Edna's Sense of an Ending: A Rhetorical Analysis of Chopin's Use of Narrative in The Awakening.
The scholarly response to the ending typically falls into four camps. The first camp views Edna's death as a suicide brought about by a crushing social script. There is a divide within this camp between scholars who view Edna's suicide as a conventional death-as-punishment ending that does not fit the novel and those who read it as essential to the novel's social critique. This first subgroup includes many classics of Chopin criticism: for instance, Elaine Showalter's complaint that such an unconventional narrative concludes with an ending she believes to have been externally imposed upon both character and author (81). George M. Spangler characterizes the end as "a conclusion for a novel other than the one she wrote, a conclusion for a novel much more conventional and much less interesting than <i>The Awakening</i>" (254). Rachel Blau Duplessis provides the most direct comment on the narrative implications of the novel's ending, noting that death, as opposed to marriage, is the ending merited by the female character who "has a jumbled, distorted, inappropriate relation to the 'social script' or plot designed to contain her legally, economically, and sexually" (295). More recent criticism from the second subgroup attempts to reconcile the ending to the rest of the novel by arguing that Edna's death either subverts a patriarchal society or is her last method of escape. Catherine Mainland and Marion Muirhead argue that the ending depicts the arbitrary restrictions that society has placed upon a woman with as much natural talent as a man (Mainland 84-85; Muirhead 53). Jennifer Gray sees Edna heroically and tragically escaping from the dominant patriarchal ideology that would otherwise force her into the only socially acceptable role: mother-woman (71-72).
The second camp, made famous by Sandra Gilbert, argues that Edna's end is a creative return to the feminine realm. More recently, this strain has been continued by scholars such as Angela Hailey-Gregory and Jarlath Killeen. These scholars argue that Edna plunges into the sea not to die but to be reborn as a mythic Aphrodite or feminist Madonna, free from male models. A third camp insists that Edna's end is deliberately ambiguous. Robert Treu is representative of this approach when he argues that the novel's importance lies in the questions it raises, not whether Edna wants to die--or does die--at the end: "Kate Chopin had every right, I think, to deny her readers the pleasure of an easy ending. Had she wanted to, she might have ended the novel with a funeral scene, complete with ideological clarification in the form of weeping friends" (34). Finally, a small fourth group examines the ethics of Edna's actions to argue that Chopin uses her protagonist as a warning. William Bartley reminds readers that, while Edna and other women of her day might be severely limited in their social scripts, they still commanded some authorial control over their identities (730-31), and therefore were not simply passive victims of society. Peter Ramos suggests that Edna's suicide serves as a warning of what could happen to a protagonist who seeks unattainable freedom by rejecting all available social roles (147).
Recent scholarship has also shown increasing interest in both Edna-as-artist and Chopin-as-artist readings, and has dwelled on the novel's various narrative and stylistic elements to shed light on the ending. Here, too, there is a wide spectrum of interpretations. Xianfeng Mou discusses Chopin's use of free indirect discourse to show how the character develops into an artist figure in close harmony with the narrator (104), while Muirhead examines the characters' conversational styles and argues that Edna fails to achieve self-expression as an artist (42). Rebecca Dickson analyzes narrative control in the novel to argue that Edna's story is about giving nineteenth-century women control over their lives and stories, rather than having them continue to accept the "cult of the virgin" imposed by men (43). Mainland fits <i>The Awakening</i> into the traditional genre of male bildungsroman to show how women are naturally capable of male story arcs, while Killeen examines Chopin's Catholic background in order to provide Edna with an alternate, female aesthetic model in contrast to the male-dominated, Protestant, and Enlightenment realm of Darwinian realism (433-34). Jean Witherow examines <i>The Awakening</i> in light of literary history, contrasting Chopin's narrative stance with that of Flaubert in order to reject an overly realistic or naturalistic reading in favor of a more sympathetic account of her character (110-11). This focus on female artists engaged with literary and aesthetic history in the novel has revealed Chopin's incredible artistic control over her subject matter, but no consensus has been reached as to what exactly she says by having Edna step into the waters of the Gulf at story's end.
