We Need to Talk About Edna
Almost everyone I talk to about The Awakening By Kate Chopin absolutely gushes with their love of the book. They compliment Chopin's writing, her creation of setting, her characters...but I have a problem with Edna. I can't quite put my finger on it, so bear with me as I write it out.
NB: If you've not read The Awakening or other works by Chopin, there are spoilers in this essay.
I will be the first to say I love Chopin's writing, especially her descriptions of the sea. I absolutely love the ocean, and if an author is going to say, "The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude." I am totally there for it. The asyndeton and the rolling gerunds create a susurrant sound I haven't found anywhere else. I mean, could you make words sound like water any more than that? Nope. You couldn't. Not even R.E.M.'s "Nightswimming" does that with words; it has to be backed by piano and an orchestra. So when people say she's a great writer, I'm with them.
I also appreciate her consistent focus on the themes of independence, self-discovery, and, well, awakening. Even in "The Story of an Hour," in which Mrs. Mallard dies of "a joy that kills," I identified with the concept of a woman finally being allowed to come into her own only to have her hopes dashed just as they were realized. For so long, men have oppressed women, and even now, as we finally spread our wings (as Edna did in the aptly named "Pigeon House,"), there is some dudebro waiting in the wings to say, "Well, actually, I'm alive, I didn't die at all." Add to this the bird imagery and symbolism persistent in The Awakening, and I am even more in love with Chopin as a writer.
The problem of The Awakening for me is this: I never felt a real emotional connection to Edna. When I read a book, I have to feel emotionally connected—be it love OR hate—to a character for the book to "work" for me. I understand The Awakening is a classic. I understand many people—myself included—treasure it for its themes and literary merit.
But I just don't really feel that special something for Edna Pontellier.
Many of you that read my blog regularly know, in addition to loving literary "titans" like Austen, Hardy, Shakespeare, etc., I also love young adult novels. And so many of you might say, "Well, maybe it's because you read YA and maybe you need to read more classics to get back into the swing of classic literary figures, and..." But you'd be wrong. Not just for thinking YA doesn't have quality female protagonists, but because I love Elizabeth Bennet. Every time I take a "Which Character From Pride and Prejudice Are You Quiz," I get Lizzie Bennet. I love Fanny Price. I love Bathsheba Everdene. I love Jane Eyre. I love Portia.
I don't love Edna. In fact I don't really feel anything for her at all. I felt detached from her—though perhaps that is what Chopin wanted, in a way, was for us as readers to detach ourselves from Edna's experience. I'm not sure. But when she falls in love with Robert, I never felt the love. When she hooks up with Alcee, I felt like I was looking at their relationship through the wrong end of a telescope: two small characters, very far away, playing at something neither of them are truly invested in. Edna was not entirely invested, because she was still in love with Robert. Alcee was not invested because he was a player. (NB: My students nicknamed Robert and Alcee "Side Piece 1" and "Side Piece 2.")
To be fair, I never felt Edna's love for her husband, either. Granted, she married him only because her father didn't approve. She was much more in love with the actor who left her despondent. What I did feel was the simmering irritation of their marriage. Mr. Pontellier picked, and Edna would get fed up with him and tell him to stop talking to her. That sentiment alone in 1899 was so completely forward-thinking and scandalous that if Chopin were alive today, I would be following her on Twitter and recommending her to anyone who would listen.
It is interesting, too, how Chopin made Edna's relationships mirrors each other. Her husband disappoints her, so she takes up with the younger man Robert Lebrun. Then Robert leaves (just as her husband leaves to go on business), and she takes up with Alcee Arobin, a playboy whose name is so closely associated with scandalous behavior, her friend Adele Ratignolle tells her not to be seen in public with him. So, having lost the person she really wanted (the actor/Robert), Edna seeks solace with someone society does not approve of (Mr. Pontellier/Alcee). Ultimately, though, Edna does not want anyone to think they can “possess her, body and soul,” whether it be her husband Leonce or her children.
No discussion of Edna would be complete without discussing how Chopin presents her as a mother. The narrator reveals Edna is not a "mother-woman," and that she would "never sacrifice herself for her children." She is not one of the women who “idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” This is a touchy line to toe, but I'm going to do my best. First: parents should ALWAYS retain who they were before children, even though children DO change us in many ways. So, when Edna refuses to sacrifice herself for her children, I understand it. She wants to retain who she is, unlike Adele Ratignolle, presented by Chopin in her white dresses as the archetypal "angel in the home" mother figure who gives over everything she is to her children, and implores Edna, after birthing yet another child, to "think of the children" as she persists in her affair with Alcee.
Edna only has two children to Mrs. Ratignolle's "brood," and she sends them away to stay with her mother-in-law for the spring, after returning from Grand Isle. This I understand as well. Sending kids away for months at a time was, in 1899, normal, just as it was in Victorian society to have a governess for your children, and to only have them "presented" to you once or twice a day. My mother comes over pretty much every Saturday to hang out with my son. It's freeing. It's helpful. I spend time with my husband if he's not working. I go to the gym. I get stuff done. I have "time away," or "alone time," or whatever it is you want to call it. I retain my sanity. She enjoys her time with her grandson, and I enjoy my time. It’s a perfect situation all around. When I’m out for those few hours, I do wonder how my son is and what he’s doing, just as Edna misses her children while they are away, and goes to visit them. In fact, she “lived with them a whole week long, giving them all of herself, and gathering and filling herself with their young existence.”
But this is not about rationalizing Edna’s traits as a mother…it’s about why I’m so conflicted about her as a character. I’m not drawn to her. I understand her, which is what I've tried to demonstrate here, but I feel absolutely no emotional connection to her.
In fact, when Edna goes for her fated swim, the broken-winged bird circling above her, I had a very Macbeth moment and thought, “She should have died hereafter.” Unlike other times, when I’ve wept over the death of a character (The Book Thief, Slaughterhouse Five, and yes, of course, the Harry Potter books to name a few), my only real reaction was, “Well, I guess that’s that.”
Maybe it’s because I already knew what was going to happen. Maybe it’s because I knew she wasn’t a good swimmer and that, much like other characters who’ve attempted that ultimate baptism, she wasn’t going to come out of this swim alive. Then again, it could just be that, for whatever reason, I feel absolutely nothing for Edna Pontellier at all.