Chopin Criticism Notes

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Chopin Criticism Notes

At Fault her first novel. Bayou Folk (1894) contained regional tales. A Night in Acadie (1897). A Vocation and a Voice not published.
The Awakening (originally titled A Solitary Soul) faulted as “morbid” and “vulgar.” Cather saw it as “trite and sordid.” “There was, indeed, no need that a second Madame Bovary should be written…” Neither a morality tale nor a satisfying romance novel.
After the novel stirred controversy, Chopin wrote “I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things.”
1953: French critic Cyrille Arnavon compared the novel to Madame Bovary and translated The Awakening into French. Edmund Wilson praised it in the 1950s as an “uninhibited and beautifully written [book] which anticipates D.H. Lawrence.”
1956: Kenneth Eble praised The Awakening on New Critical grounds.
1969: Per Seyersted, a Norwegian, published a critical biography of Chopin – seeing Chopin as a transitional figure between George Sand and Simone de Beauvoir -- and a two-volume set: The Complete Works of Kate Chopin.
Feminists who had praised the novel began to back off. Elaine Showalter, in Tradition and the Female Talent, argued that Edna’s separation from other women leads to her tragedy; she never moves beyond “her own questioning to the larger social statement that is feminism.” See Suzanne Wolkenfeld on debate over ending & realism. See Elizabeth Fox Genovese, who sees novel as insufficiently (“straightforward”) feminist. See Elizabeth Ammons on Chopin’s (& Edna’s) neglect of oppressed black women’s stories.

