Sunday, August 5, 2007

Kate O'Flaherty Chopin (1851-1904)

Sierra Club


She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again. Edna heard her father's voice and her sister Margaret's. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air...

...I wonder if anyone else has an ear so tuned and sharpened as I have, to detect the music, not of the spheres, but of earth, subtleties of major and minor chord that the wind strikes upon the tree branches. Have you ever heard the earth breathe... ?
from The Awakening Chapter 39


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Lecture: The Awakening: Edna's Suicide
Powerpoint: The Awakening
COPAC UK: Kate Chopin
Library of Canada: Kate Chopin
Library of Congress: Kate Chopin
Other Library Catalogs: Kate Chopin


Kate O'Flaherty Chopin in St. Louis, Missouri in 1851. Chopin turned to writing after a series of personal losses, with her first published poem in 1889. Chopin touched off her greatest controversy with the publication of her novel The Awakening in 1899, which tells the tale of a young woman who commits adultery and suicide. The harsh reception of that book, now considered a classic, led Chopin to give up writing for a long period. She wrote little after its publication, and found publishers reluctant to publish what she did produce. Kate Chopin died of a brain hemorrhage in 1904.

Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Edna's Suicide
Logos Lecture Series
Russell McNeil, 2005

Neil Wyatt at Virginia Commonwealth University has written a cogent summary itemizing a number of critical analyses of hypothetical reasons for the suicide of the character Edna in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. With the exception of the unattributed possibilities, the following argumentative summary is paraphrased in the main from Wyatt.

Argument #1: Suicide as Artist's Statement: a Romantic artist's Courageous and Defiant statement: An artist's function in any culture is to understand her culture, to point to its strengths and weakness, and to lead the way toward correction. Edna's personal life trajectory is unacceptable in her culture. As a woman she would have to be silent to live in that culture: But for her silence is death. So, she removes herself in dramatic fashion, through a supreme act of artistic courage and defiance. Recall her conversation with Mademoiselle Reisz :

What do you mean by the courageous soul?

Courageous, ma foi! The brave soul. The soul that dares and defies.

Show me the letter and play for me the Impromptu . You see that I have persistence. Does that quality count for anything in art?

It counts with a foolish old woman whom you have captivated, replied Mademoiselle Reisz, with her wriggling laugh.

The letter was right there at hand in the drawer of the little table upon which Edna had just placed her coffee cup. Mademoiselle opened the drawer and drew forth the letter, the topmost one. She placed it in Edna's hands, and without further comment arose and went to the piano. Mademoiselle played a soft interlude.

Argument #2: Suicide as Despair: The despair is over Robert. He saw her as a mother-woman. No different in the end from Leonce. What her father, her husband, and Robert all want is for her to be maternal -- but that's not who she is. In taking her life she withholds motherhood and re-owns herself. She thought of Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul. [Ref: Peggy Skaggs in Neil Wyatt]

Argument #3: Edna is Unbalanced: She behaves in erratic ways. Her husband suspects this. She stomps on her ring, breaks a vase. She feels sorry when Leonce leaves for New York. She behaves erratically at the dinner party (when Victor sing's Robert's song). She refers to secret inner thoughts and ideas. On several occasions she is described as giving up all ideas of reality and abandoning herself to fate. [Ref: Alfred Malzahn in Neil Wyatt]

Argument #4: Edna is Pregnant: This possibility might require more work. She is sleeping with Arobin. The only non-symbolic clue here is her reaction to Adele's labour -- she is horrified. Edna revolts against nature by destroying herself as a means of procreation. [Ref: Alfred Malzahn in Neil Wyatt]

Argument #5: Jungian Reasons: Edna was starved for love as a child. Her father was a pathetic excuse for a man who harassed his wife into the grave and really did not love his daughters. [In Jungian psychology the animus or inner self is defined by the girls' father.] Edna refers to her inner feelings. The animus becomes personified. Dreams foreshadow future events (Jung). When she heard It (a musical piece Solitude in a minor key) there came before her imagination 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. Edna's animus is this naked man. To bring peace to this animus she kills herself. [Ref: Marina Roscher in Neil Wyatt]

Argument #6: Male-Female Imbalance: Women's needs and desires are not adequately reflected in the world whereas men's needs and desires are. Drowning fulfills those missing needs. In this sense, the suicide isn't really suicide it is an escape into the arms of a long-remembered idyllic lover! The sea is in a mythic sense her real lover, her real seducer. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace. [Ref: Helen Emmitt in Neil Wyatt]

Argument #7: Motherhood Denied: It is the mother element not Robert's bertrayal that leads to her death. She is not able to reconcile the pressure to be a mother first and to be herself first. She will give up her life but not her soul for her children. Her death in a way can be seen as a lesser abandonment than the abandonment her children would experience if she lived as she wanted. [Ref: Joyce Dyer in Neil Wyatt]

Argument #8: Suicide as Justice: This cynical interpretation treats the text as Hollywood might. Edna was an adultress. Suicide provides closure -- repairs the torn moral universe. In Flaubert's Madame Bovary in 1857 his hero Emma commits suicide much like Edna here. In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in 1875, Anna throws herself under a train. Georg Eliot's hero Maggie in Mill on the Floss kills herself by drowning. Tess in Hardy's Tess of the Ubervilles dies in this way. Chopin gives the reader the ending they expect.

Argument #9: Suicide as Inconsistent and Inappropriate: Edna overcame everything -- surely a little disappointment regarding Robert should not block further growth. She had other consistent choices: Take on a lover who shares her vision of the world -- certainly there are many romantics in New Orleans. Or, she could have lived alone. On the other hand, Edna's action is consistent with someone who really does not think much about consequences ... and who really is not able to articulate what she does want. wanted. [Ref: George Spangler in Neil Wyatt]

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