by Lisa Peet
Kate Chopin did not consider herself an activist, a feminist, a suffragette. Her most famous work, The Awakening, and many of her short stories were thought scandalously frank when they were published, and, as Jill Kronstadt wrote in “Ego and Eros” earlier this week, they experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1960s as proto-feminist narratives. But for all the sexual and political repercussions of her literary work in the wider world, the strongest liberating force—in her life and in her fiction—may well have been art.
Readers looking for autobiographical elements in Chopin’s fiction will find little evidence of art borrowing from life, given her apparently harmonious, respectful marriage. Certainly every author exploits her fantasies to some small or large degree; and Chopin well understood that a woman’s path to personal autonomy could take many forms—from sexual freedom to the quieter subversion of questioning the traditional pigeonholes of motherhood, society, and subservience. But in looking at both her writing and her life, one also gets a definite sense of art as a powerful force for transformation. The development of strong personal aesthetics, and the realization of her own artistic abilities, obviously shaped Chopin’s trajectory. There is a clear connection in her fiction, as well—in The Awakening, especially—between the heroine’s emerging appreciation of the beauty around her and her growing sense that she is an active participant in that beauty, both as an artist and as a woman.
As the respectable, well-married Edna Pontellier begins her process of individuation and soul-searching, her appreciation of music, literary discourse, and painting also blossoms. So, of course, does her libido, and in the face of such overt unfolding it’s easy to lose sight of the more subtle flourishes: it is Edna’s sensuality—her growing aesthetic attunement to the world—that shines the light for her sexuality to emerge. Early in the novella, while vacationing with her family on Grand Isle, on the Gulf of Mexico, she is surrounded by noise—a squawking parrot, 14-year-old twins pounding out popular tunes on the hotel piano—and by the relentless heat and sunlight. And as she gradually ripens under the attentions of Robert, the resort owner’s young son, her senses undergo a parallel kind of refinement.
Sitting by the ocean with the lushly lovely Adele Ratignolle, Edna finds herself acutely aware of her friend’s strong physicality, and her first impulse is to draw her. A self-professed dilettante, Edna
had brought her sketching materials, which she sometimes dabbled with in an unprofessional way. She liked the dabbling. She felt in it satisfaction of a kind which no other employment afforded her.
While still at the resort, she is distinctly moved at a piano recital given by the strange, vaguely eccentric Mlle. Reisz. As though she were slowly shedding emotional skin along with her holiday sunburn, Edna’s aesthetic consciousness rises to the surface on this vacation along with her longing. When she returns to New Orleans, she begins ignoring her domestic and social obligations in favor of long afternoons spent painting in her atelier and visits to Mlle. Reisz’s apartment, where she listens to the older woman play piano and reads letters from her beloved Robert. These new pursuits are deeply entwined with her need for independence, to her husband’s chagrin:
“It seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family.”
“I feel like painting,” answered Edna. “Perhaps I shan’t always feel like it.”
Her aesthetic refinement seems to sharpen along with her emotional needs throughout the novella, and while it doesn’t bode—or end—well for Mrs. Pontellier, The Awakening is not a cautionary tale. Even with its tragic ending, the story celebrates the transformative power of art and beauty.
Just as Edna’s married name takes its source from the French pont, or bridge, so Chopin was bridging a pivotal cultural time. She came of age during the Victorian era, but as an artist reached toward the Modernists. The Awakening offers fin-de-siècle gestures toward abandoning conventional roles of gender, motherhood, religion, and propriety; but they remain unrealized. While Mrs. Pontellier wishes to be the precursor of Virginia Woolf‘s Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, instead she remains as weighted down with tradition as Mrs. Ramsay.
Kate Chopin described herself a realist in the tradition of Guy de Maupassant and Émile Zola, although her stories and sketches are often more allegorical than straightforward, as allusive as fables. And while her subject matter may have nodded toward Modernism—itself a rejection of the doggedness of realism—stylistically Chopin shares more with the late 19th-century Impressionist painters and their use of light, gesture, and perspective. Mary Cassatt was a contemporary, along with Berthe Morisot, with their exquisitely attuned paintings of family life that were far more than simple domestic portraits. Edgar Degas was a neighbor during his five months in New Orleans, and the two were most likely friendly. The paintings he did there could serve as illustrations for more than one of Chopin’s stories. Surely it was a wonderful place and time to be an artist of any kind.
In A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Woman: The Writer As Heroine in American Literature, Linda Huf calls The Awakening a künstlerroman—a narrative about an artist’s growth toward maturity—adding: “Of course, as a künstlerroman it reveals something of the author’s own struggle and, what is more important, something of the struggle of all women artists.” Poor Edna Pontellier never makes it to maturity, either as an artist or a woman. Fortunately for us, however, where art was only the first symptom of Edna’s emergence, for Chopin it was the end product. The Awakening lives up to its eponymous concerns, and Kate Chopin renders for us not only the title’s sexual subtleties, but also the aesthetic power of her own awakening.
Lisa Peet, Senior Writer at Bloom, is a writer, editor, artist, Library & Information Science student, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying Bloomer herself.
Click here to read more on Kate Chopin, by Bloom contributing writer Jill Kronstadt.
Homepage image, “The Cradle” by Berthe Morisot, 1872
Cassatt image, “Self-portrait” by Mary Cassatt, 1878