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”

Reading for the First Time a Second Time

Many of you have previously read this week’s book. I first encountered The Awakening in high school. I read it again in my sophomore year as an undergrad. I returned to the text in two graduate classrooms. I teach the text as well. I re-read Chopin’s novel again this week. Each time I explore this small book I find another turn of phrase or idea or passage that I missed last time. As we begin to explore The Awakening tomorrow, I want to challenge you to read it anew as well:

I think that authors’ ghosts creep back
Nightly to haunt the sleeping shelves
And find the books they wrote.
Those authors put final, semi-final touches,
Sometimes whole paragraphs.
Whole pages are added, re-written, revised,
So deeply by night those authors employ
Themselves with those old books of theirs.
How otherwise
Explain the fact that maybe after years
Have passed, the reader
Picks up the book – But was it like that?
I don’t remember this … Where
Did this ending come from?
I recall quite another.
Oh yes, it has been tampered with
No doubt about it – 
The author’s very touch is here, there and there,
Where it wasn’t before, and
What’s more, something’s missing – 
I could have sworn …

(Muriel Sparks “Authors’ Ghosts” 2003)

(Side note about Muriel Sparks: today would have been her 100th birthday. If you haven’t read anything by her, I recommend you check her out. She’s one of my favorite Scottish authors. For more information on Muriel Sparks, check out this article from The Guardian:

A Rose by Any Other Name

This is Rachel – I still haven’t figured out how to post under my own name…that’s rather poignant within this topic. This is the second blog that I have started about The Dispossessed; however, the other post ended up being too much information for “just a blog” and will end up being a scholarly article on “Language, Masculine Discourse, and Sexual Assault in Le Guin’s Feminist Critique of Utopia.” This blog post is NOT that. But it does tie in with that overall theme. So… on to names.

Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday night. Coincidentally, we are reading and discussing The Dispossessed this week. I also always teach two of Le Guin’s short stories in my ENG111 each semester (and sometimes in my Women’s Lit and American Lit courses). I love the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin, and so do many of my friends. I received not one, not two, but four separate text messages from other lovers of Le Guin grieving SF’s and feminist literature’s loss. One of those texts simply said, “Ursula.” That name alone was all that the text needed to say. I knew exactly who it meant, I knew what it was about that name that my friend was saying, and I felt the same emotions that my friend felt, simply by reading the name “Ursula.”

This set me thinking about names and the meaning/importance of names and the act of naming (or unnaming). In my literature classes, I regularly tell students that the names of characters are important, that authors intentionally choose the names of people and places (as well as titles, but we’ll talk about that in class tomorrow). In the article, “Personal Names and Identity in Literary Context,” Benedicta Windt-Val notes the “close connection between a person’s given name and their feelings of identity and self. …[P]ersonal names and place names are some of the most important tools of the author in the creation of credible characters placed in a literary universe that gives the impression of being authentic.” This highlights the significance between a name and an identity, as well as a name and credibility and being authentic. In many of Le Guin’s writings we see the connection between name and identity, including The Dispossessed, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “She Unnames Them.” However, Le Guin isn’t simply naming or giving her characters names to signify their credibility or authenticity; rather she is leaving them nameless, “unnaming” them, or giving them computer generated, generic names, as a means to deconstruct and demonstrate the power in a name, challenging the naming power, challenging those who traditionally name.

Let’s look at The Dispossessed as our first example: the women and men of Anarres have non-gender specific names, given out by a computer, so that no two names are the same. Each name is a random assemblage of letters to create something uniquely unlike anyone else. This process is based on the teachings of Odo. In Le Guin’s precursor short story “The Day Before the Revolution” (1974), Odo says that the anarchist movement was “not strong on names. They had no flag. Slogans came and went as the need did. …But when it came to names they were indifferent, accepting and ignoring whatever they got called, afraid of being pinned down or penned in” (28). Out of this, the unimportance of names arises on Annares.

A name in many cultures, including many names in Latin based languages, implies gender, one aspect of identity. In the arena of gender, Annares’ computer generated names stand tall. On Urras, when discussing gender differences on Annares, the Urrasi physicists complain and/or comment on how Annaresti names are useless for telling gender, which they find troubling and a bit offensive: “‘Gvarab was a woman?’ Pae said in genuine surprise and laughed. Oiie looked unconvinced and offended, “Can’t tell from your names, of course,” he said coldly” (74). The idea of gender equality escapes the Urrasi people and the binary genders of men and women not only have distinctive, identifying names, but entirely separate spheres. The names of Annarestis deny Urrasis from easily dismissing a woman based upon her gender, as defined by her name. In this way, to this end of eliminating gender differences in names, the computer naming process on Urres works well. However, one’s name on Urres still ties closely to individual identity.