Building from the scholarly interest in Chopin's use of narrative, I employ James Phelan and Peter Rabinowitz's theory of the rhetorical significance of narrative endings in relation to beginnings. Chopin was highly conscious of the rhetorical power inherent in those narrative elements, and there are, in fact, two narratives at work in the novel, one controlled by Edna as a self-author rewriting her own life's narrative, and the other crafted by the novel's implied author. (1) I take the position that Edna seeks to craft a narrative free from limitations, while the implied author faithfully crafts a beginning that subtly prefigures a particular end and an ending that fulfills the promises of its beginning. The end of the novel becomes the final confrontation between two differing narrative worldviews: Edna's rejection of narrative structure and the implied author's acceptance of narrative reality. This confrontation allows Chopin to comment on a universal truth about human experience: Edna steps into the water at the novel's conclusion not simply because she is a defeated or defiant woman in an oppressive society but also because her unconventional yet human aspiration towards limitlessness is literally and literarily contained within a world governed by limitation and endings. Rhetorically, then, the confrontation between the implied author's narrative and Edna's narrative reveals the dangers involved in self-creation and serves as an urgent warning for those about to embark upon their own awakening.
The beginning of the novel borders on metafiction in its awareness of itself as a beginning. While beginnings are often treated in terms of first chapters, paragraphs, or sentences, Phelan and Rabinowitz note that, narratively, beginnings can be much more expansive. In their exposition of rhetorical narrative theory, they suggest that one of the ways to view narrative sequences is through the terms of initiation (beginning), interaction (middle), and farewell (ending). The beginning as entrance
identifies both the imaginative movement of the actual reader into the storyworld at the moment of launch and the authorial audience's initial hypothesis (often inchoate) about the overall direction and shape of the narrative as it is experienced during the time of reading, what we call its configuration. ("Time" 60-61)
An adequate understanding of the initiation and configuration of the storyworld of <i>The Awakening</i> must expand to include the entire first section of the novel, which spans a gigantic swath of text, sixteen chapters, and which takes place almost entirely on Grand Isle. The beginning act is distinctly separated by location from the middle act, as the middle takes place almost entirely in New Orleans, while the final act of the novel is once more distinctly separated by location, again at Grand Isle. While the beginning is unconventionally sprawling, the end is very tightly contained in a single chapter. In the beginning section, there are constant references to firsts, openings, and beginnings as Edna experiences the start of her awakening. In the midst of this, the implied author pauses to reflect upon the nature of beginnings themselves:
A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,--the light which, showing the way, forbids it.... 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 a beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult! (Chopin 14)
The narrator is careful to note that all beginnings are like this, which, readers focusing on narrative should note, includes the beginnings of novels as well as of worlds and of individuals. Witherow emphasizes that passages such as this show that Chopin's narrator sympathizes with and, to an extent, identifies with Edna (104), unlike the typical realist narrator's detached relationship to a protagonist (103). The implied author's reflection upon beginnings here suggests not only sympathy but also a significant parallel between the creation of the storyworld and Edna's self-creation: implied author and character are fundamentally engaged in the same project with the same risks. Either their beginnings will be creative, allowing them to progress to a middle and end to their stories, or, alternatively, their beginnings will be abortive: not foreshadowing their endings, but one and the same as those endings. As Bartley notes, "<i>The Awakening</i> is about Edna Pontellier's effort to imagine, to plot, a future life sufficiently extricated from psychological, intellectual, and social constraints. This is nothing if not an artistically creative endeavor: Edna must compose her life as she might a work of fiction" (725-26). This effort is mutual, as it is necessary for both the implied author and Edna-as-self-author. The stakes for Edna's awakening and <i>The Awakening</i> are the same: Will they be among the very few souls (or books) which manage to emerge from the beginnings of their narratives and imagine a plot, or will they be like the great majority who are stillborn?
