Carol by Patricia Highsmith

carol

The problem is this: in Germany, we don’t get to see movies in the English original, unless there happens to be a movie theater near that offers to do that. They didn’t offer Carol and I’m loath to watch the German dubbed version. What did I do? I bought the book.

The Price of Salt (the original title when it came out in 1952) has been on my reading list for some time, but as it always goes, I hadn’t come to it yet. The movie put the book in my local bookstore and there you go. I bought it, and I’m not sorry I did.

Here’s what Carol is about:

19-year-old Therese Belivet works in a department store over the holidays. Carol Aird is a customer looking for a doll for her daughter. Their eyes meet and from that moment on they yearn to be together. They try to be friends, but on a trip they take together they finally succumb to their desires. Waterloo is their downfall. But Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband has sent a private detective after them and their affair doesn’t stay undetected. The price of salt being the custody of Carol’s daughter.

Lauded as the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, this lauding took away the surprise of the ending. Because one could not help being surprised at a happy ending for a novel that seems melancholy. The love between the two women seems doomed and thus I had the feeling at the end that the ending doesn’t quite fit.

This however does not take away from the beauty of the novel. Told from Therese’s point of view, but not in the first person, it is a story of youthful awkwardness and misunderstandings. But it is a story of growth in a human being, maybe even more so than a love story. Through her love for Carol Therese grows into an adult. While Carol is certainly a guiding person, she is far from perfect. Her mood swings sometimes dramatically, and the audience – together with Therese – can only wonder at her attraction to the young woman. But it’s there, it is just hidden because Carol knows better than to fall for a woman again.

The book is an emotional roller coaster, and while one does not always understand Therese’s feelings or actions, they make sense for her. The same goes for her misunderstanding of Carol who remains a mystery for most of the tale.

Throughout the read, I kept underlining passages that are so beautifully written they took my breath away. While the book is of spartan discription, the inner musings are philosophical, sometimes poetic. The love falls in front of a cold backdrop, it being winter and even Therese wishing her feelings had fallen into spring. But love does not wait for the perfect backdrop, it just happens. And the book never doubts that it did happen for Therese, she’s not shy to even confess to them before she even knows that Carol feels for her too. These feelings overwhelm her, they’re too powerful to doubt them.

CarolThe Price of Salt – is a beautiful book, it’s an important book, it’s the book you should read in 2016 if you haven’t read it yet. I still can’t quite put my head around it, but it’s a great read, an emotional one too. It’s not a pleasant summer read, but it’s worth your time.

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Reading in 2014

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[I took this picture on a clear, cold day in Travemünde, just a few days ago.]

It’s done and over with – 2014, that is. And I’m glad of it ’cause it really wasn’t a good year, overall. The reading was okay, even though I didn’t read nearly enough. I only started in March, 26 novels and anthologies in all. They were mostly good, also mostly lesbian romances and some rereads. I want to spread out more this year but for 2014, it was okay.

My favorites among the new ones I read were Sometime Yesterday by Yvonne Heidt, Wicked Things, edited by Jay and Astrid Ohletz (which contains my short story ‘A Lesson i Magic’), and Roller Coaster by Karin Kallmaker.

But apart from the books I’ve read there were some I haven’t finished in 2014. There are always some of those each year. I often lose interest in books, but that’s not the only reason for not finishing a book. Let me just run down those unfinished books of 2014.

Insurgent by Veronica Roth – While I liked the first volume of the series, the second part has too many elements of that other series that treats its female protagonist like a second-class character. There were also some plot bunnies that didn’t make much sense, apart from the basis of the whole series being a little far-fetched.

The Age of Innocent by Edith Wharton – I love Wharton’s work and I would really like to read more from her. The problem is that I want to study her, but I’m not quite at a point where I can solely concentrate on a body of work by one author, especially one who has been studied by far more intelligent heads than mine. I haven’t gotten beyond the first chapter – though I rewatched the movie this year.

When the Clock Strikes Thirteen by Ylva Publishing – I contributed a story to this year’s Halloween anthology and wanted to read last year’s. I have read the first few stories but I haven’t gotten beyond them yet. I will pick this anthology up again to continue reading, I just got side-tracked.

Coming Home by Lois Cloarec Hart – This is one of my all-time favorite Xena-Uber fanfictions and now I have the paperback. But I haven’t gotten around to reading the whole book yet. I want to, but it’s been a while since I read it and I would hate to discover that it’s not as good as I remember it. That’s stupid, of course, Hart is a good story-teller. I’m just being silly, is all.

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton – This is part of my research about supernatural creatures. I’m looking forward to writing my first supernatural story this year (probably come June) so I may finish this one yet. It’s good, so far.

Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran – I’m trying to get involved in some gay (male) reading, but so far haven’t been very successful (as I’ve started and not finished At Swim, Two Boys last year). I like the narration so far but it’s a little more heavy-duty than I want to engage in at the moment.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan – This is a sweet story about a coming out of a lesbian teen. I’m going to continue reading this at some point but not right now.

