Un-Utterable Longing: The Discourse of Feminine Sexuality in 'The Awakening.' (Novel by Kate Chopin)

By Wolff, Cynthia Griffin | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Un-Utterable Longing: The Discourse of Feminine Sexuality in 'The Awakening.' (Novel by Kate Chopin)


Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, Studies in American Fiction


Because novelists are particular about beginnings, we should notice that The Awakening opens with two things: sumptuous sensory images and an outpouring of babble--words that resemble ordinary speech, but which really have meaning for no one, not even the speaker.

A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over:

"Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That's all right!"

He could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood. [1]

Although an onlooker is able to enjoy this vivid scene, the parrot cannot; moreover, there is a sense of enigma (or fraud) about this bird who seems able to communicate, but is not. Indeed, the absolute discontinuity among the bird's "discourse," its exotic plumage, and its feelings (whatever they may be) is even more significant to the larger themes of the novel than the fact that he is caged. Or perhaps this very disconnectedness (and the bird's consequent isolation) defines the cage.

Critics admire the "modernism" of Chopin's work, the strong spareness of the prose and the ';minimalism" of a narrative whose absences are at least as important as its action and whose narrator maintains strict emotional and moral neutrality. What we may not fully appreciate is the relationship between these elements and Edna Pontellier's personal tragedy, a relationship whose terms are announced by the apparent disarray of the novel's brilliant beginning. This is a tale about not speaking, about disjunction--about denials, oversights, prohibitions, exclusions, and absences. Not merely about things that are never named, but most significantly about stories that cannot be told and things that can be neither thought nor spoken because they do not have a name.

After about 1849, the notion of a "woman's sexual awakening" became, by definition, an impossibility--a contradiction in terms--because the medical establishment in America began to promulgate the view that normal females possessed no erotic inclinations whatsoever (and one cannot awaken something that does not exist). William Acton, the acknowledged expert on the nature of women's sexuality and author of "one of the most widely quoted books on sexual problems and diseases in the English-speaking world," [2] wrote:

I have taken pains to obtain and compare abundant evidence on this subject, and the result of my inquiries I may briefly epitomize as follows:--I should say that the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind. What men are habitually women are only exceptionally. It is too true, I admit, as the divorce courts show, that there are some few women who have sexual desires so strong that they surpass those of men, and shock public feeling by their consequences. [3]

Acton's work elaborated a comprehensive system of women's "inequality" to men; and it was so universally respected that his sentiments can be taken to represent opinions that were held throughout much of America during the second half of the nineteenth century. Certainly they define the attitudes of that stem Presbyterian world in which Edna Pointellier grew to maturity. [4]

In fact, Edna's particular religious background could not have been chosen casually by Chopin, for a woman reared in this faith during the 1870s and 1880s (the years of Edna's youth) would have been preternaturally susceptible to the most crippling elements of Acton's strictures.

American Calvinism always preached that although the woman was to be "regarded as equal to man. in her title to grace," she was nonetheless "the weaker vessel," and was thus obliged to pursue all endeavors as a "subordinate to the husband." [5] During the later nineteenth century, Presbyterianism was generally regarded as a conservative bastion for such ideas, and many Presbyterians themselves construed their mission as one of upholding precisely these conservative-religious values. …

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