Before examining the implied author's narrative and comparing the two, it is essential to trace Edna's attempts to construct her own narrative. As Edna gains awareness of her place as an individual character in this narrative world, she becomes aware of existing in a beginning: "She could only realize that she herself--her present self--was in some way different from the other self" (Chopin 39). The chaos and ambiguity of this beginning is absolute for Edna: she cannot sense how the narrative of her awakening will go. As she reflects upon her summer with her friend, Adele Ratignolle, she characterizes it as like the memory of a green meadow from her childhood:
I was just walking diagonally across a big field. My sun-bonnet obstructed the view. I could see only the stretch of green before me, and I felt as if I must walk on forever, without coming to the end of it.... .... sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided. (17)
Edna knows that something has begun, but she has no sense of an ending; just as the field seemed to not have a limit, her walk through it had neither direction nor purpose. While she had no purpose for wandering in the meadow, Edna did have a reason for being there. She had been running away from her family's Presbyterian service. This fact does more than merely demonstrate Edna's apostasy from religion; that she was running away from a church service adds significance to the seeming endlessness of the meadow, as the Christian narrative requires both a beginning and an end, and the roles of each are defined. Paul Fiddes notes in his treatment of narrative endings in religion and literature that
In the Christian West we have read history according to the narrative of the Christian drama of creation and redemption, organized by its ending in the apocalypse of the new creation.... History is regarded as God's story, and when the story has been revealed to us through the Bible, we can make sense of history. (9)
The beginning contains the end far more definitely for Presbyterians than for Catholics like Edna's neighbors and husband. Those who "emerge" from a Calvinistic beginning were predestined to do so, while those many more souls that perish have also a set narrative of predestination, with their eternal end contained literally in their beginning. From such a rigid understanding of narrative beginnings and endings, the child Edna fled into a field seemingly with neither an end nor a purpose, rejecting the teleological narrative of Christianity.
Edna's aversion to endings is emphasized at various points in the opening act of the novel. The first description of Edna by the implied author comments that she "had a way of turning [her eyes] swiftly upon an object and holding them there as if lost in some inward maze of contemplation or thought" (Chopin 5). A maze is, of course, a contraption in which the beginning is clearly defined but the way to the hidden ending has been obscured. Those lost in a maze are so because they cannot comprehend the organizational pattern that will guide them to the end. Again, when she finally learns how to swim, Edna does not think of her accomplishment as a fulfillment of the "desired end" seen by those around her as the teleological fulfillment of an entire summer's effort. Instead, Edna couches it in terms of being a baby taking its first steps: only as a beginning. She does desire to utilize this beginning, but does not articulate a clear end or goal. Rather, she "grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before" (27). The end of her desired swim is certainly further than her own bodily limits allow, for she seems "to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself" (28). Time and again, Edna searches for the limitless. This disregard for endings renders her beginning aimless. After she first asserts her will over her husband and lies in the hammock until the small hours of the morning, Edna's dreams leave "only an impression upon her half-awakened senses of something unattainable" and, after waking up and stepping outside, "she was not seeking refreshment or help from any source, either external or from within. 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" (31-32). The loss of a sense of narrative purpose manifests itself in an intense dissatisfaction with the day-to-day sorts of ends and limitations that Edna would normally accept: she leaves church before the end of Mass, rejecting the "stifling atmosphere" in favor of the "open air" (34-35). Edna rejects the contained space in favor of limitless space and dismisses the importance of the service's narrative: Catholic Mass is theologically arranged with the beginning and middle liturgically preparing the way for the all-important end. It is significant that Edna cannot stay to the end, given her budding antipathy for such narrative elements. Not only does she reject endings provided by life, but she also rejects creating them in narratives. When she does not complete her sons' bedtime story, she leaves them to speculate wildly upon what the ending might be rather than go to bed, which had been the original purpose of telling the story (42).