Heart’s Surrender by Emma Weimann – I really like the beginning of this one and if you ask me why I haven’t finished it yet, I can’t even tell you. My focus got diverted and I haven’t redirected it at this novel yet. I will, probably sometime this year. It’s been a lot of fun so far.

Emerald Green by Kerstin Gier – The third part of the series, a good, solid series. But I got a little tired of the narrator’s voice by the third book. Sometimes listening to teen first narrators gets a little tiresome. I like the premise of the story and the story, too. I will finish it, though I’m not sure when.

Blind Bet by Tracey Richardson – The Candidate by the same author was brilliant, I loved it. The Wedding Party was all right but I had some beef with it. And now this one… I don’t know. There were just some things in this I had a hard time working through. The writing is good but some of the plot bunnies are positively rabid. Not sure I’ll pick it up again.

2014 is over. Let’s see what 2015 brings. I’m looking forward to reading in 2015.

 

“World Without End” – Mean Reproduction in Djuna Barnes’ ‘Ryder’ and ‘Ladies Almanack’

“- thy life and the lives that thou begettest, and the lives that shall spring from them, world without end -” (Ryder 3)

The biblical image is a repeated element in Djuna Barnes’s writing. It emerges in her style, in her usage of metaphors, in her drawings, in her narrative. In Ryder she describes Wendell Ryder as a god of his own making, father to as many children as he is able to conceive, creator of (and self-proclaimed lord and master to) his own race – Ryder. The before, during, and after of making off-spring is one of the more prominent topics of the quilt-like novel; the relationships of parents, children, step-family-members, and in-laws – it is all a family matter. And a matter of Barnes’s own family, as well.

In Ladies Almanack the biblical is forced into farce once again as the condemned take over the world and an Amazon-like tribe of women is producing its next generation through seduction of

“such Girls, as in their Hinder Parts, and their Fore Parts, and in whatsoever Parts did suffer them most, lament Cruelly, be it Itch of Palm, or Quarters most horribly burning, which do oft occure in the Spring of the Year, or at those Times when they do sit upon warm and cozy Material, such as Fur, or thick and Oriental Rugs, […] or who sit upon Stoves, whence it is know that one such flew up with an “Ah my God! What a World it is for a Girl indeed, be she ever so well brought to such a yelping Pitch and so undo her that she runs hither and thither seeking some Simple of Unguent which shall allay her Pain! And why is it no Philosopher of whatever Sort, has discovered, amid the nice Herbage of his Garden, one that will content that Part, but that from the day that we were indifferent Matter, to this wherein we are Imperial Personages of thedivine  human Race, no thing so solaces it as other Parts as inflamed, or with the Consolation every Woman has at her Finger Tips, or at the very Hang of her Tongue?” (Ladies Almanack 2)

Traditional conception is not an option but the Almanack never worries about a shortage of lesbians (be it in the present or future) – the predominant impression is one of mass-, and even over-production – as Barnes creates a society void of men and a distorting mirror of the expatriate modernist salon of Natalie Clifford Barney in Paris during the 1920s and 30s.

Both novels – published the same year – overindulge in producing off-spring and often through unconventional means. And as they were both published within the same, and probably written in successive years one could argue that one continues or extends the other while the biblical element hints at a creation that might (or might not) surpass the Christian genesis.

In Ryder

A big part of the not very clearly structured narrative of Ryder follows Wendell Ryder, son of Sophia, husband to Amelia – and eventually Kate-Careless – and father to a number of legitimate and illegitimate childrren. He is not the first man of his family to have many children but he is the first one to build a philosophy around reproduction. At the core of his philosophy is the desire to be „Father of All Things.“ (210) Father may be seen here as a synonym for god, and this is how he likes to see himself, also. In consequence, Ryder can be seen as Ryder’s bible. And this comparison is quite accurate if you substitute the human race for the race of Ryder: there are stories – moral observations – about people who are “touched” by Ryder, there are fables and parables, and the introduction, „Jesus Mundane,“ has the tone of the ten commandments to it. Ryder’s world is indeed his world, he created it and he sees himself as master to it. The narrative, though, does repeatedly mock his status. While Amelia seems a good and submissive wife most of his mistresses are much more independent and free-thinking. After he tries, for example, to establish some regularity into Molly Dance’s life, so that she might know at least the father to her next born, she tells him that Dan, the policeman, had the same idea two days earlier. And after the child is born, Wendell displays his insecurity by asking Dr. O’Connor if the baby looks like him. Wendell is made man, again, and a weak one at that. At the end of the novel he says of himself “In the end […] I shall have no children. I have unfathered myself.” (239) It is the only time, he seems to feel remorse for his follies and regrets getting Amelia and Kate-Careless into a polygamous relationship. But up until this point, his philosophy is the cornerstone of his thinking and living. Hisviews are supported by his mother:

“You are a lover of women, you commit them to children, you lust openly and sweetly like,“ she added firmly, „the beast of the field, because you are nature, all of you,…“ (238)

Nature, yet again, is a substitute for God and the way Sophia lets him commit himself to his desires – by taking care of him and his family financially – is probably at the core of his illusions about himself.

