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The reawakening: Kate Chopin and the wages of liberation.

Discussed in this essay:

Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert. Library of America, 2002. 1,071 pages. $35.

At this point, it seems safe to say that the debate about what belongs in the American literary canon has been won definitively by the barbarians at the gate. The New Critics' formalist criteria for a masterpiece, which once excluded slave narratives, eighteenth-century memoirs by women, and travel writing on the grounds that they did not qualify as sufficiently literary, have had the political core of their aesthetic judgments exposed to the degree that the very idea of aesthetic excellence is now rarely even invoked. The New Historicist school, which values literature for what it says about the consciousness of a cultural epoch, has resuscitated such popular works as Susan Warner's Wide, Wide World, a book that went through fourteen editions in the mid-nineteenth century. And in an essay published in this magazine by Jane Smiley, which has been widely taught and discussed in the academy during the last decade, Smiley argued that Uncle Tom's Cabin was a greater novel than Huck Finn because it denounces the institution of slavery.

Perhaps our most interesting rediscoveries, though, are books that by any criteria--political vision, cultural representativeness, even the old New Critical benchmarks of complexity, ambiguity, and irony--qualify as great yet were somehow passed over. Writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Zora Neale Hurston have been seized upon by critics, in particular the trauma theorists, who psychoanalyze history looking for cultural ruptures, repressions, disassociations. To their way of thinking, these writers' books fell into oblivion not because their natural reading lifetimes had elapsed but because they mounted social critiques so threatening that the cultures they sought to engage could not take in their message, and so actively repressed them.

Of these newly canonized novels, Kate Chopin's phoenix, The Awakening--the story of an ordinary woman who tries to step out of the narrative that society has written for her--is prima sui generis. Published in 1899, it has gone from being an out-of-print book with no critical listings in the MLA Bibliography to being one of the most often taught works of American literature. Now widely recognized as the first masterpiece written by an American woman--a feat celebrated in the Library of America's recent edition of Chopin's complete works--The Awakening is the book that both culminated Chopin's career and ended it.

Born to a Missouri family in 1851, Kate Chopin came to writing late, as a thirty-nine-year-old widow with a large family to support. She had been a reader of Cervantes and Dostoevsky, of Goethe in German and Hugo in French, and once she began writing, the work erupted. From 1889 until 1901, she published two novels, thirteen essays, translations of Maupassant, poems, and more than a hundred stories.

Her own marriage, by all accounts amicable, produced six children in nine years. But what her fiction explores, to paraphrase Tolstoy, is how every unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way. In her first novel, At Fault, a widow reproves a Northern man who is farming her estate, after discovering that he has divorced his alcoholic wife; when he tries to resuscitate the doomed marriage, it collapses a second time, and his wife, fleeing the knowledge that her husband has fallen in love with his employer, drowns in a flood. Although Chopin's stories contain the occasional episode of connubial bliss, more representative is "In Sabine," which depicts a young neglected wife who cunningly escapes her spouse, or "The Storm," in which an hour-long adulterous romp is more satisfying to the two lovers involved than anything in their marriages. In "The Story of an Hour," the protagonist nearly faints with joy when she believes her husband to have been killed in a train wreck, only to collapse of a heart attack when he walks through the door.

The self-published At Fault was well received, and the seeds of Chopin's distinguishing strength, a nuanced morality, are already notable; although critics interpreted the tale as a judgment of the havoc wreaked by a drunken wife, Chopin leaves open the question of who is to blame for the tragedy. But At Fault is a work that creaks with too many characters and too much plot, and after her second novel, Young Dr. Gosse, was rejected by publishers, Chopin destroyed the manuscript and began to hone her craft to match her sophisticated vision. She set the short stories of her next two collections among the Cajuns of Natchitoches, where Chopin and her family had moved from New Orleans in 1879 after her husband's cotton business failed. The first collection, Bayou Folk, earned her a broad, enthusiastic readership that welcomed her as a talented regionalist. Chopin was a gifted mime, who entertained family and friends by imitating others, and she translated her effortless mimicry onto the page; the stories evoke an outsider with a glass to her ear, leaning against the walls of Louisiana's cabins and shacks. Although the dialogue is, at times, so orthographically mangled that reading it is like hiking on boulders, the concise form of the short story enabled Chopin to dispense with the sitting-duck social satire, dangling subplots, and, in most cases, the melodrama of her first novel. What remained was her determination to shuck the hulls of convention, to observe closely the world outside herself, and to explore the inner lives of her characters--regardless of their station, color, or moral fiber.