In the midst of this, an ending is imposed upon her: Robert, clearly uncomfortable with their growing attachment that summer, has decided to leave for Mexico. Edna cannot "read" this end, instead coping by refusing all attempts to make narrative sense of it:
The past was nothing to her; offered no lesson which she was willing to heed. The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate. The present alone was significant; was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded. (44)
Here at the end of the beginning of her awakening, Edna does not have a clear sense of any narrative elements. Her beginning feels like a loss and holds no direction she might take in her quest to rewrite her story; it does not contain any promised end (or, more significantly, no end she is willing to acknowledge). She does not even try to "read ahead" using traditional narrative structures or natural human curiosity to guess where it will go. In other words, she does not view her life as a narrative even as she has experienced an awakening affording her awareness of her status as a character in a narrative world. From such a beginning Edna must emerge, if she hopes to have an ending that does not end in the tumult of her beginning.
While the middle portion of the novel involves Edna as actively rewriting her social script, she continues to neglect narrative structure. At this stage, Edna is no longer waking up. Her beginning is indeed over and now she must establish some sort of emergent narrative middle and ending from it. In many ways, Edna acts as if she is in a narrative middle in her life choices in New Orleans, since she significantly changes her lifestyle and thereby seems intent to advance her life's plot. This activity, according to Mainland, signals a male-centered bildungsroman story arc for Edna as her awakening moves from childhood (represented by her small sons) to a youthful flirtation with Robert to the independence and emancipation of a young adult in the affair with Arobin (75). Indeed, following up on her awakened sense of individualism, she increasingly drops her adherence to "<i>les convenances</i>," the social conventions that have limited her so drastically, and explores alternative identities as an artist and a sexually free woman who increasingly participates in traditionally male activities such as gambling. Mainland argues that this signals a maturation, as Chopin gives Edna a traditional male narrative structure to prove that women are capable of male story arcs (75).
Edna's inability to accept narrative structure undermines her successes: her attempt to become a new woman is as impulsive and as unsteady as the maternal instincts that have separated her out as an unfit mother in a world of mother-women. This unsteady grasp on her new identity is betrayed by Edna's alternation from exuberance with her freedom from limitations and purposes to dread that her story is not going anywhere or is headed inevitably towards its end. These differing emotional frameworks in the middle section match the two promises of Edna's beginning: one is happy, while the other evokes death. The pictures associated with these feelings in Edna's mind are significant:
There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. (Chopin 56)
These happy days are a psychological continuation of wandering in that childhood meadow, escaping from endings. On one hand, her happiness stems from a present-oriented focus, as nothing is more immediate than breathing. On the other hand,
There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why,--when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. (56)
In other words, Edna fluctuates--without being able to understand why--between celebrating her disavowal of all endings and feeling unable to avoid the ultimate of all endings: annihilation. Being trapped does not bode well for her, as it recalls the tumultuous beginning when she was at risk of perishing unless she could find a way to emerge. Additionally, while Edna externally appears to be progressing in self-creation, her inner turmoil suggests that her maturation is stagnant. What makes Edna most happy is not progress but stasis, while forward movement is only negative.
While the middle section shows Edna actively rewriting her social narrative--her affair with Arobin, her rejection of familial bonds, including with her husband, her father, her sister, and, to some degree, her own children--the dominant movement of her narrative is towards monotony. For instance, just after she has remarkable success at predicting the ending of the horse races, Edna returns home and attempts to entertain herself in her empty house: "She wanted something to happen--something, anything; she did not know what.... But there was nothing else to do, so she went to bed, and tossed there for hours in a sort of monotonous agitation" (72). Edna can predict the endings of trivial things, such as a race, but cannot use her talents to predict her own. The entire middle portion of the novel becomes a quest to find something that can give her narrative meaningful forward movement. Muirhead suggests that Edna's desire to express herself as an artist is the meaningful goal in the middle section and that her "failure to articulate her feelings and to gain access to discourse contributes to her demise, as does being denied access to her chosen profession of painting, another form of self-expression" (42). It is true that Edna--and therefore the implied author as well as Chopin herself--exists in a world where there appear to be only two viable options: doting wife and mother (Adele) or sexually frigid and isolated spinster-artist (Mile. Reisz). But the novel does not make it entirely society's fault that Edna does not succeed as an artist. Rather, just as her entire valuation of life fluctuates by the day and the weather, so too does her desire to paint. The implied author informs us that Edna could not paint when it was not sunny outside, and even when the sun was out, "being devoid of ambition, and striving not toward accomplishment, she drew satisfaction from the work in itself" (Chopin 70). Even as an artist, Edna has no concrete goals, and is quite literally a "fair weather fan." The label of "profession" is not apt here--Edna is an artistic dilettante only. Because Edna will not create the necessary goals that would allow her forward movement in her narrative, she betrays her role of self-author:
moving toward "some image of the future" and the variety of goals or ends that give it form requires an act of the hypothetical imagination, both in terms of imaging the goals themselves and the steps needed to achieve them. This requirement is true for ends or goals in the long or short term, whether grand or mundane, good or evil. (Bartley 730)
Edna's inability to commit makes her "a protagonist whose unwillingness to continue dedicating herself to any of the available social roles leads her to abandon all of them in favor of an enticing yet ever-elusive freedom, the kind one associates with a tantalizing, idyllic childhood" (Ramos 147). Indisputably, the available social roles are overly restrictive, but it does not seem plausible that, given a different set of circumstances, Edna's troubles would be solved simply by having more options, since she would still encounter the limitations that are part of the human condition.
