior of a seashell that evokes Aphrodite's arrival from the sea and, more deeply, Aphrodite's sphere, the vagina. Once again, however, Mr. Pontellier asserts his proprietary concern over Edna, noting that she is "burnt beyond recognition" (24). As a goddess or, more simply, as a woman independent of him and his culture, Edna is unrecognizable, and when she and Robert try to communicate the events that transpired in the water, it appears "utter nonsense" to Mr. Pontellier (24). Nonetheless, at this early stage in her transformation, Edna has not yet broken free from her role as wife and places her wedding ring, which she had left in her husband's keeping, back on her finger. She also releases her parasol, which in an earlier paragraph symbolized her feminine power, into her husband's possession. His fight of possession of her sexuality becomes manifest when he returns from his evening out; however, Edna's change has begun and she refuses to engage with him, neither answering his questions nor accommodating his sexual desires.
Edna makes a choice which she knows is true to herself, but "she could not have told why" she makes this choice (27). She is unable to articulate the contradictions raging within her. She has the courage to follow "the light which, showing the way, forbids it," but she is not able to express the reasons why she should make this choice (34). Her inability to grasp the causes of her discontent and her belief in their "rightness" cause a melancholy in Edna akin to that in a Romantic heroine. Following the episode with Mr. Pontellier, Edna escapes her boudoir by retreating to the porch to cry and listen to the "everlasting voice of the sea" (27). Chopin paints a beautiful, tragic portrait of Edna:
The tears came so fast to Mrs. Pontellier's eyes that the damp sleeve of her peignoir no longer served to dry them. She was holding the back of her chair with one hand; her loose sleeve had slipped almost to the shoulder of her uplifted arm. Turning, she thrust her face, steaming and wet, into the bend of her arm, and she went on crying there, not caring any longer to dry her face, her eyes, her arms. (27)
This image, so well crafted, perhaps lifted out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, evokes a classical image of the tragic heroine. The issue of tragedy is central to understanding how myth works in the novel. Chopin draws with her words this beautiful image and then allows the narrator to insinuate herself into omniscience: "She 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" (27-28). Again, Chopin's words leave the reader with a sense of urgency, but the reader, like Edna, is still unsure of what the urgency consists. Edna's transformation is out of her control: it is happening to her. She does not reflect on her life or her choices which have brought her to the point of crying uncontrollably in the middle of the night (28). This unreflective aspect of her character, kindled by her adolescent notions of perfection in love, is Edna's tragic flaw.
Chopin sketches in Edna the perfect vessel for depositing the Victorian cultural myths of fairy-tale love and fantasy, what Seyersted calls "the Victorian American decorum, which banned many facts about human nature from speech and writing, partly to spare the Iron Madonna" (140). These cultural myths work both for and against Edna's search for self. Edna describes herself as a young girl as "a little unthinking child ... just following a misleading impulse without question ... unthinking and unguided" (38). Edna is left "unguided" by an absent mother, and it is no coincidence that she mentions this state of mind in the presence of Adele Ratignolle, Chopin's quintessential mother figure. At this moment of confession, Adele takes Edna's palm in hers, and the feminine touch, the mother's touch, sparks Edna's recollection of her girlhood fantasies--her first moment of sexual awakening, which she connects to "the ocean of waving grass" (39), that foreshadows her sexual awakening on Grand Isle. These moments of infatuation and desire, from the "sad-eyed" cavalry officer, to the "engaged young man" and, finally, to the "great tragedian" (39) sow the seeds of Edna's expectation of love, which are never altered by a mother's wisdom and will eventually grow into the weed that strangles her. As a result, Edna is left in a state of arrested development even following the "accident" of her marriage to Leonce Pontellier (39). She has never fully matured beyond her girlhood expectations of love. Adele, like a mother, instinctively recognizes Edna's emotional immaturity when she shares her childhood stories and warns Robert to "let Mrs. Pontellier alone" (41). Robert's response shows that he is not any more mature than Edna (a fact that makes him a perfect partner for Edna's adolescent explorations), and Adele, exasperated, declares he has as "little reflection as we might expect from one of those children down there playing in the sand" (41). Edna's lack of mothering (her older sister, Margaret, is "not effusive [but]...practical"), has stunted her own emotional maturity (38). Edna is not fit for the responsibilities of motherhood; she loves her children in an "uneven, impulsive way" but as often as not "forget[s] them" (40). Edna's relationship with her children seems to approximate more closely that of an older sister or a young aunt, a relationship indicating her arrested development in the arc of nineteenth-century femininity, from child, to bride, to mother, to crone.
