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Art is an unnatural act: Mademoiselle Reisz in 'The Awakening.'

Kate Chopin's The Awakening has become a classic feminist text, most often read for its devastating portrait of Victorian marriage and the discovery of the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, of her talent, her sexuality, and her sense of self. From this perspective, the novel ostensibly focuses on Edna's relationships with her husband, a would-be lover, Robert, and her actual lover, Alcee Arobin. Yet Edna's relationships with her women friends are as various, subtle and more comprehensive than those with men. In fact, in the middle of Alcee Arobin's seduction, Edna Pontellier mentions her friend Mademoiselle Reisz. Her comment derails Arobin's skilled and up to that point effective arousal of Edna's sexual desires. He and Edna begin to quarrel about Mademoiselle, and he complains, "why have you introduced her at a moment when I desired to talk to you?"(1)

Critics have noted Mademoiselle's close relationship with Edna; they have commented on her appearance, her role as an artist figure, and her attraction to Edna, but they have stopped short of considering the sources of that attraction. Elaine Showalter notes that Mademoiselle's "attraction to Edna suggests something perverse,"(2) but she does not name it. Cristina Giorcelli views Mademoiselle as "a conjurer and a facile," a Medusa-like fewale artist who "stands for the spiritual urged perverted by an excessive turning on itself."(3) These two critics echo the contemporary reviews of the novel, one of which calls Mademoiselle a "witch."(4) Anne Goodwyn Jones notes more neutrally that Mademoiselle "embodies several of the significant masculine values in the world"(5) and remarks on Mademoiselle's attempts to influence Edna. Although most critics notice Mademoiselle's rejection of conventional feminine behavior, they make the assumption that such behavior is abnormal.

Not only an eccentric spinster, not merely an isolated artist, Mademoiselle Reisz embodies the traits of the female artist as lesbian, at least as the late nineteenth century understood this concept. Chopin uses metaphors of homoeroticism and of witchcraft, the traditional enterprise associated with the female artist, to develop Mademoiselle Reisz's characterization; moreover, Edna's exploration of female sexuality was inclusive of a broad range of behavior, not only heterosexual liaisons but also autocrotic fantasies, warm female friendships, and homoerotic possibilities. Chopin's knowledge of the emerging stereotypes of lesbianism enables her to provide in the relationship between Mademoiselle and Edna a provocative contrast to the stereotypical love plots of Edna's marriage and of Edna's longing for Robert, and to the seduction plot involving Arobin.

Most scholars are in agreement that the 1880s and 1890s were a pivotal point, perhaps the pivotal point in modern history in devising the contemporary definition of homosexuality. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's study Epistemology of the Closet(6) asserts that while behavior currently called "homosexual" has a three-thousand-year recorded history, it was in the last third of the nineteenth century that every person, heretofore "assignable to male or female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo to a hetero-sexuality" (p. 2). Moreover, this either-or identity came to have vast "implicatons, however confusing, for even the ostensibly least sexual aspects of personal existence. It was this new development that left no space in the culture exempt from the potent incoherences of the homo/heterosexual definition" (p. 2). Sedgwick summarizes the reasons for this change as a coming together of medical and psychological theory as well as socio-cultural circumstances which brought into public light the famous case of Oscar Wilde, whose fortunes encapsulated trends in the culture only partially articulated until his trial. In the first instance, the budding psycho-medical establishment came to accept the opinions of Richard Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, whose work was grounded in the premise that some behavior was healthy and some was diseased. As David Halperin notes in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality,(7) at the turn of the century, people who may have represented a broad range of behavior in their dress, their manner, and their conversation, their choice of friends, and their preferred sex acts were now all "classed alike and placed under the same heading" (p. 16). Both Sedgwick and Halperin refer separately but not coincidentally to the emergence of a type of "binary thinking" in the late nineteenth century. It is this thinking that caused a cultural generalization in famous criminal cases involving lesbians in the United States, as Lillian Faderman records,(8) and of the case of Oscar Wilde in England. As Sedgwick notes, homosexual behavior, which early in the 1870s and 80s denoted the revolt from Victorian sentimentality and the preference for the elite and selective, came to denote abnormality, criminality and disease (Chapter 3, passim).

