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KATE CHOPIN’S THE AWAKENING, CHAPTER XXXIX – A 1,500 WORD CLOSE TEXTUAL ANALYSIS (;OR, DEVASTATING DISRUPTION IN THE SYMBOLIC ORDER: THE TRAGIC DEMISE OF THE AWAKENING’S EDNA AND HAMLET’S OPHELIA)
In this essay I will undertake a close textual analysis of Chapter XXXIX in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I aim to illustrate the plethora of literary techniques that Chopin employs in this closing chapter. With a view to offering a personal response to this material, I will then link The Awakening to the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art and literature. Finally, I shall compare The Awakening‘s Edna to Hamlet‘s Ophelia using Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic tool for literary interpretation.[^]
In the first paragraph of this final chapter, Chopin employs a third person narrative style to describe the mending of “a corner of one of the galleries”1 that is being undertaken by Victor Lebrun and Mariequita. Chopin employs reported speech, “The flowers were in tubs, he said”2, to highlight the fact that Victor is hyperbolically describing the party which Edna organised to celebrate both her birthday and her move to the ‘pigeon house’.[^]
The second paragraph narrates Mariequita’s indignation at her perception that “Victor was in love with Mrs. Pontellier”3, and she declares that she could easily elope with Célina’s husband; Victor’s aggressive response to her declaration follows in paragraph three. Victor’s intention “to hammer his head into a jelly the next time he encountered him”4, thus negating Mariequita’s plan to elope with a married man, reinforces the violent imagery at the outset of the chapter – the first three paragraphs can be taken as a metaphorical whole, with a patriarchal figure using “HAMMER and nails”5 to enforce the institution of marriage.[^]
The figure of Mariequita herself can be interpreted symbolically, insofar as she threatens here to flee with a wedded man, and she makes her first appearance in the text when Edna (‘awakening’ to new feelings of attraction) has left her husband, Léonce, at home in order that she may spend the day with Robert at the Chênière. It seems fair to say that Mariequita is associated with violations of the patriarchal cornerstone that is marriage. Taking into account the fact that Chopin uses the French language as early as the first page of the novel, she may even have imbued Mariequita with phonetic symbolism representing both her and Edna’s actions, considering that her name is acoustically similar to two key French words:
Paragraph four marks the entrance of Edna to Grand Isle, with Victor and Mariequita hardly able to believe that the lady who was the subject of their discussion is now standing there before them. When, in paragraph eleven of this chapter, Mariequita marvels at “this woman who gave the most sumptuous dinners in America, and who had all the men in New Orleans at her feet”8, it is apparent that Edna has been mythologized through Victor’s exaggerated depiction of her birthday dinner.[^]
Chopin employs direct speech in narrating the conversation between Victor and Edna that begins in paragraph five and ends in paragraph nineteen, during the course of which: Edna is offered accommodation and food by Victor; Edna states that she is hungry; Edna declares her intention to go for a pre-dinner swim; and Edna proclaims her hope that “you have fish for dinner”9. In the midst of this direct speech, Chopin uses reported speech in paragraph ten to relate Mariequita’s discourse, “perhaps Philomel’s mother might come for a few days and money enough.”10[^]
The focalization through the eyes of Edna that is a feature of the remainder of this chapter begins in paragraph twenty, as we are informed that she is wandering towards the beach “not noticing anything special except that the sun was hot.”11 The reader gains direct access to Edna’s innermost thoughts in paragraph twenty-one, when the words that she spoke endlessly during the night following Robert’s second departure are directly quoted and made available to us.[^]
Mrs. Pontellier’s thoughts, articulated in paragraph twenty-two, reveal that she has, philosophically speaking, had an encounter with the ‘absurd’. The fact that she desires nothing and nobody in her life except the one man who has abandoned her means that, in Camus’ terminology, a ‘divorce’ is created between her “desire for significance/meaning/ clarity and the silent, cold universe.”12 Camus believed that such a realization of life’s ‘absurdity’ “leaves the individual with a choice: suicide, a leap of faith, or acceptance. He concludes that acceptance is the only defensible option.”13[^]
Edna looks out at the “water of the Gulf”14 in paragraph twenty-three, before beginning to swim in paragraph twenty-seven; during this passage of prose, two sections of text are employed that reiterate verbatim two segments of narration in Chapter VI – videlicet:
The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude15
The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace16[^]
The first time the above passages are mentioned is when Edna has acceded to Robert’s entreaty to accompany him to the beach, and was starting “to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.”17 At this stage, her desire to break from her husband and children has not been consciously acknowledged by Edna herself, but in her unconscious mind her wishes are starting to take shape; her acquiescence to Robert’s entreaties is the first step on the path to her novel world. Chopin portrays this moment as a new commencement for Edna:
But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!18[^]
Thus, the prose passages are repeated at the unconscious beginning of – and the tragic conclusion to – Edna’s ‘awakening’ – her burgeoning sense of self cannot sustain its existence in her society, and therefore she perishes.[^]
Chopin makes further use of structural parallelism in paragraph twenty-three with the symbolic figure of a “bird with a broken wing [that] was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.”19 This bird can be seen to represent the fate of Edna, just as the “GREEN AND YELLOW parrot”20 on the opening page of the novel represents Edna in her ‘caged’ state.[^]
In paragraph twenty-eight, Edna swims further and further out whilst remembering the “blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child”21 in order to elude her father’s tyrannical religious instruction – now she is swimming to avoid the constraints of patriarchal society. The standalone sentence that forms paragraph twenty-nine, “Her arms and legs were growing tired”22, demonstrates the fact that Edna is not thinking about her physical fatigue, as it is sandwiched between more pressing memories and thoughts that she is attempting to escape.[^]
Edna bitterly recalls an aphorism propounded by her friend Mademoiselle Reisz in paragraph thirty, as she laments the fact that her husband and children believed they could “possess her, body and soul.”23[^]
Chopin again employs a single-sentence paragraph, “Exhaustion was pressing upon and over-powering her”24, to stand between Edna’s lamentation of her husband’s presumptuousness and her resignation at Robert’s failure to comprehend her actions and needs, in order to highlight the fact that she is not in tune with her bodily fatigue – she is preoccupied with the need to escape her unbearably shackled existence.[^]
This lends an air of inevitability to her death, which is described in an understated, declarative fashion in paragraph thirty-three. Five short sentences describe what the reader is left to surmise as Edna’s suicide: Edna’s fear of death quickly recedes; she hears noises which represent the patriarchal order of society, in the voices of her father and sister Margaret; she hears a noise that represents her expected position in society, in the barking of an old, enchained dog; she hears the vanishing footsteps of her hopes and dreams, in the cavalry officer’s spurs clanging as he walks “across the porch”25; and, finally, “There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.”26[^]
The Awakening is a Realist text, which depicts characters “as they appear in everyday life, without embellishment or interpretation.”27 The storyline follows a chronological sequence, and the chapters are numbered using roman numerals. Chopin, true to the Realist movement, does not explicitly interpret or embellish Edna’s suicide. However, her decision to employ roman numerals could be interpreted as suggesting that she takes a more lenient view of Edna’s suicide than the one outlined earlier held by Camus, as
In general the pagan world, both Roman and Greek, had a relaxed attitude towards the whole concept of suicide, a practice that was only finally outlawed with the advent of the Christians, who condemned it at the Council of Arles in 452 as the work of the Devil.28[^]
Despite its Realist status, The Awakening contains certain textual features that predict the later Modernist movement, such as direct access to a character’s thoughts and feelings – exemplified by those going through Edna’s mind immediately before her suicide, “How Mademoiselle Reisz would have laughed, perhaps sneered, if she knew!”29[^]
Importantly, Edna is thinking about herself as an artist when she swims out into the Gulf for the final time. There are several instances in the text which link The Awakening with the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art and literature. Perhaps the most obvious occurs when Gouvernail, admiring the beauty bestowed upon Victor by Mrs Highcamp’s adornments, mutters the “first two lines from the sonnet ‘A Cameo’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne”30 under his breath. Swinburne was a poet associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose work “shares the characteristics of their art”31. The Pre-Raphaelites “drew upon Shakespeare”32 for inspiration, and John Everett Millais’ Ophelia is a famous example of this.[^]
There are striking similarities between Ophelia (as portrayed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) and The Awakening’s Edna Pontellier, with regard to Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical tool for literary interpretation.[^]
Ophelia is a character who has accepted the “language and law which forms the ground for the emergence of the subject”33 in the Symbolic order. Indeed, Ophelia accedes willingly to Polonius’ demand that she converse no further with Hamlet – “I shall obey, my lord.”34[^]
This acceptance of the Symbolic order is comparable with Edna’s acceptance of religious instruction after her initial, childish flight from such advice:
I was a little unthinking child in those days […] On the contrary, during one period of my life religion took a firm hold upon me; after I was twelve and until- until- why, I suppose until now […]35[^]