Wolff explores Edna's idea of arrested development by examining Edna's orally fixated state, by the terms of which Edna "sees [the] mother-women as 'delicious'" (249). Taken a step further, Edna's oral fixations combined with her lack of mothering might be a regression to the breast and her final swim into the ocean as a return to the mother. In order to entice Edna to go swimming, Robert uses the same word--"delicious"--to describe the water (34). In this instant, Edna is lost in a moment of contradiction between the perfect mortal mother, Adele, and the sensuous mother, the sea, who calls to her with a "sonorous murmur ... like a loving but imperative entreaty" (34). When Edna takes her first momentous swim in the mother-waters she is described as a "tottering, stumbling, clutching child" who has suddenly gained "control [of] the working of her body and her soul" (49). By returning to the womb she is reborn, this time with a connection to her soul, the connection whose previous absence hindered her ability to discover her full potential. These two mothers, the physical, mortal Adele, and the metaphorical, mythic sea, are the genesis of the two "contradictory impulses" alluded to in chapter six (34).
Chapter six, comprising a mere 250 words, is the second most succinct chapter in the novel (the shortest chapter, twenty-eight, also important for its brevity, will be discussed below). Chapter six is, arguably, the most significant chapter as it completely foreshadows the choice Edna is compelled to make in the end. In its short refrain, Chopin sings the song of Edna's transformation from the first dim light of understanding, to her "shadowy anguish," then to her "position in the universe," and, finally, to the seductive voice of the sea (34-35). The language of the chapter is both elevated--such phrases as "ponderous weight of wisdom"-- and ambiguous--"but the beginning of things . . . is . . . vague, tangled, chaotic" (34-35). The reader can infer that Edna's transformation is both tremendously significant and ineffable. The voice of the sea can speak the language required to converse with the soul, but Edna, and the reader, can hear it only as the voice of the sea; we cannot understand it.
It is noteworthy that this chapter is cradled by two episodes in which Madame Ratignolle plays a pivotal part. The first, Edna's observance of Madame Ratignolle in all her motherly glory, surrounded by her children, has already been touched upon. The second episode alludes to Adele's "sensuous susceptibility" (35). Her sensuousness awakens Edna to her own sensual capabilities, but she is unable to reconcile Adele's sensuousness or sexuality with its culturally mandated end as mother and wife. Adele has "flaming and apparent" beauty (29), golden hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. She is Aphrodite as seen by men, but Edna cannot incorporate the vision of the goddess Adele, sexual and beautiful, into her own emerging vision of womanhood, a womanhood that combines the personal expression and independence of Mlle. Reisz with a fully realized sexual expression. Nonetheless, Chopin is explicit that Adele is the "link" forged by the gods to bring Edna to the truth of who she is (35).