When we apply these insights to The Awakening, we can see that these issues were not yet settled. On the contrary, the novel reveals the sea of ideas regarding such areas as male-female friendship, male-female love, male-female sexual behavior, as well as female-female friendship, love, and sexual behavior. As Laurie George has noted, Edna's dear and affectionate friend Adele Ratignolle is the conventional, healthy, married companion whom Edna admires, loves, and even finds physically appealing.(9) Yet the unconventional, cranky, sickly, single, artistic Mademoiselle Reisz moves Edna, inspires Edna, touches Edna, and causes in her feelings so powerful that they undermine the calm, domesticated underpinnings of society.

After two decades of relentlessly heterosexual criticism, considering The Awakening from a lesbian perspective reveals characterizations, conventions, and narrative techniques found in 1890's fiction which treats same-sex love, a tibiquitous topic of the 1890s, as Bonnie Zimmerman notes.(10) Early in the 1890s what may have been regarded as a physically affectionate, even erotic if non-orgasmic friendship, by 1899 was widely regarded as a medical anomaly and a moral excess. Perhaps this is one reason Chopin's narrator explains that Edna's Creole friend Adele Ratignolle was of a group which encouraged physical affection among women friends of the sort described in detail by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg in "The Female World of Love and Ritual."(11) Edna herself, reared as a Calvinist, not a Creole, regards touching with suspicion. Laurie George (p. 58) links Edna's relationship with Adele to Adrienne Rich's contention that the lesbian reality is "a primary intensity between women," not merely and only a sexual bond.(12) George discusses the homoerotic elements of Edna's relationship with Adele. While Edna is obviously drawn to Adele, their friendship ultimately qualifies as one of increasing warmth and trust, an affectionate relationship typical of Creole women and, even more, typical of women's friendships in the nineteenth century. Edna's initial aversion to being touched by Adele not only signifies her Calvinistic, Kentuckian unease with this form of friendship but also reflects Chopin's feeling that she needed to explain that women commonly touched one another. The shift toward viewing such behavior as evidence of lesbianism was occurring gradually in the late nineteenth century, according to John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, who chronicle a shift in sensibility.(13)

A number of well-documented criminal cases in the early 1890s involving jealousy and murder among female lovers led to a public questioning of close female friendships (Smith-Rosenberg, pp. 273-274). But most crucial for Chopin, because she was an artist, may have been the events of 1895, among them the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde, whose fame and downfall occurred as Chopin was writing many of her major works. Richard Ellmann's fine biography of Wilde fully describes the transformation of homosexuality from a curiosity associated with artistic creativity to a perversion associated with criminals. Chopin could have known of Wilde perhaps as early as his 1882 lecture tour when he lectured in St. Louis and New Orleans about the role of the artist.(14) By the 1890s she knew of his plays and fiction, as Emily Toth notes.(15) Believing that art was by its nature the destroyer of convention, Wilde covertly urged that the life of the artist need not include categories such as moral and immoral (Ellmann, p. 322), so that just as art should be judged on its beauty alone, so too should an artist strive to make his, or her, world a world of art without regard to morality.

The echoes of Wilde's beliefs reverberate in Mademoiselle Reisz's advice to Edna that the artist "dares and defies" (p. 63). Some critics assume that Mademoiselle refers to Edna's need to defy conventional definitions of marriage or at least to control her destiny,(16) but the comments are far more provocative when one considers the role of the female artist in the 1890s. Anne Goodwyn Jones points out in Tomorrow is Another Day that nineteenth-century women writers adopted a mask of conventionality to assure readers that writers did not openly defy the conceit of woman as domestic angel. Elaine Showalter, in "Tradition and the Female Talent," indicates the extent to which Chopin violated conventional expectations that female writers would avoid hard-hitting realism and uphold Victorian domestic values. Lillian Faderman's comprehensive study of women artists contends that some did not see fit to create an acceptable persona; in this regard Mademoiselle Reisz is indeed an artist with very little of the domesticated persona. Mademoiselle's sexual preferences and her artistic theories are part of the chronicle of lesbianism, which came to be differentiated from affectionate female friendships and which was increasingly associated with female creativity. In candidly portraying Mademoiselle Reisz, Chopin both recognizes the emerging stereotype yet understands and still regards positively the range of behavior Mademoiselle exhibits.