But it can be discussed that these are illusions Sophia and Wendell share. If Wendell is to be „Father of All Things“ then Sophia is „Mother“ – there is an incestuous element in this and its not the only one throughout the novel. Some of their shared illusions manifest themselves in the chapter “Sophia Tells Wendell How He Was Conceived.” According to Sophia, Wendell has no father, she was impregnated by the spiritual appearance of Beethoven in a dream. Through this she tells her son that he is not only begot by the spirit of a genius but also that he is superior to other men by being conceived without a father. Here, he appears as Jesus (maybe this is where the introduction comes to play as Wendell could easily be seen as a “Jesus Mundane,” a Jesus, therefore, that does not display wonders but lives as selfish and dependent of others as he possibly can, making him again more human than he cares to be) and as she tells this story at a crucial point in his life – “when he reached the years of discretion” (36) – he never forgets it and “suffers” from it all his life. But iin a way, so does his mother. She is under the constant delusion that Wendell is a genius, that he is god-like and should follow his divine calling. And she supports him.

She also creates a network of influential sons and daughters, not by birth but by the guilt-ridden bonds she ties around them. Her „off-spring“ pays a price for the priviledge of calling her “mother” and they have to give to her so that she can keep giving to Wendell. Surprisingly enough, Sophia is the one woman who has born only three sons herself – and the youngest of them died. Her mother had 14 children, Amelia’s mother had 12, Amelia had five (with a possible sixth on the way), Kate-Careless only had three, as well, but seemed eager to have more (for her revenge and out of addiction as she claims in „Wendell Discusses Himself With His Mother“). With all the multiple mothers inhabiting Ryder one might think that a positive picture of motherhood and reproduction is displayed, but this is not the case; on the contrary: mothers (all but Sophia and Molly Dance) become mad, vengeful creatures. Sophia’s mother tells her daughter never to let a man touch her, and Amelia repeats this warning to her daughter, Julie, with almost the same words. While the men of the novel stride around like creators of mankind, most of the women regret having had intercourse and detest giving birth.As Amelia puts it to her daughter, Julie: “So take warning by my size and don’t let a man touch you, for their touching never ends, and screaming oneself into a mother is no pleasure at all.” (95) Still, Julie immitates her mother’s state as she lies in bed with a doll, screaming “Wendell! Wendell!” (95) while her brother, Timothy, plays father to the doll. The whole chapter (“Amelia and Kate Taken to Bed”) is highly charged with incestuous tension, sexual abuse and infidelity. And as Wendell proves incapable of dealing with the women he has impregnated – and the daughter who may have been sexually abused by him at the age of ten – Dr. Matthew O’Connor proves to be the perfect mid-wife and delivers Amelia’s baby – which is black. The picture of conception and reproduction as it is given of the Ryder family – those who are living in “Bulls’-Ease” – is a painful one, at least for the women.

Molly Dance – another of Wendell’s many lovers – seems to be the exception. This exception is explained by her profession, as she breeds dogs. Reproduction for her is a way of survival – her pure-bred dogs sell for a high price, and her sons are all thieves and pickpockets. While she is not very discriminate when it comes to lovers and who is going to father her children – it is said, that all her children (already ten in number before she met Wendell) have different fathers – she takes care that the bitches in her stock do not breed outside their own race, because “when a dog goes wrong, you can tell it in an instant.” (192)

While everybody else is constantly conceiving, giving birth or at least thinking about procreation, there is one who is merely a tool in the big picture of reproduction: Dr. Matthew O’Connor. But he, too, it can be argued is marking children as his own through the story of Ryder. Like the women in the Ladies Almanack he is not to use traditional heterosexual means to do so, but by bringing children into the world he often “take[s] more trouble with them than [their] own,” (123) as Molly Dance puts it not very delicately and calls him “father […] in spirit” (123) to the infants he helps bringing into the world. For the women in his domain he is indeed the perfect father-figure but that is not how he sees himself. He rather fills the place of mid-wife and maybe fatherly friend to the older chidren, as can be seen in “Dr. Matthew O’Connor and the Children.”

In Ladies Almanack

In the “Zodiac,” a chapter in the Ladies Almanack that follows the month of March, Djuna Barnes constitutes a part of the Christian myth “that has never been told.” It is the birth of “the first Woman born with a Difference,” in other words a lesbian, by a corrobaration of “all the Angels, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, all.” As this birth is placed after “the Fall of Satan” it is possible that it even preceded the creation of Adam which would make a lesbian the first human being “born”. Still, she is not the standard, she is “born with a Difference,” once because she is not created in His likeness, but also because she hatched from an egg. It seems that God has not consented to her creation and thus she is an early outcast (much like Satan) of the Genesis – or rather Djuna Barnes’s interpretation of the Genesis. (13)