The computer generated name isn’t a name that carries with it tones or meaning from previous owners or of family heritage. The name doesn’t give the child something to live up to. For most on Annares, this naming process and their unique name appears freeing (at least that’s how Shevek seems to view it). However, we are shown that the name still ties deeply to the core of identity, as we see in the one instance, when Shevek meets someone with a too similar name. This other man insists on beating up Shevek (who tries to defend himself, but he’s still a scrawny boy). [Side bar: is it odd or coincidental that both of these characters with similar names both happen to be men? It strikes me as an odd coincidence and I believe Le Guin to be too crafty for this to merely be coincidence.] This instance demonstrates that there is ownership over the name and that ownership is worth fighting for. If their names were exactly alike, we could envision a society plagued with these sort of name squabbles. But even in this solitary instance, rather than unite people because they don’t have family ownership over the name or because the power isn’t in the hands of someone naming,  the name acts as an individualizing tool. Each name carries with it the burden of being distinctly unique and is easily threatened when it is reveled to not be so unique after all. This name, albeit randomly assigned, still carries with it the weight of identity, and here that is the identity of the individual (not the collective) and the needs of the individual seem to take precedent in this example. Le Guin enforces the notion of the “close connection between a person’s given name and their feelings of identity and self.” Even within a system where a computer randomly assigns a name, the name provides a person with a strong sense of identity.

Naming also plays a key role in Le Guin’s short story “She Unnames Them.” The title tells us as much. In this short story (read it here), an unnamed narrator goes around and unnames animals, or rather she convinces them to give their names back. “Most of them accepted namelessness with the perfect indifferences with which they had so long accepted and ignored their names.” Doesn’t this sound exactly like the words of Odo when discussing the anarchists? The unnamed narrator acknowledges that there is power in naming and in unnaming: “it was somewhat more powerful than I had anticipated.” However, she doesn’t want the power, but rather is handing the power back to the animals to decide on the names they do or do not want. She then does the same thing with her name; she gives it back. She “went to Adam, and said, “You and your father lent me this [name] – gave it to me actually. It’s been really useful, but it doesn’t exactly seem to fit me very well lately. But thanks very much! It’s really been very useful.” With the reference to Adam, the animals, the father, and a later comment about the garden, as a reader we know who the narrator is and our urge is to name her. Le Guin knows this. If I ask my students who have just read this, “who is the narrator?” they immediately tell me that it is Eve. But she isn’t. That was the name that Adam and God the father gave her. They defined her, pinned her down, and penned her in with naming her what they wanted. The narrator gives that name back; she helps the animals to give their names back. She frees herself and helps the animals free themselves as well. Her identity and the identity of the animals now resides in their own hands. They define themselves, they name themselves, they create themselves, and they now control and tell their own story. In Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (1989), Le Guin notes “[I]n its everyday uses in the service of justice and clarity, what I call the father tongue is immensely noble and indispensably useful. When it claims a privileged relationship to reality, it becomes dangerous and potentially destructive….The father tongue is spoken from above. It goes one way. No answer is expected, or heard” (Dancing 14849). For Le Guin, this “language of power” privileges particular ways of theorizing and understanding the world. It is gender-biased at its core. This father tongue, THE Father’s tongue named everything and everyone in the world. It not only “claims a privileged relationship to reality,” it IS reality. All of reality. This “father-tongue” is what the unnamed narrator in “She Unnames Them” is rejecting. It isn’t a forceful rejection, but a giving the gift back, a careful, deliberate unnaming, reclaiming of her self, of her identity.

Lastly, to note the importance of names in Le Guin’s work, I direct us to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (read here). In this short story, our again unnamed narrator introduces us to Omelas. There isn’t a single singular name in the entire story. In this story, only “the people of Omelas” exist, with only one exception: the child who is not considered part of the people. “In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl.” This child is kept away from the people. This child MUST be kept separate from the people. No one can talk to the child. “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” All of their happiness depends upon the child being kept apart and dehumanized and all the people of Omelas know this: “They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” The unnamed, ungendered child is no longer human; even the pronoun “it” is used in reference. The child is without a name because it is without an identity, stripped of clothes, dignity, love, and name. The removal of the name here is used as a weapon against the child to dehumanize it, which is what needs to happen for the society to exist. The people of Omelas are also unnamed in the story though. This unnaming allows them to evade individual responsibility for the abominable misery of the child. As a whole, collective people, no one person holds any other one person responsible. No one is to blame. No name, no blame. The close link between a name and feelings of identity applies when all the people identify as one collective Omelas consciousness.