Because Edna rejects the interrelatedness of beginnings and endings, she cannot actually craft a narrative that can emerge from its beginning, because in order to progress, it must be pointed toward some purpose, some sort of end. As in the opening act, she does not include endings in the stories she relates. While trading tales at the first dinner party, Edna tells the story of two lovers who slipped off in a boat, sailed away together, "and never came back. They were lost amid the Baratarian Islands, and no one ever heard of them or found a trace of them from that day to this" (Chopin 67). The story's conclusion gives no real closure: Where were they going? Did they drown or did they escape to some remote area to be alone together? While the implied author does not record what the adult audience's reaction was to such a non-ending, if Raoul and Etienne had snuck down from bed and were listening in, they surely would have spent the remainder of the evening speculating wildly once again over the (non)ending of one of their mother's stories. This same evasion of endings comes again after Edna has moved into the pigeon house. When she visits her sons, who are staying at their grandmother's house, the boys ask their mother what will happen when they and their father come home to New Orleans. Rather than face the reality that her idealized existence in the cottage with no social responsibilities cannot go on indefinitely, Edna promises her sons that "the fairies would fix it all right" (90). While this easy conclusion might satisfy children, one gets the sense throughout the latter half of the middle section that Edna has no plan. In fact, less than a single page after the boys ask where they and their father will fit into the pigeon house, Madame Ratignolle asks the same question. The implied author does not give us Edna's answer, but Adele's reaction speaks volumes: "In some way you seem to me like a child, Edna. You seem to act without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary in this life" (91). Ramos notes that this childishness is indicative of Edna's false conception of freedom, which constitutes a rejection of all restriction and definition. From an ethical standpoint, Ramos argues that Edna's failure to define herself renders her life meaningless, her resulting death serving as a warning against such an understanding of freedom (147). In other words, Edna's response to the future and to approaching ends and limits is to leave everything up to the fairies, rejecting reality in favor of fantasy in an irresponsible and unsustainable bid to maintain an eternal present.
The fantasy is shattered by some very real ends that Edna cannot avoid. These ends originate in elements that have been present in the storyworld from the beginning, and as such are not imposed on Edna by the implied author but are the natural result of what has been building throughout the narrative. First, Adele Ratignolle, who is pregnant throughout the novel, actually gives birth. Edna's narrative of birth is entirely tied to beginnings and endings: thinking back about her own experiences, she remembers "awakening to find a little new life to which she had given being, added to the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go" (Chopin 104). Souls that come and go: childbirth is the beginning of the end because life ends with death, and Edna's dread comes from that inevitable encounter of beginnings with promised, unavoidable ends. Significantly, there is no room in her image of childbirth for middles or for a life in between birth and death that gives any meaning to those beginnings and ends: the souls are unnumbered, faceless. Edna cannot find a way to make the story meaningful; she can see an ending only as limitation rather than <i>telos</i>. Madame Ratignolle begs her to think of the children, suggesting that the personal connection of putting faces, identities, and relationships on those unnumbered souls might counteract the existential despair that otherwise follows from such a definition of the end of the narrative of life. But Edna can see her children only as forces that would seek to control her narrative rather than to aid in its meaning.