The creation mythof this first lesbian legitimizes the existence of a different kind and places the beginning of lesbian existence outside the psychological theories of Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud which had been widely read and accepted by the time Barnes wrote the Almanack. Still, Barnes ackowledges their work by making her heroine, Dame Musset, a “sexual invert,” “for she had been developed in the Womb of her most gentle Mother to be a Boy.” (2) Barnes resists, however, making Musset a shame-faced confessor to psychoanalyses; her heroine enjoys life and makes others enjoy it with her as she “was so much in Demand, and so wide famed for her Genius up by Hand, and so noted and esteemed for her Slips of the Toungue that it finally brought her into the Hall of Fame.” (3) The presentation of a number of lesbian “types” also defies Ellis and Freud’s teachings. In her article “‘A Nose-Length in the Matter’: Sexology and Lesbian Desire in Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack” Christine Berni states:

“In opposition to this medical regularization, the lesbian bodies that populate Ladies Almanack resist sexological and socially hegemonic categories and successfully complicate theorizations of lesbianism as an inversion, that is, as an innate masculinity complex.” Likewise, in Freudian terms, portraits of same-sex desire in Barnes’s text escape inscription within psychoanalytic developmental narratives that cast lesbianism as regression to infantile relations. (Berni 83-84)

A lesbian is not a woman trapped in a pre-oedipal phase, she is “[v]irtually everyone […]: vixens, hussies, athletes, virgins.” (Sniader-Lanser 43)

And midwives. Barnes presents herself (impersonated in the novella by Masie Tuck-and-Frill) as one who is willing to help if the impossible might occur and lesbian love may bring forth a baby. She prophesies that “[a] Feather […] might accomplish it, or a Song rightly sung, or an Exclamation said in the right Place, or a Trifle done in the right Spirit, and then you would have need of me indeed!” (10) Barnes uses heterosexist mythology here and turns it onto lesbianism almost as if to say: it works for them, why should it not work for us? A poem, a song, a declaration of love have often been the beginning of something that nine month later would call itself another human being and as she points out: “For […] Creation has ever been too Marvellous to doubt of it now.” (10) Therefore she places lesbian love within Godly “Creation,” with the same possibilities heterosexual love has (stangely enough, artificial insemination did prove her right).

Patience Scalpel seemingly picks up the heterosexual argument asking if “good mothers [are] to supply them [lesbians] with Luxuries in the next Generation, for they themselves will have no Shes, unles some Her puts them forth!” (5-6) What is striking in her argument is the absence of a “he” and she confirms this absence by exclaiming “My daughters shall go amarrying!” (6, emphasis mine). Barnes is very ambivalent about men and their contribution to reproduction in Ladies Almanack. This is not only pronounced in the (almost complete) absence of men within the narrative but also in reference to gender for although Evangeline Musset’s sexual prowess is obvious it is not obviously gendered. While the partriarch is dismembered (the first lesbian being born without the interference of God; Musset defying her father who seems to stand as impersonation of Freudian theories), Musset herself is captured in Barnes’s drawings as a “dildoesque figure” (Kent 125) and holding a pole in the frontispiece with which she saves women from the “chagrin of sinking for the third time” (as quoted in Kent 126). The phallus is alive and well in Barnes’s narrative but it seems to be outlived by the tongue as the ultimate satisfyer of sexual needs in women and the most eloquent tool of seduction. And Musset indulges in this practice most willingly and with striking results, even after her death.

In November – which is also the November of Musset’s life – Barnes’s heroine thinks it is time to be more aggressive about spreading “wisdom” and starts recruiting girls. But the women she encounters are not so easily convinced yet come to her in their own time and suddenly “ten Girls [she] had tried vainly for but a month gone, were all tearing at [her] shutters” (42).

In her book Making Girls Into Women – American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity, Kathryn Kent argues that there is yet another form of lesbian reproduction linked to Barnes’s novella: recruitment through reading. Kent argues that through the reading of certain books – among them the Ladies Almanack – young women were presented with protolesbian (her expression) types they could identify with. The problem with the Ladies Almanack on this premise is that it was not only written for an audience that was already aware of these types (having inspired them) but that publication was so limited that one can hardly speak of “recruitment.” Of course, today the Ladies Almanack is easily accessible but it is hardly the text adolescent girls – confused about their sexuality – would pick up.

In Comparison

Ryder and Ladies Almanack are both biographical texts; the former is dealing with Djuna Barnes’s childhood and adolescence the latter with her expatriate life in Paris during the 1920s. If we stick to the timeline expressed in the books it would follow that Ladies Almanack was written after Ryder (I am conscious of the gap in time in her life that is left out) but there is also evidence within the text that affirms this notion. In Ryder Dr. Matthew O’Connor is telling one of Wendell’s many children about “the Three Great Moments of History,” (Ryder 227) in Ladies Almanack Doll Furious is telling Dame Musset of “the forth great Moment of History (having undoubtedly heard of the other three)” (Ladies Almanack 22), continuing not only what O’Connor had thought complete but expressing the conviction that the other three moments are known not only to Musset but also the reader – and herself.