Although there are a few racist chestnuts in Bayou Folk--such as "The Benitous' Slave," about a man who is determined to find and serve the family to whom he once belonged--Chopin had begun to examine the nuances of power, the problem of resisting the roles that a biased culture imposes upon individuals. In the guise of an amicable character sketch, "A Gentleman of Bayou Teche" explores the fundamental right to self-definition of Evariste, a Cajun trapper whom a visiting artist wants to paint. Evariste is all too aware of the condescending exoticism that the artist, trawling for bits of "local color," is trying to fake: "He want' me like I come out de swamp. So much betta if my pant'loon an' coat is tore, he say, an' color' like de mud." When Evariste learns that the painting is to be titled A 'Cajun o' the Bayou Teche, he is appalled enough to return the substantial two-dollar payment. Eventually, however, he exacts an agreement from the artist to be painted as he himself wants to be seen--in his good clothes: "'You will put on'neat' de picture,' he said deliberately, 'Dis is one picture of Mista Evariste Anatole Bonamour, a gent'man of de Bayou Teche.'"

In A Night in Acadie, a second short-story collection that was published in 1897, Chopin's artistry had nearly caught up with her eye. Her sentences became more fluid; her language less likely to succumb to terms like "picaninny" and "darkies." With "At Cheniere Caminada," "Athenaise," and other stories, she began to cultivate the rich thematic and stylistic terrain of The Awakening. In "Athenaise," a woman leaves her new husband because, in Chopin's wry circumlocution, she can't stand to have "his ugly bare feet ... in [her] tub." The husband, Cazeau, who seems more concerned for the pony she has ridden off with than for his wife, retrieves Athenaise and demands her return. On their way home, however, Cazeau is unpleasantly reminded of when he and his father hunted down an escaped slave whom everyone had deemed a fool for running away from such a considerate master. The next time Athenaise leaves, Cazeau writes her a letter explaining that he will not force her to come back unless she can return his affection. Only after Cazeau abandons the role of master can Athenaise begin to love him.

Strong as they are, the stories lack the precision and daring of The Awakening, a book so masterful that it makes all of Chopin's previous efforts seem like a rehearsal. Whereas At Fault explored a marriage doomed by alcoholism, and the stories were primarily set among the exotic, mixed-race, French-speaking denizens of distant Louisiana, The Awakening skewers a stable marriage in Chopin's own elite, white milieu.

At a beach resort where Edna Pontellier and her children are vacationing, the Creole hotel keeper's son, Robert Lebrun, picks Edna as this summer's flirtation partner. Twenty-eight years old, Edna learns how to swim and comes to a Whitmanesque sensual awakening. After a near encounter with death out in the water, she begins to recognize her own dissatisfaction and to conceive of a life bigger than her bourgeois marriage can contain. But Robert, who had not expected Edna to take him seriously, flees to Mexico when their growing love for each other threatens to compromise Edna's social position.

Had Chopin stopped there, and condemned Edna to regretful longing or to a punishing Karenina-type suicide, her novel might have flared better with its original audience. But Chopin refused to immolate her heroine on anyone's morality. Instead, Edna, who has been reading Emerson, responds to her custody by extricating herself from it with calculated deliberation. She stops sleeping with her husband, sends him away on an extended business trip, and packs the children off to their grandmother. She begins sketching, sells her sketches, and moves into a house she can afford on her earnings. With "neither shame nor remorse," she enters into an affair with a roue, Alcee Arobin, which is about desire rather than love. When Robert returns, offering to "save" Edna from her fate as a fallen woman, Edna finds his marriage proposal risible. Never again, she says, will she belong to anyone except herself. Unlike any of Chopin's previous heroines, Edna forgoes love because she cannot accept what she would have to do in order to get it. With the revelation that she cannot find a place for the person she has become, nothing is left for Edna but to return to Grand Isle and drown herself in the sea.

