Chopin's "The Awakening": A Semiotic Novel

By Franklin, Rosemary F. | PSYART, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Chopin's "The Awakening": A Semiotic Novel


Franklin, Rosemary F., PSYART


abstract

A most popular novel among feminist critics in the last forty years, Kate Chopin's "The Awakening", though obviously about the mistreatment of women by the patriarchy, has more often invited a psychoanlytic approach. Edna Pontellier's motherlessness has been briefly touched on by several critics, but has not received a full-scale treatment. Julia Kristeva, a pre-oedipal theorist, offers in "Black Sun" and "Tales of Love" concepts for an all-inclusive examination of themes, characters, Edna's death, and a Semiotic structure and style.

Chopin's The Awakening: A Semiotic Novel

Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1900) has perhaps enjoyed the most critical attention from American literature scholars of realist novels. Though almost completely forgotten since its publication, it was brought back to life, ironically, by a male Scandinavian critic, Per Seyersted, who published Chopin's complete works in 1969, earlier than the feminist recovery movement. The reprinting of the novel in paperback form began in 1972. Shortly, an outpouring of feminist criticism followed, which continued unabated into the end of the 20th century. Because it is a novel about a woman attempting to find and express herself in a patriarchal culture, early in the critical renaissance commentators were naturally drawn to a political reading: Edna Pontellier is forced to the extreme of committing suicide to escape the bonds of patriarchy and motherhood. As the renaissance continued, critics approached the novel in a variety of ways turning more and more to an examination of Edna's psyche, many of them producing polar interpretations: is Edna heroic or is she a victim of a deteriorating emotional condition?

What is it about The Awakening that has provoked this volume and variety of critical commentary? I want to suggest that it is an elliptical novel: Chopin leaves much unexplained, and the text is filled with gaps and implied questions. Rather than a well-made novel like those by Jane Austen and other novelists well-known to Chopin, The Awakening resembles the definitive modernist poem, "The Wasteland". Of course, the prevailing question is whether Edna goes to Grand Isle with the determination to commit suicide or whether she simply swims to her physical limit and drowns because the Gulf's arms are embracing and magnetic? Really, one can make a long list of gaps: no information about Edna's years of marriage before Robert; a nameless mother; her unexplained affair with Arobin, even though she knows Robert is returning to New Orleans; recurring motifs of the inscrutable pair of lovers and the woman in black; Mlle. Reisz's motivation to sustain and feed Edna's romantic longings with passionate music like that of Chopin and Wagner's love-death theme in Tristan and Isolde's duet; Edna's father, who drove his wife to an early grave, but who is also a patriarch in the Presbyterian church; the issue of whether Dr. Mandelet is truly sympathetic with Edna or a chauvinist who makes remarks to Leonce that women must be indulged because all of them have whims and moods that will pass. Of course, Chopin is notably ironic and intentionally ambiguous in such stories as "The Story of an Hour," "A Respectable Woman," and "The Storm." Also, she may write elliptically because she had been a successful short story writer and was not interested in writing a long novel like James's The Portrait of a Lady.

Although The Awakening is plotted as a novel of romantic love, Edna finally realizes that her feelings for Robert will fade away just as those infatuations did in her girlhood. So we must ask Freud's question: what does Edna want? To attempt an answer to this many critics have recognized for some time that a psychoanalytic explanation must be constructed. As early as 1973, Cynthia Griffin Woolf chose a Freudian approach in "Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Subsequently, a number of critics began to suggest that Edna's motherlessness is a key to her life-long emotional distress. …

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