Understanding Wolff’s Analysis of Chopin’s The Awakening

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Understanding Wolff’s Analysis of Chopin’s The Awakening

“Un-Utterable Longing” analyzes The Awakening from the diverse, yet overlapping perspectives of deconstruction, feminist/gender theory, new historicism, and psychoanalytic criticism. Much like Yaeger and Treichler, Wolff attributes Edna’s struggle and eventual demise to her failed search for a language that voices her (un)womanly desires. Wolff first adopts the new historicist viewpoint to situate Edna as a 19th-century southern woman, presenting a very real conflict between: the dominating values of her time and place; and her own innermost passions and needs. Wolff additionally deconstructs traditional ideals of sexuality, adultery, and gender roles while acknowledging the psychological turmoil and deterioration Edna experiences throughout the novel. Wolff’s essay, despite its faults, “combines perspectives” to provide a fuller representation, understanding, and appreciation of Chopin’s character and her story.

Wolff begins by providing The Awakening’s historical background and the cultural obstructions hindering Edna’s sexual expression. Puritan conservatism had given way to Calvinist repression and it was believed as irrefutable fact that women only experienced the sexual impulse through their innate desire to procreate. Therefore, Wolff is able to claim that, “… it is not enough to say that The Awakening is a novel about repression” (381). But rather it is, “… about a woman whose shaping culture has, in general, refused her the right to speak out freely” (381). Here Wolff’s new historicist concerns provide not only an accurate backdrop, but a greater thematic interest. The novel is not just about Edna’s repression of her sexual feelings, but also about her societ...

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...It is a fascinating and moving affirmation that Chopin is able to convey the success of feminine discourse through the trial and failure of her hopeless yet heroic character. However, given the bad reviews and the lack of attention her novel received, would it not also be the case that Chopin, like her character, failed to find an audience? If The Awakening failed to “speak” until fifty years after its publication, is that an indication of its failure or instead the failure of the early 20th-century readers? There seems to be a bit of a problem with Wolff’s argument here, for I do not believe that she would agree that Chopin’s lack of audience indicates her failure. Therefore Edna does not fail because she cannot find an audience, as Wolff asserts, but rather because she clings to the language of her society and does not invent a new one. That was left to Chopin.

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