I first read The Awakening---Kate Chopin’s masterpiece---four years ago in 1996. I recall now that what made my reading of The Awakening a different experience from the reading of other texts was in the response it elicited: that is, there are those texts one reads and understands and, then, there are those texts---like Chopin’s novella---that one reads, understands, and yet beyond that knowledge, somehow feels very powerfully. Indeed, the magic and mystery of The Awakening is that it reads as much like poetry as it does as narrative. And, poets attempt to explain the unexplainable, the silence, the voicelessness, the disconnectedness, and the displacement that seeks to erase so very much of the story of our literary past.
There is, of course, the need for intellectual and literary understanding. Human experience teaches us that literature, like life, is not vacuous: diverse texts are connected much more than they may seem in a literary community of difference. Diverse literature exists in society for better or worse. Moreover, interpretation of texts must acknowledge differences in the universal condition that particular texts possess a uniqueness and individuality that enriches literature.
But the struggle by marginalized authors, like Kate Chopin, to come out of the closet, to give voice to the silent, to empower the disconnected and displaced readers and writers alike, requires that any author anywhere who suffers from the oppression cast upon their texts by the dominant literary slant must necessarily move beyond mere literary understanding. Those writers who seek freedom and authenticity in literature cannot hide behind a façade of intellectual quietism and conservative reaction in their refusal to recognize the diversity of voices that together comprise the literary bulwark of western civilization. Rather, progressive thinkers of the sort Kate Chopin represents must embrace literary understanding while adopting an analytic attitude of liberal acceptance and deviant interpretation that makes possible a literary environment free of taboo, discrimination, and reaction.
In spite of the reaction of conservative authors against, as well as the extremist intellectual violence directed towards, so-called minority, or regional, texts, progressive authors need to challenge the homogenization of the literary establishment by actively reading and writing to change the “facts” of the literary landscape. By deploying new texts and creating more diverse literary spaces within which marginalized voices may flourish, diverse texts can make a difference where dominant texts cannot free their discourse to do likewise.
The purpose of this essay is to perform a deviant analysis of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening within an analytical framework of existential character analysis and social scientific/behavioral research on the “coming out” process as it traditionally has been applied only to gay men and lesbians. Narrowly, the goal of the paper is twofold: first, to scrutinize Chopin’s heroine, Edna Pontellier, from an existential perspective to determine whether or not she is an authentic, believable, self-directed character. The second objective is to assess whether or not Chopin’s narrative fits the developmental model of the coming out process and, therefore, may be considered an archetypal coming out story that applies to women who are not gay or lesbian. This will be accomplished by explicating the developmental stages of the coming out process and then looking for textual evidence from The Awakening that will either confirm or dismiss Chopin’s work as some type of coming out story.
The idea of coming out as a form of storytelling has been strictly viewed as a discourse nearly exclusively associated with and belonging to gay men and lesbians. The coming out process involves the acquisition of a homosexual, or minority, self- and social-identity. But what if coming out were to be more broadly defined as not just applicable to gay men and lesbians, but to other sexual minorities, perhaps women, or even all marginalized people, as well? That is, does the coming out process as a form of storytelling cut across gender, sexual, and other marginalized categories in a way that points to a more universal application? Although the question of universality is beyond the limited scope of this essay, the implications seem clear: such an interpretation deviates from the norm and destabilizes dominant modes of analyzing texts. Consequently, coming out as storytelling represents a subversive discourse that undercuts the established methods of textual analysis.
Textual and interpretive domination and hegemony occur within a broader cultural context that is defined by the dominant social group that constructs and controls the literary canon and literary criticism within any civilization. The western literary establishment forms a power structure perhaps best described as WHITE - MALE - HETEROSEXUAL. The literary establishment, its adherents, and henchmen, have normalized texts and their interpretation through the construction of cultural institutions that stigmatize and devalue literature that fails to conform, or is perceived as threatening, to the dominant, traditional western social equation for literary power: white + male + heterosexual = literary canon. As Audre Lorde writes in Sister Outsider, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex”:
Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference some of which we ourselves may be practising…There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience…that does not in fact exist. (Lorde, 116)
Or, as Ann Kaplan notes in “Is the Gaze Male?”:
Feminist…critics were the first to object to this prevailing critical approach, largely because of the general developments taking place in…theory at the beginning of the 1970s. They noted the lack of awareness about the way images are constructed through the mechanism of whatever artistic practise is involved: representations, they pointed out, are mediations, embedded through the art form in the dominant ideology….In patriarchal structures, thus, woman is located as other [enigma, mystery], and is thereby viewed as outside of [male] language. (Kaplan, 230)
Unfortunately, the danger of producing a text that, as Kaplan would say, projects a gaze that is not male, or that is otherwise juxtaposed against the dominant literary power structure as sketched by Lorde, is the violent suppression and silencing of such deviant discourse. It is precisely such violent suppression that greeted the publication of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and marked the first half century of the history of that book. As Per Seyersted records in his acclaimed critical biography of Chopin, not insignificantly published in 1969, nearly seventy years after The Awakening was first written:
Mrs. Chopin had the vision, the originality and independence, and the sense of artistic form which are needed to give us the great novel. She also had remarkable courage. She hid her ambition and her goal somewhat, knowing that men do not readily accept…“superiority” in a progressive woman. But she was unable to keep her inclinations in check, and the tensions she felt…and the urges of the female artist, resulted in unheard of illustrations of woman’s spiritual and sensuous self-assertion. No wonder she was shipwrecked…with her cargo of iconoclastic views.
Caged voices are suppressed exactly because they challenge and deviate from the established norm. Marginal texts can surface and effuse the literary world only when individual texts join together with other diverse discourse in a community of difference. Although bravery is surely not the same as wisdom, and in some cases perhaps not even desirable as wisdom, Chopin’s authorial courage exemplifies the type of deviant discourse---about female sensuality and self-fulfillment---that creates new textual spaces while simultaneously redefining and redrawing the boundaries of literary acceptance and aesthetic sensibility. It is true that Chopin sacrificed her life and work for publishing The Awakening in 1899, but her defiant discourse expanded the community of difference, rupturing the dominant discourse, and opening new literary spaces unimaginable at the turn of the century.