Lillian Faderman studied several aspects of the late nineteenth-century conventional representations of lesbians by writers such as George Sand, Zola, de Maupassant, and O. Henry, all of whose works were well known to Chopin, as Per Seyersted reports.(17) Very often, the lesbian figure was physically deformed, an emblem of her emotional "unnaturalness" (Faderman, pp. 283, 289). A second trait conventionally associated with lesbians was hostility to men, children, and all domestic pursuits (Faderman, pp. 275-280). Hence the lesbian was not merely a curiosity; she was a danger to the family. In The Awakening, these qualities are part of Mademoiselle Reisz's personality. She is not merely the stereotyped "spinster"; her impatience with children excludes her from this category, because the unmarried woman whose sexual preference was beyond reproach was conventionally portrayed as having a sentimental love of children and usually living with a family, not in a solitary garret.

The most telling aspect of lesbianism Chopin's audience might recognize was that in literature the profession of such women, if not prostitution, was frequently that of the artist. Authors such as Swinburne and de Maupassant who were openly hostile to lesbians and portrayed them as artists or poets were well known to Chopin. Her work had already dealt with the theme of the woman artist who must separate herself from domestic life; her first published story, "Wiser than a God," looked at the dilemma of a pianist who foregoes marriage in order to be an artist. Thus Chopin, writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in her own defense, compared writing to a domestic task that she would casually indulge in "if the temptation to try a new furniture polish on an old table leg is not too powerful."(18) As Anne Goodwyn Jones points out, such statements reassured readers that Chopin was not a "masculine" woman (p. 145); even more crucial, however, is that Chopin felt she must prove herself to be a domestic female, for the opposite was the independent, "unnatural" artist. Some critics such as Carole Stone have asserted that Mademoiselle is a "true artist" who offers Edna a chance to explore the independent life available to the female artist(19); this perspective, however, belongs to our age, not Chopin's. While we may be tempted to applaud Edna's attempts to become a painter, the fact that her painting does not enhance her roles as wife and mother but causes her to remove herself from her family made it a suspect activity, as indicated by the hostile reviews of The Awakening after its publication. Moreover, Mademoiselle's talent is more socially acceptable than Edna's; Mademoiselle can play the piano to earn money and to entertain other people whereas Edna chooses, far more radically, to paint for herself.

The closest evidence that Chopin knew about female homosexuality has three sources; she probably knew of the work of the medical sexologists Richard Von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis because her friend William Ready, editor of the St. Louis Mirror, published articles on Ellis which Chopin would certainly have read, according to Emily Toth. Toth's biography of Chopin, moreover, chronicles Chopin's own close friendship with her schoolmate, Helen, and, of course, reveals Chopin's penchant for rebellious behavior, especially when she was in residence in Cloutierville.

Moreover, Chopin published a short story in 1887 with direct homosexual content. "The Falling in Love of Fedora" presents a grim thirty-year-old spinster who to her own surprise falls in love with a young man. Always intrigued by the surprise plot, Chopin creates a twist: at the story's end, Fedora meets the young man's sister, who physically resembles her brother; at this point Fedora "bent down and pressed a long, penetrating kiss upon her mouth." While the sister was "astonished, and not too well pleased," Chopin offers no explanation for Fedora's behavior, and the story ends with Fedora calmly proceeding on her way. Emily Toth suggests that the lesbian overtones of this story fit well into the context of the erotic friendships of nineteenth-century women (Toth, p. 438 n.) but is unable to locate a living prototype for Fedora (p. 289). With all these influences, it is no wonder that the portrait of Mademoiselle is so complex and perplexing.

Mademoiselle Reisz is present at crucial points in Edna Pontellier's life, and Edna recalls her advice at other critical moments such as when she is alone with Arobin and at the novel's end when she walks into the Gulf. Reisz's advice ranges from the correct stance of the artist to the sort of man to love. Chopin portrays Mademoiselle Reisz as physically and emotionally abnormal. She is disagreeable, eccentric, small, and unattractive; her ever-present sprig of artificial violets is a parody of feminine charm. She often sits in postures that make her appear physically deformed. Her room under the eaves in the bohemian section of town where blacks and whites live side by side represents the dwelling of an American madwoman in the attic, in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's terms; thus she represents an unstated alternative for Edna. The metaphors which Chopin uses regarding Mademoiselle's relation to Edna are those of magic, witchcraft, and enchantment. She is "grotesque," plays music that is "strange and fantastic," and even owns a small cauldron. Chopin extends these metaphors to establish an alternate female linguistic code which contrasts with the patriarchal language which Edna hears from her father and husband but rejects. In "Sexual Linguistics: Gender, Language, Sexuality," Gilbert and Gubar observe that many women writers use terms associated with female sorcery as a vision of female verbal power which stands apart from the sentences of patriarchy.(20) Thus Mademoiselle comes to represent to Edna not a masculine alternative, as some critics have assumed, but another way of being female.

