As Ruth Iskin remarks in “Through the Peephole: Toward a Lesbian Sensibility in Art”:
The transition we see in…artists’ environments is not from no context to context, but rather from a private to a public context. The 19th century painter Rosa Bonheur, for example, created a private context for herself….The private rather than the public context has not only been the prevailing tradition of…[a marginalized] lifestyle, for obvious reasons, but also the lot of women’s culture and a tradition of women’s communication in general. (Raven and Iskin, 258-259)
In America, literary space has been dehumanized by dividing it into two supposedly distinct spheres: public and private. These literary binarisms, as expressed, for example, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in relation to homophobic discourse, may be further abstracted to apply to the dominant literary establishment, on the one hand, and to deviant literary groups, on the other. The implications of this literary divide results in a deep fissure of no small consequence. Certain authors and texts are “allowed” in public discourse, other voices are relegated to the closet of private literary space. Invisibility and silence, thus, become weapons to banish specific writers and texts into the proverbial closet. Indeed, as Haig Bosmajian has observed:
While names, words, and language can be used to inspire us, to motivate us to humane acts, to liberate us, they can also be used to dehumanize human beings and to “justify” their suppression and even their extermination. It is not a great step from coercive suppression…to…extermination…nor is it a large step from defining a people as non-human or sub-human to their subjugation or annihilation. One of the first acts of an oppressor is to redefine the “enemy” so they will be looked upon as creatures warranting separation, suppression, and even eradication. (Bosmajian, Introduction)
Chopin’s discourse on female sensuality and independence violated the literary norm and subverted dominant literary discourse. She was what Arlene Raven would call “…an exemplary symbol---the woman who takes risks, who dares to be a creator in new territory, who does not follow rules, who declares herself the source of her artistic creation.” (Raven and Iskin, 258) But even more importantly, Chopin “…likewise prefigure[s] what many women would wish to become…strong, powerfully creative, and effective in the world.” (Raven and Iskin, 258) Moreover, and even more subversive to dominant literary norms, was The Awakening’s role as “…an active manifestation of the transformation of personal identity, social relations, political analysis, and creative thought which has long been among the aspirations of revolutionary thinkers.” (Raven and Iskin, 258) Subsequently, Chopin’s masterpiece as deviant manifesto signified “…the possibility of acknowledging radical transformation of self through revolutionary social practice” (Raven and Iskin, 258)
Sensuous and self-assertive women, or authors who write about such women, particularly in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, were silenced because they deviated from the established literary norms. Banishment of marginalized texts, like The Awakening, to the closet of literary oblivion bolsters the hegemonic discourse that seeks to oppress diverse voices. Haig Bosmajian notes that:
…sexist language has allowed men to define who and what a woman [and man] is and must be. Labels like… ‘queers’ and ‘obscene degenerates’ were applied indiscriminately to students who protested the war in Vietnam or denounced injustices in the United States. Are such people to be listened to? Consulted? Argued with? Obviously not! One does not listen to, much less talk to…sensualists and queers. One only punishes them or, as Spiro Agnew said in one of his 1970 speeches, there are some dissenters who should be separated ‘from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples.’ (Bosmajian, 7)
In order to liberate literature from the oppression of the dominant discourse, marginalized authors need necessarily write deviant texts that challenge the cultural barriers that reinforce literary marginalization. The characters they create and the aesthetic they express must pass existential muster and offer literary models who have come out of the literary closet.
General existential principles can be used to analyze the authenticity, believability, and freedom of Edna Pontellier. This analysis is important because if Edna is not genuine, if she is an unbelievable character, and if she is not free, then the subsequent analysis of The Awakening as coming out story would appear to be fruitless and insignificant. If, however, Edna Pontellier is a fully human heroine, then the novella’ development as a coming out story becomes a more compelling deviant, and subversive analysis. If coming out as storytelling is only applicable to gay and lesbian literature, it would seem to offer no link to other marginalized literary groups. But if coming out as storytelling provides a more widely applicable analytic model, then it may very well link gay and lesbian literature to feminist, African American, Latina/o, and other deviant texts, and provide a bridge that unifies voices separated and suppressed by the dominant literary establishment. When joined in a community of literary differences, coming out as storytelling may break loose from, or at least wear (stare?) down, the dominant hierarchical literary gaze and unify deviant texts in an equality of deviant gazes. By coming out of discursive closets, marginalized texts may displace dominant literary norms and free themselves from the existentially questionable ontological category of other.
What…has to happen is that we move beyond long-held cultural and linguistic patterns of oppositions: male/female (as these terms currently signify); dominant/submissive; active/passive; nature/civilization; order/chaos; matriarchal/patriarchal. If rigidly defined…differences have been constructed around fear of the other, we need to think about ways of transcending a polarity that has only brought us all pain. (Kaplan, 240)
In the late nineteenth-century, Edna Pontellier was confronted by a world where traditional values and moral codes were abandoned or called into question. In 1800, for example, American women had no right to sue for divorce. By 1900, two-thirds of American divorce actions were brought by women. In 1860, the average woman in the United States bore six to eight children in her lifetime to sustain what was still a largely agrarian economy. By 1900, with the near completion of American industrialization, bringing with it a consumer economy, the number of children (3.5) women bore on average had dropped in at least half. In 1880, one in twenty-one U.S. marriages ended in divorce. Just two decades later, in 1900, the American divorce ratio was up to a staggering one in twelve. (Carson, 2000)
Sexuality and gender roles experienced vast change as well. Before roughly 1875, the modern categories of sex, gender, and sexual orientation did not exist as they signify today. The commodification, medicalization, criminalization, and categorization of sex, gender, and sexual orientation, however, was very nearly complete by 1900. With the onslaught of industrial capitalism, the human body was transformed into a sexual commodity that was to be used, and in some cases sold, for pleasure as much as for pro-creation. But even as the institution of marriage, with its inherent power structures and control mechanisms, was disintegrating, the patriarchal establishment would not allow its power to be undercut. The problem of modernism could be solved by extending male dominance and oppression into new economic institutions and relationships: the professionalization of traditionally female roles (e.g. midwifery replaced by the medical profession) forced work previously performed by women to evolve into masculine jobs that produced new means of coercion and control. (Carson, 2000)
With the professionalization of the legal system, men would, significantly, control and define the legal vocabulary that privileged certain forms of sex and sexual orientation over others, while criminalizing those sexual forms that deviated from the new legal standards. The normalization of male pro-creative heterosexuality and female submissiveness was now fait accompli. (Carson, 2000)
The existential crisis facing Edna Pontellier was how to behave and cope in a society where traditional values were in disarray, where the individual is burdened and threatened by indifferent technologies, impersonal bureaucracies, and feelings of alienation and anxiety manufactured by alien industries? If there is no meaning in the universe, if God is dead, and truths are relevant, then what meaning was Edna Pontellier to give to her life? (Chase, et. al., 813-814; Gilbert, 1-176)
Edna chose to define her own existence because the institution of marriage, as represented in the opening of the novel by the caged ornamental bird, was empty of meaning and feeling. Mr. Pontellier was more absorbed in the latest stock quotes than he was with the spiritual, sensual aspects of his convenient marriage to Edna. Her role was to consume, not create, to display, not discover, to obey, not rebel. But the moral and spiritual values that would condemn a woman to such a colorless fate were devoid of meaning: they could not define Mrs. Pontellier’s essence. (Chase, et. al., 813-814; Gilbert 1-176)