WRITING THE 'SOLITARY SOUL': ANTICIPATIONS
OF MODERNISM & NEGOTIATIONS OF GENDER IN KATE CHOPIN'S THE
Kate Chopin's 1899
novel The Awakening depicts a woman's struggle to find
and to assert her essential "self" within the cultural
constraints of late 19th century America. Chopin's protagonist
experiences a new sense of independence, of individual freedom
and expression, paralleled by her corresponding sense of conflict
and despair. The novel chronicles Edna Pontellier's journey toward
a new vision of female "self" at the turn-of-the-century
and consequently explores, examines and challenges boundaries.
In constructing her
heroine's journey, Chopin enriches the text with the curious
complexities of multiple literary traditions, each of which she
both asserts and undercuts within the novel. Although the novel
at times alternately embraces the traditions of realism, naturalism,
and romanticism for example, Chopin's work also diminishes the
tradition of each within the text. In doing so, Chopin refuses
to exclusively and conclusively adopt one clear literary stance.
This complexity lends itself to various critical interpretations
of "what Chopin is trying to do" in the novel and opens
the critical conversation to multiple avenues of exploration.
Specific to my particular
discussion is the way in which The Awakening embodies
elements of Modernism, foreshadowing the major movement in literature
that dominated the early 20th century. Indeed, Chopin's novel
represents a pivotal literary construct, a vital expression of
an evolving literary consciousness in turn-of-the-century America.
The Awakening clearly reflects the early stirrings of
a transition in literature that takes place full-force after
1900. At the same time, it is important to note that Chopin's
approach excludes the text from a strictly Modernist
interpretation, anticipating but not fully embracing the markings
of this early 20th century movement. In the same way that Chopin
undercuts the expectations of other traditions, she also eludes
any exclusive Modernist interpretations of the novel.
The successes and
complexities of this novel include but exceed those recognized
by contemporary feminists who seek to reclaim this piece of the
American women's literary tradition, citing its protagonist's
revolutionary response to the expectations of gender and period.
Clearly, Chopin's text confronts the female experience of the
late Victorian era, its double standards, its limitations and
its possibilities. But the novel is built on an even richer canvas
than has been recognized by most scholarship, representing not
only an exploration of turn-of-the-century American womanhood
but a gutsy moment at the crossroads of literary history -- and
women's literary history, in particular. For feminist scholars,
the text is especially rich because its female author explores
and negotiates a fluid border of literary tradition -- examining
and playing with, alternately embracing and backing away from,
the Victorian literary foremothers' version of "domestic
fiction" and the up-and-coming, largely male-dominated,
Modernist movement. Chopin as an author, like Edna as a character,
is a woman caught in the borderlands between the literary traditions
assigned to her as a nineteenth century female writer and the
mores of a new era. As a writer, Chopin grapples with the old
models and looks for her possible place among the new. As a woman
and a hopeful artist, Chopin's questions about her position in
literary history are not unlike those more naively confronted
by her protagonist: Should we discard the old models? Should
we discard them in their entirety? And if so, how? If we discard
the old models, what will replace them, and why? Will the new
models work for us? Is there a place, a voice, for Woman, and
Artist, and Woman-Artist, in this new territory? If we as women
want to embrace a new world, will it welcome us with open arms?
How do we navigate without true models for a changed reality?
The novel offers few, if any, comforting answers to these questions,
and at times seems fraught with contradictions -- But this is
its very richness, I believe. The text is particularly ripe for
feminist scholarship because of its bravery in every respect
-- a bold, if difficult, forging ahead not only in terms of theme
and characterization, but equally in exploration of genre, tone
This novel, then takes
part in a remarkable dialogue of transition -- the transition
between the Victorian world of the 19th century and the Modern
world of the 20th century, with a particular eye on gender. Faulkner
notes that the early years of the 20th century focus on a "breaking
up of the 19th century consensus", a period dominated by
the social efforts of groups such as feminists, seeking to improve
their status within the culture (14). Cultural and literary shifts
that characterize the 20th century undoubtedly begin in the years
immediately preceding the turn-of-the-century and evolve into
what is commonly constrained under the label "Modernism,"
typically relegated exclusively to the post-1905 world.
The title of Chopin's
novel itself connotes a process of evolution, of change and transition.
