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    LIT 4386 British and American Literature by Women


Class 18


Reading Assignment:

    Chopin, The Awakening (1011--1101) cont.
    POST #8 Group B


    Class Objectives:

  • To discuss the ending of the novel


Notes and Discussion Questions:

1. The Ending

Examine the passage on Madame Ratignolle's childbirth -- Chapter 37, p. 1097

What happens in this scene? What changes? Why?

For group discussion:
consider the ending of the novel when Edna returns to the ocean and allows herself to drown. Is this escape or despair? Does this have a positive value as a symbol for women, or is this evidence of the destructive forces on women.

How are we to understand Edna's suicide?
Is it resignation or triumph? Transcendence of her 'prison' or giving in to it? Is it an act of defiance or an act of self-punishment? Is it resistance or submission? Is it something wholly different?

How does this tie in with our earlier discussions of the representations of marriage? Of madness?

Is Edna Pontellier mad? Would she go mad?

2. Literary history and The Awakening

Recall discussions of how we evaluate women's literature, beginning with Viriginal Woolf. What makes art? what makes literature?

When we "recover" the long suppressed or forgotten writing of women, what are we implying about the tradition of literary values? How can we evaluate these writings, if the tradition itself needs to be re-thought? In other words, we receive a coherent and timeless tradition based on claims of universality (like Woolf) that only come at the cost of actual messy historical details of literary production, distribution, taste, economics.

Laurie Finke offers us the example of The Awakening to suggest how these literary values are actually very time and context dependent and NOT universal or timeless.

Article from Laurie Finke highlights the ways in which the novel was initially rejected as rubbish by the elite, northeastern registers of literary judgment -- it was too frank, too immoral, it uncovered the seeminess of life and said the unsayable (162-3).

Local treatments of the novel celebrated its artistic integrity, its masterful control of form, language and plot, its investigation into the troubling questions of life.

These "dialogues" of literary value inform the dismissal of the book during a time when Northeastern conservative literary values predominated over marginalized mid-western views, and also during a time when gender roles were in question, the social order in flux and a stronger urgency regarding the proper role of women was voiced within the hegemony.

One note of particular interest p. 169-170 --The New Woman of the 1850s-1900 -- produced anxiety about the role of women (much like feminists in the late 20th century) -- questions about the nature of women fueled the debate over female sexuality -- the discourse of sexology contributed an "authorized" view that, according to Havelock Ellis, women's brains are largely in the womb. Finke argues that these views of sexology claimed "energy directed away from the reproductive organs, say, to the mind, led to medically defined and carefully classified diseases: neurasthenia, hysteria, insanity, sterility and cancer" (170)

Here is another connection between the women's role in marriage and madness "to demur is dangerous and your straightaway held by a chain" (Emily Dickinson).

Interestingly, these dialogues of sexual/social value and artistic integrity contribute to the recovery of the book in the sixties. The cultural needs and perceptions of value changed with the feminist movement and the expanding needs of the academy. But the language used to recover the book still draws on the masterful realism, the evocation of universal themes and conflicts and the treatment of the women's sexual identity.

"It begins to look from this single example as if literary value, far from being intrinsic to the text or self-evident, and thus either static or progressive, is marked by radical discontinuity and rupture" (177). Finke argues, rather, that value is created through the dialogue of different points of view, historically situated and politically charged.