Landing : Athabascau University

LTST605 - The Awakening: Critical & Gender Studies Perspectives

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By Lisa Goddard June 25, 2012 - 10:49pm Comments (1)

Feminism: Elaine Showalter

I found this essay to be a very persuasive reading of The Awakening. Because it appears in a scholarly edition, we are told upfront that Elaine Showalter is writing from a feminist perspective. This is an appropriate theoretical perspective to begin with, as The Awakening has been embraced as an important work by second wave feminist scholars. Chopin’s work is of particular interest because it explores and challenges Victorian notions of femininity and womanhood, however critics are quick to note that it is also a text of great aesthetic value.

Showalter tackles a number of themes in this essay, but her main assertion is that the novel is maligned and ignored by Chopin’s contemporaries because of her refusal to align herself with any single literary tradition or political perspective. She likens the “solitude” of the novel (not being widely read or appreciated) to the “solitude” of its author (refusing to identify with a particular literary tradition) and to the “solitude” of its protagonist (refusing to identify with a socially-approved gender role). Showalter demonstrates that the novel fits within neither the “sentimentalist” school of women’s writing, nor the “local color” tradition, although she acknowledges the influence of the latter on Chopin’s style.

One important feature of the novel is the depiction of Edna as an overtly sexual being. The stirring of sexual desire is very much a part of her awakening, although it also encompasses artistic and existential yearnings. As Kate Chopin rejects well established styles for women’s writing, so her heroine rejects the two possible roles that she might inhabit within the strict gender confines of the late 19th century. These roles are represented by the paragon of self-effacing womanhood, Madame Ratignolle, and by the unattractive and marginalized artist, Mademoiselle Reisz. Ultimately Edna chooses neither path, and finds no happy alternative in her efforts to redefine herself. Interestingly, her suicide by drowning is very much in line with that which might have been expected by the audience. Showalter demonstrates that, as Edna can neither embrace her responsibilities nor completely forget them, so Chopin can neither tie herself to an established literary tradition nor break with tradition altogether.

Gender Studies: Elizabeth LeBlanc

LeBlanc reads Edna Montpellier as a “metaphorical lesbian”. She draws parallels between the queer experience and Edna’s struggle for self-definition. Just as the lesbian identity does not fit neatly into binary classifications of sex/sexuality/gender, so Edna finds herself a gender outlaw. She desires something for which she cannot find words, for which there is no cultural description. Edna wants something that exists outside of the popular imagination of her time. The lives of her two role models, Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, each have desirable attributes, but they both represent compromise. Madame Ratignolle entirely gives over her identity to her family. Madame Reisz retains her identity and her art, but at the cost of living alone on the outskirts of society. Edna chafes against compromise, seeking a way to have both Robert and art without complete social ruin.

Edna’s struggle to find happiness and fulfillment outside of the social norms of her time can certainly be seen as a metaphor for the lesbian (or gay) experience. Leblanc builds her case based on a dearth of external validation and positive role models, a desire to find places (geographically and psychologically) that can accommodate difference, public sexualization of the individual, and the social backlash that accompanies the challenging of traditional gender roles.

Leblanc suggests that Edna’s suicide can be read as her lesbian consummation when  “she meets her figurative female lover, naked and without fear”. While I appreciate that Leblanc is angling for a happy interpretation, I’d contend that a darker parallel can be drawn with the high rate of suicide among gays and lesbians, particularly queer youth who, like Edna, have limited access to an alternate culture and community who can offer validation and support. There is also a tradition of suicide in lesbian literature, with The Well of Loneliness as a famous example.


  • You make some great notes and observations on these critical essays - this is a productive approach to working through the essay set to decide which you think makes the most persuasive case. Between just these two, it appears you find Showalter's more convincing, in that I don't see reservations regarding it such as you register on Leblanc's essay. The point about queer youth and suicide is particularly important and incisive, as a means to point up a shortcoming in Leblanc's argument - and (even if inadvertently) to suggest the naturalist aspect of Chopin's writing (i.e. its adoption of a specific realist literary form, privileging verisimilitude, that was prevalent in late 19th-century American writing).

    I'm also pleased to see you find the Landing useful - you make good use of it to document and reflect on your process here.

    Mark A. McCutcheon June 26, 2012 - 11:00am

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