An old essay by Andrei.
25 September 2010
The Daughter of Tragedy
“Miserable, ephemeral race, children of hazard and hardship, why do you force me to say what it would be much more fruitful for you not to hear? The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second-best thing for you—is to die soon.” (Nietzsche 22)
The Library of Congress in the United States houses a total of 261 books of literary criticism on the author James Joyce’s works – a fact that his grandson laments. “People want to brand this great work with their mark. I don’t accept that… All this crap they write.” (Max) Literary criticism is oft considered as important as the work it is based upon. Authorial intent seems to have taken a backseat to, instead, how the critics interpret the work. Some go as far to say that the critics’ interpretation renders authorial intent null – that their projection is more relevant. (Barthes 1) This is compounded when a work is left abstract, or a variety of interpretations are possible. One can make the existentialist argument that deriving meaning belongs to the reader. In academia, however, this may result in popular interpretation being taught as the only actual valid form of reading the work – whether out of political motivation, or sloppy scholarship. If one is to ignore the intent of the author, what makes a critic’s interpretation any more valid? Rather than mindlessly go about the recycling of popularly held interpretations, this writing challenges them – specifically the character of Edna in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” not as a feminist heroine, nor a successful self-determiner but a tragic figure caught in a struggle between society and nature – between Apollo and Dionysus; with her awakening resulting not in growth, but loss.
“Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over and it was then too late.” (Toth 296)
This quote from author Kate Chopin was a response to critics of the time deriding “The Awakening” as immoral; popular interpretation – what a pattern – states that her response was one composed with tongue planted firmly in cheek. After all, the horrible controversy and scathing criticism was enough to kill Chopin’s career. There is no doubt that the character Edna stood in contrast to the established social norms of the day, and perhaps even today, though the controversy over such a fictional character is far less in modern times – one only needs to look at a show like “Sex and the City.” The character, despite her supposed death, was considered overtly raunchy, and venomous. Even reviews praising Kate Chopin’s writing did not challenge the validity of the novel. They challenged the character, equating her with the author
“The Awakening' is the sad story of a Southern lady who wanted to do what she wanted to. From wanting to, she did, with disastrous consequences; but as she swims out to sea in the end, it is to be hoped that her example may lie forever undredged. It is with high expectation that we open the volume, remembering the author's agreeable short stories, and with real disappointment that we close it. The recording reviewer drops a tear over one more clever author gone wrong.” (The Nation)
Such criticism did not end with the turn of the century. However, in the 1950s, a positive review of the novel was published by Kenneth Eble. “It is a first rate novel.” The concept of Edna as feminist, however, had not yet been established. Instead, wrote Eble, “Quite frankly, the book is about sex. Not only is it about sex, but the very texture of the writing is sensuous…amazingly honest, perceptive, and moving.” (262) It is in this critic’s interpretation that Edna’s “awakening” is not some sort of realization of an oppressive male society, but of an awakening to physical love. The sea stands for passion – passion that ultimately swallows the titular character up. It is as a Greek tragedy – the struggle of an overarching self-awareness, of passion. Robert Cantwell, his critique also published in the 1950s, agreed, describing the work as a “result… of heightened sensuous awareness.” (492) Does this make Edna a feminist heroine, at least in terms of a political sense? No, writes James Justus – and, according to him, that is precisely the authorial intent.
“The Awakening is devoid of authorial special pleading for any social or political program; indeed, even internally, the discontent with a specific condition which we see unfolding in Edna Pontellier is never elevated to any general state of things which needs correction. Edna herself could not care less if her own "ragged condition of soul" is to be found in other women.” (107)
Edna is self-aware, and such awareness is growing – but, still limited to the self. She is unconcerned with the state of others. Indeed,
“She has the luxury to question why and how is she is oppressed because she is not occupied struggling to survive. She has servants to clean her home and raise her children. While Edna realizes how bored she is as a white woman in the South, the “quadroon nurse,” the “little black girl” and “a maid” (whose race is not mentioned so she must be white) make Edna comfortable.” (Powell 277)
Edna hardly seems like a feminist heroine viewed from the lens of racial and economic inequality.
While there is no doubt that there is certainly a patriarchal society in place, Edna’s story has oft been read also a tale of successful self-determination – instead of painting her as a “purely feminist” heroine. But was such truly successful? One critic repeats the theme of tragedy that had been expressed in the critique of the 1950s; indeed, the critic goes as far as to speculate that “The Awakening” is a Friedrich Nietzsche-influenced tale of the Apollonian, the plastic illusion of society, versus the Dionysian, the raw naturalism – after the Greek gods, and Greek tragedies – not only in theory, but intention. Patricia Bradley is that critic, and speculates with others that Chopin herself might have read Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy”, due to the “Germanization” of Chopin’s hometown of St. Louis. (Bradley 42)
“What would acknowledging a relationship of influence between ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ and ‘The Awakening’ imply for Chopin critics and the direction of their criticism? The critical stakes as we consider this question could well be our cherished view of Chopin as feminist activist and the possibility that Edna’s identity as feminist goddess is merely a construct.” (41)
Even if Chopin never had read Nietzsche, the elements would be the same as the Greek tragedies for which Nietzsche’s piece was based upon. Indeed, viewed from another lens, one can see Edna’s struggle between light and dark, art and passion, the “nature of society” and true carnal nature. There is the Apollonian, the influence of the sun, dreams, and solitude.
“There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day.” (Chopin 579 )
This contrasted a bipolar Dionysian nihilism, disgust for the plasticity of art, of society, thanks to an awakening to nature, but one that is practically subconscious.