In many other of Le Guin’s works she plays with the notion of names and the naming process. She clearly links naming with power and names with identity. Logan Pearsall Smith said, “Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior.” Le Guin shows names as labels to past, present, and future behavior. Her name conveys an essence of brilliance from her past behaviors and her life of writing. May we always remember her name and the power therein.

Discussion Questions for “The Dispossessed”

  1. As Rachel and I have noted in the past, the title of a work of literature often serves as a key to understanding the work. Why might Le Guin have chosen The Dispossessed as the title?  Where does she use the words “possessed” and/or “dispossessed”?  Early editions of the novel had the subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia; the subtitle was dropped from later editions.  How so we see this novel a utopian narrative?  Why did Le Guin modify Utopia with “ambiguous”?  How does dropping the subtitle change our experience of the novel?
  2. Walls
    • Walls are a recurring motif in the novel. How do walls come to mean different things at different points in the novel?  How do walls affect consciousness?
    • At one, Shevek tells Takver that he is going “to unbuild walls” (332). Why does Le Guin have Shevek employ the unusual verb “unbuild” instead of more common verbs like “tear down” (as in “Mr. Gorbachev – Tear down this wall”)?  Are there any disadvantages to “unbuilding” walls?  Takver cautions Shevek, “It may get pretty drafty” (333).  Obviously Shevek’s determination to “unbuild” walls has consequences that extend to the people around him – the people on Anarres and Urras.  How might his act be responsible or irresponsible?
    • Finally, it is impossible to think about the wall in the novel without thinking about the “Make America Great Again” movement and its isolationist and nativist philosophy.  What might the novel tell us about living in the age of Trump?
  3. In the novel we are introduced to two dominant languages – Iotic, which presumably evolved, and Pravic, which was artificially constructed. How do these languages shape the consciousness of the speakers?  In particular, we should consider the evolving consciousness of Shevek, who is the only person who speaks both languages (Sabul can read Iotic, but doesn’t appear to be able to speak it). On page 344, while both communicating through their second language (Iotic), Terran ambassador Keng tells Shevek, “It’s as if you invented human speech! We can talk – at last we can talk together.”  What are the ramifications of this “invention” of communication, of “human speech,” particularly if it reflects Shevek’s idiosyncratic consciousness?
  4. Sex, Sexuality, Gender and Family
    • A common trope of utopian and dystopian literature is the re-imagining of familial structures. In Orwell’s 1984 sex is anathema, and as a consequence romance and families do not threaten the power of the state.  In Huxley’s Brave New World promiscuous sex is encouraged, and sex is entirely separated from procreation, thus preventing families from undermining the state.  How do partnerships, marriages, sexual relationships and familial ties on Anarres and Urras affirm or undermine social institutions and social cohesion?
    • The Odonians use “brother” and “sister” to refer to each other, thus creating a fictionalized family, while, at the same time, the elimination of the personal pronoun in connection to biologic family members (i.e. “my mother”), along with the removal of family names or naming undercuts the traditional notion of family bonds. How is it, then, that family bonds, like the bond Shevek feels for Sadik, survive?  To what extent has society on Anarres failed to escape old familial structures?
    • Shevek, as Odonian, has been indoctrinated for his whole life into respecting the personhood of others. What factors, then, lead to his sexual assault on Vea?  How does Shevek’s behavior prior to the assault establish his failure to recognize Vea as a full human?  Why does Le Guin include the sexual assault in the novel and then not return to it after the fact?
    • How tolerant are the Anarresti of queer sexuality? Does Bedap the only character who is explicitly identified as “pretty definitely homosexual” enjoy the same treatment as other characters (172)?  What does the intercourse between Bedap and Shevek reveal about the function of sex in Anarresti society?
    • How are the gender roles of men and women different on Anarres from the gender roles of men and women on Urras? How do economics and language create or encourage those differences?
  5. How does the conversation between Shevek and Ambassador Keng break the fourth wall and include us readers in the novel?

Discussion questions

New Material for the Class on Consciousness

Hi scholars,

Following a lively first class, I’m posting a few links that will help us think about consciousness in (I hope) new and different ways.  I’m also posting a link of resources for thinking about literary theory and science fiction.

The first link is compliments of Michael Schuster.  This is the article he referenced during class.

For those of you who enjoyed The Brain with David Eagleman, here is a link to the first episode in the documentary series.

For those of you who would like to watch David Chalmer’s TED talk on consciousness, which comes highly recommended by Rachel, click here.

Lastly, if you are interested in learning more about literary theory and how it connects to science fiction, please visit this site.