The next ending with which Edna must contend is Robert's final departure after the young man cannot bring himself to consummate the couple's illicit relationship. The beginning of the novel foreshadowed this end, if only Edna had paid attention. Both the implied author and Adele Ratignolle described Robert's penchant for casual flirting with married women. Robert flirts the same way Edna paints: without a goal. As it is, Edna's inability to cope with endings continues here, and there are no fairies to set it right. However, Edna has pushed all plans from her mind in favor of the present moment, which she believes she has with Robert, waiting for her at home: "Tomorrow would be time to think of everything" (106). The future with all of its conclusions and decisions is pushed away in favor of a present of fantasy with no responsibilities and no limits--that is, until Edna returns to find the empty house and the note that gives the budding relationship a final, disappointing ending.
These two endings presented to Edna push her into her actual narrative end. Significantly, the final section of the novel is entirely located at Grand Isle, back where the beginning occurred. However, it has become "dreary and deserted" (107), a stark contrast from the novel's beginning. Amanda Lee Castro highlights these differences in Chopin's description of the island location, at first a utopia and then a scene of apocalypse, noting that such a shift in description is not unique to <i>The Awakening</i>. Rather, the hurricanes, which all but ended the resort life on the islands, caused nineteenth-century vacationers to feel as if they had lost an unfallen Eden: "Readers of the time were faced with what to them was already a post-apocalyptic setting, but for readers today, that same atmosphere is evoked by the pervasive imagery of desolation in the landscape of Grand Isle and Cheniere Caminada" (Castro 78). The landscape of that promising beginning is now thrown into chaos by the tumultuous weather in a sinister incarnation of the implied author's warning about failed beginnings. Whether Edna intends to commit suicide or not as she prepares for her final swim seems, despite years of scholarly debate, impossible to conclude for certain, and perhaps Treu is correct when he suggests that Chopin might have intended it that way: "In the end, we have mistaken the author for her creation by assigning to her work inferences that provide a sense of closure she did not necessarily intend to give us" (34). On the level of Edna's narrative, at least, it seems certain that the ending is still concerned with seeking the limitless present--Edna is not seeking closure. She has returned to the source of her awakening in a last desperate attempt to reclaim that moment, but time has moved on and Grand Isle has become a desolate ending, not a promising beginning. She is at her end, but she still has no sense of it: rather, she stands naked under the sky, feeling "like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known" (Chopin 109). Her maturation arc has stalled; her movement into the sea is her way to elude, not just her children's demands upon her, but every human connection and every concrete identity. Edna is rejecting any and all definition of her as an individual, not just society's rigid conception of her. Because she has rejected all narrative structure and limitation for herself, Edna cannot survive her beginning and will become one of the many souls whom the implied author had warned perish in their failed beginnings. Edna's final thoughts are a search for that field with no beginning and no ending, but her swiftly tiring limbs betray her, trying fruitlessly to remind her that there are endings, and that the meadow had only seemed to have no limits.
