Copyright Sarah Klein, 1998

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WRITING THE 'SOLITARY SOUL': ANTICIPATIONS OF MODERNISM & NEGOTIATIONS OF GENDER IN KATE CHOPIN'S THE AWAKENING

        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 and style.        
        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.
        The Awakening 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)."
        Chopin's representation 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 (3151).
        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)."
        Modernism essentially 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.
        Religion represents 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 (40).
        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" (107).
        Chopin's revolutionary 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 the ocean:

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" (14).
        Another transitory 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 new territory.
        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.
        Throughout The 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" (147). 
        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. (57)

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 that

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).
        Interestingly enough, 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)


Works Cited

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 & Co., 1977.

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