Thus Adele's touch awakens Edna to her own arrested state and, later that evening, she reacts emotionally to Mlle. Reisz's rendition of music by Frederic Chopin. Edna's reaction is so violent she cannot speak, much less reflect upon why she is reacting this way. The reader, again, is left only with the feeling that the transformation is happening to Edna: "Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth" (47). There is a sense that magic is being created around Edna to transform her into another state. The evening is "a tangle of the sea smell and ot weeds and damp, new-plowed earth.... The white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and the softness of sleep" (49). The imagery of the "new-plowed earth," the "white ... moon" and the "heavy perfume" points the reader to the feminine forces almost palpable in the air. This force or "power" gives her "control [of] the working of her body and her soul" and the ability to swim out alone (49). This power also allows a moment of clairvoyance: Edna glimpses the cost of her exultation just as "a quick vision of death [smites] her soul" (50). As Edna leaves the water to ponder what has happened to her, she notes that she does not "comprehend half" of it (50). She is accosted by Robert (who confesses that he comes to her unthinkingly) who gives her another fairy tale or myth which casts Edna as a "divine presence," whom a spirit calls away from him, a "poor, unworthy earthling" (51). The irony, of course, is that Edna's lover, in an attempt to soothe her, has sketched a fairy tale that predicts the conclusion of her own love story. Edna is being pulled by the mythical, without full understanding of her predicament or her possibilities; her thoughts are "somewhere in advance of her body" and she is unable "to overtake them" (51).
Edna, having been re-born through the music of Mlle. Reisz and her baptismal swim in the sea, begins her sexual and spiritual awakening. Upon returning to her husband's cottage she lounges in the hammock, symbolically resisting re-acclimation into her husband's possessions. Mr. Pontellier, upon his arrival, expects to find his wife "in bed" (52), but she remains outside the house refusing "submission or obedience to his compelling wishes" (53). In effect, Edna has broken her matrimonial contract with her husband. Eventually, however, she emerges out of her "dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul," and she must go into her husband's bed (53). The risk of sexual encounter has passed, however. The images that follow speak to a moment in time that precludes sexual fulfillment: "the moon hung low" like an aged woman's breast, and Edna "tottered... feebly" into the house. Her husband declares that he will join her once he has "finished his cigar," having decided to take his pleasure into his own hands (54).
The next morning, Edna, despite a dream that warns her that she is in search of "something unattainable," embarks upon her sexual and spiritual awakening, "blindly following whatever impulse moved her," her soul "freed ... of responsibility" (54). Like Epimetheus, Prometheus's less-gifted sibling, even Robert can see that Edna "lacked forethought" (55). Nonetheless, Robert accompanies his love on her journey further away from the societal rules she is fleeing, a journey symbolized by the trip to Cheniere Caminada.
Edna, overcome with the "oppression" of the church service, makes no "effort to regain her composure" as she might once have done (57). She first breaks society's rules privately, by refusing to keep her husband's bed. As the story progresses, she breaks the rules more publicly--defying societal conventions. She refuses to engage in "reception" days and finally removes herself from her husband's domain altogether (72). At Cheniere, the first sign of her unconcern is revealed when she spends the day, much of it alone, with Robert. It is only the protection of Creole society mores that allows her to undergo this tryst with Robert without any scandal.
Cynthia Wolff, in her careful analysis of the fairy-tale aspect of Edna's sojourn at Madame Antoine's, focuses on Chopin's references to Sleeping Beauty (249). Although these references are clear and helpful in an archetypal reading of the text, we should not overlook the equally important allusions to Snow White that also reveal the undercurrents at work in Edna's transformation. The house is "immaculately clean, and the big four-posted bed, snow-white, invited repose" (58, italics added). The virginal, or as Wolff puts it, the pre-genital, aspect of this moment helps us understand Edna's transformation from infant, as when she emerges tottering from the mother sea, to when she discovers the "flaming torch that kindled desire" with Arobin (106). The scene is filled with references to sleepiness and fainting. When Edna looks across the room and through the window she notices a "disabled boat lying keel upward," a ship that has foundered, turned over, and sunk; the image may also allude to the phrase "keel over," which would indicate a loss of consciousness on Edna's part (58), as if she has lost control in a fainting spell. As she undresses and loosens her hair, she begins to shed layers of sexual inhibitions. She feels her arms, rubbing them "one after the other, observing closely, as if it were something she saw for the first time, the fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh" (58). Wolff contends that, in this scene, Edna simply engages in some "exploratory 'play'" and downplays the sexual content here (249). Her scrutiny of her body in Madame Antoine's bed contrasts pointedly with the scene in chapter one when Edna looks at her hands and "survey[s] them critically" as though through the eyes of her husband. In this scene, unlike the previous one, she has an appreciation of her own body in a bed that is not her husband's.