Chopin's intended title, A Solitary Soul, elegantly suggested the wages of Edna's liberation. But her publisher--perhaps hoping to attract enthusiasts of the religious-conversion narratives that were enormously popular toward the end of the nineteenth century--preferred The Awakening. As a result, the title of the novel promised something quite different from the bleak, existential narrative Chopin delivered, and readers were decidedly not amused. Although critics acknowledged that the book was well written, they assailed it from two, seemingly opposite, positions. The Awakening's subversiveness was attacked as "morbid," "essentially vulgar," and "gilded dirt." The novel, according to one critic, "leaves one sick of human nature." At the same time, the book was resoundingly drubbed for adding to the tired genre of female romantic fantasy. A young Willa Cather, who otherwise admired Chopin's writing, reproached the novel's theme as "trite and sordid," and accused Edna of belonging to a "forever clamoring" class of women "that demands more romance out of life than God put into it." "We are all well satisfied," another critic remarked, "when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death." There were two basic genres of fiction permitted to American women authors: morality tales and romance novels. The Awakening failed on both counts.

As more critics misread her masterpiece as a tale about failed wifedom or failed romance, Chopin fell into a depressive decline. After The Awakening, she could not go back to writing less provocative, more acceptable books. But without critical or popular recognition, neither could she build on her achievement. The royalty statements for The Awakening succinctly document Chopin's downward spiral: in 1899, she earned $109; in 1900, $40; and in 1901, $3. Cather expressed the hope that "next time ... Miss Chopin will devote that flexible iridescent style of hers to a better cause." But there wouldn't be a next time. The publication of a third collection of stories, A Vocation and a Voice, which had been accepted in 1898, was canceled in 1900 after The Awakening foundered. Chopin's health declined, and in 1904 she died at fifty-three of a brain hemorrhage.

Contrary to popular lore, Chopin's chef d'oeuvre was not banned--though a ban might have done her a service, as it did Twain, Nabokov, Lawrence, and Joyce, by trumpeting the work's enormous power to disturb. Instead, fifty years of oblivion befell it. Not until 1956 did anyone write about The Awakening again, and not until a French translation was published did Edmund Wilson praise it as an "uninhibited and beautifully written [book] which anticipates D. H. Lawrence." But even then, The Awakening continued to be read as an American Bovary, as a romance novel rather than an existential one. As late as 1971, Jean Stafford wrote that Chopin was demonstrating the obvious: that married women could indeed have selfish, unchaste thoughts that might lead them to trample upon marriage and motherhood.

In the late 1980s some feminist critics--who, in the decade before, had championed the book as a feminist anthem and Edna as a classic victim of patriarchy--began to turn on The Awakening, criticizing the way that Edna fails to bond with the other women in the novel. Rather than departing from tradition, they argued, Edna was a stale reiteration of a long masculine tradition of seeing independence, and self, in isolation. In 1988, Elaine Showalter posited in Tradition and the Female Talent that Edna's solitude is the reason her emancipation fails, because she never moves beyond "her own questioning to the larger social statement that is feminism." Andrew Delbanco went further, arguing that the novel "is about a woman passing for a man." Katherine Kearns derided Edna as somebody who "systematically nullifies herself as she nullifies others in her search for the masculinely defined grail." Even the novelist Marilynne Robinson, in a more positive take, maintained that Chopin had endowed Edna with "a compulsion to discover her self by isolating it from all bonds." Lloyd Daigrepont echoed the critique of Chopin's time, condemning Edna's quest as unhealthy, and arguing that she has "a somewhat immature and self-centered personality" because she cannot cherish the ideal of "marital friendship" exemplified by Edna's friends, the Ratignolles. Marriage must, Daigrepont seems to suggest, be happy somewhere.

To be sure, Chopin's hostility toward certain aspects of "women's culture" was evident. In 1889, the first year in which she was published, Chopin echoed the spirit of Hawthorne's famous jab about those "d--d ... scribbling women" with "Miss Withetwell's Mistake." The story parodies the career of an unmarried journalist who contributes to the Boredomville Battery with hackneyed trinkets such as "Security Against the Moth," "A Word to Mothers," and "The Use and Abuse of the Corset." Chopin derides not just the literature of the women's page but the matrons who read it as Bible. When a niece seeking advice for an ill-fated love affair pretends she needs a resolution for a story, Miss Witherwell advises her that the hero must "perform some act to ingratiate himself with the obdurate parent." Not surprisingly, Miss Witherwell adores tidying up, claiming that her "most pungent conceptions" came to her while sprinkling camphor in the folds of winter curtains, or while lining the trunks with tar paper.

