The Classic Novel That Saw Pleasure as a Path to Freedom – The New York Times

But Robert is far from the sole object of Ednas desire. Their liaison eschews monogamy in more ways than the obvious infidelity, taking as lovers the moon, the gulf and its spirits. In the moonlit sea Edna walks for the first time alone, boldly and with overconfidence into the gulf, where swimming alone is as if some power of significant import had been given to control the working of her body and soul. Solitude is essential to Ednas realization that she has never truly had control of her body and soul. (The novels original title was A Solitary Soul.) Among Ednas more defiant moments is when she refuses to budge from her hammock, despite paternalistic reprimand from both Robert and Lonce, who each insist on chaperoning, as if in shifts. Ednas will blazes up even in this tiny, hanging room of her own, as Virginia Woolf would famously phrase it nearly 30 years later. Within the silent sanctuary of the hammock, gulf spirits whisper to Edna. By the next morning she has devised a way to be alone with Robert. Chopins novel of awakenings and unapologetic erotic trespass is in full swing.

Upon her return home to New Orleans, Edna trades the social minutiae expected of upper-crust Victorian white women receiving callers and returning their calls for painting, walking, gambling, dinner parties, brandy, anger, aloneness and sex. She shucks off tradition and patriarchal expectations in favor of art, music, nature and her bosom friends. These open her up, invite her to consider her self, her desires. One friend offers the tattoo-worthy wisdom that the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. Is Edna such a bird? This is the novels central question, one it refuses to answer definitively. Chopin gives Edna the freedom to feel and yet not know herself. The women in the novel draw forth Ednas intuition they take the sensual and braid it with the intellectual. Eventually, the body and the mind are one for Edna.

The Awakening is a book that reads you. Chopin does not tell her readers what to think. Unlike Flaubert, Chopin declines to explicitly condemn her heroine. Critics were especially unsettled by this. Many interpreted Chopins refusal to judge Edna as the authors oversight, and took it as an open invitation to do so themselves. This gendered knee-jerk critical stance that assumes less intentionality for works made by women is a phenomenon that persists today. Especially transgressive was Ednas candor about her maternal ambivalence, the acuity with which Chopin articulated the fearsome dynamism of the mothers bond with her children: She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart, she would sometimes forget them. This scandalized and continues to scandalize readers because the freedom of temporarily forgetting your children is to find free space in your mind, for yourself, for painting, stories, ideas or orgasm. To forget your children and remember yourself was a revolutionary act and still is.

Edna Pontellier does what she wants with her body she has good sex at least three times in the book. But the more revolutionary act is the desire that precedes the sex. Edna, awakened by the natural world, invited by art and sisterhood to be wholly alive, begins to notice what she wants, rather than what her male-dominated society wants her to want. Ednas desire is the mechanism of her deprogramming. The heroines sensual experience is also spiritual, and political. Political intuition begins not in a classroom but far before, with bodily sensation, as Sara Ahmed argues in her incendiary manifesto Living a Feminist Life: Feminism can begin with a body, a body in touch with a world. A body in touch with a world feels oppression like a flame, and recoils. For gaslit people women, nonbinary and queer people, people of color people who exist in the gaps Cauley describes between the accepted narrative of American normal and their own experience, pleasure and sensation are not frivolous or narcissistic but an essential reorientation. The epiphany follows the urge. Feeling her own feelings, thinking her own thoughts, Edna recalibrates her compass to point not to the torture of patriarchy but to her own pleasure, a new north.

Like Edna, Kate Chopin did what she wanted with her mind, whatever the cost, and it cost her almost everything. In 1899 The Awakening earned her a piddling $102 in royalties, about $3,000 in todays money. Shortly after its publication the now unequivocally classic novel fell out of print. Chopins next book contract was canceled. Chopin died at age 54 from a brain hemorrhage after a long, hot day spent at the St. Louis Worlds Fair with her son. Her publishing career lasted about 14 years. And yet she established herself among the foremothers of 20th-century literature and feminist thought. She showed us that patriarchys prison can kill you slow or kill you fast, and how to feel your way out of it. She admired Guy de Maupassant as a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, and we will forever argue whether Edna is allowed this escape, whether she shows us not the way but a way to get free. As for Chopin, there is no doubt that she was free on the page, free to let her mind unfurl. None of this is accident or folly, not caprice nor diary. She knew what she was doing. She was swimming farther than she had ever swum before.

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The Classic Novel That Saw Pleasure as a Path to Freedom - The New York Times

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