Art Is an Unnatural Act: Mademoiselle Reisz in 'The Awakening.'

By Seidel, Kathryn Lee | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Art Is an Unnatural Act: Mademoiselle Reisz in 'The Awakening.'


Seidel, Kathryn Lee, The Mississippi Quarterly


Kate Chopin's The Awakening has become a classic feminist text, most often read for its devastating portrait of Victorian marriage and the discovery of the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, of her talent, her sexuality, and her sense of self. From this perspective, the novel ostensibly focuses on Edna's relationships with her husband, a would-be lover, Robert, and her actual lover, Alcee Arobin. Yet Edna's relationships with her women friends are as various, subtle and more comprehensive than those with men. In fact, in the middle of Alcee Arobin's seduction, Edna Pontellier mentions her friend Mademoiselle Reisz. Her comment derails Arobin's skilled and up to that point effective arousal of Edna's sexual desires. He and Edna begin to quarrel about Mademoiselle, and he complains, "why have you introduced her at a moment when I desired to talk to you?"(1)

Critics have noted Mademoiselle's close relationship with Edna; they have commented on her appearance, her role as an artist figure, and her attraction to Edna, but they have stopped short of considering the sources of that attraction. Elaine Showalter notes that Mademoiselle's "attraction to Edna suggests something perverse,"(2) but she does not name it. Cristina Giorcelli views Mademoiselle as "a conjurer and a facile," a Medusa-like fewale artist who "stands for the spiritual urged perverted by an excessive turning on itself."(3) These two critics echo the contemporary reviews of the novel, one of which calls Mademoiselle a "witch."(4) Anne Goodwyn Jones notes more neutrally that Mademoiselle "embodies several of the significant masculine values in the world"(5) and remarks on Mademoiselle's attempts to influence Edna. Although most critics notice Mademoiselle's rejection of conventional feminine behavior, they make the assumption that such behavior is abnormal.

Not only an eccentric spinster, not merely an isolated artist, Mademoiselle Reisz embodies the traits of the female artist as lesbian, at least as the late nineteenth century understood this concept. Chopin uses metaphors of homoeroticism and of witchcraft, the traditional enterprise associated with the female artist, to develop Mademoiselle Reisz's characterization; moreover, Edna's exploration of female sexuality was inclusive of a broad range of behavior, not only heterosexual liaisons but also autocrotic fantasies, warm female friendships, and homoerotic possibilities. Chopin's knowledge of the emerging stereotypes of lesbianism enables her to provide in the relationship between Mademoiselle and Edna a provocative contrast to the stereotypical love plots of Edna's marriage and of Edna's longing for Robert, and to the seduction plot involving Arobin.

Most scholars are in agreement that the 1880s and 1890s were a pivotal point, perhaps the pivotal point in modern history in devising the contemporary definition of homosexuality. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's study Epistemology of the Closet(6) asserts that while behavior currently called "homosexual" has a three-thousand-year recorded history, it was in the last third of the nineteenth century that every person, heretofore "assignable to male or female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo to a hetero-sexuality" (p. 2). Moreover, this either-or identity came to have vast "implicatons, however confusing, for even the ostensibly least sexual aspects of personal existence. It was this new development that left no space in the culture exempt from the potent incoherences of the homo/heterosexual definition" (p. 2). Sedgwick summarizes the reasons for this change as a coming together of medical and psychological theory as well as socio-cultural circumstances which brought into public light the famous case of Oscar Wilde, whose fortunes encapsulated trends in the culture only partially articulated until his trial. In the first instance, the budding psycho-medical establishment came to accept the opinions of Richard Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, whose work was grounded in the premise that some behavior was healthy and some was diseased. …

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