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Book Review

Waking into a Dream (“The Awakening” by Kate Chopin)

Waking into a Dream

(The Awakening by Kate Chopin)

 

Written by:  Biljana Dojčinović
Translated by: Lena Ninković

 

When the awakening process began among the women in the US academia, under the influence of the women’s movement at the end of the 1960s, The Awakening by Kate Chopin was heralded as a symbol. The title, theme, and historical background of the novel were highly convenient for the moment. In fact, the renewal of interest in the work of Kate Chopin had begun several years earlier, but feminists further stimulated this process of rediscovery, and once more drew attention to the text written at the turn of the two centuries1Elaine Showalter, „The Feminist Critical Revolution“, The Feminist Criticism, ed. by Elaine Showalter, Pantheon Books, New York, 1985, p.5; Nina Baym, „Introduction“, Kate Chopin The Awakening and Selected Stories, Modern Library, New York, 1981, p. VIII., in order to eventually revive the interest in the so-called local prose of this author. Many elements of Kate Chopin’s life story2Emily Toth, „Kate Chopin“, The Oxford Companion to Women Writers in America, ed. by CathyN. Davidson, Linda Wagner-Msrtin, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995, pp. 187-189. seem like a preparation for the career of a writer: starting with her growing up with her great-grandma who inspired her love for “music, French, and gossip”, to a nun from school on whose advice she would write down her own comments on various topics, including women’s role, or the conflict between desire and duty, all the way to her diary which she kept during her three months’ honeymoon, filled with detailed observations about life in Europe, and her own pleasures. Her life in Louisiana should be taken into account too, particularly the stories of the shop customers, her diaries, letters, and her love affair with the married plantation owner which she had after her husband’s death. The crucial elements in the making of her career were self-discipline, the literary works she read, and a series of women writers –her predecessors,who opened the door to her role as a writer. However, it is very likely that Kate Chopin would never have become a writer had she not experienced misfortunes which left her on her own, in charge of a large family. She entered the world of literature as a 36-year-old woman out of spiritual, not financial reasons, since she had no financial problems due to her inheritance.  Her entry into this world was quite professional, indeed; she achieved success after the publication of her very first story “At Point at Issue!”.

Her first novel At Fault was published in 1890 at her own expense. The plot centers on a widow from Louisiana in love with a divorced man. In spite of her own feelings, she forces him to return to his alcoholic wife, and thus causes general misfortune and misery, until his wife disappears in a storm. Nina Baym believes that the gap between the description of the heroine and the narrator’s sympathies for her indicates that Kate Chopin was not quite aware of the possibilities this material offered her3Nina Baym, „Introduction“, Kate Chopin The Awakening and Selected Stories, Modern Library, New York, 1981, p. XXIX.. Despite this short coming, the novel attracted the attention of a wider audience. What followed then were two well-received collections of short stories, previously published in magazines.4Bayou Folk (1984) i A Night in Acadie (1897).. The publication of her second novel The Awakening marked the end of her career. The story of a woman who awakens and embarks on a quest for herself at a time when she is already married and a mother of two children, in an environment which makes her feel almost completely alienated, provoked sharp reactions. Some critics even believed it should be “labeled as poison.”5Women and Fiction: Short Stories by and about Women, ed. by Susan Cahill, New American Library, New York, 1975, p.1.. After her publisher refused to publish her third collection of stories A Vocation and a Voice, Kate Chopin stopped writing. She died in 1904, and her work was soon forgotten. However, her novel The Awakening is currently the most famous of all her works, and owing to her treatment of the themes of infidelity and sex, she is considered to be a predecessor of D. H. Lawrence and Simone de Beauvoir6Ibid..

As a result of her compulsory reading in school, influences on Kate Chopin’s work are twofold. The influence of two French writers is the most evident; Maupassant’s is reflected in her short stories, while her novel about an unfaithful wife bears considerable similarity to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. But Kate Chopin managed to join the long tradition of female writers in the United States, and affirm the link between women’s writing and the so-called regionalism, which was evident in the works of Flannery O’ Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. The so-called local literature, filled with details of life in certain surroundings, firstly blossomed after the Civil War, and represented a starting point of many authors, such as Willa Cather, Rebecca Harding Davis, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary Wilkins Freeman. Kate Chopin, who admired the two latter writers, was also influenced by this type of literature, which is especially noteworthy in her stories, and her novel The Awakening. Most of her heroes are Creole, but there are also some Acadians. Creoles, the descendants of French and Spanish settlers, mostly members of middle and upper classes, were Catholics and spoke in their own dialect of the French language.The name itself is sometimes used to mark the descendants of their black servants, with whom they had intimate relations. Acadians are a group of people that moved from Canada to Louisiana in the 18th century. They mainly belonged to the lower classes, and their link with Creoles was based on the same linguistic and religious heritage. These two groups of people differed from the typical (mainstream) Americans in origin, religion and language, but especially in a more relaxed way of life and a greater inclination towards enjoyment7Nina Baym, „Introduction“, Kate Chopin The Awakening and Selected Stories, Modern Library, New York, 1981, p. XIX-XX..