The fact that this scene alludes to both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty signifies the transition between pre- and post-adolescent behavior for Edna. When Edna leaves the sea, she is still an infant. She has now graduated to the sexually mature, but still virginal, fairy tale princess. The question remains whether she will continue on the path to sexual awakening and keep her independence, as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White did not. The Snow White allusion also evokes what can go awry when a woman steps out of societal boundaries. Snow White, like Eve before her, bites an apple, suffers grave consequences, and must be rescued by a prince (or evicted from the garden). When Edna emerges from the snow-white bed, the whole world has transformed. The island has taken on a "hushed" magical quality (59). Significantly, Madame Antoine leaves a box of face powder for Edna; Edna's application of the powder suggests a transition from a pre-adolescent to an adult sexual potency. Her sexual cravings are mirrored in her hunger, which is voracious. She bites the bread with "strong, white teeth" (59) that indicate a powerful, almost animalistic, appetite. She drinks down a glass of wine; when her husband offered her wine the evening before, she had flatly refused it. Her thirst for Dionysian pleasures and desires has been roused. Edna, far from remaining in an infantile, orally fixated stage, as Wolff contends, has crossed the bridge (pont[ellier], in French) into her desire or pleasure (Edna, in Hebrew). When Edna goes out of doors, Robert does not know "she [is] awake"; at this moment he is not yet aware of her transformation from "a married lady ... [with] two children" (55) to a woman who gives herself to whom she chooses (131). Edna and Robert perform a dance around each other, testing the boundaries in this new world. Edna playfully tosses an orange (perhaps apple trees do not grow well on the island) at Robert. Robert "familiarly adjust[s] a ruffle upon her shoulder" (60) and "pick[s] at the hem of her muslin gown" (61), testing the boundaries of her "mantle of reserve" (35) while attempting to "stir ... the smoldering ashes" of her desires (60).
Despite the idyllic setting described thus far, nature begins to take a sinister turn around them as the possibility of consummation presents itself. As the sun sets, "the shadows lengthened and crept out like stealthy, grotesque monsters across the grass" (60) and the "misty spirit forms" are "prowling in the shadows" like "phantom ships" (61) presaging the hard realities that face them when they return. In Edna and Robert's fairy tale, the dark forces at work are not evil stepmothers or wicked queens but, as Dr. Mandelet says, the illusions themselves--the fairy tales, which have no place in the realities of mortals.
Edna cannot see this eventuality, however, and transposes the infatuations of her youth onto Robert as she nurses a hope of freedom from the choices she made when she "accidentally" married her husband. Her decision to move to the "pigeon house" is, again, impulsive; Edna admits as much, calling it a "caprice" (102). Forced by Mlle. Reisz to examine her decision, she discovers, partially, at least, that "instinct had prompted her to put away her husband's bounty" (103). At this moment, she "resolved never again to belong to another than herself," but she does not examine the consequences of her decision, simply assuming that "conditions would some way adjust themselves" (103). Her conversation with Mlle. Reisz most closely approximates the language in chapter six, which has cautioned that "many souls perish in [the] tumult" when "their position in the universe" has been altered (35). Mlle. Reisz, like Madame Ratignolle at Grand Isle, can foresee (unlike Edna who has not been granted the gift of foresight) that Edna's position is precarious. She tells Edna that "The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings," but, again, Edna admits that she "only half comprehend[s] her" (106).