Early in the novel, their special relationship has already begun. Far from feeling anxious and withdrawn, Edna has a special warmth with Mademoiselle. She even allows Mademoiselle to touch her, an action which she found uncomfortable when Addle Ratignolle attempted it. When Mademoiselle will play only to please Edna, Robert entreats her to play by saying to Edna, "I'll tell her that you want to hear her. She likes you. She will come" (p. 45). Robert has noted Mademoiselle's special preference for Edna; indeed, irascible though she is, Reisz asks Edna what selections she prefers. The music Mademoiselle chooses sends "a keen tremor down [Edna's] spine." Their relationship is already such that Edna is emotionally transported by Mademoiselle's music; for her part, Mademoiselle is deferential to and affectionate with Edna. She pats Edna on the shoulder, and Edna, choked with emotion, answers by squeezing Mademoiselle's hand.

Perhaps Edna allows Mademoiselle's affection not in spite of but because she is so peculiar; her "shuffling and sidling" (p. 45) walk differs from Adele's madonna-like gracefulness, which for Edna, reared with austere Calvinistic stoicigm, may seem cloying and overwhelming. Edna prefers to be touched by Mademoiselle's music; this inward mode of communication has a greater significance for her. Already in an aroused emotional state, she responds boldly to Robert's suggestion that they go for a midnight swim. Chopin is careful to extend the mood established by Mademoiselle's music into the setting: the moon that night is a "mystic moon"; there are rare and strange odors of perfumed flowers; the waves break on the beach like "slow, white serpents' (p. 47).

The mood is one of magic with Mademoiselle as the magician who created it. Thus, when Edna takes her first swim, she is, of course, awakening to the exhilaration of controlling her body, and to the excitement of sensuality, but as she tells Robert: "I wonder if I shall ever be stirred again as Mademoiselle Reisz's playing moved me tonight. . . . It is like a night in a dream. The people about me are like some uncanny, half-human beings" (p. 49). Edna is moved by the unreality and strangeness of the night. Robert responds with a story that on August 23, that very night, a spirit rises from the Gulf seeking a worthy mortal as a companion. A clever story which he doubtless improvises, it encapsulates Edna's desire for a spiritual and magical companion, one different from the placid Adele, the obsequious Robert, and her husband, who understands none of this.

At their next meeting Mademoiselle attempts to further her relationship with Edna. While Edna swims, Mademoiselle lingers on the shore to watch her. She herself has an aversion to water, a quality popularly associated with witches. She is eating chocolates, her treat which she eats habitually. She tells Edna that she is sympathetic to Robert, but she warns that the Mexican woman Mariequita, a former amour of Robert's brother, is a "sly one and a bad one" (p. 81). The conversation shows that Mademoiselle can arouse jealousy in Edna by questioning the motives of Robert. Having called into question his chastity, she then substitutes her own praise. She raves over Edna's appearance in a bathing suit, and gives her her address in New Orleans. The physicality of Mademoiselle's appetite is the scene's focus; she loves to eat chocolate, she loves to watch Edna in her bathing costume. Chopin is showing that women have physical desires and that women can be attracted by the physicality of other women.

In that hazy land between friendship and erotic attraction, Mademoiselle's attraction to Edna is the novel's first indication that the relationships between women are ambiguous and complex in fin-desiecle Louisiana. While the novel focuses on male-female relationships, Chopin is also interested in the subtle tones of female relationships.

