Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

'The Awakening': Struggles toward L'ecriture Feminine

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

'The Awakening': Struggles toward L'ecriture Feminine

Article excerpt

French feminist theorist Helene Cixous first introduced the concept of ecriture feminine -- translated into English both as "feminine writing" and "women's writing" -- in her influential essay "The Laugh of the Medusa" ("Le rire de la meduse"), originally published in 1975.(1) According to Cixous, ecriture feminine breaks the linear logic of male discourse and reclaims the feminine that Western tradition has suppressed. In a marginal note to her essay, Cixous argues that in France only Jean Genet, Marguerite Duras, and Colette can be regarded as "feminine writers," and, although she maintains that "the Anglo-Saxon countries have shown resources of distinctly greater consequence" (p. 311), she does not mention the work of any American author as an example of "feminine writing."(2)

I will argue that Kate Chopin's The Awakening, published as long ago as 1899, can be read as an early American version of ecriture feminine. Its dominant motifs of the female body, bisexuality and motherhood, and its images of the sea and flight, anticipate some of the same concerns as Cixous's "The Laugh of the Medusa." Its narrative reenacts on the level of language and writing what can be construed as the feminist struggle of the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, on the level of story and theme. At moments, the structure and language of The Awakening subvert linear discourse and "phallogocentric" closure. Just as Edna struggles to articulate a feminine self, so the narrative struggles to articulate a feminine language.(3)

According to Cixous the female body and female sexuality have been negated and repressed by centuries of male power. For her, a recuperation of the female body is, in fact, the main source of ecriture feminine. She argues that the relationship between feminine writing and the female body lies in the heterogeneity and multiplicity of female sexuality. A woman's body is endowed with a greater number of erogenous zones than man's: lips, breasts, vagina, clitoris; her entire body is a sexual organ, whereas male sexuality tends to be much more monolithic, focused primarily upon the penis. For Cixous, the female libido is diverse:

what strikes me is the infinite richness of [women's] individual

constitutions: you can't talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogenous,

classifiable into codes. . . . Woman's imaginary is inexhaustible . . .

[woman's body has a] thousand and one thresholds of ardor. (pp. 309, 315)

It is from the multiplicity of the female body and sexuality that ecriture feminine comes, according to Cixous. As female sexuality is plural in its capacity for multiple and heterogeneous pleasures, so feminine writing transcends univocality, linearity, and the fixity which comprise "phallic" discourse. Cixous writes: "Why so few [feminine] texts? Because so few women have as yet won back their body. Women must write through their bodies" (p. 315).

Perhaps there are more "feminine" texts, more texts written through the body than Cixous admits of Kate Chopin's The Awakening is a case in point. In it, the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, struggles to reclaim her body, acquaint herself with a whole variety of sensations, and live out a sensual relation to the world. During her short trip to Cheniere Caminada with Robert Lebrun, Edna experiences the presence, the vitality, and the sensuality of her body. All of her senses come alive:

She took off her shoes and stockings and stretched herself in the very

centre of the high white bed. How luxurious it felt to rest thus in a

strange, quaint bed, with its sweet country odor of laurel lingering about

the sheets and matress! She stretched her, strong limbs that ached a little.

She ran her fingers through her loosened hair for a while. She looked at her

round arms as she held them straight up and rubbed them one after the

other, observing closely, as if it were something she saw for the first

time, the fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh. …

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