At Mlle. Reisz's apartment, Edna has the most honest conversation and understanding of her "position in the universe." She concludes that she must not belong to anyone while she admits her love of Robert. Her resolution to move out of her husband's house and her confession of love put her in high spirits, but despite Mlle. Reisz's efforts, Edna has not achieved any significant level of self-awareness. That evening, she tells Arobin:
"One of these days," she said, "I'm going to pull myself together for a while and think--try to determine what character of a woman I am, for, candidly, I don't know, By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can't convince myself that I am. I must think about it." (105)
Arobin immediately replies, "Don't." As one who gets immense gratification and reward from the status quo of women, he would certainly not want Edna to gain a clearer understanding of the limited possibilities open to her or the risks involved in continuing on her present course. Furthermore, he declares that he can tell her the kind of woman she is, usurping her privilege of defining herself. Edna attempts again to bring the conversation back to Mlle. Reisz but, ever persistent, Arobin eventually succeeds in distracting her from her self-discovery and continues his seduction. This is not to say that Edna does not fully participate in the consummation of the affair, as it is she who "clasped his head, holding his lips to hers" (106). Her failure is not her passion but her inability to reflect upon it and its consequences.
Following her first tryst with Arobin, Edna is assailed with "multitudinous emotions" which eventually lead to an "understanding," but her understanding is tinted with "regret" for it comes to her only after she has sacrificed herself to an empty passion, instead of a passion of love (106). Chopin is careful, however, to reveal that Edna does not regret her act of passion, having neither "shame nor remorse," but simply her choice of partner (107). Nonetheless, the fact that Chopin makes this one paragraph a separate chapter points structurally to its significance in Edna's story.
In the dinner party scene, which Arobin calls a coup d'etat because Mr. Pontellier will be paying the bills, Edna creates another fairy tale for herself. This time, however, she casts herself as a queen, as opposed to the virginal Snow White she enacted at Madame Antoine's. This transition is important for it represents a combination which few women can achieve--sex and power, if not complete autonomy. She crowns herself with diamonds given to her by her husband and dresses herself in gold and lace "which suggested the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone" (112). But even Edna cannot ignore the counterfeit feeling of the scene, and she is momentarily overcome with a sense of "ennui" and longs for "the beloved one" who is unattainable. The beloved one is curiously not mentioned as Robert or anyone specific. Robert is simply another one of Edna's fantasy lovers, like the calvary officer and the tragedian, real only in her imagination and not in the actual man. Edna's inability to see her cycle of infatuation and disillusionment condemns her to committing
the same cycle over and over again. Her blindness reinforces the tragic aspect of her decisions--inevitability is the essence of tragedy.
Per Seyersted contends that the "divinity which inspires the party is Eros" (157). His analysis of how the "primordial forces of sun and blood" are reflected in the gold and red colors of the dinner party conveys an accurate picture of the contrasting forces at work in Edna's life--the" beauty and brutality" of a life lived passionately (157). However, Chopin's mythic reference is to Dionysus rather than Eros. Love does not reign at this dinner party, tragedy does. Dionysus is a complex and multi-faceted deity and all of his dominions are represented at Edna's soiree. As the god of wine and theater he is "the gay reveler, the cruel hunter, the lofty inspirer....He was the tragic god" (Hamilton 61-62). Victor, crowned with a garland atop his "black curls" is a "vision of Oriental beauty" (1) and "his cheeks [are] the color of crushed grapes ... while he continue[s] to gaze with narrowing eyes at the light through his glass of champagne" (112). This image is clearly akin to Euripides's Dionysus whose "ruddy cheeks were flushed/as though with wine, and he stood there smiling" with "his bright insinuating eyes." (2)
Victor, as Dionysus, is enticed to perform for the party and, fixing his gaze on Edna, begins to sing "Si tu savais," a song which obviously torments her, reminding her of her unrequited love for Robert. The irony here, of course, is that the god of tragedy is singing the song of Edna's tragic flaw: "if you knew." If Edna took the time to reflect upon her life and her choices, instead of allowing herself to be caught up in the play, in the fairy tale, she might have been able to escape her fate or at least have understood the consequences of her choices. Once Victor/Dionysus sings, the wine/blood "spill[s] over Arobin's legs and some of it trickle[s] down upon Mrs. Highcamp's black gauze gown" (113). Edna's choice to crown herself queen, to usurp, in a coup d'etat, what society sees as her husband's rights will necessarily be paid in blood. She cannot bear to "know," however, and she physically forces Victor into silence by putting her hand over his mouth. He kisses her hand, symbolically suggesting the passions that compel her to her fate, or, perhaps, it is simply a kiss of death from the god of tragedy. Edna rips the garland from Victor's head, removing his costume and breaking the spell. However, Dionysus will ultimately be the "victor" in the play; he is, after all, present in the novel's last scene, a reminder of the god's presence, but with no deus ex machina.