After this initial meeting, the relationship between Mademoiselle and Edna is extended with Edna's three visits to Mademoiselle's apartment. The dingy, smoke-filled room, so unlike the ordered domestic household of a married woman, represents her unconventional life. She lives alone in a room in which the only accoutrements are her piano and a bust of Beethoven. Chopin selects details that establish Mademoiselle as a female outcast, a grotesque figure who resembles a witch both in her appearance and in her "unnatural" desires. Early in the scene, Mademoiselle's smile is described as a "contortion of the face and all the muscles of the body" (p. 62). Her first words to Edna are conventional words of flattery: she remarks on how "handsome," healthy, and "content" Edna looks. Softened by the compliments, Edna allows Mademoiselle to take her hand, for her a sign that she is beginning to respond to close female friendship. With Edna now receptive and calm, Mademoiselle tells of having received a letter from Robert that Edna may not see. This dialogue continues until Edna is agitated and distraught. The teasing establishes that Mademoiselle occupies a superior position to Edna; she controls Edna's access to messages from Robert and she manipulates Edna's reactions to the letters.

It is at this point that Mademoiselle delivers the important but ambiguous speech about the requirements for the artist, who must possess the courageous soul, the "soul that dares and defies" (p. 63). Mademoiselle's definition of the artist differs severely from one offered by Edna's husband in the scene preceding this one, when Leonce points out that Adele Ratignolle is able to keep her household from descending into "chaos" (p. 57) and still be a "musician"; Edna replies, "She isn't a musician and I'm not a painter. It isn't on account of painting that I let things go" (p. 57). Edna, like Mademoiselle, defies the Victorian imperative to tend house, husband, and children, but she also denies the conventional explanation that artistic ability is the cause of the aberration. Mademoiselle might be more clearly identifiable as an artist figure and unnatural woman if Chopin had made her a composer, but she would be unable to support herself. Who would buy her pieces? Would she be invited to entertain after dinner? Probably not. Mademoiselle is not the daring artist she might be; she much be careful; she must be discreet.

At the end of the scene in her flat, Mademoiselle abandons words as an interpretation of Robert's letter and translates the written words into another medium, music. As Margaret Homans shows, the function of woman as translator of one code into another medium is ubiquitous in nineteenth-century fiction.(21) The Chopin Impromptu seems to Edna to be "strange" and "fantastic"; it moves her to tears. Mademoiselle's music has the effect of "conjuring" a mood in Edna, as the narrator reports, one which resembles the loss of self Edna feels when she swims and will later feel in the sex act: "The music grew strange and fantastic - turbulent, insistent, plaintive and soft with entreaty" (p. 80). Edna sobs in response and is extremely agitated. The sexually charged description is reminiscent of similar scenes in lesbian fiction; Catharine R. Stimpson discusses the convention in early twentieth-century lesbian fiction, in which there is a "metonymic encoding" of eroticism, often with a wildly passionate kiss representing the sexual desires of the characters.(22) The rapture Edna feels and Mademoiselle's willingness to engender it suggest a passionate connection, unfulfilled in a literal sense, but present and alive symbolically.

Edna's second visit to Mademoiselle Reisz occurs on a cold misty day; Mademoiselle is again described as a grotesque, having to hold her head to the side as a result of a stiff neck. On this visit Edna tells Mademoiselle that she has decided to move into her own little house. Immediately after Edna makes this announcement, Chopin describes the little stove in the flat as "roaring, it was redhot" (p. 80), and the chocolate on the stove "sizzled and sputtered." The chocolate's sweetness and heat may again be a metonymic emblem both of Mademoiselle's desire for Edna and Edna's own turbulent emotions. This image of a small but hot cauldron extends the metaphor of Mademoiselle as a witch, albeit a lesser one than those in Macbeth; and indeed at this moment she reaches under the bust of Beethoven and like a magician produces yet another letter from Robert. Again she withholds the letter but imposes an interpretation of it by asserting that Robert loves Edna and is trying to forget her. When Edna asks why Mademoiselle refuses to let her see the letters, she replies, "Haven't you begged for them? Can I refuse you anything?" (p. 80). Robin Lakoff has pointed out that exaggerated deference can be an indirect attempt to control another individual.(23) Mademoiselle frequently uses the word captivate (p. 63) to describe how she feels in relationship to Edna. Anne Goodwyn Jones has commented that this is a metaphor for slavery (p. 176).

