Tuesday, March 22, 2011


There are several intrinsic affinities between Walt Whitman's poetry and The Awakening, which I will explore here. However, there is an ironical extrinsic similarity that I mention first, doubtless at some risk of giving offense. Whitman's poetry is now much written about by academic critics who care only for the homoerotic Walt; the poetry, to them, is of interest only insofar as it represents the poet's undoubted desires. Similarly, Kate Chopin's The Awakening is now a favorite work of feminist critics, who find in it a forerunner of Liberation. I regard all this with amiable irony, since so much of Whitman's best poetry is quite overfly autoerotic while Edna Pantellier's awakening is to her own "shifting, treacherous, fickle deeps," not so much of her soul (as Chopin carefully adds) but of her body. If The Awakening is a breakthrough, it is as the subtle female version of the self-gratification slyly celebrated by Goethe (in Faust, Part Two) and openly sung by Walt Whitman.

Though The Awakening follows in the path of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, it shares little with that formidable precursor. Emma Bovary indeed awakens, belatedly and tragically, but the narcissistic Edna singly drifts from one mode of reverie to another, until she drowns herself in the sea, which for her as for Whitman represents night and the mother, death and the inmost self. Far from being a rebel, moved by sympathy with victims of societal oppression, Edna is even more isolated at the end than before. It is a very peculiar academic fashion that has transformed Edna into any kind of a feminist heroine. The protagonist of The Awakening is her own victim, unless one agrees with Kathleen Margaret Lane's assertion that: "Edna awakens to the horrible knowledge that she can never, because she is female, be her own person." Late nineteenth- century Creole society was not Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. Chopin shows it as having something of a hothouse atmosphere, but that alas does seem the only possible context for Edna, who in fact loves no one—not her children, husband, friends, or lovers—and whose awakening is only to the ecstasies of self-gratification.

The influence of Whitman is pervasive throughout The Awakening, and suggests that Chopin was deeply immersed in Leaves of Grass, particularly in the Sea-Drift poems, and in the Lilacs elegy for Lincoln. Gouvernail, the benign bachelor who is one of the guests at Edna's birthday party, had appeared earlier in Chopin's short story, "A Respectable Woman," where he recites part of Section 21 of Song of Myself "Night of south winds—night of the large few stars!/Still nodding night—." The entire passage could serve as an epigraph for The Awakening.

Press close bare-bosom'd night—press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds—night of the few large stars! Still nodding night—mad naked summer night.

This is the model for the ecstatic rebirth of Edna's self, a narcissistic self-investment that awards Edna a new ego. Had Edna been able to see that her awakening was to a passion for herself, then her suicide perhaps could have been avoided. Chopin, a very uneven stylist, nevertheless was erotically subtler than most of her critics have been. Edna emulates Whitman by falling in love with her own body: "observing closely, as if it were something she saw for the first time, the fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh." This stems from Whitman's grand proclamation: "If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it." When Edna awakens to self, she hears the voice of the sea, and experiences its Whitmanesque embrace: "The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace." When the naked Edna enters the mothering sea for a last time, we hear an echo of the undulating serpentine death that Whitman welcomes in

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd: "The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet and coiled like serpents about her ankles." Is this indeed a chant of Women's Liberation, or a siren song of a Whitmanesque Love-Death?

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