The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 138-154
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Reading The Awakening with Toni Morrison
In recent years critics have begun to mention the influence of Toni Morrison on their reading of Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Elizabeth Ammons refers to Morrison's essay "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" as she moves from her initial thesis that Edna's freedom was purchased at the price of black women to the position that the novel, "so deliberately repressive of race on its surface" (76), is structured in a way that contradicts this seeming racism. Michele A. Birnbaum opens her essay "'Alien Hands': Kate Chopin and the Colonization of Race" with an epigraph from Morrison, as does Heather Kirk Thomas in "'The House of Sylvie' in Kate Chopin's 'Athénaïse.'" Catherine Lundie uses Ammons' work with Morrison to inform her own study, "Doubly Dispossessed: Kate Chopin's Women of Color." And there have been others.
But it is time that we give Morrison her full due. It is time that we say, infullvoice—with pleasure and abundant thanks—how great has been her influence on our understanding of Chopin's treatment of race. More than any other single force—post-modernism, post-colonialism, semiotics, or anything else—ToniMorrison has led us where we have needed so badly to go. Her advice to scholars studying race in the work of white writers (nineteenth-century, especially) is most clearly and completely articulated in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the published version of the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the [End Page 138] History of American Civilization that Toni Morrison delivered at Harvard in 1990. It is not coincidental that the most interesting and provocative studies of race in Chopin scholarship began in 1991.
Race has been a perplexing issue among Chopin scholars since Per Seyersted addressed it in his 1969 biography. Seyersted wrote, "That some of Kate Chopin's Negroes are stereotypes is hardly surprising. What is remarkable, meanwhile, is that she accepted the colored people as persons worthy of serious study, and that she in her writings treats them as people and with little condescension. She obviously could not see the whole Negro" (79).
Like Seyersted, many critics who have had the courage to confront the issue of race in The Awakening have found evidence that Kate Chopin stereotypes and demeans blacks. Helen Taylor argues that "Chopin's racism is a central element in her writing, and cannot be ignored or simply excused" (156). Barbara Ewell discusses Chopin's "continuing ambivalence about race" and "her, at best, equivocal feelings" (Chopin 72, 69). Critics have been quick to point out that Chopin was, after all, raised in a Missouri household of former slaveholders who sympathized with the Confederate cause, and her husband fought in a paramilitary white supremacist group called the Crescent City White League, an association Thomas shows lasted a decade ("League" 97-109).
Other critics have raised mild arguments against the common opinion that Chopin stereotypes her black characters. Elizabeth Ammons, as already mentioned, adopts a more generous view of this issue, but only after she embraces Morrison. At first she finds Chopin only slightly more liberated than writers like Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon. But under Morrison's influence she explores the novel's important "repressed African American content." She connects both Edna's fate, and the fate of Chopin, with this very repression. "The repression of black women's stories—and with them Edna's identity as oppressor as well as oppressed—plunges not just Edna but also Chopin into a killing silence from which neither returns. It is widely agreed that Kate Chopin did not write much after The Awakening because the hostile reviews of the novel devastated her. I am sure that is true. One might ask, however, after The Awakening, unless Chopin was willing to confront race, what was there to say?" (75) Implicit in her observation is the suggestion that repression plays a forceful role in the formation of Edna's character and in Chopin's final years...