Re-Thinking Re-readings of “The Awakening”

Last class we discussed at length Edna Pontellier’s final act in The Awakening.  In particular the debate revolved around what options, if any, Edna had outside of suicide.  Was her suicide courageous or cowardly?  Could she have remained loyal to her sense of her awakening self and still be part of society?  Some of us argued that there were historical precedents of women, George Eliot, for example, violating social conventions and norms while living full lives.  Others of us suggested that, given Leonce Pontellier’s “ownership” of Edna, of their children and of all her property, freedom, outside of the freedom of death, was simply not an option.  I argued that ultimately Kate Chopin forecloses the notion of other options by not providing (much) evidence for them in the novel.  Edna chooses the only real option that Kate Chopin gives her.

While an author relinquishes control over the novel as soon as it is published, the reader’s interpretation of the motives and actions of a character are circumscribed by the words on the page.  A reader may be tempted to envision changes for a favorite story, and that’s the reader’s prerogative – and one of the joys of reading – but at that point the reader is creating fan-fiction.  The limitations created by the word on the page apply equally, it should be noted, to authors and readers.  J. K. Rowling may tell fans that Dumbledore is gay, but in the novels he is neither gay nor straight – he’s asexual.  Rowling (quite reasonably) decided to ignore the sexuality of all of her professors at Hogwarts.  Readers, and perhaps Rowling herself, forget that these characters do not magically exist outside the margins of the page.

That said, there is nothing wrong with fan-fiction, and a reader’s creative collaboration with the author’s world can enrich the reader’s appreciation for the text.  So permit me to invite you to speculate about how Edna’s death would be read by the surviving characters.  Like readers encountering a text for the first time, Leonce, Robert, Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle encounter Edna’s body (or, at very least, the fact of her death) for the first time, and must interpret it.   Several interpretations offer themselves:

  • Leonce, Robert and the other men who took satisfaction in “teaching” Edna to swim may feel that she did not learn well enough. In this reading, she goes for an innocent swim, and over-confident in her newly acquired skills, she goes too far, and without the “protective” male gaze, succumbs to the waves.
  • Leonce may see Edna’s death as a validation of his visit to see Doctor Mandalet. He might reason that her sexual proclivities AND her suicide are symptoms of her “mental illness”.
  • Robert, by contrast, might interpret Edna’s suicide as either the despairing act of a jilted woman or an attempt at exacting revenge on him. He might reasonably conclude that had he not broken off their relationship, Edna would still be alive.  Edna’s death thus becomes, not about her, but about him.
  • Mademoiselle Reisz might see Edna’s suicide as a sign of weakness. After all, she had warned Edna earlier, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” The “sad spectacle” of Edna’s drowning means that she was a “weakling,” unlike Mademoiselle Reisz.
  • By contrast, Madame Ratignolle, might view Edna’s suicide as a sign of strength.  “Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” she told Edna.  Through her death, Edna preserves the reputation of her family for her children.

None of these explanations exist within the story itself.  After all, as far as the reader is concerned, once Edna dies, the other characters die, too.  We can envision what we like for the other characters – Madame Ratignolle might murder her children and husband and run-off with Mademoiselle Reisz; in a fit of guilt Leonce might commit suicide; Robert might renounce women and go on to become a priest.  All of these futures, and infinite others, are possibilities – but not possibilities in the pages of The Awakening.

Link to an amazing post on “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

The late Le Guin’s “The  Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” has been a reliable staple in every Introduction to Literature class I’ve taught.  This short story manages, within a few pages, to illustrate the imaginative and moral power of a well-crafted work of fiction.  By moving between first-, second- and third-person narrator, Le Guin invites her readers to participate in the construction of Omelas.

Because we, in true reader-response fashion, contribute to the creation of “joyous” Omelas, we also find ourselves complicit in what follows – a miserable child is locked away, and the joy of the city, so we are told, is dependent on the child’s misery.  The child is unnamed and its sex is never revealed.  I imagine Le Guin writing, “You want the child to have a name?  By all means, name it.  Is the child a boy or a girl?  It’s as you wish.”  As a master writer, Le Guin writes none of this.  She doesn’t need to; we’re already there, projecting on to the blank face of the child the image of children we know.

The story ends by presenting the reader with the two options apparently available to the people of Omelas: either stay in Omelas and accept the suffering of the child as the price of happiness, or leave Omelas and venture out into the great unknown.  But here’s the thing – Le Guin has invited us to be co-creators with her.  We don’t need to settle for the dichotomy she provides.  We can make other choices.  In our Omelases we can break into the basement and free the child.  We can say that no society that trades the well-being of an innocent person for its prosperity and happiness deserves to be prosperous and happy.  We can end the Festival of Summer.  And what will we replace it with?  How will we rebuild Omelas?  In any way we want.  Perhaps the Festival of Summer will become the Festival of the Children in which everyone celebrates that suffering is an unavoidable human experience, but that we share the burden of suffering and make choices so that a fragile happiness can be shared by all.

And perhaps the people who walked away from Omelas will return again.

Anyhow, by all of this I merely meant to connect you to this post by Gabrielle Bellot.

Endlessly Repeating

Publishing anything centers on the hope that someone will read it. I publish my work with that same hope. Despite that hope, sharing my published academic works with friends, family, and colleagues is a struggle for me. To an even greater extent, I wrestle with sharing my creative work with anyone, not because my writing isn’t good (I’m a solid writer), but because my creative pieces are intensely intimate to me. Publishing and sharing involves the risk of rejection. Who wants such a piece of their soul rejected?  But I wrote and published this short story, because I needed it to be written. I released these written words into the world, because I needed them to be heard. I placed this personal piece of me out there, because I needed the world to know this story is as relevant to today as it was when Kate Chopin published her novel, because this loss, this life, this lesson resonates for many of us still, because this is our yesterday, this is our present day, and this may be our tomorrow. So for these reasons, I also share it with you. This specific short story of mine connects not only to the content of what we read for this week’s class, but directly to the notion of artistry and courage of which Mademoiselle Reisz speaks: “The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.” And so, I muster my courage, defy my self-doubt, and plunge myself into the gulf… “Endlessly Repeating”