An "awakening" inherently implies a transition between
full consciousness and sleep. The awakening subject exists as
if between two worlds, not fully imbedded in either but in the
process moving towards the more concrete. Chopin's protagonist
is clearly symbolic: "Like her name ("Pontellier"
. . . means "one who bridges") Edna herself is one
whose mission is to begin the painful process of bridging two
centuries, two worlds, two visions of gender. So appropriate
as a turn-of-the-century piece, "The Awakening
is about the beginning of selfhood, not its completion"
(Dyer 116). Chopin's novel portrays this process within Edna
just as it takes part in a similar transition as a work of literary
art. The novel is proven to be transitional and revolutionary
by the defensive uproar it produces at the time of publication,
even among the ranks of literary peers such as Willa Cather.
then tentatively explores, and from a gendered point of view
to be sure, the uncharted waters of Modernism, foreshadowing
the ". . .world of 1910 that was much more complex than
the world as it had been known before, and especially more complex
than the orderly world that had been presented to the reader
in Victorian literature" (Faulkner 14). This fundamental
complexity distinguishes Modern literature from its predecessors.
In Chopin's work we see anticipation of concerns that will dominate
Modernism. As Faulkner notes, "Accepting one's place, loyalty
to authority, unquestioning obedience, began to break down; Patriotism,
doing one's duty, even Christianity, seemed questionable ideals.
Man's understanding of himself was changing" (14). Writers
typically identified as belonging to the Modernist tradition
(although none standing alone defines the expectations of this
label), including Hemingway, Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot, Woolf, Stevens,
Lawrence, and Auden, certainly address these concerns within
their works. Kate Chopin also grapples with such issues throughout
The Awakening, never losing her awareness of what it
means to be female in the midst of these shifting sands. As Gilmore
observes, "Chopin's feminist narrative marks a turn toward
the anti-naturalist, self-referential agenda of Modernism"
as a mode of behavior in life and art (60). Eble agrees, suggesting
that The Awakening is ". . . advanced in theme and technique
over the novels of its day, and . . . it anticipates in many
respects the Modern novel (8)."
of her tragic heroine is clearly entwined with the social context
of the modern, post-Victorian period in Western culture. The
Awakening portrays the events and consequences surrounding
a time of significant change occurring at the macro level and
trickling down to invade the life of the individual. The turn-of-the-century,
as Panaro notes, brings modification in the roles of women, beginning
the gradual decay of old roles and expectations (3150). During
such a period, women experience confusion and conflict. Panaro
aptly describes Edna as a true turn-of-the-century woman, facing
crises related to issues of autonomy, selfhood and gender roles
One of Modernism's
chief tenets, and one that turns up in Chopin's text, refutes
the Victorian era's rigid system of normative ethics. In the
19th century, sharp definition exists to divide "good"
versus "bad" and "right" versus "wrong",
a moral grounding sharply opposed to relativism. For Victorians,
the "right way to behave" is clearly differentiated
from the "wrong way to behave", and these ethical standards
are institutionalized. As Cantor points out, Victorian society
embraces a highly structured, clear system of ethics and the
20th century has ". . . spent much time undermining it"
(17). While the Victorians embrace absolutes and polarities that
offer a degree of stability and security, Modernism fundamentally
rejects these absolutes. Victorians seek safety in polarities
of male and female, of object and subject, of "higher"
and "lower", in contrast to Modernism, which ".
. . [is] not committed to the separation of the male and the
female on moral, biological or psychological grounds as the Victorians
had been (Cantor 39)."
brings about the shift toward moral relativism, moving away from
this 19th century normative code of ethics. According to Faulkner,
"The modern western world is less sure of its values than
most previous cultures with which we are familiar; relativism
and subjectivity are facts of every day experience (15)."
Indeed, Modernism is associated with the suspicion of "system"
and a rebellion against previously established norms.
one well-defined system of norms that Modernism begins to undermine.
