Landing : Athabascau University

Reader-Response analysis of Chopin's The Awakening

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By Lisa Goddard July 1, 2012 - 3:44pm

Reader-Response: Paula Treichler

The Reader-Response school of criticism is interested in the circumstances that shape a reader’s reaction to a text. The reader’s own time, place, politics, and personal circumstances obviously influence their experience of a text, but authorial intention is also at play. An author deliberately selects descriptors, verb tenses, syntax, and other linguistic constructs in order to guide the audience towards certain conclusions. The reader often recognizes and reacts to the author’s signs without consciously realizing it.

Paula Treichler describes the way in which Chopin’s subtle language choices impact the reader’s experience in The Awakening. She is particularly interested in how passive and active verbs reflect Edna’s struggle to reclaim the first person singular – the “I”.

Treichler makes a compelling argument about Chopin’s language becoming more active as her heroine’s consciousness is raised. She also argues that Chopin sometimes mixes the active and passive voice in order to create a sense of ambiguity in the reader. We experience this ambiguity as an unresolved tension that echoes Edna’s inner conflict. It also provides insight into what will come next, as it signals to us that Edna’s struggle has not been resolved by the event in question. While I find this argument quite convincing, my urge is to do a closer reading in order to be certain that Treichler is not simply cherry picking obvious passages, but that the passive/active transformation exists quantifiably in Chopin’s language. This would be an interesting case for automated text analysis. One could attempt to use a part of speech tagger to produce a quantitative linguistic analysis of the novel that might serve to strengthen (or weaken) the argument.

Treichler links Edna’s growing sense of self-possession, indicated by the active “I”, with her mobility in other areas. Swimming and walking are activities which increase her feeling of command and ownership over her own body, and also allow her to go where she will without reliance on others (in contrast to being rowed by Robert, for example).  Edna’s first real adult “in-body experience” (if I may offer a twist on the phrase “out-of-body experience”) happens during her triumphant swim at the end of August. Treichler rejects some of the other interpretations that we have read to argue that Edna’s attraction to the sea is rooted in her urge for physical activity as it symbolizes self-ownership and freedom.

The essay also makes an interesting point about Chopin’s repetitive use of sleep/wakefulness imagery throughout the novel. Treichler upturns the traditional association of sleep with death, arguing that sleep and dreaming are more closely equated with the illusions of life in The Awakening, and that waking up leads to death for Edna. It’s as though too much awareness of the human condition makes it impossible for her to endure.

I wonder how deconstructionists would respond to Treichler’s active/passive dichotomy, with its implication that “active” is superior in the hierarchy of vales.