In playing the piano as Edna reads, Mademoiselle translates, in Margaret Homans' terms, the contents of the letter into the feelings it arouses in Edna: the "music penetrated her whole being like an effulgence, warming and brightening the dark places of her soul. It prepared her for joy and exultation" (p. 80). The use of penetrated, which prepares her for "joy," suggests the ecstatic sexual union with Robert that Edna desires. Because this feeling is elicited through the medium of Mademoiselle Reisz, Mademoiselle participates in a vicarious way in Edna's ecstasy. While James Justus calls Edna's passionate reaction an emotion with no referent in Romantic (or any other) imagery,"(24) the referent he seeks is the imagery of lesbianism. It is a sensual scene which functions visually like the erotic art of the time: two women are alone in a room, one playing music which arouses the other. Moreover, Mademoiselle attempts to supply a code to allow Edna to interpret her feelings. Mademoiselle asserts that she would only love a man with lofty aims, never a man of "ordinary caliber." The metaphor of a man as a bullet, a masculine object which penetrates the body, extends the sexual overtones of the scene. Mademoiselle's comment metaphorically juxtaposes female love as music, which penetrates and renews, with male love as a bullet fired by unworthy men who destroy. This speech forces Edna to defend both Robert and her reasons for loving such an ordinary man, and, indeed, any man. In the text, Edna is unable to produce specific reasons for loving Robert; however, in an earlier version of the manuscript Edna described Robert's physical features in great detail (Toth, p. 310). Thus, Chopin changed this section by leaving Edna's motives for loving Robert vague, perhaps to enhance Mademoiselle's argument that there is no sufficient reason for Edna's loving him. Mademoiselle's influence is emphasized by her physical position during the scene; she delivers the speech as she sits on a high piano stool and looks down at Edna, so that Edna must literally look up to her. Mademoiselle imposes further interpretations on Edna by asking if Edna loves Robert and what she plans to do when Robert comes back. Edna had not been planning to do anything, but the question implies that some action is called for.

By showing Edna these letters, and by withholding and interpreting them, Mademoiselle has complicated Edna's emotional reactions to Robert. She has kept Robert in the forefront of Edna's thoughts, she has provided the interpretation that Robert loves her, and she has aroused sexual feelings in Edna by playing music as a substitute for Robert. Mademoiselle has further impugned Robert's fidelity and his worthiness, only to have Edna respond by defending him all the more vigorously. While Edna accuses her of not understanding love, in fact Mademoiselle understands very well that feelings of love are too often based on uncertainty, jealousy, and lust, and she has effectively catered to these feelings in Edna. The scene may be one in which Mademoiselle is testing Edna's allegiances, but a contemporary such as Havelock Ellis might assert that several of the conventional traits of the lesbian as seducer are present.(25) Mademoiselle is an older woman, Edna younger. Edna is disappointed in love, is now living alone, and is interested in becoming an artist. To Ellis, she would seem to be ripe for inversion.

Always careful of her novel's structure, Chopin selects as the next scene in the novel the heterosexual scene in which Arobin and Edna mutually seduce one another. While this is a sly and amusing scene, of great interest is that in the middle of it, Edna mentions the seemingly irrelevant topic of Mademoiselle Reisz. The context of the scene is an anatomy of seduction. Arobin's technique is a primer for roues; he begins with touching Edna on the hair and working his way down. Edna is no naif in this situation; she asserts that he will soon tell her that she is "adorable . . . and captivating" (p. 82). Her comment shows that she expects Arobin, a male seducer, to use flattery and the pretense of being her slave as techniques in his quest for power over her. Her experience must be compared with what happened in the previous scene, when she was alone with Mademoiselle Reisz, who also provided ample compliments. Arobin, smooth operator that he is, cleverly denies that he would resort to mere flattery, though he says, "I shouldn't be lying if I did." It is at this moment that Edna asks if he knows Mademoiselle. Arobin's reaction seems extreme; he calls Mademoiselle "partially demented," "disagreeable," and "unpleasant." Then he and Edna begin to argue about Mademoiselle, and Edna reveals another detail of her earlier visit to Mademoiselle, that Mademoiselle had put her arms around her and felt her shoulder blades to see if her wings were strong enough to "soar above the level of plain of tradition and prejudice" (p. 82). Her recollection of this conversation in this context may confirm the sexual undertones of this advice; perhaps Mademoiselle was daring Edna to prove by some unnamed action that she is not a weakling. Arobin, exasperated by this turn in the conversation, asks, "Why have you introduced her at a moment when I desire to talk to you?" Edna puts the seduction back on course by performing a chest thrust, that is, putting her hands in back of her head, a typical gesture of sexual openness, and then telling him he can once again talk about her.

