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.
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.