The anticipated denouement of Edna's story begins with Robert's return and their mutual declaration of love. Robert tells Edna that he left for Mexico in order to protect her from the consequences of his love for her "even if [she] had been willing" (131). Robert perfectly fits into Edna's romantic fantasies because he is so clearly ensconced in the tradition himself, always "the devoted attendant of some fair dame or damsel" (31). Why then does the fairy tale not come true, if they are so perfectly matched? Edna's position as a married woman is indicative not just of her personal situation but of all women's circumstances. Whether married or still unattached, in 1899 Edna would always belong to someone else. Mlle. Reisz stands as the example of independent womanhood, but she expresses her passion through her music. If Edna is to express her passion physically, she must be attached to someone or else give up her place in society entirely. Edna tells Robert that his vision is flawed because she has determined that she is no longer a possession "to dispose of or not" (131). Robert can love Edna and still maintain an independent personhood, but Edna, in his judgment, could never have that option: so regardless of her current situation, if Edna loves Robert, she must be his and no other's. Robert, unwilling to share her even with Madame Ratignolle, begs her to "stay with me, stay with me" (132). He understands instinctively that the situation Edna is offering him is not the fairy tale he imagined, and he leaves her with a note telling her that he has left because he loves her (136). He cannot comprehend Edna as a person in control of her own destiny. As the man, the prince, the hero, he must take it upon himself to protect her from her own decisions. Since he cannot change her mind, he removes himself from the equation.
Edna is called away from Robert to assist Madame Ratignolle during her delivery. The scene contains little allusion to myth. The god in charge is called outright by her name: Nature. Edna endures a "flaming, outspoken revolt" against the "scene of torture" that unfolds before her (134). It is this moment, along with Ade1e's plea to "think of the children; think of them," which drives reality into Edna's "soul like a death wound," shattering any further illusions of living a fairy tale existence on earth (135).
In her conversation with Dr. Mandelet, Edna realizes that she must wake up in order "to think of the children" (134). She declares that she will not be "forced into doing things" and that nobody has any right "to expect anything of her--except the children, perhaps" (134). Adele's accouchement forces Edna to face the hard reality that with passion comes risk--risk to her present children through scandal and, possibly, the risk of future children as a result of her love affairs. Now that she has awakened completely from her "years [of] ... sleeping and dreaming" her vision is clear and pragmatic, if a little regretful: "perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one's life" (135).
Dr. Mandelet, more than Adele or even Mlle. Reisz, seems to understand Edna's precarious predicament, but she refuses his offer of understanding and confidence. She tells him that she wants nothing "but [her] own way" (135). Once again, Edna's state of mind is reflected mythologically with a reference to the legend of King Arthur who learns that "all women would have their will/This is their chief desire" (Bulfinch, par. 4, italics added). Edna returns to her cottage, however, to learn that Robert is no Sir Gawain; he is incapable of comprehending her desire for her own way above everything else.
Edna lies awake the entire night after reading Robert's farewell message; in the next scene, the reader is transported back to Grand Isle, where Victor is recounting in hyperbole the sumptuous feast provided by Mrs. Pontellier. Edna arrives "tired and a little travel-stained" (136), perhaps having come directly from her night of sleeplessness. Seyersted notes that Victor's account of Mrs. Pontellier's party, with "its allusion to classic myths suggests that the author wants to raise [Edna] into a symbol of womankind" (158). It is clear that Edna's predicament is unique to a woman, specifically, a mother, but there are few, perhaps, that come to her conclusion. Most women would give their souls to their children, rather than take their own lives to keep their souls pure.