Arobin is annoyed that the topic of Mademoiselle Reisz has derailed his efficient seduction because Mademoiselle is a woman who refuses to be defined by a man. Arobin also perceives that Mademoiselle has power over Edna that interferes with his desires. Like Arobin, Mademoiselle touches Edna literally and figuratively; Mademoiselle makes Edna think, and thinking is antithetical to the feelings Arobin is trying to arouse. He admits that he is jealous of Edna's thoughts, but in fact he is jealous of the possibility that Mademoiselle has the sort of influence he would like to have over Edna. In this scene Chopin contrasts Arobin, the hyper-heterosexual, with Mademoiselle Reisz, who also touches Edna, flatters her, and has power over her. The rivalry for Edna's attentions places Arobin and Mademoiselle on a continuum of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Thus Edna's reference to Mademoiselle in the middle of Arobin's seduction shows that she recognizes that she has experienced a similar scene with Mademoiselle.

Edna attempts to visit Mademoiselle again but instead of seeing her translator, she meets the text himself, Robert. This scene draws much of its impact from the setting, since Mademoiselle's dingy flat is now charged with remembrances of the music that transported Edna, and with her torment of longing when Mademoiselle withheld Robert's letters. Seeking a more private place, they move to Edna's house, but even there Mademoiselle's influence interprets events. Robert pulls out an embroidered tobacco pouch, sewn, Edna surmises, by Mariequita, the "sly and bad one" of whom Mademoiselle had spoken. Edna's jealousy adds to her longing for Robert, so that she interprets Robert's reserve as love. In this room, Edna now "soars" above tradition: she acts; she confesses her love to Robert and kisses him. Aroused but confused and frightened, Robert is a conventional man in the end; he writes her one more letter. This is the only one of the letters which Edna reads without Mademoiselle Reisz to convey the message or interpret it; the note reads, "Good-by - because I love you" (p. 111).

Mademoiselle Reisz's role in the novel has been important. She provides Edna with an interpretation of Robert's letters by furnishing the code to explain the signs which the letters represent. Edna is susceptible to her suggestions because Mademoiselle uses the language of seduction and presents herself as an authority figure over Edna, though not the sort that Edna readily recognizes. Edna is used to male authority; her stern Calvinistic father and her husband, who thinks of her as a prized possession, embody codes that she comes to notice, understand, and reject in the course of the novel. Nor is Mademoiselle's authority that of a female parent, a role which to some extent Adele Ratignolle plays in the novel.

Mademoiselle's authority is that of the non-heterosexual, artist-outsider, who is not bound by sentimental conventions. She is presented as a witchlike figure with the ability to transport Edna to new levels of reality. She controls the important letters from Robert. She challenges Edna to defy convention and implies that Edna will be a coward if she does not do so. She is adept at using female linguistic codes of translation and mediation, but she can also use male linguistic codes of power and seduction. Thus, Chopin did not reject beliefs such as Havelock Ellis's that lesbians were interested in the seduction of women (p. 322). Nevertheless, Chopin is also accepting of Mademoiselle's positive qualities. This is apparent when Edna walks into the sea at the novel's end in part because she has despaired of understanding her experiences. Her last thought of Mademoiselle is of someone who would laugh derisively at her "pretensions" (p. 114), but who might have understood. Within the context of the 1890s, Mademoiselle Reisz is sympathetically portrayed.

An elusive but pertinent question is the extent to which Edna responds to Mademoiselle. One can see in abundance Edna's awakening to heterosexual desire and behavior, but Chopin does not limit her exploration of female sexuality. Edna's desire to be an artist; her leaving house and husband and pursuing art were activities associated with lesbians. The fact that her children are ages eight and six raises the question of where are her four- and two- and one-month old children; like Adele, she would be pregnant biannually if she and Leonce were sexually active. We understand from his comments to Dr. Mandelet that their sex life has ceased. Indeed, the early scene in the novel when Leonce returns late, awakens Edna, and starts an argument sums up the reasons there are no more babies. The lack of a satisfying sexual life, to Krafft-Ebing, was a possible source of "inversion."(26) Havelock Ellis would add that Edna's disappointment in all her relationships with men makes her susceptible to lesbian seduction; in fact, since Mademoiselle takes every opportunity to point out the failings of men in general and Robert in particular, she seems to be attempting to present herself or at least women as more suitable friends and lovers.