Ophelia’s acceptance of the Symbolic order is disrupted when Hamlet kills her eavesdropping father, “Dead! for a ducat, dead!”36 Hamlet is subsequently sent to England by Claudius, thereby depriving the father-less Ophelia of a suitable “symbolic father”37 whom she can rely upon to uphold laws and language.[^]
Edna’s position in the Symbolic order is thrown into confusion by Robert Lebrun’s entrance to her life, as he metaphorically kills the religious ‘symbolic father’ who dictates that marriage is a binding, patriarchal institution – ‘awakening’ irrevocable feelings of attraction in her. Robert then abandons Edna, leaving her unwilling to assume the role expected of her in the Symbolic order.[^]
The tragic fate of both Edna and Ophelia is suicide – a crime against the Symbolic order, with its laws aimed at preventing such an act:
In most forms of Christianity, suicide is considered a sin, based mainly on the writings of influential Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages, such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Their arguments center around the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (made applicable under the New Covenant by Jesus in Matthew 19:18), as well as the idea that life is a gift given by God which should not be spurned, and that suicide is against the “natural order” and thus interferes with God’s master plan for the world.38[^]
In this essay I have performed a close textual analysis of Chapter XXXIX of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. The conclusion that arises from this textual scrutiny is that Chopin employed a variety of literary techniques in the formation of this chapter – videlicet: extended metaphor; phonetic symbolism; direct and reported speech; focalization; structural parallelism; and a pervasive, declarative tone to narrate a tragic fate.[^]
Linking The Awakening to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, I then compared the ways in which disruptions to the Symbolic order (as conceived by Lacan) effected the tragic demise of The Awakening’s Edna and Hamlet’s Ophelia.[^]
ENDNOTES [click relevant endnote to return to the appropriate place in the essay]
1Kate Chopin. The Awakening. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1993 [orig. published 1899], p.113.
5Ibid. [original typography]
6Janet Gough and Sabine Citron (Senior Eds). The New Collins Robert French Dictionary: Fifth Edition. Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998, p.546.
7Ibid, p.738. [I have underlined the definitions for emphasis]
8Kate Chopin. The Awakening. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1993 [orig. published 1899], p.114.
12Absurdism. Wikipedia. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism#Albert_Camus [19 November 2007]
14Kate Chopin. The Awakening. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1993 [orig. published 1899], p.115.
15Ibid, pp.115 & 13.
20Ibid, p.1. [original typography]
27Realism (arts). Wikipedia. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Realism_%28arts%29 [19 November 2007]
28History of suicide. Wikipedia. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_suicide [10 November 2007]
29Kate Chopin. The Awakening. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1993 [orig. published 1899], p.116.
31Pre-Raphaelites: An Introduction. The Victorian Web. 2007. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/prb/1.html [19 November 2007]
33Christine Swiderski. Lacanian Theory. Week Two Handout. Bolton: Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, University of Bolton, 2007, p.2.
34William Shakespeare. ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2002, p.382, l.136.
35Kate Chopin. The Awakening. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1993 [orig. published 1899], p.16.
36William Shakespeare. ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2002, p.393, l.24.
37Christine Swiderski. Lacanian Theory. Week Two Handout. Bolton: Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, University of Bolton, 2007, p.1.
38Suicide. Wikipedia. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide [19 November 2007]
The website links in the bibliography below redirect here, rather than directing to the relevant web pages. Web pages are frequently added to – and removed from – the web, and sharedsapience.info does not want to include links to missing web pages. The web addresses can be copy-and-pasted into a new tab if the reader wishes to check the source material.
Absurdism. Wikipedia. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism#Albert_Camus [19 November 2007]
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1993 [orig. published 1899]
Gough, Janet and Citron, Sabine (Senior Eds). The New Collins Robert French Dictionary: Fifth Edition. Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998
History of suicide. Wikipedia. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_suicide [19 November 2007]
Pre-Raphaelites: An Introduction. The Victorian Web. 2007. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/prb/1.html [19 November 2007]
Realism (arts). Wikipedia. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Realism_%28arts%29 [19 November 2007]
Shakespeare, William. ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2002
Suicide. Wikipedia. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide [19 November 2007]
Swiderski, Christine. Lacanian Theory. Week Two Handout. Bolton: Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, University of Bolton, 2007