We are told that Edna Pontellier abhors church services both
as a child and later as an adult, and that she rejects organized
religion as a source of solace and valid truth. Reflecting on
a childhood memory of wandering "impulsively" through
a field of tall grass, Edna tells Madame Ratignolle: "Likely
as not it was Sunday . . . and I was running away from prayers,
from the Presbyterian service, read in a spirit of gloom by my
father that chills me yet to think of" (Chopin 60). Again
we witness Edna's aversion to the trappings of religion when
she attends a church service with Robert: "A feeling of
oppression and drowsiness overcame Edna during the service. Her
head began to ache, and the lights on the altar swayed before
her eyes . . . her one thought was to quit the stifling atmosphere
of the church and reach the open air" (82). As Gilmore observes,
"Religion is just one of the certainties Edna unsettles
in the course of her development " (61).
Religion is inherently
tied to the structure of the nuclear family, another Victorian
institution later to be undermined by Modernism. According to
Gilmore, ". . . [Edna's] instinctive antipathy to Christianity
. . . derives in part from her awareness of its alliance with
the traditional family structure . . . Religion lends its authority
to the 'devout belief' that one-half of humanity ought to surrender
all other human interests and activities to concentrate its time,
strength and devotion upon the functions of maternity" (61).
The mother-women surrounding Edna at Grand Isle renounce their
individual identities with an intensity approximating religious
conviction: "They were women who idolized their children,
worshipped their husbands and esteemed it a holy privilege to
efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering
angels" (51). The ideal embodiment of the Victorian mother's
role, Madame Ratignolle, is even likened to the holy mother of
Christ: "Mrs. Pontellier liked to sit and gaze at her fair
companion as she might look upon a faultless Madonna" (54).
For the Victorians,
the structure of the nuclear family and its clearly defined gender
roles is, like religion, a device for averting social pathology.
Ethics in the 19th century remain firmly attached to the concept
of family. Cantor concludes that "Above all, Victorian morality
fostered the nuclear family . . . It was essentially made possible
by strenuous moral teaching, which the Modernist movement began
to unravel after 1900" (17). He adds that the decline of
the nuclear family begins at the turn-of-the-century due to a
web of complex causes, the rise of Modernism being the most critical
Because Edna refuses
to live without what she perceives to be her full humanity and
rejects the Victorian philosophy of motherhood in the sense that
it requires constant self-effacement and self-denial, Chopin's
text aligns itself with the movement toward Modernism. Dyer recognizes
that "For Edna, there is, ideally, a truth greater than
that of motherhood. . . That final truth, that greater truth,
cannot coexist with the social, the moral, or even the biological
obligations of motherhood" (105).
Edna's stance, then,
in many respects rejects Victorian expectations and is more closely
aligned with Modernist expectations, which begin to de-emphasize
rigid roles of the nuclear family. She is described as the antithesis
of the "mother-woman" and we are told that Edna is
". . . fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way.
. . Their absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit
this, even to herself. It seemed to free her of a responsibility
which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted
her" (51, 63). Edna and Madame Ratignolle do not even "talk
the same language" when it comes to the concerns of the
maternal realm, and clearly Edna values selfhood above motherhood:
"I would give up the unessential;. . . but I wouldn't give
myself" (97). Edna actually pities Madame Ratignolle's state
of maternal self-definition: ". . . a pity for that colorless
existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region
of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited
her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life's delirium"
stance on motherhood fostered much of the negative publicity
surrounding the initial publication of the novel. As Dyer documents,
"It is not surprising that Edna's shirking of her maternal
duty was a prime target of Chopin's contemporary reviewers. The
reviewer for the New Orleans Times-Democrat saw Edna
as a woman so absorbed in her personal relation to her own world
that she 'fails to perceive that the relation of a mother to
her children is far more important than the gratification of
a passion'" (101).
Related to expectations
of female roles is, of course, the issue of sexuality. Modernism
is frequently cited as creating greater openness with regard
to sexuality, as the sexual realm becomes a subject that may
be acknowledged and discussed (Cantor 39). This openness stands
in stark contrast to the norms of the 19th century, with its
prohibitions against expressions of flagrant sexuality. The
Awakening represents the Modernist stance in opposition
to Victorian prudery. Chopin's novel not only includes, but makes
pivotal, sexual themes, in addition to the author's use of a
richly sensuous language throughout the work.
