Wolff’s View on Feminine Sexuality in Chopin’s The Awakening

Wolff’s View on Feminine Sexuality in Chopin’s The Awakening

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Wolff’s View on Feminine Sexuality in Chopin’s The Awakening

In her essay “Un-Utterable Longing: The Discourse of Feminine Sexuality in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening” Cynthia Griffin Wolff sees the lack of a language—for Edna Pontellier’s sexual desires in particular and female sexuality in general—as the main theme in Chopin’s novel. She particularly looks at how issues of sexuality remain unsaid in the novel, or how they are expressed in a different way, because of the lack of a language of feminine sexuality. As Ross C Murfin points out in his introduction to this essay, Wolff combines several theoretical perspectives such as feminism, gender studies, new historicism, psychoanalytic criticism, and deconstruction (376). Wolff introduces her thesis in her initial discussion of the opening passage of The Awakening stressing the fact that the parrot has no language of its own. She remarks that “there is a sense of enigma (or fraud) about this bird who seems able to communicate but is not” (376). Similarly the main character Edna Pontellier can’t communicate her needs.

The first part of Wolff’s essay is a six-page assessment of the image of women current at the end of the nineteenth century showing the lack of a language for intimacy and sexuality. She looks specifically at the work of William Acton, an author widely read at the time. According to him women didn’t have sexual feelings of any kind; hence he saw no reason to talk about those issues. Wolff criticizes that this false image of women as a-sexual beings created by writers such as Acton also mislead the men of that time in their perception of women. Wolff argues that a “vernacular of ‘motherhood’” (386) replaced the missing language of intimacy and sexuality. In this context she refers to the passage when Léonce comes home, Edna rejects his advances, and instead of reproaching her of neglecting her marital duties, he blames her for not taking care of the children. Léonce turns the disappointment of the rejection into a reproach of neglected motherly duties.

According to Wolff, the true subject of Chopin’s novel, “may be less the particular dilemma of Mrs. Pontellier than the larger problems of female narrative that it reflects; and if Edna’s poignant fate is in part a reflection of her own habits, it is also, in equal part, a measure of society’s failure to allow its women a language of their own” (388).

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This statement implies that Wolff thinks that women were forbidden (“not allowed”) a language of their own. In the course of her essay, however, it remains unclear if she argues that a feminine language of sexual feelings didn’t exist at the time or if it did, but was “forbidden.” Her initial argument that there is a lack of language for certain “things that can be neither thought nor spoken because they do not have a name” (377) implies that she believes such a language did not exist. However, when Wolff later argues that Edna “has gained the courage to speak a forbidden discourse” (391, emphasis mine)her statement indicates that there is indeed a language, a forbidden one. Edna finally claims this language for herself “in hope of inventing a new kind of narrative” (391. Thus Edna faces not a lack of language, but a lack of a narrative.

In my opinion a language, or vocabulary, to express feminine sexuality existed at the time, but it was indeed forbidden, or rather women had not yet claimed it as their own, so sexual feelings had to be expressed by a discourse of, in Wolff’s words: “denials, oversights, prohibitions, exclusions, and absences” (377). Wolff concludes saying that even if Edna Pontellier failed, Kate Chopin has succeeded in creating a female narrative: “Kate Chopin had invented a powerful […] discourse for female sexuality” (393). Chopin neither invents “names” nor a “language” to create this discourse (or narrative), she rather finds other ways to tell the story of a woman’s sexual feelings. Wolff’s argument, though informative, remains inconclusive in the end because of her imprecise use of the terms “language,” “discourse,” and “narrative.”

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