The Birth of Tragedy and the Awakening: Influences and Intertextualities

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For decades, scholars of Kate Chopin and her works have indirectly, or at least without much elucidation, acknowledged the Nietzschean strain they have observed in her canon, particularly in her masterpiece The Awakening (1899). One recent example of this type of reference appears in the introduction to a new edition of Chopin's first novel At Fault (1890), in which the editors make the sweeping claim that "[n]umerous critics have remarked on Chopin's familiarity with philosophical works, especially the German Romanticism of Friedrich Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche" (Green and Caudle xxi). Additionally, two essays from the collection Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou (2992) make glancing and, at times, downright elliptical references to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and certain of his works to illustrate images and metaphoric approaches Chopin shared with the radical nineteenth-century German philosopher.

Martha Fodaski Black begins her essay "The Quintessence of Chopinism" by tracing the bird imagery Chopin uses to set the opening scene in The Awakening to similar uses in George Bernard Shaw's feminist essay "The Womanly Woman." Black suggests other possible source texts, such as Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1772), George Eliot's Middlemarch (1872), and Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (1886); while recognizing these earlier texts and their uses of the image, however, Black flavors the Shaw text as influence because, as she notes, Shave's views were more immediately available to Chopin as she was writing her novel; indeed, "evidence of [Chopin's] reading [Shaw] is implicit in The Awakening" (97). Black's conclusion also reflects her own goal as essayist: to convince the reader of Chopin's clear convictions regarding the "woman question" during the late nineteenth century and thus counter Elizabeth Fox Genovese's claim that Chopin was not really a feminist (95).

Writing for the same essay collection, Lynda Boren makes an even more tantalizing reference to Nietzsche in "Taming the Sirens: Self-Possession and the Strategies of Art in Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Boren's reference to the putative Nietzschean quality in Chopin's novel is even more elusively and literally elliptical. Well into the essay, she moves directly from one paragraph that deals with Edna Pontellier's unstinting response to "the strains of Chopin" to a subsequent but obviously related paragraph. In doing so, Boren uses the following transitional idea:

   Subscribing to Nietzsche's argument in The Birth of Tragedy from
   the Spirit of Music (1872), it follows that Edna's latent Dionysian
   desires for irrational ecstasy are brought to the surface by certain
   types of music, while the Apollonian demand for order, required
   by art, is only feebly realized or negatively imaged as "encaging,"
   "paternalistic," "silencing." (Boren 187)

Boren's use of the paragraph's initial dangling modifier demands that we examine the utility of questionable grammatical structure in this context. Who is, after all, subscribing to Nietzsche's argument? Is it Boren and, by a hoped-for extension, her reader? Was it Chopin and, by extension, Edna? Is Boren grudgingly positing a relationship of influence between Nietzsche and Chopin? Or is she relying on her reader's appreciation for an intertextual connection between Nietzsche and Chopin? Indeed, Boren's syntactical lapse, conscious or otherwise, draws our awareness to a pattern of scholarly reticence when it comes to making too direct a connection between Kate Chopin and Friedrich Nietzsche. If nothing else, observing such evidences of reticence manifested by syntactical misdirection begs this question of Chopin studies: what would acknowledging a relationship of influence between The Birth of Tragedy and The Awakening imply for Chopin critics and the direction of their criticism? The critical stakes as we consider this question could well be our cherished view of Chopin as feminist activist and the possibility that Edna's identity as feminist goddess is merely a construct. …