For the most part,
Edna frees herself from the female guilt surrounding sexual seduction
often portrayed in 19th century fiction (Dyer 106). She freely
chooses and pursues a sexual affair with Alcee Arobin for the
sake of sensuous adventure, not because she loves him and not
because she is his wife. Chopin clearly defines her protagonist
as a sexual being: "Alcee Arobin was absolutely nothing
to her. Yet his presence, his manners, the warmth of his glances,
and above all the touch of his lips upon her hand had acted like
a narcotic upon her" (Chopin 132). When Edna chooses to
sleep with Arobin, Chopin does not veil or avoid the sexual act
according to standard Victorian devices. Instead, she takes a
literary step forward when she tells us that Edna ". . .
looked at him and smiled. His eyes were very near. He leaned
upon the lounge with an arm extended across her, while the other
hand rested upon her hair. . . When he leaned forward and kissed
her, she clasped his head, holding his lips to hers . . . It
was a flaming torch that kindled desire" (139).
Again, with Robert,
we see Edna not only as an overtly sexual being, but also in
the role of the pursuer rather than of the victimized woman damaged
by seduction: "She leaned over and kissed him - a soft,
cool, delicate kiss, whose voluptuous sting penetrated his whole
being - then she moved away from him" (166).
Chopin's use of sensuous
language and imagery throughout the novel also acts to de-stigmatize
sexuality. This act in itself refutes 19th century expectations
and in its frank openness about sexuality more closely aligns
the text with Modernist tendencies. Edna's body and the environment
around her take on, in this novel, a frank and highly sensuous
description as compared to most 19th century fiction. For example,
Chopin describes Edna's nudity and her sexualized union with
When she was there beside the sea . . . she cast the unpleasant,
pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life
she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the
breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her . .
. how delicious! . . . The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding
the body in its soft, close embrace. (176)
Again, Chopin's transitional (and therefore revolutionary)
stance made her novel a prime target for the defensive criticism
of late 19th century society. The transitional nature of Chopin's
more openly sexualized literary approach is made clear by the
shocked responses of turn-of-the-century readers and critics.
Eble observes that "It is not surprising that the sensuous
quality of the book, both from the incidents of the novel and
the symbolic implications, would have offended contemporary reviewers"
element of The Awakening that may have caught the critical
eye of late 19th century audiences is Chopin's treatment of Art
and the artist. Modernism, according to Cantor, embraces "the
conviction that humanity is in its most authentic, truly human
condition when it is involved in art", in contrast to the
Victorians who "retained the Christian Augustinian conviction
that humanity achieves hits highest and purest nature in moral
action" (40). Edna's "awakening" is associated
with her emotional experience while hearing Mademoiselle Reisz
perform at the piano. The artful music transforms and re-humanizes
Edna. In later stages of Edna's development as a new human being,
she is drawn to Mademoiselle Reisz time and time again, particularly
when she feels a lack of artistic drive or becomes despondent:
"It was during such a mood that Edna hunted up Mademoiselle
Reisz . . . she felt a desire to see her - above all, to listen
while she played upon the piano" (109). Chopin's text comes
down on the side of the Modernist notion that art can save humankind
from an increasingly confusing, fractured world - at least in
part, by implying that art is central to a full and meaningful
human existence. Yet, is Edna saved? While she may have gained
her soul, she certainly loses her physical life, seeing no viable
option for survival. For women at the turn-of-the-century, the
Modernist conclusion about "selfhood," salvation and
Art is fraught with peril, contradiction, and ultimate despair,
as the novel demonstrates. Chopin remains brutally mindful of
the constraints particular to women who attempt to chart this
As Edna's sense of
autonomy and "selfhood" further unfolds, she emphasizes
a need to return to her interest in creating visual art. She
determines that she must paint once more and tells Madame Ratignolle,
"Perhaps I will be able to paint your picture some day .
. . I believe I ought to work again" (106). The use of art
to define an autonomous, meaningful self is, not surprisingly,
perceived as a threat by Edna's husband, who exclaims, "It
seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household,
and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days which
would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family"
(108). Edna responds to his attack on her newfound independence
by attempting to use her art as a symbol of liberated selfhood,
saying, "I feel like painting . . . Perhaps I shan't always
feel like it . . . Let me alone; you bother me" (108).
