Landing : Athabascau University

Need to re-read a literary work? Try reading criticism on it instead.

Students and professors alike often have to revisit or re-read literary texts, whether for research or teaching purposes. One helpful strategy for doing so (which, as a grad student, I'd picked up from then-English-dept-chair Dr Alan Shepard) is to opt not to re-read the text itself, but instead to read some recent criticism or commentary on it.

I recently had occasion to do this: my neighbourhood book club met earlier this week to discuss Kate Chopin's novella The Awakening. I've taught this text in our MA program's foundational Literary Studies course, but it's been years since I've read it.

So this time I took a dive into the AU library's journal databases on English literature, to find some recent criticism on Chopin's long-neglected, now-canonical novella. Half a dozen or so recent articles not only refreshed my memory of the main plot, stylistic features, and major themes, but also offered important new insights for interpreting and critically reflecting on the text. Here are some of the highlights I found.

Powell, Tamara. "Chopin's The Awakening." The Explicator, vol. 67, no. 4, 2009, pp. 276-79.

A foundational method in studying literature is close reading, and The Explicator's short articles exemplify what that method looks like in practice. Powell uses Toni Morrison's theory of "linguistic strategies" to show racism in the novella -- and to argue for teaching students how to recognize the text's racist elements. This short article both reviews key details (e.g. the "quadroon nurse" who looks after the protagonist's children) and gets me thinking about the need to teach this text with attention to its racism: "Not only are Edna, the narrator, and the writer Chopin (assuming it is her grammar that is causing the confusion) complicitous in dismissing the Africanist presence in this novel," Powell writes, "but a great many students are expected to be complicitous as well. In order to end this complicity, the Africanist presence must be acknowledged" (279). Powell also notes that one sentence in the novella contains a grammatical ambiguity that suggests the protagonist lived with fish. Who says literary criticism isn't funny?

Puckett, James A. "Death and 'Divine Love': Kate Chopin's Reading of Walt Whitman." American Literary Realism, vol. 52, no. 1, 2019, pp. 68-88.

I'm always keen on readings of intertextual borrowing and adaptation. Puckett demonstrates Chopin's appreciation for Whitman's poetry, and her continuation of his "tradition of breaking with tradition" (Puckett 71). "Chopin's literary salon in the early 1890s," he writes, "which she ran out of her house, functioned as a civilizing arm for Pulitzer's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, whose greenhorn journalists were sometimes sent to Chopin specifically to develop cosmopolitan tastes, one of the markers of which was to have read 'Whitman, Swinburne, and French fiction'" (73). Puckett's reading shows how Chopin's short stories and The Awakening adapt Whitman's poetically argued ideas about both expressing sexuality and (less intuitively) celebrating death.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. "Un-Utterable Longing: The Discourse of Feminine Sexuality in The Awakening." Studies in American Fiction, vol. 24, no. 1, 1996, pp. 3-22.

Wolff's argument is widely cited and anthologized (as in the edition of the book we teach, the Norton Critical Edition, which includes articles modelling different critical methods) -- and for good reason: she combines historical discourse analysis and feminist theory with close reading to explain how the patriarchal American culture of Chopin's day made no allowance for the possibility that women have any sexual desire (or if they do, it's only to have children). Wolff argues that The Awakening is

about a woman whose shaping culture has, in general, refused her the right to speak out freely; this is, moreover, a culture that construes a woman's self-expression as a violation of sexual 'purity' and a culture that has denied the existence of women's libidinous potential altogether--has eliminated the very concept of sexual passion for 'normal' women" (6, emphasis in original).

In the process of finding and reading these articles, I found a few others that look intriguing...but the book club meeting's done, so maybe I'll save them for next time I need to refresh my memory of the primary work.


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