24 May 2008

The Awakening and etc.

I have recently finished listening to the librivox version of Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), which was good on a number of levels. I found myself a bit surprised that it hasn't yet been made into a movie (with Cate Blanchett I think as Mrs. Pontellier, even though she's too skinny for the role, and Colin Firth as Robert, obviously).

It strikes me as a needed correction to the so-called 'third wave' feminism running amok out there--the Sex in the City, I don't want it all I just want my shoes kind of feminism. I say so-called because I am offended that other, more interesting directions that feminism has taken have not become canonized in 'wave' form, like the very legitimate critiques embodied in Black feminism, 'Third World' feminism, and queer theory. But I digress. The Awakening:

In some ways pop/third wave feminism recognises what The Awakening shows us: (elite) women's lives are circumscribed by a very limited number of choices, choices that are largely about existing in relation to a man and one's children first, and then only very secondarily something else. The difference: this was much much more true in turn of the century New Orleans elite culture than it is now. And Emma's choices are as follows: society wife, outcast, or death (where 'outcast' and 'death' are basically equivalent).

But what's interesting is the way that the narrative works in The Awakening. Emma doesn't particularly like her children. She's not a 'mother' type. She finds her husband to be kind and generous, but there's not a lot of love there. She has an encounter with a man whom she loves, and who loves her. But what's genius about the book is that she realises in the end that choosing to go off with him would just be another relation of ownership--they would be unable to be in any sort of queer relation and still maintain their family/social ties. And while she can barely imagine what that relationship would look like, he can't imagine it at all.

Her choice at the end isn't about unrequited love, or the loss of Robert (her lover). It's about her awakening to the possibility of living a queer life, and her recognition of its impossibility.

The study guide websites (which I haven't read because I know they would ruin the book for me) seem to label this book as 'proto-feminism'. I find it to be about queerness.

'Emma Pontellier's awakening shows us Sedgwick's closet'. Discuss.

PS: Librivox version is fascinating--each section of about 4 chapters is read by a different woman, many of whom have lovely French or Spanish accents, in contrast to the intervening chapters with the midwestern/upstate New York rounded flatness. Fab.

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