The narrative evolves chronically from Ryder to Ladies Almanack but there are other indicators that the reader is observing an advancement. After her fight with Kate in “They Do Not Much Agree” Amellia consents that “Between cause, which is you, and effect, which is I, I do seem to see reason, and I’ve always held that, like a babe, it was born from between two women!” (Ryder 148). This text is not concerned with “reason” but with the “babe” that is born between two women. Amelia is referring to the mother and the mid-wife, of course, but “what is to prevent some modern Girl from rising from the Couch of a Girl as modern, with something new in her Mind?” (Ladies Almanack 10). The mid-wife in Ryder is Matthew O’Connor, a gay man with a transgender personality – male-to-female. And he is also the one who is telling about the “three moments of history.” The mid-wife in Ladies Almanack is Masie Tuck-and-Frill who is the alter ego of Djuna Barnes.

The narration of Ryder – as I have already pointed out – is mocking Wendell as a wannabe-God, as a “Jesus Mundane” and a failure at providing for his family. Male creation has shipwrecked; at the end Wendell asks himself whom he should disappoint now, knowing that it cannot be helped. Ryder turns genderroles upsight-down, it mocks male dominance – and male writing by twisting forms of partriarchal story-telling.

In Ladies Almanack men are mostly absent; there are some remains of male inheritance but even Patience Scalpel puts their labor into the past when she says “In my time […] Women came to enough trouble by lying abed with the Father of their Children” (Ladies Almanack 5, emphasis mine). Women are still having babies but fathers seem to become extinct – while Barnes’s writing “adopts a host of patriarchal forms and combines them in uneasy parody” (Sniader-Lansing, 40) She turns these forms – “the saint’s life, the ode, the prayer, the love song, the allegory, classical mythology, and Sacred Scripture” (Sniader-Lansing, 40) – into a Ladies Almanack making women the center of her writing, her narrative, her society, her everything until the day “some modern Girl [rises] from the Couch of a Girl as modern, with something new in her Mind.” (Ladies Almanack 10) This “new” might be a baby, it might be something else.

Creation is not exclusively linked to procreation, especially female creation. Sophia is an avid writer, Amelia exchanges letters with her sister, and many of the women portrait in Ladies Almanack – most of them, actually – were writers. Conclusively, with all the progress within Ryder and Ladies Almanack toward a female society, female procreation, female writing one could argue that Djuna Barnes – probably together with some of the women from Natalie Barney’s salon – might have been looking for or creating a “female language,” an “écriture feminine.” But creating a female language born out of male language, an evolutionary language out of a language that has fulfilled its purpose and is now (or will soon) be useless – much like the men in her narrative from Ryder through Ladies Almanack.

Sources

Barnes, Djuna. Ladies Almanack.Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004

—, Ryder. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990

Berni, Christine. “‘A Nose-Length into the Matter’: Sexology and Lesbian Desire in Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack.Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 20.3 (1999): 83-107.

Kent, Kathryn R.. Making Girls into Women – American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003

Sniader-Lansing, Susan. “Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Language of Celebration,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 4.3 (Autumn, 1979): 39-46.

Freedom of Choice? – or Coming Out of “The Awakening”

Reading about The Awakening means subjecting oneself to a diverse discourse of meanings for almost anything within the realm of Kate Chopin’s novel. Who is Edna Pontellier and what makes her abandon her husband and children to seek self-fulfillment in suicide by drowning? Who is responsible for the awakening of Edna and when exactly does this obscure awakening happen? What does the parrot, the lady in black, fill-in-the-blank mean? Is it a feminist text? Is it an anti-feminist text? Did Kate Chopin write realistic, local color, or maybe even romantic fiction? There are so many different answers to these questions that one has to be careful not to lose one’s own argument, one’s own explanations. The awakening itself and Edna’s death (despite the fact that at the end of the novel Edna is “still swimming,” (Gilbert, 1983) I see her last action in the novel as the intention to die; there is a certainty that makes the wish self-fulfilling) are of special concern to readers and critics. They are both inevitable but also ambiguous. There seem to be no two critics who would agree on when the awakening starts, who is responsible for it, and why Edna commits suicide. These are the most interesting questions concerning the novel and after having read Elizabeth LeBlanc’s “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening,” I feel that these questions should be answered to set the boundaries for a thesis to exist in.

This paper will discuss the validity of Edna’s awakening in a queer reading of the novel. Can we interpret the awakening as a coming out? Is it entirely linked to the main character’s sexuality? Can it even be called an awakening/coming out if the cultural context lacked the vocabulary to identify it? Was Kate Chopin aware of the possibility of same-sex relationships in both her time and her novel?

