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Essay Yaeger’s Critique of Chopin’s The Awakening

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Yaeger’s Critique of Chopin’s The Awakening


In “‘A Language Which Nobody Understood’: Emancipatory Strategies in The Awakening,” Patricia Yaeger questions the feminist assumption that Edna Pontellier’s adulterous behavior represent a radical challenge to patriarchal values. Using a deconstructionist method, Yaeger argues that in the novel adultery functions not as a disrupting agent of, but, rather, as a counterweight to the institution of marriage, reinforcing the very idea it purports to subvert by framing female desire within “an elaborate code [of moral conduct] that has already been negotiated by her society.” A reading of The Awakening that can envision only two possible outcomes for its heroine – acquiescence to her role as good wife/mother or “liberation” from the marriage sphere through extramarital passion – suffers from the same suffocating lack of imagination that characterizes the most conventional romance tale. Thus, Yaeger contends, Edna Pontellier’s extramarital dalliances with Alcée Alobin and Robert Lebrun are hardly “emancipatory” or “subversive” as critics such as Tony Tanner would see them.

Yet, according to Yaeger, The Awakening does deserve to be read as “one of the great subversive novels” and for reasons entirely unrelated to the plot mechanics attending Edna’s adulterous urges. A “real transgressive force” animates this novel, Yaeger argues, gathering a narrative momentum through its successive attempts to articulate a language that corresponds to Edna’s interior landscape, “a language which nobody understood,” as Chopin’s narrator says. While Edna may never possess this language nor delight in sharing its spoken cadences with another, the reader of The Awakening experiences a gradual liberatio...


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... to mind works written by subsequent generations of women novelists. One sees Chopin’s text straining toward, among other elements, the narrative innovations achieved in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves. One is also reminded of the “lyric” novels of the American writer Carole Maso, whose so-called experimental works typically eschew plot and conventional linear narration. In a recent book of essays, Maso admits that her erotic novel Aureole was “shaped by desire’s magical and subversive qualities,” she notes; “[desire] imposed its swellings, its ruptures, its erasures, it motions.” (Break Every Rule, 115). If contemporary authors like Maso are able to access such boundless spheres of narrative play, it may be due in part to the pioneering efforts of writers such as Chopin, who first began to articulate the need for such liberating spaces in the novel.



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