While Edna's swim into the Gulf is the final surrender of her role as an author constructing a viable narrative, the implied author is not surrendering control of her narrative. Rather, the implied author is highly conscious of the interconnectedness of beginnings and endings throughout the novel, constructing a beginning that deliberately contains subtle yet significant hints of its promised ending. The most overt similarity between the beginning and the ending is that the narrative circles back to the exact spot where the novel began. Additionally, the novel's love triangles, affairs, and suicides are quietly teased in the opening scenes by means of operatic music as the Farival twins sing duets from <i>Zampa</i> throughout the summer. <i>Zampa</i>, by Louis Joseph Ferdinand Herold, involves a half dozen or so star-crossed lovers who all meet tragic ends; the titular character's faithlessness results in more than one death and he ends the opera being dragged to Hell by the statue of his wronged and dead lady. Robert alludes to romantic death and love triangles as he flippantly banters about the "spirits abroad tonight." Edna feels them as she begins her awakening reverie in the hammock:
On the twenty-eighth of August, at the hour of midnight ... a spirit that has haunted these shores for ages rises up from the Gulf. With its own penetrating vision the spirit seeks some one mortal worthy to hold him company, worthy of being exalted for a few hours into realms of the semi-celestials. His search has always hitherto been fruitless, and he has sunk back, disheartened, into the sea. But tonight he found Mrs. Pontellier. Perhaps he will never wholly release her from the spell. Perhaps she will never again suffer a poor, unworthy earthling to walk in the shadow of her divine presence. (29)
From a narrative perspective, Robert's fanciful story suggests the outcome of the novel: Beings who are fruitless in their search for worthy company sinking disheartened into the sea perfectly describes Edna at the end of the story as she sinks into the sea after concluding that "There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone" (108). Edna becomes the figure who rejects the limits of mortality and all of the companions whose relationships involve limitations to her "divine presence." Treu suggests that Robert's story could be a sly reference to Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther," as the date is Werthers birthday (30-31). Werther had been involved in a love triangle with a married woman and heroically and tragically decided to end the affair with his suicide. The suicide made such an impact on the audience that there were real-life imitations for years afterward, and a minor switching of roles gives the basic external plot of <i>The Awakening</i>. Thus, the implied author weaves together <i>Zampa</i>, Robert's story, and "The Sorrows of Young Werther" to tease the tragic finale in its very beginning. The necessary imagination of the future Bartley points out as lacking in Edna's self-narrative is very much present in these subtle suggestions of the novel's ending.
The beginning section also enacts in miniature the skeletal plot of the entire novel, literally containing a possible version of the promised story within itself: Edna has a moment of awakening to selfhood, gains independence (in the form of learning to swim), flirts with a man other than her husband (albeit in a socially acceptable and relatively safe manner), and asserts her will over her husband. As will happen again in the novel, Edna's husband leaves for business in the middle of the first section, freeing Edna to spend much more time with Robert, to the point that their relationship tests the limits of what is acceptable and Robert leaves, just as he will do at the end. The end of the beginning reflects back upon itself as Edna and Mlle. Reisz think about how the summer had gone and give it a narrative conclusion: "It has been a pleasant summer.... rather pleasant, if it hadn't been for the mosquitoes and the Farival twins" (Chopin 47). The women's words serve to wrap up the whole vacation and section of the novel with a conclusion. By including this conversation, the implied author indicates the rhetorical importance of conclusions: they should serve as a way of evaluating the whole of what came before. The summer has not been pleasant for Edna in many ways, and this ending is as false as the conversation is conventional. If the novel had ended in such a manner, we would be right to be disappointed about an overly easy arrival at closure. But the novel, unlike its protagonist, does not join the multitude of souls who perish in the tumult of their beginnings. Rather, the middle replays the narrative elements of the beginning with additions and alterations in order to advance the plot, raising the stakes for both protagonist and novel so that the implications of Edna's awakening extend far beyond the pleasantness of a summer vacation. As the implied author describes Edna throwing off narrative patterns and structure, her own narrative closely follows the pattern she established in her narrative beginning.
The implied author repeats more than just the structure of the plot. The most significant repetition of the novel is in the opening and closing scenes. Just after the implied author's all-important warning about beginnings, she connects them to the sea:
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! The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude, to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace. (14)
While the description is enrapturing, the idea of souls perishing in tumult makes the sea's invitation dangerous. This troubling promise of the beginning is repeated with devastating finality at the end. As Edna is enveloped in despondency, imagining her children as antagonists and Arobin as one lover among a list of meaningless faces of other lovers, the implied author cuts in: "The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude." Immediately afterward, the implied author draws our attention to the bird with the broken wing, "reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water" (108). As the waves touch Edna's feet, the narrative repeats again, "The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace" (109). The bird will drown and the body will grow tired in the sea just a few short lines later. The implied author's warning from the beginning is fulfilled in the end, though Edna, only a character and not the author of this narrative level, cannot see it. Instead, Edna is focused on her own repeated element in the narrative: the childhood memory of bees and pinks, the cavalry officer's spurs on the porch, and most importantly, that bluegrass meadow with no apparent beginning or ending. Edna inserts that memory both in the novel's beginning and ending, demonstrating a fundamental divide between the implied author and herself as narrative artists, for while the implied author emphasizes her interest in the narrative structure of beginnings and endings by her repetitions, Edna's repetitions are non-narrative, featuring the illusion of an endless present with no beginnings and no endings.