While many other discussions of the text place Edna’s awakening in the realm of a heterosexual relationship (be it her failed marriage, or her blossoming love for Robert Lebrun), Elizabeth LeBlanc argues (as the title of her thesis indicates) that “Adèle’s touch initiates Edna’s awakening.” (LeBlanc, 1996) This seemingly insignificant touch rouses Edna given that “[s]he was not accustomed to an outward and spoken expression of affection” and “[t]he action was at first a little confusing to Edna” though “she soon lent herself readily to the Creole’s gentle caress.” (17) The significance lends itself to the thoughts that accompany the touch; they wander from her relationships to her sisters, to those with other girls during adolescence before they turn to her first crushes on men (the turn Edna’s musings take from female friends to her first crush seems abrupt, almost suspicious). The underlying instantaneous understanding of such a touch, however compelling, is too obvious. It might be related to her awakening – maybe even closely to her awakening to sensual pleasure – but the scene weighs on another moment which leads up to it, Edna’s re-evaluation of a childhood moment:

“First of all, the sight of the water stretching so far away, those motionless sails against the blue sky, made a delicious picture that I just want to sit and look at. The hot wind beating in my face made me think – without any connection that I can trace – of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water. Oh, I see the connection now!” (16-17)

The connection is the water and – through it – freedom. But it is not just an undefined sense of something so big it might never end; the child Edna does not walk for the joy of walking alone, she does not have a destination, but she has something she walks away from: her father, the church, and the “spirit of gloom” (17). Translated into conventions of social life, they would represent patriarchy, indoctrination, and inevitability. But the child is walking away from it. This moment in the cornfield – so reminiscent of the ocean she is facing 20 years later – is one of freedom of choice. The child Edna is not aware of this, neither is the adult at this point on the beach with Adèle yet the moment will echo into her near future – as will the sensuality of Adèle’s touch.

Their are many indications in the scene between Edna and Adèle that hint toward the possibility of a same-sex relationship and Chopin’s awareness of it; the writer leads to the woman’s conversation at the beach through a description of their friendship:

“… but the most obvious was the influence of Adèle Ratignolle. The excessive physical beauty of the Creole had first attracted her for Edna had a sensuous susceptibility to beauty. Then the candor of the woman’s whole existence,… Who can tell what metals the gods use in forging the subtle bond which we call sympathy, which we might as well call love.” (14-15)

A point can be made that Chopin is writing about romantic friendship here and, though it is likely, the self-consciousness of the last sentence makes it improbable. Romantic friendship did not draw attention to itself through pointing at an erotic attraction, or the substitution of one attachment through another.

Another indication might be the mention of the escape from Robert Lebrun. The young man’s function on Grand Isle is mostly that of an entertainer for the women and their children during the week when the husbands and fathers are in town on business. He is a charmer and usually attaches himself each summer to one special woman. This summer it is Edna and she mostly cherishes his companionship. The fact that she seeks to escape him with Adèle might hint at the substitution of Robert, in his function as admirer, with Adèle. It is also interesting to observe the women’s gathering of their things when Robert – with several of the children in tow – finally finds them: “The women at once rose and began to shake out their draperies and relax their muscles” (19, italics mine). The hasty (caught?) commotion of the women is especially interesting in the presence of the young lovers who shared the scene with Adèle and Edna. They can be seen as a metaphor of the relationship of the women, but their unhurried exit from the scene hints at the leisure of a sanctified (heterosexual) relationship, while the women’s haste might be seen as consciousness of the unsuitability of a same-sex relationship. Moreover, if we note the lovers, we should also note the woman in black that is the only other person present on the beach. She stands for an end, either of a relationship (widow) or of a life (black as the color of death, per se). Therefore, if the lovers’ presence hints at a possible relationship, the woman in black represents the inherent ending of this relationship (and might even predict the death of one of the two women).

This last hint at a same-sex relationship between Adèle and Edna might be a little farfetched, but recognizing that Chopin was a very conscious writer who revised her work often, I cannot believe she would have overlooked the implication of the initials of the two women: A. and E. As in Adam and Eve? It can be a coincidence, of course, but as there is a famous lesbian novel that uses the same codified sanctification for the legitimacy of a homosexual relationship (Desert of the Heart), I would rather believe that Chopin was aware of it, too.

However strong the implications are that Chopin constructed Edna’s awakening as/or simultaneously with a coming out, she constitutes Robert as Edna’s sanctified love interest. Her awakening as sexual awakening grants her the right to a lover – who might or might not bring her sexual gratification. Conventionally, this cannot be Adèle, mostly, because she is married herself. An unmarried woman might substitute as close relationship, though, and Mademoiselle Reisz, the spinster pianist, acts the part throughout the novel. She could be called a rival to Robert as admirer, but they act in such different spheres that their admirations for Edna never crosses paths. Moreover, they are friends and honor their respectable boundaries in their relationships with Edna. The chapter that follows Edna’s awakening on the beach introduces Mademoiselle Reisz and the influence she might have on Edna in the future. And her status as single woman (spinster and old maid are often used as synonyms for female homosexuals) and artist hints at her lesbianism, while her art (like the sea) has a sexual connotation, as well. “The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column…. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and tears blinded her.” (26) As the last sentence can easily be read as a body in the throes of climax, Mademoiselle Reizs’s capability as lover clearly shames the men in the novel; she herself is only “outperformed” by Edna’s ultimate and final lover: the sea.