This difference was nicely illustrated and artistically well used by Kate Chopin in her novel “The Awakening,” by choosing the character of a woman born in Kentucky for her heroine, i.e. a typical American woman, who finds herself in the Creole society, and forever remains an alien. The story about Edna Pontellier starts on the Grand Isle in Louisiana, where she spends her summer with her two sons. Edna befriends Robert Lebrun, the son of the cottages owner, and Adèle Ratignolle, a typical Creole woman, the epitome of motherhood. As Adèle suspects, Edna’s harmless relationship with Robert turns into a deeper emotion. His sudden departure for Mexico leaves Edna in distress, so after her return to New Orleans, she stops being an ideal wife of the affluent Creole Léonce Pontellier, and turns to painting. Soon after, Edna begins a relationship with the infamous Arobin, decides to move into a smaller house, and continue painting. Her first chance encounter with Robert, a few days after his return from Mexico, results in mutual manifestation of jealousy, and the second one, also by chance, with a definitive break-up. Disheartened and aware of her inability to return to her previous life, Edna goes to the Grand Isle and drowns herself in the sea.

The beauty of this novel lies in the literary devices Kate Chopin used to depict the psychological process developing in the main heroine. The local coloring gives life to the universal story, while the series of metaphors represent the surroundings and the inner state of the heroine. Kate Chopin had initially intended to title the novel “The Lonely Soul”, but the final version of the title highlights the key metaphor used for portraying the atmosphere and the mental state of Edna Pontellier.

The awakening in the novel is described as a process, not as an act. At the very beginning, Edna spends a part of the night crying on the porch, hurt by her husband’s accusations that she is not a good mother. During the night crucial for her awakening, after a mystical experience during her night swimming, she loudly opposes her husband, who asks her to get into the house. While the first awakening signals that something is not right in her marriage beneath its smooth surface, the second one clearly marks the beginning of her self-understanding. She does not wake up into the rational understanding of herself and the world, but rather into a romantic dream and discovery of her sensuality as shown by the interchangeable feelings of melancholy and hope in the moments before and after sleep and her relationship with Arobin, whose presence and caresses. She knows she is not satisfied with her former life, but she does not have a clear idea of what she wants and can do. Her new state of mind is hinted at in a short, but important chapter at the beginning of the novel:

“A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her, — the light which, showing the way, forbids it”8Kate Chopin, The Awakening, trans. Gordana Korac (Belgrade: Sluzbeni glasnik, 2011), 23..

Edna truly moves towards understanding her own position in the world, which the narrator openly states, but the ambivalence of her path is that she makes progress through sensuality, and sensuality means danger. She is completely different from Creole women, who flirt in the hedonistic atmosphere of the resort and speak the most intimate stories without a shame, knowing very well where to draw the line. Edna is perplexed by this, but also encouraged to open up to this new feeling which will, dangerous as it is, remain only an emotion. She will not be able to play with it while remaining under social constraints like Madame Ratignolle, or give it a different expression and become an artist, like Mademoiselle Reisz. Adèle Ratignolle, who is capable of flirting even with Edna’s father, completely belongs to the reality which Edna gradually abandons. Then again, she is a pianist, who is indicatively – a mademoiselle. She warns Edna that she should not have “pretensions” because the artist must be “fully gifted”, must have a “fearless soul”, “which defies and provokes”9Ibid. p. 88., and that a bird that wants to fly above tradition and prejudice “must have strong wings.”10Ibid. p. 115. Dissatisfied with the role of a wife and mother, and insufficiently strong for art, Edna stops at the mere feeling and sensuality manifested in her love for Lebrun and her relationship with Arobin.

The ultimate point of this sensuality, which makes Edna incapable to escape it, is death. The connection between love, sensuality and death is underscored by an image of a couple on a holiday who are often in Edna’s vicinity, and a woman in black, which represent a striking detail. More explicitly, this clue is present in the metaphorical meaning of the sea, indicated in the aforementioned chapter:

“The voice of the sea is seductive (..)The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace”11Kate Chopin, The Awakening, trans. Gordana Korac (Belgrade:Sluzbeni glasnik, 2011), 23..

The part of the first and the last sentence is repeated at the end of the novel, when Edna falls into an embrace from which she will not return. The sea has its counterpart in Edna’s memory – a meadow with high grass through which she “swam” as a little girl in Kentucky. Edna told Adela that during this summer, she felt as she did back then: “idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided”12Ibid. p. 27.. During her last moments while drowning, she in fact returns to the image from her youth: she hears the voices of her father and sister, the spurs of the cavalry officer with whom she was in love, and feels the musky scent of flowers. The novel concludes with this signal of sensuality turning into death. Nina Baym believes it is an ambivalent act which could represent both liberation and surrender13Nina Baym, „Introduction“, Kate Chopin The Awakening and Selected Stories, Modern Library, New York, 1981, p.XXXII.. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubarread the metaphorical implications of the novel, and in that sense “…Edna’s final temptation may not seem as a suicide – that is, death – in general, or if it is death, it is death associated with resurrection, with some kind of pagan female Good Friday that promises a Venusian Easter”14Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land, Sexchanges, Vol.2, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1975, p.109..

