Kate Chopin on the Nature of Things

By Simons, Karen | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Kate Chopin on the Nature of Things

Simons, Karen, The Mississippi Quarterly

Critics of Kate Chopin's The Awakening tend to read the novel as the dramatization of a woman's struggle to achieve selfhood--a struggle doomed to failure either because the patriarchal conventions of her society restrict her freedom,(2) or because the ideal of selfhood that she pursue is a masculinely defined one that allows for none of the physical and undeniable claims which maternity makes upon women.(3) Ultimately, in both views, Edna Pontellier ends her life because she cannot have it both ways: given her time, place, and notion of self, she cannot be a mother and have a self at the same time. Though these critics provide valuable insights into many aspects of the novel which I do not wish to dismiss, I believe that the focus on gender/self limits the scope of Chopin's vision in The Awakening.

Kate Chopin's The Awakening tells the story of a woman who comes to understand her sexuality and its function in the larger scheme of things, a scheme which might best be understood as Lucretian. As an Epicurean, Lucretius "dismissed metaphysical abstraction, Divine Providence and the immortal soul as vain illusions.'"(4) believe that in The Awakening Chopin did the same thing.(5) Sexual desire is for both the force which keeps nature naturing, and is personified for Lucretius by the goddess Venus, and represented for Chopin, I would argue, by the statue of Venus that stood in her living room (Martin, p. 1). Edna comes to realize that this scheme offers no fulfillment of spiritual longing because there is no part of herself or her world that is not governed by natural forces. Having built her entire existence around her desire for something transcendent, when her new connection with her children--forged at Adele's birthing scene--penetrates and dissolves her illusory spiritual world, rather than continue without it, Edna rejects life itself.

Edna's "awakening" is cumulative and complex. The narrator describes the process this way: "Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her."(6) Edna's completion of this process occurs near the end of the novel when she witnesses with "an inward agony, with a flaming, outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature," the birth of Adele's child (p. 109). Dr. Mandelet understands the shock she has just experienced and explains:

the trouble is... that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a

provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature

takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we

create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost. (p. 110)

Several factors indicate that Dr. Mandelet's remarks are thematically central to the novel. Chopin's description of him lends weight to his words: "the doctor knew his fellow-creatures better than most men; knew that inner life which so seldom unfolds itself to unanointed eyes" (p. 71). He understands Edna "intuitively" (p. 109), and even Edna feels, when it is too late, that the doctor "would have understood if she had seen him" (p. 114). Kate Chopin's obstetrician played an important role in her own life. Under his influence she not only began to write (and sell) fiction, but began studying science as well, particularly Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer.(7) Through her reading of their works, she came "to see the human being as a higher animal" (p. 85), a view which underlies Dr. Mandelet's statement. It underlies her own theory of fiction as well. Regarding truth in literature, Kate Chopin wrote:

Human impulses do not change and can not so long as men and women continue

to stand in the relation to one another which they have occupied since our

knowledge of their existence began. It is why Aeschylus is true, and

Shakespeare is true to-day, and why Ibsen will not be true in some remote

tomorrow, however forcible and representative he may be for the hour,

because he takes for his themes social problems which by their very nature

are mutable.

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