In trying to recapitulate her moment of awakening on the beach, she seeks out Robert as a catalyst to explain the connection between water and her own sexuality. As he is the one to teach her to swim, the connection to water – the cornfield of her adulthood – is easily established. His status as the local “minnesinger,” a castrated admirer who is there for the amusement of married and ineligible women makes him a socially sanctified choice for the latter. He reenacts Léonce’s courtship of Edna; her rebellion against her father seemed genuine to her but was instead a repetition of an established tradition: the replacement of one provider through another. Her desire (which was not a real choice but a young girl’s dream), the tragedian, was as unattainable as the person she desires now: Adèle. Robert, like Léonce back in her early womanhood, represents a sanctified (heterosexual) choice.

Edna’s real desire is suppressed. She may admire Adèle from afar but her cultural context does not even give her the vocabulary to express her feelings for the other woman. The language, in which Madame Ratignolle is described, though, is that of a lover:

“… Adèle Ratignolle. There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams. There was nothing subtle or hidden about her charms; her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent: the spun-gold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires; two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious crimson fruit in looking at them. She was growing a little stout, but it did not seem to detract an iota from the grace of every step, post, to look at them.” (9)

The emphasis of the description on hair, neck, eyes, lips and, finally, hands make the lover’s voice decidedly female. It is Edna’s look that rests on Adèle as the other woman is described, the voice is hers, the look is sensual. And the description is set against Adèle’s rather dry feelings for Edna: “Madame Ratignolle was very fond of Mrs. Pontellier.”(9)

Because Adèle is the perfect woman, she is also the perfect wife and the perfect mother. In her book Verging on the Abyss – The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton, Mary Papke summarizes nineteenth-century’s ideas of “true womanhood” as follows:

“Woman, in essence, was to be preserver of culture, the sympathetic and supportive bridge between the private realm of the home and the almost exclusively male world of the public marketplace, herself the finest product of capitalism. She was to embody and to maintain social stability in a volatile time of class struggle and economic amorality/immoratlity through the nurturance of her womanhood self, her family, and her sense of virtue. She was also to provide a haven of beauty, grace, and refuge for the makers of this new world: her men.” (Papke, 1990)

Adèle embodies all this and she is a Creole which might induce an even more enticing picture of womanhood linking “absence of prudery” with “a lofty chastity which in the Creole woman seems to be inborn and unmistakable.” (10)

Throughout the story, Edna struggles to differentiate moments of genuine revelation and empty gestures, especially after returning to her home in New Orleans. The city intertwines her old social obligations with a new set of codified opportunities – some lead her to satisfaction, others to the mere image of it: Edna’s affair with Alcée Arobin falls most obviously into the second category. In absence of Robert – and this shows how replaceable Robert is – Edna diverts her conventionalized desires onto the next best unmarried male who crosses her path: Arobin is a young Creole, a man of fashion who is very frank in his adoration for Edna. Their pasttimes include excursions to the race course. The indication is that Arobin is bad for Edna, not only because she passes her time with him with follies and gambling but because he stirs a passion in her that might lead her to a crime she is not (yet) willing to commit: “She felt like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamor.” (74) Arobin is another admirer and again – as with Robert on Grand Isle – Edna feels excitement but her male relations seem indeed to overlap. The moment of passion should be her husband’s, it seems to be a mere coincidence to Edna that it is not and it puzzles her that the mere fact of another man should make her arousal a crime. She does not feel ashamed, though, her newly awakened sexuality does not make excuses.

But it is just as ambiguous toward Arobin as it is toward Robert. If Robert is a sanctified (read heterosexual) substitute for Edna’s feelings for Adèle, Arobin can be seen as the personification of the passion Mademoiselle Reisz’s music unleashes in her. Arobin is repeatedly put into textual context with the pianist as, for example, Chopin in one paragraph describes „the animalism“ Arobin evokes in her, and in the next how „a visit to Mademoiselle Reisz“ is „quiet[ing] the turmoil of Edna’s senses.“ (75) Edna even interrupts one of Arobin’s attempts at seduction with the reminiscence of an intimate scene with Mademoiselle Reisz:

… when I left her today, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. ‚The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’“ (79)

And as Edna keeps talking of her friend, Arobin admits to being „jealous of [her] thoughts to-night“ as „they [are] not here with [him].“ (79) And his jealousy is not misplaced. Though far from being sexual the interaction between Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz does not lack sensuality: „She kissed Edna upon the shoulder, and whispered: ‚Bonne nuit, ma reine; soyez sage.‘“ (85) There is more than one discussion about Mademoiselle Reisz‘s admiration for Edna and more than one critic has recognized it and her as lesbian. The visits Edna pays to Mademoiselle’s flat are often emotionally loaded – in part, because Mademoiselle Reisz shares with Edna the letters sent by Robert, but also as a result of the music the pianist plays for „ma reine.“

