Landing : Athabascau University

A Deconstructionist reading of The Awakening

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By Lisa Goddard June 29, 2012 - 4:43pm

Deconstruction: Patricia Yeager

Deconstruction is a form of analysis whereby the critic identifies false dichotomies within the narrative of a text to demonstrate the internal contradictions in a seemingly cohesive rhetorical flow. Deconstructionists reject the structuralist/formalist notion of a coherent beginning to end narrative. In her analysis of The Awakening, Patricia Yeager challenges the binary of faithful/unfaithful as they are seen to map to the strengthening/weakening of the social fabric of the 1890s. Yeager rejects the view that Edna’s infidelity is a radical challenge to the conventions of her time, arguing rather that it is in fact the stereotypical means for a women to rebel, and as such, is not particularly unorthodox or transgressive. Furthermore, she argues that fidelity/infidelity both fit nicely within the “traditional heterosexual plot” that involves a woman being defined by her relationship to her binary opposite and hierarchical superior, a man.

Yeager contends that the truly radical aspect of the novel is Edna’s search for a new language. Two of the previous essays have also explored language. Gender theorist Elizabeth Leblanc draws parallels between Edna’s search for a new language and the need of the “metaphorical lesbian” to write her own labels.  New Historicist Margit Stange views Edna’s reticence as a hoarding of self in a bid for self-ownership (or self-mastery, if you will). However, neither of these scholars made language as central to their argument as Yeager does.

Yeager explores differences between the speech patterns of Mr. Pontellier and those of Robert. While the former tends to talk at Edna, or offer paternal advice and instruction, the other includes her in his wild flights of fancy, and makes room for her in the conversation. Yeager contends that Edna, in her search for a language that will allow her an appropriate range of expression, is drawn to Robert’s more inclusive and imaginative approach to conversation. Ultimately Robert’s language reflects his own experience more than Edna’s, and so proves inadequate to her needs, but it is remains appealing to her in the absence of other options.

Her female counterparts offer little help in the matter. Adele cannot move beyond accepted cultural signs, and has no wish to probe the boundaries of her role. Music is Mlle Reisz’s preferred language. Although Edna is much stirred by the music, it serves to underline her own need for self expression, and she finds it both elating and confusing.

I cannot help but think that Yeager’s analysis is so hung up on self-expression through text (speech) that it fails to evaluate the role that art plays for Edna. If Mlle Reisz has music then surely Edna has art, or at least she tries it on for a while as an alternative means of self-expression. Can Edna’s painting and sketching be construed as a language, and if so, what are they telling us?

I was pleased to see that this essay drew out a contradiction that was lurking in my mind, but which hadn’t yet crystallized. There has been a lot of critical focus on the sexual nature of Edna’s awakening. Much is made of her infidelity. As Edna is at last swimming out to sea her final words of love are directed at Robert, and we are led to believe that his rejection is a major factor in her suicide. However, the early scenes of her awakening occur as she sits on the beach with Adele, as she listens to the music of Mlle Reisz, and as she swims in the ocean. It seems to me that Robert is more a symptom of Edna’s awakening than he is the cause. She channels her dissatisfaction with her current situation into the image of an alternative life with Robert, but it is not really about Robert at all. It is about self-determination.