Kate Chopin introduced a serpent– a symbol of knowledge and fall, inextricably linked with women, although quite discreetly. The waves during her night swimming seem like “slow, white serpents.”15 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, trans. Gordana Korac (Belgrade: Sluzbeni glasnik, 2011), 41.In one of the last scenes of the novel, while Edna is standing naked on the shore, she is pervaded by the new sense of herself, and the waves around her ankles “wriggled like a snake”16Ibid. p. 158..The snake is meant to remind the woman of her curse: in the scene of Adele’s birth, the splendid beauty of the Creole faded, and her hair was curled up like a “golden snake.”17Ibid. p. 150. This hints at the other side of maternity, different from the one associated with the Virgin Mary, as Edna sees Adele during her summer vacation.

At the very beginning of the novel, Madame Ratignolle is distinguished as a representative part of the mother image: a bird that watches over its offspring, used so as to indicate that Edna is not a motherly type of a woman.

When talking about rare or “inverted” use of the metaphor of a bird that builds a nest in female literature, Ellen Moers pointed out to this exact scene and its application18Ellen Moers, Literary Women: The Great Writers, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985, p.247.. Children display several meanings in the novel. Through them, Edna defines her relationship with life and the world, and tells Adele that, for her children, she would sacrifice everything, but not herself. The meaning of this statement becomes quite clear only in the end, when she knows that the inability to return to her previous life would be the worst for her sons, but neither her sons nor her husband “must think they can possess her, either her body,or the soul”19Kate Chopin, The Awakening, trans. Gordana Korac (Belgrade: Sluzbeni glasnik, 2011), 158.. This is why, according to Nina Baym, her suicide can be both a liberation and surrender. Furthermore, the children belong to the other side, which Edna cannot reach. The small physique and impulsivity of the musician resemble a frequent metaphor of an artist represented as a child. Therefore, when Adele tells Edna that she is frivolous as a child, she is indirectly reminding her that she is neither here nor there.

The difficulty of her position undoubtedly stems from the fact that she is a woman. This is indicated in a chapter about the beginning of her awakening, while the parallels between Edna’s father and husband show that the woman had little choice. Although Pontellius is not a suppressor like Edna’s father, her fate is not much better than the fate of her early deceased mother. In addition, she is also a stranger among the Creoles and stands in opposition to a closed society whose rules she could not follow.

We may find certain faults in the characterization and motivation of some characters.For example, the character of Edna’s husband is almost untrustworthy in the absence of jealousy, although this is justified as a typical Creole trait and, in addition, in his interest in material welfare and social status. Certain simplifications in the story are, obviously, a result of an effort to move all less important elements into the background, so as to bring the mental state of the heroine into focus.Chopin undoubtedly succeeded in illuminating this psychological process. Setting the story in a local atmosphere, she gave it color and the tone of sensuality, hedonism, and a different attitude towards life. Modern in dealing openly with the themes of sensuality, sexuality and female dissatisfaction, this story is not outdated even in showing that one needs “strong wings” on the path to independence. Due to all this, it is understandable why her contemporaries criticized her, and why generations who rediscovered this novel after more than sixty years expressed such fascination with it. The popularity of the novel The Awakening is also evident in the making of the film “Grand Isle” in 1991, with Kelly McGillis as Edna Pontellier. Publishing the novel in Serbian will allow the Serbian audience to finally meet up-close the “Creole Bovary” enabled only by quality translation.


Dr. Biljana Dojčinović, a full professor at the Department of Comparative Literature and Theory of Literatureat the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade. She is one of the founders of the Women’s Studies Centre in Belgrade, and INDOKCentre of Women’s Initiative Association. Editor-in-Chief of Genera, a journal of feminist theory, from 2002 to 2008.Since 2009 she has been a member of the Board of Directors of COST Action IS0901, Women Writers in History: Toward a New Understanding of European Literary Culture (2009-2013). Since 2011, she has been a director of the research project Кnjiženstvo – Theory and History of Women’s Writing in Serbian until 1915. Her bibliography includes: Gynocriticism: Gender and Women’s Writing (1993); Selected bibliography of works about feminist theory / women’s studies 1974-1996 (1997);Cities, rooms, portraits (2006); GendeRingS: Gendered Readings in Serbian Women’s Writing (CD) (2006); Cartographer of the Modern World (2007); Encounters in the Dark:Introduction to the reading of Virginia Woolf (2011); The Law of the sun:Different modernisms (2015).


Translator, Lena Ninković: Graduated from the Department of English language studies at the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Philology.In her free time, when she’s not busy contemplating life, she writes poetry, plays the piano, and reads books. She is interested in linguistics, literature, gender studies, and translation.

Redactor: Radojka Jevtic

 

 

 

 

 

 


This article was published in March of 2019, within the Awakening topic.

Read the other texts published in the Book Review section.

This article was originally published in Serbian and you can read it here. Translated into English by Lena Ninković.

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