Edna has finally "done all the thinking which was necessary" and has "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" (138). Edna, like Phaedra, knows that she cannot live and be true to her passions and resolves upon
... one single blessing in this unhappy business, one alone, that I can pass on to my children after me life with an uncontaminated name... ...But on this day when I shake off the burden of this life I shall delight the Goddess who destroys me, the Goddess Cypris. (Euripides, II. 717-27)
Edna and Phaedra give up everything in order that the children will not suffer. Edna's decision, however, is unique in that her choice sacrifices her body and her life for the sake of the soul, not just for the future of her children. She refuses to allow her children "to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days" but she will not simply, selfishly destroy their future either (138).
As Edna prepares for her final swim, "a bird with a broken wing ... circling, disabled down, down to the water" (138) recalls Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun. Edna walks into the ocean and the waves are "coiled like serpents about her ankles" (138), a Dionysian image of wisdom and fertility that repeats the image of Madame Ratignolle's braid during her accouchement, which was "coiled like a golden serpent" (133). Edna returns to the sea in the same way that she emerged from it during her first swim at Grand Isle--a reflection of the goddess Aphrodite--naked and "new born," completely given over to her passion--on her own terms. Within a page, Chopin has referenced three distinct mythological personas, and there is support within the text for many more references than those alluded to here.
The A wakening does not lend itself to an archetypal reading simply because of its plethora of mythical and magical references, however. chopin's use of archetype elevates the novel from being a mere clinical study of a woman's manic-depressive tendencies or a cliche about the plight of a "fallen" woman to a tale of a tragic heroine. Edna is "out of phase" with the world around her. She "comes from sound old Presbyterian Kentucky stock" and is surrounded by Catholic Creoles (88). She often sleeps in the middle of the afternoon and lies awake at night. She is uncomfortable in the costume of the day, constantly loosening and removing her clothing. She is frequently late for dinner and continually separates herself from the larger party, leaving dinner early or listening to Mlle. Reisz from the porch, preferring solitude to community. Edna's "out of phase" quality seem to point to an ineffable "specialness" of her character. There is something "other" about her that sets her apart, and like an animal culled from the herd, once separated she is vulnerable. The forces at work on her--the sea, the moon, music, and passion--seem to point to a feminine deity; as Gilbert suggests, Aphrodite indeed frames this work (332).
The connection to Aphrodite and to Edna's lack of culpability in bringing on heavenly attention links Edna strongly to Phaedra. In many tragic tales a mortal, usually through an act of hubris, offends a god who then seeks revenge, as Aphrodite seeks it on Hippolytus. Occasionally, however, a mortal is destroyed for merely being at the wrong place at the wrong time, as in the case of Phaedra. Phaedra is loyal to Aphrodite, yet she is used as a pawn in the goddess's plan to destroy Hippolytus--she is made to love where she should not. Phaedra's greatest gift is her ability to love. Her love for Hippolytus sets the tragedy in motion, but her love for her children, for whom she sacrifices everything, elevates her story to immortality. Edna, like Phaedra, is willing to sacrifice much for her passions, but Chopin distinguishes Edna by making her suicide a sacrifice for herself, not her children. This is an inverse of Medea's choice to sacrifice her children in order to exact revenge on the man who spurned her love.