We see Edna respond
for the first time to her "inner self", and this remains
closely tied to art. As Gilmore observes that "In responding
to the demands of her inner nature, Edna discovers the sensibility
of an Impressionist painter and dissolves the external structures
of her world" (65). Gilmore likens Edna to the Impressionists
by suggesting that they converge "in their transfer of allegiance
from the outer world to the personality and freedom of the individual
. . . [Edna and Chopin] strive to achieve something approximating
the Modernist escape from everyday reality" (65).
Rather than focus
her energies upon domestic expectations, Edna spends huge amounts
of time painting, engaging the grudging help of her children
and servants. Through painting, Edna begins to fully experience
human emotion and creativity, the real meaning of being alive:
"It moved her with recollections . . . A subtle current
of desire passed through her body, weakening her hold upon the
brushes and making her eyes burn . . . 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" (109).
In addition, because
Edna represents the aspiring artist and the lover of art, she
is associated with change and transition of a revolutionary magnitude.
Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna, "To be an artist . . . you
must possess the courageous soul . . . the brave soul. The soul
that dares and defies" (115). This "daring and defiance"
allude to the place of art in opposition to the predominant values
of Mademoiselle Reisz's (and Edna's) current context - 19th century
America. In Modernism, art is given a more revered status and
is even at times hailed as the saving grace of all mankind. Although
Edna falls short of embodying the image of the ideal and fully-realized
artist, Chopin's text does revere art, its power to transform
and its capacity to invigorate individuals with a fully-realized
humanity. Chopin's work demonstrates the hypocrisy and difficulty
of these clashing models as they are acutely experienced by women.
Chopin is aware that attaining the "courageous soul"
of the artist is a far more difficult and contradictory calling
for women than it is for men -- That its sacrifices and consequences
are doubled and magnified. "Courage" must consequently
be doubled and magnified in the woman artist, Chopin intuits.
And even then, the text asks, will art shelter her?
Perhaps most important
to my discussion of The Awakening as a precursor to
the Modernist movement is the issue of "selfhood."
Chopin's original title for the novel illustrates her desired
emphasis on seeking and illuminating the individual "self"
-- the novel is initially titled A Solitary Soul. Modernism
itself ". . . gave a new authenticity to individualism and
to the individual search for values" (Cantor 39). As articulated
by Marcel Proust in 1918, the purpose of Modernist novel is the
discovery of a "different self", with the focus less
on telling a story or offering a moral and instead aimed toward
achieving a breakthrough. "The self sought is different
from the ordinary familial and social being known in everyday
life. The burden of the Modernist novel is existential discovery
of a deeper, mythic, more human self (Cantor 43)."
As Faulkner expresses
it, the general tendency in Modern literature is "to focus
on the contents of a character's mind, the inner, mental life
of the experiencing subject," thereby turning from a 19th
century focus on representations of the external world (31).
This new approach, as developed in Modernist literature, generally
reflects more heavily upon issues of consciousness, perception
and the inner world.
Awakening, Chopin makes strides toward emphasizing what
occurs inside Edna's individual consciousness, and toward portraying
the ways in which her essential "self" unfolds and
gains prominence. Seyersted points out that "The attitude
[Chopin] lets Mrs. Pontellier illustrate comes close to that
of existentialism. She seems to say that Edna has a real existence
only when she gives her own laws, when she through conscious
choice becomes her own creation with an autonomous self"
Edna gradually discovers
and asserts this sense of autonomous, valuable "self"
in the process of her awakening. In fact, the warring and the
unfolding within Edna comprises the heart of the novel. She shocks
the quintessentially Victorian Madame Ratignolle by announcing
that even for her children, she will never sacrifice her essential
being. Edna comes to see her husband and children not as the
reason for existence but rather as ". . . antagonists who
seek to thwart her growth, dragging her into 'the soul's slavery
for the rest of her days'" (Gilmore 62). Edna refuses to
subordinate her newfound "self" to socially mandated,
traditional expectations or the desires of others. Skaggs suggests
that Chopin "creates one tragic heroine who refuses to settle
for less than a full and satisfying answer to Lear's question
: 'Who am I?'" and that Edna is "More honest in her
self-awareness than Adele, more dependent upon human relationships
than Mademoiselle Reisz . . . [and] will not settle for living
as less than a complete person" (88, 96).