Edna also displays a tendency which Krafft-Ebing believed was an inevitable precursor of lesbianism (p. 397). Early in the novel as Edna rests in Madame Antoine's cottage, she removes her clothes, stretches out in bed, caresses her hair, and "looked at her round arms . . . and rubbed 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" (p. 37). The autoerotic behavior which Cynthia Griffin Wolff identifies as essentially narcissistic (p. 214) is also a sign of Edna's willingness to give herself pleasure. She is awakening to all aspects of her physical being. She desires to be with Mademoiselle Reisz, to share her most private, intimate thoughts with her, and to be physically aroused by her. Edna does not return the physical advances of Mademoiselle but neither does she shrink away from them. Ultimately Edna manifests her sexuality heterosexually, but only after the marriage plot, the adultery love plot, and the seduction plot have been undermined by her relationship with Mademoiselle.

Edna's sexuality demonstrates the rich and diverse choices available for the expression of human passion. She is not the sacred object of heterosexual criticism; she and Mademoiselle Reisz pushed against the limit of their milieu's conventional expectations of women's sexual behavior, even at a time when these conventions were rapidly changing. Cloaked in the codes of lesbianism ubiquitous in the nineteenth century, Chopin's novel nonetheless daringly presents lesbianism as a reality to be faced, perhaps even embraced, not condemned.

(1) Kate Chopin, The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, ed. Margaret Culley (New York: Norton, 1969), p. 83. (2) Elaine Showalter, "Tradition and the Female Talent," in New Essays on "The Awakening," ed. Wendy Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 46. (3) Cristina Giorcelli, "Edna's Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging," in New Essays on "The Awakening," ed. Wendy Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 137. (4) C. L. Deyo, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 20, 1899); quoted in The Awakening, ed. Margaret Culley (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 143. (5) Anne Goodwyn Jones, Tomorrow is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), p. 143. (6) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). (7) David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990). (8) Lillian Faderman, Suppressing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: William Morrow, 1981). (9) Laurie E. George, "Women's Language in The Awakening," in Approches to Teaching Kate Chopin's "The Awakening," ed. Bernard Koloski (New York: Modern Language Association, 1988). (10) Bonnie Zimmerman, "What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Criticism," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Woman, Literature and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), p. 208. (11) Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Knopf, 1985), pp. 53-77. "The Female World of Love and Ritual" first appeared in Signs in 1978. (12) Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose: 1966-1978 (New York; Norton, 1979). (13) Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), pp. 121-129. (14) Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), pp. 188-190. (15) Emily Toth, Kate Chopin (New York: William Morrow, 1990), pp. 278, 296. (16) Culley, p. 22; see also Cynthia Griffin Wolff, "Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin's The Awakening," American Quarterly, 25 (October 1973), 449-472. (17) Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), pp. 289-292. (18) The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), II, 721-722. (19) Carole Stone, "The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Birth and Creativity," Women's Studies, 13, nos. 1-2 (1986), 28. (20) Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, "Sexual Linguistics; Gender, Language, and Sexuality," New Literary History, 16 (Spring 1985), 529. (21) See Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience Nineteenth Century Women's Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). (12) Catherine R. Stimpson, "Zero Degree Deviancy: The Lesbian Novel in English," in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 246. (23) Robin Lakoff, "Stylistic Strategies within a Grammar Style," in Language, Sex, and Gender, ed. JudithOrasamu, Miriam K. Slater, and Leonore Loeb Adler (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1979), p. 66. (24) James H. Justus, "The Unawakening of Edna Pontellier," Southern Literaty Journal, 10 (Spring 1978),116. (25) Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Sexual Inversion (1897; rpt. Modern Library, 1940), p. 322. (26) Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis (1882; rpt. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1922), p. 397.
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Author:Seidel, Kathryn Lee
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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