1994: Norton Critical Edition, Margo Culley, ed.
Dorothy Dix -- women taking the middle ground between selfishness and passivity. (146) Women bounded in a "gilded cage." (148)
Charlotte Perkins Stetson (Gilman) complains about "the sexuo-economic relations" which define gender roles. (154)
Thorstein Veblen relates conspicuous consumption to the servant-wife. (155)
Contemporary reviewers note the talents of the author, but complain it is “not a healthy book." (163) Many complain about the heroine, who does not awaken, and for whom Chopin shows too much sympathy. (167) It is too French -- Bourget and Flaubert noted.
Kate Chopin ironically explains the novel as an examination of relations. "I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did." If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company."
Percival Pollard, in 1909, notes it is "always a bad sign, that, when women want to paint, or act, or sing, or write!" (180)
Daniel S. Rankin, in 1932, stressed the feminist aspect and praised Chopin's art. Sees Chopin following "the current of erotic morbidity" of late 19th C literature. (183)
Kenneth Eble, in 1956, disagrees with Rankin's "morbid sexuality" line and praises the novel as a form-function triumph. "Only Stephen Crane, among her American contemporaries, had an equal sensitivity to light and shadow, color and texture, had the painter's eye matched with the writer's perception of character and incident." (190) Notes the two lovers motif.
Larzer Ziff notes that Sarah Orne Jewett saw in Emma Bovary "such a lesson to dwellers in country towns, who drift out of relation to their surroundings, not only social, but the very companionship of nature, unknown to them." But Chopin did not counsel such sublimation. (197)
George Arms sees novel as Chopin's parable about life, toward which she remains neutral. Chopin portrays Edna as "a figure of romantic ideals in spite of her acting with a sexual freedom that the common reader would call realistic or even naturalistic." (197) The "truth" Chopin portrays is constantly reforming.
Per Seyersted endorses Chopin's realism -- no villains, but Edna has more free will than does Dreiser's Carrie.
George M. Spangler notes that critics (Wilson, Berthoff, Kauffmann, Ziff) see Edna's suicide as apt. But Spangler complains that Edna's suicide "is the conclusion for an ordinary sentimental novel, not for a subtle psychological treatment of female sexuality....In a word, a complex psychological novel is converted into a commonplace sentimental one." (209-210) Like Lily's suicide in House of Mirth, Edna's suicide in Awakening illustrates "feminist self-pity." (210)
John R. May notes that Chopin stresses color, tactile imagery (using the sea as a central symbol, balanced against the claims of the city): "The lady in black, the young lovers, and the mother-women represent the actual limits imposed by the Creole environment; as symbols they specify the restraint of the city." (212) The novel turns on a parable of Nature's false promises and disillusionments. Thus Edna's suicide is a revolt against the restrictions of Nature. (216)
Lewis Leary -- the sea is central, as in Whitman. An artful, Jamesian design.
Jules Chametzky -- Chopin shows "the struggle is for the woman to free herself from being an object or possession defined in her functions, or owned, by others." (221) An over-sympathetic treatment of Edna as helpless. (222)
Donald A. Ringe -- a "romantic" novel of self-discovery, though Chopin keeps her distance. The issue engaged is the price of freedom. (227)
Ruth Sullivan & Stewart Smith -- "The Awakening portrays neither the feminist's heroine nor an impulsive, somewhat shallow self-deceiver; it portrays both in unresolved tension....One might say that the realistic narrative view appeals most to the reader's adult self; the partisan, to the child, or to the self that would reach beyond its grasp no matter what the tragic consequences." (230)
Cynthia Griffin Wolff -- battle between Thanatos & Eros. Edna driven by desire for complete fulfillment, but she awakens to a condition of separation, isolation. Her suicide is "a literal denial of the birth trauma she has just witnessed, a stripping away of adulthood, of limitation, of consciousness itself." (241)
Suzanne Wolkenfeld sums up critical controversy over Edna's suicide: those who affirm it (Seyersted, Eble); those who focus on Edna's romanticism and are more qualified about her suicide (Ringe, Arms); those who are negative (Rankin on moral grounds and Spangler on aesthetic grounds, while Wolff sees it as a penetrating psychological depiction); the mixed views (Rosen & Sullivan, Smith) -- all agree the meaning of the work turns on its ending. Chopin's realism resides in her refusal to choose either the fairy-tale resolution or "feminist fatalism." (246)
Margo Culley -- novel driven by Swinburne's "A Solitary Soul," cited. (250)
Nancy Walker -- novel shows the drama of a Kentucky Presbyterian overwhelmed by Creole culture.
Elizabeth Fox Genovese -- The novel "should be a straightforward indictment of society's treatment of women," like A Doll's House or Hedda Gabler, but this is undercut by Chopin's emphasis on Edna's "psychological weakness." Thus the novel has two threads which must be recognized. (262) "In The Awakening, she explored her own knowledge that a person who wished to be free could not aspire to become a woman -- in the sense that her society constructed womanhood -- and that a girl who wanted to become a woman had to kill her deepest wishes to be free." (262)
Paula A. Treichler -- tension in novel between active and passive voices.
Sandra M. Gilbert -- "a feminist and matriarchal myth of Aphrodite/Venus as an alternative to the masculanist myth of Jesus." (271)
Lee R. Edwards -- "Edna's hope that individual consciousness could be combined with sensual union is unfulfilled." (285)
Patricia S. Yaeger -- Edna "inhabits a world of limited possibilities for interpreting and re-organizing her feelings, and therefore of limited possibilities for action." (285)
Anna Shannon Elfenbein -- "Edna's suicide indicts both sexism and racism." (298)
Helen Taylor -- on gender, race and religion.
Elizabeth Ammons -- "The repression of black women's stories -- and with them Edna's identity as oppressor as well as oppressed -- plunges not just Edna but also Chopin into a killing silence from which neither returns." (311)
Elaine Showalter -- the novel moves "away from conventional techniques of realism to an impressionistic rhythm of epiphany and mood." (313) Intensely sexual. Chopin's views of Edna is ironic, yet her death foreshadows Chopin's disappointed silence.
Henry James (1892):
the growing divorce between the American woman (with her comparative leisure, culture, grace, instincts, artistic ambition) and the male American immersed in the ferocity of business, with no time for any but the most sordid interests, purely commercial, professional democratic and political. This divorce is rapidly becoming a gulf. (314)

Andrew Delbanco, “Was Kate Chopin a Feminist?,” Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997) argues that the novel “is about a woman passing for a man.”

Edna recognizes in her ‘awakening’ a new form of degradation. She swims to her death not, as some readers would like to imagine, in a kind of ecstatic suicide amid the warm Gulf waves, but in despair at not having found a third way between the alternatives of submission and emulation when faced by those who regard power as the ground of all human relations.

2003: Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories, Sandra M. Gilbert, ed.

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