In an autobiographical essay written six months after The Awakening was published, Chopin takes the social critique implicit in "Miss Witherwell's Mistake" and turns it upon her own world. Writing is now an occupation Chopin pursues "when not too strongly drawn to struggle with the intricacies of a pattern" and "if the temptation to try a new furniture polish on an old table leg is not too powerful to be denied." Given the cold reception of The Awakening, Chopin's irony rings with sardonic bitterness. As a provocation of the old guard, it is difficult to imagine a more self-immolating remark.

Any suicide prompts unanswerable questions from those who find life too precious to abandon. Was Edna's drowning a narcissistic refusal to cope with life, or was it an indictment of that world? As supporting characters who embody other possible lives for the protagonist, the women of The Awakening compose a dismal trio of variations. Edna's closest friend, Adele Ratignolle, is the consummate "mother-woman," with a passel of children and a blissful marriage, who avoids Edna's introspection and abandons Edna so as not to jeopardize her own reputation. Miss Mayblunt, a "professional" writer, is another Miss Witherwell: a shallow ninny whose opinions affirm the system that dismisses her. Mademoiselle Reisz--who is the only self-realized female artist in the novel--is depicted as ugly, unpleasant, pushy, and celibate. The talented pianist is the size of a child, and she cannot bring herself to love a man of less than the highest stature. Instead, she pours what she cannot live into her art, and advises Edna to do the same.

But just as Edna cannot endure love at the price of possession, she cannot pursue a vocation at the price of arid exile. What she seeks is to be cherished and recognized, to be both desired and seen. Edna's well-meaning husband cannot see her awakened body and soul; her calculating lover, Alcee, will never cherish them; and when her beloved Robert fails her, his failure of vision becomes not that of a man but of a world.

With Edna's quest, Chopin defined the modern female odyssey--not the impeded journey home from work and back again but the impeded journey from home, past domestic bonds, in search of a place in the world. Why work and love so often seem mutually exclusive for women is a question that was posed throughout the last century by women writers from Cather to Ann Patchett, and it has been taken up by the popular media as well. In the 1991 movie Thelma & Louise, the women go on the road to flee their oppression at home; as they search for a world where they can live with integrity, they bond with each other, just like the feminists of the 1970s would have encouraged them to do. Like Edna, however, they still seek love, and when the men they encounter regard them only as an opportunity for rape, theft, or capture, they end their journey by driving off a cliff. Nearly a hundred years after The Awakening, Thelma and Louise reach Edna's conclusion: in a society that cannot recognize them, the ultimate act of desperation is the only liberation available.

More recently, in his adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours, Stephen Daldry surveyed the conflict between female self and society through the experiences of three women over the course of a century. As a progress report, the film is disconcerting. Virginia Woolf, the great artist, takes Edna's cue in the River Ouse; the fifties housewife, after a consciousness-raising read of Mrs. Dalloway, abandons her family in order to survive--a move that is never to be forgiven by her son, whose imminent death by AIDS seems an implicit punishment for his mother's choice; and the contemporary Clarissa, who has all the trappings of liberation--a powerful editing job, a gorgeous Manhattan brownstone, a supportive lesbian partner, and an intelligent, healthy daughter---emotionally abandons her life and disprizes the women in it so that she can care for the gay poet who, after leaving her thirty years before, openly fails to return her regard. And it is only in his presence, she confesses to her daughter, that she feels truly alive.

What Chopin and her descendants suggest is that taking action can earn a person an independent self, but gaining a place in society requires recognition from those we value; and for women, this usually means recognition from men. Perhaps this is why the classic model of a successful revolution--that of amassing strength in solidarity, and then demanding recognition, en masse, from those in power--never quite works for women. In asking why it is so difficult for women to find both a home and a world, Chopin threw down the challenge of the century. A hundred years later, we're still repeating the question.

Joyce Hackett is the author of a novel, Disturbance of the Inner Ear, which will be published in paperback by Carroll & Graf next month.
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Author:Hackett, Joyce
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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