Edna recognizes her
existence and value as a human being, transcending the definitions
of "mother," "wife," and "daughter"
that are in this text understood as limiting and stifling because
they are the only choices deemed socially acceptable
for women. Chopin suggests that women such as Madame Ratignolle
who do not at any level look beyond the constraints
of such labels are living idyllic but unrealized, unfulfilled
lives. In discovering and fully experiencing the pleasures of
art, sensuality, sexuality, and solitude, Edna discovers a sense
of self separate from patriarchal demands. Yet for this there
is, Chopin is acutely aware, a weighty price to be paid. Where
does the female protagonist at this particular crossroads turn?
To what end does her awareness lead her? Can she survive, and
how? Chopin concedes, in the end, that Edna's world is not survivable.
It may be negotiated and explored, but it may not yet be won.
Within the limitations
of late 19th century culture, of course, Edna's tragic mistake
is in her striving to achieve the full ideal of "self-possession,"
to live on the borderlands of time, and history, and gender.
As Gilmore observes, "Edna's drive to experience and articulate
her inner life dooms her to incomprehension because the very
idea of a wife having a separate and unique identity is alien"
(67). It is this realization that ultimately leads Edna to her
"last swim", wherein she loses her physical life but
embraces the only option she can envision to maintain control
of her "essential self."
In seeking a full
realization of the "self" as emphasized in Modernism,
Edna inherently rejects Victorian expectations. Seyersted aptly
illustrates that "'Pontellierism' . . . represents a wish
for clarity and a willingness to understand one's inner and outer
reality, besides a desire to dictate one's own role rather than
to slip into patterns prescribed by tradition" (139). As
Edna moves toward self-realization, she attempts to discard or
devalue symbols of society's conventions and expectations. She
tries to destroy her wedding ring, discontinues her "reception
day", and comes to devalue the beautiful contents of her
upper-class home. Gilmore notes that ". . . Edna's discovery
of her suppressed being, a discovery pitting her against her
culture's celebration of fidelity, in all the senses of that
word, unfolds as a process of shedding social conventions and
becoming 'like' herself, the authentic Edna Pontellier. . . The
awakened Edna ceases to comply with others' expectations and
follows the promptings of her own nature, and Chopin describes
this change as a growth in the heroine's authenticity, her reality
as a person" (81-82). The novel's narrator clearly defines
Edna's response to her self-realization:
Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations
added to her strength and expansion as an individual. She began
to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper
undercurrents of life. No longer was she content to 'feed upon
opinion' when her own soul had invited her. (151)
Chopin illustrates the process of Edna's gradual awakening
by suggesting that Edna defines her "self" through
contrasting her own reality with the identity of Madame Ratignolle
-- a woman who exemplifies all that Edna is expected by society
to be, but essentially is not:
At a very early age she had apprehended instinctively that
dual life - that outward existence which conforms, the inward
life which questions. That summer at Grand Isle she began to
loosen a little the mantle of reserve . . . There may have been
. . . influences working in their several ways to induce her
to do this; but the most obvious was the influence of Adele Ratignolle.
The contrast between the two is best exemplified when Edna,
in conversation with Madame Ratignolle, attempts to delve into
and express her own consciousness, saying
I was really not conscious of thinking of anything; but perhaps
I can retrace my thoughts." Her companion does not understand
the value of doing so and becomes impatient, responding, "Oh!
never mind! I am not quite so exacting . . . It is really too
hot to think, especially to think about thinking. (60)
Unlike Madame Ratignolle, as Edna discovers a self independent
of gender-defined identities and roles and begins to experience
the full depths of human experience, she awakens to a new consciousness
-- one that her friend apparently never approaches. We see Edna's
new response to her husband's domestic demands:
Another time she would have gone in at his request. She would,
through habit, have yielded to his desire; not with any sense
of submission or obedience to his compelling wishes, but unthinkingly,
as we walk, move, sit, stand, go through the daily treadmill
of the life which has been portioned out to us. (78)
Along with its emphasis on the self and on individual consciousness,
Modernism also displays a tendency toward cultural despair and
frequently depicts the alienation of the individual. This tendency
reflects Modernism's recognition of the fragmented and the fractured.
According to Cantor, "Modernism foregrounded the disharmonious
and the unfinished, the splintered world, the piece that had
broken off, the serendipitous, and pursued this preference to
the point of making it an aesthetic principle" (37). In
contrast to a Victorian climate which was comparatively optimistic,
or at least transcendental, "Modernism tends towards pessimism
and despair" (40). Cantor adds the important observation
The modernist novel is a study in frustration and disappointment.