“There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why,— when it did not seem worthwhile to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation.” (579)
For whereas the Apollonian is the artist – something Edna struggles with throughout the novel as some sort of outlet – the Dionysian is the work of art. In “The Birth of Tragedy,” Nietzsche recommended reconciliation between the two in a person’s life, something Edna is incapable of doing.
“The Apollonian principle stresses individuality and the ability to view the world at a dispassionate and often artistic distance. Dionysus, on the other hand, represents tumult, flux, and disorder; when overtaken by the Dionysian, the Apollonian finds its individuality overwhelmed by the pressure of the world as a tumultuous whole and its noble goals threatened by worldly-wise despair. Nietzsche held that disparate as they are, the two life principles... must merge and balance.” (Bradley 46)
Her often maligned “fluctuating” between two worlds is seen in the context of this struggle and – in the end – she gives herself to the Dionysian aspect. Writes Bradley,
“As other critics have shown, Edna’s adopted Creole world already demands almost impossible reconciliations of its female sector: requiring faithful monogamy of its women and yet condoning a kind of polygamy for which the Quadroon Ball was a result; adhering to severe Catholicism and yet celebrating Mardi Gras; maintaining marital chastity while making extramarital flirtations practically de rigueur. Inevitably, the problem with structuring one’s life on Nietzschean antithesis and reconciliation is that the resulting ostensibly liberated cultural structure is still unequally balanced to favor the patriarchy and marginalize the feminine.” (51)
Edna is now neither feminist heroine, nor prevalent self-determinist.
How has she struggled through her attachments to society and her want of nature, only to fall? She has failed in her reconciliation, for her awakening does not result in growth, but regression; she does not consolidate the Apollonian and the Dionysian, but falls to the latter, in a self-destructive rejection of adult society, intoxicated by nature – human nature. “There is no fault to find with the telling of the story, there are no blemishes in its art, but it leaves one sick of human nature and so one feels--cui bono!” (Porcher) Therein is the tragedy.
“Edna's process of awakening is a kind of enlightenment, but it can hardly be called growth. What she discovers does not set her free but binds her even more tightly to a destined end. Moments before her death, she responds again to the seductive murmuring of the sea, which ‘invit[es] the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.’ Her final thoughts return not to Robert but to the clanging of the spurs of the cavalry officer, her childish first love, and to the bluegrass meadow of her childhood, with ‘no beginning and no end,’ her child-like longing for a state of being stripped of restraints.” (Justus 107)
Edna is neither a heroine, nor a successful self-determinist. Instead, she has only one side of the coin – enough to destroy, but not to create. Whether she intended to commit the act of suicide, or whether through her intoxication with nature she died accidentally, is ultimately irrelevant to the tragedy. Edna is ultimately a much more sympathetic character, but no martyr. Her rebellion is marked by an increased self-awareness -- arguably, one that could have been applied to a male as well, but in a different way. She is neither activist nor tramp, as two common interpretations state, but at worst, a tragic anti-villain.
Perhaps, in some regard, her original audience held an unspoken sympathy for the character – sympathy they themselves became disgusted with – sympathy for the devil, with Edna’s struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian, between the plastic ‘spiritual’ society and the vicious carnal nature. Indeed, one review published in the New York Times Book Review in 1899 read,
“Would it have been better had Mrs. Kate Chopin's heroine [in The Awakening] slept on forever and never had an awakening? Does that sudden condition of change from sleep to consciousness bring with it happiness? Not always, and particularly poignant is the woman's awakening, as Mrs. Chopin tells it. The author has a clever way of managing a difficult subject, and wisely tempers the emotional elements found in the situation. Such is the cleverness in the handling of the story that you feel pity for the most unfortunate of her sex.” (Review of “The Awakening”)
However, this interpretation is merely one of many – it is subjective. Novels should not be condemned to have a single valid reading, so long as one understands the actual facts behind the work. Critics seldom have universal agreements, and tales of all sorts take different meanings depending on the metaphorical lens one reads through. That is their inherent beauty.
Barthes, Roland. “Death of the Author.” Aspen 5.6 (1967): 1-20. Ubuweb. Web. 25 Sep. 2010.
Bradley, Patricia L. “’The Birth of Tragedy’ and ‘The Awakening’: Influences and Intertextualities.”Southern Literary Journal 37.2 (2005): 40-60. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Sep. 2010.
Cantwell, Robert. “The Awakening.” The Georgia Review 4 (1956): 489-494. Literature Resources Center from Gale. Web. 25 Sep. 2010.
Chopin, Kate. “The Awakening.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th Ed. New York: Norton and Company, 2007. 535-624. Print.
Eble, Kenneth. “A Forgotten Novel: Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening.’” Western Humanities Review 3 (1956): 261-269. Literature Resource Center from Gale. Web. 25 Sep. 2010.
Justus, James. “The Unawakening of Edna Pontellier.” The Southern Literary Journal 10.2 (1978): 107. Literature Resource Center from Gale. Web. 25 Sep. 2010.
Max, D.T. “The Injustice Collector.” The New Yorker. 19 Jun. 2006. Web. 25 Sep 2010.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. Print.
Porscher, Frances. “Kate Chopin’s Novel.” The Mirror 4 May 1899. Literature Resource Center from Gale. Web. 25 Sep. 2010.
Powell, Tamara. “Chopin’s The Awakening.” Explicator 67.4 (2009): 276-279. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Sep. 2010.
“Recent Novels: ‘The Awakening.’” The Nation 3 Aug. 1899: 69.1779, 96. Literature Resource Center from Gale. Web. 25 Sep. 2010.
“Review of ‘The Awakening.’” The New York Times Book Review. 4 Jun. 1899: 408. Literature Resoruce Center from Gale. Web. 25 Sep. 2010.
Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin’s Private Papers. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998. Print.