On Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”

by vinnyhaddad

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening offers a critical locus for many of the texts I have thus discussed that deal with the question of loss and affect (Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, Jonathan Flatley’s Affective Mapping, and Silvan Tomkins’s Shame and its Sisters).  But, it also figures critically into the question of what precisely the relationship between the novel, as a formal practice and commercial object, and loss precisely is for readers. As Terry Eagleton suggests, literature itself is a response to a problem, or, rather, a problem posed in response to a problem. So, let’s start with the prevailing question that the novel asks and see if we might not work backwards to find the problem to which it is a response.

What is ailing Edna Pontellier? There is an instinct to qualify or diagnose precisely what “the problem” is, presumably so it could be “solved.” While there is certainly sense that Edna “fails” to come to terms with her position, “fails” in her duty to her children, to her husband, to her station, and “fails” to come to terms with her narcissistic awakening, that she ought to have been more successful in any of these processes neglects the origins to which her melancholia is a symptom. Jonathan Flatley’s methodology in Affective Mapping incorporates, among other key questions, “What social structures, discourses, institutions, processes have been at work in taking something valuable away from me? How long has my misery been in preparation?” (2). The “valuable thing” taken away from Edna is unclear, it seems, to Edna herself. On the one hand, she is strongly affected by the accusation that she is a bad mother by Mr. Pontellier early in the novel, and Madame Rotignolle’s dying wish that Edna ought to “think of the children” (111) resurrects this shame-inducing indictment on her actions. This is never more apparent than in her final encounter with them: “It was with a wrench and a pang that Edna left her children. She carried away with her the sound of their voices and the touch of their cheeks All along the journey homeward their presence lingered with her like the memory of a delicious song. But by the time she had regained the city the song no longer echoed in her soul. She was again alone” (95). Furthermore, Edna responds in the affirmative when her conversations with the Doctor turn to the guilt she feels towards her children: “‘The trouble is,’ sighed the Doctor, grasping her meaning intuitively, ‘that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost” (111).

We could, then, conclude that what Edna has lost is her freedom, or at least a perceived loss of freedom. But, what do we make of Edna’s own admission to Robert that it is his affection, or lack thereof, that was the source of all her anguish: “‘I love you,’ she whispered, ‘only you; no one but you. It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream. Oh! You have made me so unhappy with your indifference. Oh! I have suffered! Now you are here we shall love each other, my Robert. We shall be everything to each other. Nothing else in the world is of any consequence” (109). The confusion of what exactly is the source of her anguish, or her happiness, might be explained by Edna’s over-determination of her moods. As Flatley explains,

The world never presents itself to us as some kind of value-less set of facts or perceptions—things always appear to us as mattering or not mattering in some way. It is by way of mood that we attribute value to something. And since value for Heidegger, as for Tomkins, is a question of affective attachment, this is another way of saying that it is only possible to be affected when things have been set in advance by a certain mode of attunement. (21)

Crucially, Flately goes on to clarify, “even though it is only by way of moods that we know how we are in relation to the situation we are in, this however, does not mean that we are necessarily aware of our moods. In fact, we are often ignorant of the determinative effect our moods have on the world we see and how we relate to it” (21-22). This is quite illuminating when we apply it to Edna’s hyper-awareness of feelings, but blindness to their determinative effect or their origins: “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summers day. It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood” (6). When Edna allows this mood to color her perceptions of her husband, or contradistinctively a positive mood to over-emphasize her interest in Robert, she shows an awareness that her feelings/affective attachments to these objects matter, but not that they have been set in advance and may or may not contain all that she invests in them, positively and negatively.

Furthermore, as Flatley rightly points out, “one is never not-attuned; one is always in one mood or another” (21). However, this does not suggest that one cannot be improperly attuned, constantly exhibiting the wrong affects, incongruous with those around you. The power of attunement is put strongly in the event of the dinner party:

But as she sat there amid her guests, she felt the old ennui overtaking her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition. It was something which announced itself; a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed. There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable. The moments glided on, while a feeling of good fellowship passed around the circle like a mystic cord, holding and binding these people together with jest and laughter. (89)

Each of the guests are connected (bound together) by a “mystic cord.” However, Edna’s ennui is indicative that she is somehow not properly attuned, and guiltily aware of this failure on her part. This “improper attunement” comes to a head when she rages and storms out: “The voices of Edna’s disbanding guests jarred like a discordant note upon the quiet harmony of the night” (91).  There is something off about Edna.

It makes sense, then, that art becomes an intoxicating source of excitement for Edna. Two examples:

‘A book had gone the rounds of the pension. When it came to her turn to read it, she did so with profound astonishment. She felt moved to read the book in secret and solitude, though none of the others had done so—to hide it from view at the sound of approaching footsteps. It was openly criticized and freely discussed at table. Mrs. Pontellier gave over being astonished, and concluded that wonders would never cease” (9-10).

The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist on the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth. She waited for the material pictures which she thought would gather and blaze before her imagination. She waited in vain. She saw no pictures of solitutde, of hope, of longing, of despair. 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 the tears blinded her. (26)

Art is the quintessential “space” allotted for the full expression of feelings in public. Her outpouring of emotion during the piano recital or in the private reading of her book are socially validated, and, in fact, Robert looks forward to seeing how a new piece by Mademoiselle Reisz “affects her” when he returns from Mexico.  Edna relentlessly pursues a maximization of these positive affects (interest-excitement, joy-enjoyment) through her own painting and periodic visits with Mademoiselle Reisz. Edna’s “failure,” if we are to call it such, is her unwillingness to maintain the boundary between art and life, the “appropriate” aesthetic practice and the “inappropriate” one. Every object can be perceived aesthetically.

I contend that what appears to be Edna’s “awakening” is a correction to a series of misrecognitions. The qualities and optimisms that Edna invests in different object attachments (painting, Mr. Pontellier, Robert LeBrun, Mademoiselle Reisz, and Alcée Arobin) may or may not be present in the objects themselves. In fact, the objects at times appear to be interchangeable (as in the case of Robert and Arobin); Edna merely practices different methods to “come to terms” with the constriction of her freedom and individuation that motherhood and marriage have had on her. Her romantic love interests (which are not limited to Robert, or men for that matter, but unquestionably include queer attachments with Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle) appear to present a compensation for, rather than a fulfillment of, the unattainable fantasy of a “free woman.” Art offers the most quintessential example for this compensatory dialectic, offering a space to feel strongly so that one does not have to do it in “real life.” The compensatory nature of these object attachments, I believe, is what Edna properly recognizes in the end of the novel, and suicide, a consummate break from all of these attachments, is a “rational,” liberating solution to that problem, but it also appears to be a particularly ambivalent one. Can Edna Pontellier’s despondency be fixed (the narrator suggests the possibility on the final page “Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him—but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone”)? Our instinct to question whether or not Edna can be “fixed” is contingent on our assumption that the novel can make such a question of psychosis answerable. To recognize the feeling that The Awakening produces in us is to recognize that the book itself functions in much the same way that books and music function for Edna in the book. The ending facilitates a self-indictment of our feeling that art has value outside of itself; we ought to try and control our affective attachments more conscientiously, lest we lose site of what affects are socially foreclosed and which are allowable. Of course, our own attachment with Edna, our frustrations, irritations, our grief are simultaneously socially foreclosed and allowable, such is the power of the novel.