The Role of the Doctor in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

The Role of the Doctor in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

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The Role of the Doctor in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening


According to Benjamin, or at least according to my Benjamin, as translated then taken from secondary sources that probably used him to their own ends, the novel is constructed along a trajectory he calls “homogenous, empty time” referring to the contiguous relation of characters and their activities to each other as a way of connecting their place in the narrative. There are quite a few examples of this in Kate Chopin’s Awakening, but the best is found on page 87 of Chapter XXII as the doctor is introduced into the text. And in one sentence, describing the doctor, Chopin outlines a way of reading her novel.

While in his garden reading, Doctor Mandelet is interrupted by Mr. Pontellier, who promptly reports his wife’s troubled mind, indicating that Mr. Pontellier himself has a troubled mind through lines like “it isn’t easy to explain” or “She’s making it devilishly uncomfortable for me”(88). These disclosures help to add a few more stenciled lines, deepening Mr. Pontellier, who is, through the course of the novel, made most noticeable by his absences. His character is marred by a dependency on social conventions and aristocratic pride that he cannot push the logic of the facts toward a conclusion that would require a rethinking of his way of life.

On page 87, when the doctor is first introduced he comes out of homogenous, empty time to enter the narrative. That is to say, his history and life are written into the novel as it collides with the drama of Edna Pontellier’s suicide. Thus the doctor supports the teleological structure of the novel that each character was there for a purpose in carrying out the book’s eschatology—the end of the narrative.

The doctor, the reader of the body, and as we find out the reader of the unconscious, enters the text reading. Before we find him reading, we are given a few details about his life: “He bore a reputation for wisdom rather than skill—leaving the active practice of medicine to his assistants and younger contemporaries—and was much sought for in matters of consultation”(87). As a character that facilitates a disclosure, the doctor—the reader— comes to know what we already know, as if the character in the book sought the reader’s help but the reader could not say. And it is very generous of Chopin to put her “reader” in such high regard.

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Having “wisdom over skill,” the contemplative over the active, the theoretical over the application we can glimpse at a design. The particulars of the novel can be seen, with the wisdom of the “reader,” as symptoms of a type of dis-ease. And one of endearing qualities of this story of a long swim is that wise minds have seen how it the novel explains much beneath its taut surface.

The doctor draws the reader to the surface of the text as the reader meets “reader,” which comes on the page after the author playfully brings herself to the surface of the text through the name of the famous Romantic composer. Thus, as the novel is closed the author on page 86 stares across at the reader on page 87. Later when we see the doctor having discerned what we know already by reading Mr. Pontellier, he takes the super-consciousness of the text, able to penetrate the surface make the accurate prediction about Arobin, “’I hope it isn’t Arobin,’ he muttered to himself as he walked”(93). He wished that he didn’t know the dirty secrets, he wished for a clean dry conscience. And here we have the question of the author to us as the reading doctor. Are we capable of great wisdom that when we read we can identify problems beneath the surface of the text? And if so should we be bothered to interrupt a good long swim? Even if we were, would it do any good?
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