Dangerous Spending Habits: The Epistemology of Edna Pontellier's Extravagant Expenditures in the Awakening

Article excerpt

IN AN INTROSPECTIVE DIARY ENTRY OF 1884, the widowed and motherless Kate Chopin wrote:

      If it were possible for my husband and my mother to come back to earth,
   I feel that I would unhesitatingly give up every thing that has come into
   my life since they left it and join my existence again with theirs. To do
   that, I would have to forget the past ten years of my growth--my real
   growth. But I would take back a little wisdom with me; it would be the
   spirit of perfect acquiescence. (1)

Reading this passage, we might wonder if this were actually written by the same author of America's feminist classic, The Awakening. Chopin's early biographer, Seyersted, found this entry highly ambiguous; indeed, conventional wisdom traditionally sees intellectual "real growth" and "perfect acquiescence" as contradictory experiences. If we take this passage seriously, Chopin's "little wisdom" (surely an ironic understatement) is a belief that acquiescence is the natural conclusion to a woman's awakening into knowledge.

After more than three decades of serious criticism on The Awakening; critics are usually for or against Edna's suicidal actions, or as Christopher Benfey succinctly explains: her suicide is seen as either "a triumphant liberation or a cowardly capitulation." (2) By concluding that no "amount of interpretive pressure can reduce this stubborn ambiguity," Benfey reifies the traditional critical consensus that sees the novel's philosophical stance as lacking clarity. Preferring to ignore (or at least shelve) the larger philosophical questions regarding Edna's quest, Benfey, and other recent critics, focus instead on the historical and cultural milieu of Chopin's Creole New Orleans.

By contrast, my intent is to show that what Benfey refers to as Chopin's "stubborn ambiguity" is actually Chopin's cri de coeur against the superficiality of "knowing" existence through artificial oppositions. Ironically, the scholarly debate between liberation and capitulation mirrors what Chopin critiques throughout The Awakening dialectics may awaken us to knowledge but, then, they must be discarded in order for us to grasp the larger ontological truth that life is an experience to be felt, not an object to be known. For Chopin, liberation was not the antithesis of capitulation, and Edna Pontellier's suicide is neither triumphant liberation nor cowardly capitulation; rather, it is capitulation for liberation, an acquiescence attained after true intellectual growth. (3)

Since the setting of The Awakening is South Louisiana and New Orleans, critics often overlook the fact that Chopin wrote this novel in St. Louis, where she was living as an unmarried woman among intellectual elites. During that time she became more familiar with German philosophy, particularly Hegelianism, through her close friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, a leading St. Louis intellectual, (4) Chopin's gynecologist and, according to her son Felix, perhaps her lover. (5) However, Chopin made it clear to her friends and family that she "couldn't abide" many of the "high-minded intellectuals" in Kolbenheyer's St. Louis circle; along with her friends and supporters, she often satirized the Hegelian idealism and advocacy of social reform found in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, a publication of national importance produced by these St. Louis intellectuals (Unveiling, pp. 114-115). Chopin preferred Whitman and Flaubert (Seyersted, p. 63).

This rejection of Hegelian logic, then, becomes an important key to understanding Chopin's resistance in The Awakening and, more importantly, understanding why the tone of this novel has more ontological urgency than any of her other works. In The Awakening, Chopin's last and most ambitious literary endeavor, she questions many of the assumptions of the intellectual elite of her time, and, by so doing, she creates a prophetic narrative that anticipates the radical acephalic emphasis of modernity and post-structuralism. …