A lot of what is being said and done in the novel is sexualitzed or sensualized. Art is an expression of desire, even on the level that Edna performs (in painting). She tries to express this to her husband who objects to being neglected in favor of brush and easel: “‘I feel like painting,’ answered Edna. ‘Perhaps I shan’t always feel like it.'” The desire is as yet undefined and she paints everyone who is willing to sit for her: “For a time she had the whole household enrolled in the service of art. The boys posed for her…. The quadroon sat for hours before Edna’s palette, patient as a savage… But the house-maid, too, served her term as model when Edna perceived that the young woman’s back and shoulders were molded on classic lines, and that her hair, loosened from its confining cap, became an inspiration.” (55) In choosing the house-maid Edna seems to have made a discriminate choice of a model for reason of estheticism. And the sentencing hints at a certain amount of nakedness that is involved in this painting. Her sensual expression in art leads her back to Adèle whom she has tried to sketch on Grand Isle but failed (in her own eyes) to catch. She goes to her for reassurance but also expresses her desire in painting her friend: “‘Perhaps I shall be able to paint your picture some day.'” (53) She does not feel adequately educated in her art as of yet. The evening following her conversation with Adèle about art, Edna leaves the Ratignolles in a desolate mood. Watching this happy couple leaves her unsatisfied, but is is “no[t] regret, no[t] longing” she feels, but “an appaling and hopeless ennui.” She wants Adèle to have a full life, “the taste of life’s delirium” (53) that she herself feels without even knowing what it means. There seems to be a need to share in Edna, her passion for art, her oversentisized impression of life after Grand Isle, and she wants this for Adèle and possibly with her, as well. The connection to her friend always seems greater when they are alone with each other. LeBlanc writes of a lesbian continuum:

While Edna actively works against the myth of “woman,” she does, as I have said, also form and develop sustaining relationships with individual women. In this regard she effectively demonstrates a fifth strategy: Rich’s reconstructive practice of acknowledging, maintaining, and celebrating a “lesbian continuum.” That Rich wishes to highlight the scope and power of love between women is evident in her definition of the term as “a range-through each woman’s life and throughout history-of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman.” She expands the definition to include “the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support,” and the idea of “marriage resistance”(p . 239).” (LeBlanc, 1996)

She applies this concept to the relationship with Adèle by seeing beyond the exemplification of “true womanhood” (Papke, 1990) in Adèle and connects with her witticism and Creole unreserve, while her beauty keeps her just as captivated. And the promise of this lesbian continuum even ends Edna’s connection to Robert. As in the seduction-scene with Arobin, when Edna mentions her intimacy with Mademoiselle Reisz, her fulfillment of her (as advocated) greatest desire with Robert is interrupted by the summons of Adèle. And Edna goes to her friend, leaving her lover. Or maybe she goes to her lover, leaving her friend? In Ryder Djuna Barnes writes: “Between cause, which is you, and effect, which is I, I do seem to see reason, and I’ve always held that, like a babe, it was born from between two women!” (Barnes, 1990). Barnes – or her character Amelia in this case – is referring to mother and mid-wife but the Ratignolles’s baby is born between Adèle and Edna. The convention of this scene is that, after having witnessed birth, Edna will not be able to leave her husband and children to move into the “pidgeon house,” the outcome is that Edna is reassured in her conviction that she cannot sacrifice herself for her children. But the birthing scene has her confused on the point of children’s worth and how much a mother would sacrifice for them: “I want to be let alone. Nobody has any right – except children, perhaps – and even then, it seems to me – or it did sem -…” (105) She tries to express her earlier conviction but is unable to in the light of the scene she has just witnessed. The fact that Adèle’s accouchement should give her this insight and not her own, is puzzling but willed by Adèle. By making Edna the quasi-father, and therefore provider, of her baby she manipulates Edna into admitting that children come first – or ought to come first. But the plan backfires; Edna realizes that she cannot escape society’s dogma of “self-sacrificing motherhood,” she cannot lose herself, therefore she has to give the unessential, her life. Ending the book on this note, however, would have left the reader depressed and desolate – like at the ending of The House of Mirth – but The Awakening ends as a triumph for Edna. For she is united with her greatest lover: the sea.

In his book The Future of Astyanax – Character and Desire in Literature, Leo Bersani writes: “[T]he endless repitition of desires repressed by guilt and angry frustration ultimately leads to the fantasy of death as the absolute pleasure.” (Bersani, 1976) The sea as lover combined with her fantasy of the absolute pleasure in death as a result of suppressed desire, gives her ending a satisfactory note that the reader cannot – without effort – escape. While her suppressed desire can be read in multiple ways, I would argue that it is her passion for women, a passion that Edna could express neither verbally or physically, but that was nonetheless inserted by Chopin – and consciously so.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1899.

Barnes, Djuna. Ryder. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.

Bersani, Leo. A Future for Astyanax – Character and Desire in LIterature. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976.

Gilbert, Sandra M.. “The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin’s Fantasy of Desire.” The Kenyon Review, New Series 5.3 (1983): 42-66.

LeBlanc, Elizabeth. “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 15.2 (1996): 289-307.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1989.

Oishi, Eve. “Visual Perversion: Race, Sex, and Cinematic Pleasure,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (2006): 641-674.

Papke, Mary E.. Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.