Rhetorically, the implied author's ending is not so much punishing a morally errant character or limiting a woman with a male-controlled script as it is warning against Edna's method of rebellion and self-creation. Edna attempts to throw off the entire structure of scripts, which leaves her story directionless and meaningless, and therefore as artistically effective as the still-life topics which make up her artistic endeavors. Edna cannot be a powerful artist in the self-creation of her new identity. Because she refuses to choose what sort of end she wants, Edna's ending is chosen for her: a failed artist and a failed new sort (or even traditional sort) of woman. Witherow's emphasis on Chopin's obvious pathos for her character, as well as the overt parallels which the implied author creates between storyworld and character, are significant in reading the rhetoric of this ending. <i>The Awakening</i> is unlike the typical naturalistic novel in that the implied author stays with Edna in her last moments instead of gazing at her from an emotionally safe and disinterested distance, and so gives the reader Edna's last desperate fantasies of that limitless meadow. The note that Edna's legs are swiftly growing tired almost feels like an attempt by the implied author to break the wall that separates her from her character to warn Edna of the consequences of not acknowledging some limitations. The silence at the end, as the reader closes the book knowing that Edna has not turned around and is now too far from the shore, fulfills the subtly promised end of the beginning, but the implied author cuts away, almost as if it is too painful to watch. Edna has failed in her attempt to become the author of her own story, but the novel's narrative is successful insofar as it shows the difficulties inherent in challenging social conventions in order to become a great artist or a new sort of woman. The clash between Edna's artistic method and that of the implied author demonstrates that while both feel the same restrictiveness and mediocrity in Edna's former life and society, Edna misdiagnoses the problem. While Edna rejects narrative ends in an attempt to find meaning, the implied author uses Edna to warn the reader against the dangers that lie ahead in her own possible awakening.
Ultimately, <i>The Awakening</i> is the story of a woman who, faced with an incredibly limiting world, lashes out against limitation itself in her attempt to write her own story and choose her own fate. In doing so, she limits her possible future even more than the most patriarchal society ever could. Her insistence upon narrative presents and artistic still-lives means that she is incapable of playing the long game, the "hectic improvisation of means and ends--the slow and painful approaches to what would always be a succession of partial deliverances, the process bearing fruit only in a future beyond her generation" (Bartley 742). The ability to play this game was characteristic of the life stories of many of the feminist pioneers of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Nor is she capable of accepting a limited sort of freedom, such as Madame Ratignolle's quiet "feminism at home," which finds meaning and freedom within the reality of the given situation (Streater 406). Those women were able to imagine viable narrative futures despite limitations. Chopin herself, writing stories such as <i>The Awakening</i>, and, even more so, "The Storm," could imagine narrative ends that allowed her to continue her artistic project despite her limiting literary and social climate. Edna, however, with her rejection of ends, cannot accept a world where her imaginative bird cannot fly forever into eternity, untiring, unopposed, and unattached.
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--. "Time, Plot, Progression." Herman et al. 57-65.
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University of Saint Michael's College
(1) Phelan and Rabinowitz emphasize the importance of maintaining the distinctions between the actual author (here, the flesh-and-blood Kate Chopin), the implied author (the fictive voice assumed by the author), and characters who are very controlling of the narrative ("Authors"). <i>The Awakening</i> employs a significant amount of free indirect discourse stemming from many of its characters--most frequently, Edna herself.
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2016|
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