It rarely presents an epiphany, but is an examination of the
disappointments of modern life, the difficulty of achieving ambitions,
fulfilling love and even of communicating. . . of loneliness,
alienation and defeat that often enervates the individual. Moments
of triumph are brief, when they occur (44)
Chopin's text recognizes that for women, this sense of frustration
and disappointment reaches its most acute incarnation, with the
most dire consequences and contradictions.
Chopin gives us a
protagonist who chooses suicide because she is unable to find
a place for her newly conscious, fully recognized self within
the constraints of the present social system (Gilmore 62). Edna's
suicide is completely "valid" within the context of
her time, when her act of self-recognition is condemned. Seyersted
recognizes that her awakening ". . . is accompanied by a
growing sense of isolation and aloneness, and also anguish. .
. If the process of existential individuation is taxing on a
man and freedom a lonely and threatening thing to him, it is
doubly so for a woman who attempts to emancipate herself"
(148). Gilmore rightly concludes that
Her quest for self-fulfillment, though it ends in death, is
an insurrectionary act because it calls a civilization into question;
it has to end in death because there is no way for the world
she inhabits to accommodate the change in her . . . her disaffection
proves so total that she takes her life instead of allowing herself
to be reintegrated into the existing order. (62)
Edna despairs when she recognizes what she is up against,
becoming increasingly alienated. She confides to her physician,
"There are periods of despondency and suffering which take
possession of me" (171). We are told that ". . . the
voices were not soothing that came to her . . . They jeered and
sounded mournful notes without promise, devoid even of hope.
. .", and as Edna moves toward her final swim we are told
that "Despondency had come upon here there in the wakeful
night, and had never lifted" (175). Even early
in Edna's awakening, we see hints of the alienation to come.
Edna, while listening to Mademoiselle Reisz perform, envisions
". . . the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock
on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless
resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight
away from him" (71). We are told that at times, life "appeared
to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling
blindly toward inevitable annihilation" (109).
while Modernism's protagonist typically reacts with alienation
and despair to an increasingly fractured world, Edna
primarily reacts against the stable yet constricting boundaries
of the 19th century world -- And in particular, as they apply
to women. As Gilmore observes, both Chopin and Edna are grounded
in expectations and constructs of the Victorian era: "It
would be an error to overstate the 'Modernism' of either Chopin's
fiction or Edna's awakened consciousness [because] the very strategies
the two women use to achieve autonomy are what implicate them
in the value systems they oppose" (80).
This distinction prevents
placing Chopin's novel definitively within the bounds of Modernism.
However, the novel maintains many alliances with Modernist constructs
and serves as a literary precursor of what will come early in
the 20th century. It operates on one level as a fascinating study
of the female experience in two divergent cultural contexts and
on the fringes of these two periods, examining the contradictions
and dilemmas that seem to follow and haunt women on all
fronts. In this way, The Awakening remains an important
transitional (and certainly revolutionary) text, a significant
forerunner of Modernism and a real gem in American women's' literary
history. As Gilmore recognizes, although Edna and Chopin ultimately
do not reach full transcendence of 19th century constructs and
ideals, they nonetheless
strive to go beyond it and to achieve something approximating
the modernist escape
. . . Both women wish to find a way out of the "fettering
tradition of nature" and both aspire to speak, like the
brightly colored parrot introduced on the novel's first page,
"a language which nobody understood." (65)
Cantor, Norman F. Twentieth Century Culture: Modernism
to Deconstruction. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1988.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Selected Stories.
Fwd. Sandra M. Gilbert. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Dyer, Joyce. The Awakening: A Novel of Beginnings.
New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
Eble, Kenneth. "A Forgotten Novel." Kate Chopin:
Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York:
Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Faulkner, Peter. Modernism. London: Methuen &
Gilmore, Michael T. "Revolt Against Nature: The Problematic
Modernism of The Awakening."
New Essays on The Awakening. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Panaro, Lydia Adriana. "Desperate Women: Murders and
Suicides in Nine Modern Novels."
Dissertation Abstracts International 42 (1982): 3150A
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne Publishers,