Ultimately, Edna's qualification as a tragic heroine hinges on our perception of her after we "drop the finished novel on the crest of a sigh--Is it worth while? What is the point of it all?" (Wolff250). Is Edna admirable? Is she courageous or merely pitiful? Chopin has created a woman who is impulsive and daring, unthinking but exquisitely and horrifyingly true to who she is. Some may see her suicide as selfish or self-absorbed, but her choice is made in the name of Truth. Edna makes her choice completely on her own terms. She does not dance around the facts with compromise or deception as her Wall Street husband does when he cleverly develops a ruse to conceal his wife's abandonment of his household. Edna's deficiency, her inability to reflect on her situation or the consequences of her actions, also allows her to break free from the constraints of her prescribed existence. She is able to experience life with a selfhood that few women enjoyed. However briefly, she is able to express and define herself as something other than wife and mother. She is artist and lover and, even more significantly, mistress of her own means.
Edna, like Icarus, does not foresee the price of flying too close to the sun until the very end, after she has enjoyed the sun's rays for too long to give them up. Edna is granted the gift of sight, by which she can see how myopic her existence had been prior to her transformation. With each new awakening she finds herself more and more exultant with the possibilities that present themselves, but unlike Madame Ratignolle and Mlle. Reisz, Edna cannot see the final awakening, when the gods will exact payment from her for the journey granted. In her final awakening, the children hover "before her like antagonists who had overcome her" (138).
Edna's choice, although clearly a suicide in pragmatic terms, from an archetypal perspective is as much a birth as it is a death. In this novel, Aphrodite is clearly a mothering goddess as well as a sexual one. The sea is sensuous and seductive but it also offers a "close embrace" (138). At the novel's end, the images revert to scenes of childhood and spring "with the musky odor of pinks [in] the air." The Awakening, like all eternal cyclical myths, promises resurrection at the moment of death. Edna may be gone, but she will be reborn. The question which the novel provokes, then, is not, "Does Edna die?" but, "Is she eternally doomed to endure the same cycle of joy and tragedy over and over again?" If the myths of the Greeks, so often alluded to in the novel, are our guide, the answer would then be, yes.
Batten, Wayne. "Illusion and Archetype: The Curious Story of Edna Pontellier." Southern Literary Journal 18.1 (1985): 73-88.
Bulfinch, Thomas. The Age of Fable. New York: Review of Reviews, 1913.<www.bartleby.com/182/106.html>.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. Walker 22-139.
Eble, Kenneth. "A Forgotten Novel: Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Critical Essays on Kate Chopin. Ed. Alice Hall Petty. New York: G.K. Hall, 1996.75-82.
Euripides. The Bacchae. Tr. William Arrowsmith. Euripides V. Ed. David Grene et al. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1959.
--. TheBakkhai. Tr. Robert Bagg. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1978.
--. Hippolytus. Tr. David Grene. Euripides I. Ed. David Grene et. al. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.
Franklin, Rosemary F. "The Awakening and the Failure of Psyche." American Literature 56.4 (1984): 510-26.
Gilbert, Sandra. "The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin's Fantasy of Desire." Keesey 318-84.
Guthrie, W.K.C. The Greeks and their Gods. Boston: Beacon, 1950.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. 1942. New York: New American Library. 1969.
Keesey, Donald, ed. Contexts for Criticism. 2nd ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield PC, 1994.
"The life & age of woman. Stages of woman's life from the cradle to the grave." New York: Kelloggs & Comstock. n.d.
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: LSU P, 1969.
"Snake Worship." The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. New York: Columbia UP, 2001.<www.bartlby.com/65/sn/snakewor.html>.
Stange, Margit. "Personal Property: Exchange Value and the Female Self in The Awekening. Walker 274-290.
Walker, Nancy A., ed. The Awakening: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Boston: Bedford, 200.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. "Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Keesey 241-55.
(1) In the opening monologue to The Bakkhai, Dionysus states, "From Asia I came onto Thebes"; Asia is often translated as the Orient (Euripides, Bagg 19). However, as W.K.C. Guthrie notes in The Greeks and their Gods, scholars have been unable to determine when and from exactly where the cult of Dionysus invaded Greece (152-53).
(2) Given the many variations in translation, the first closed quotation comes from The Bacchae translated by William Arrowsmith (lines 438-39); the second from the later translation of Robert Bagg (line 347).
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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