The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 13-27
[Access article in PDF]
The Awakening and A Lost Lady:
Flying with Broken Wings and Raked Feathers
A. Elizabeth Elz
Since the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, scholars have shown a renewed interest in the works of both Kate Chopin and Willa Cather. Although a renewed interest in both authors has resulted in a wide variety of publications, what has not been written is a thorough study placing the authors in conversation with each other. Perhaps these authors have not been studied together because new historicism is a relatively recent critical approach, or perhaps scholars select Cather's better-known works. For the most part, critics have examined the writers separately or with other authors such as Edith Wharton. 1 Chopin's and Cather's novels belong in conversation with each other because Cather was aware of Chopin, specifically her novel The Awakening: she wrote a review of it in 1899 when the book was first published. While Cather praised Chopin's skill, she lamented that it was wasted: "Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme" ("Books and Magazines" 170). As the review continues, Cather compares The Awakening to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and judges Edna Pontellier to be a "hasty sketch" (171). Cather is not the only critic to note similarities between Chopin and Flaubert, and after the publication of Cather's A Lost Lady in 1923, critics drew parallels between it and Madame Bovary. 2 While all three novels contain similarities—primarily the protagonist's struggle against the confines of her society— [End Page 13] Chopin's The Awakening and Cather's A Lost Lady employ birds as a metaphor for the entrapment the protagonists experience; however, the ideas the bird imagery communicates differ between the authors.
The bird symbolism in The Awakening and A Lost Lady is complex. In addition to enhancing the story lines, the use of birds identifies both Chopin and Cather with women's writing. In "The Quintessence of Chopinism," Martha Fodaski Black briefly traces the use of birds to represent women's entrapment in marriage and society. Black begins by positing that Chopin was probably aware of George Bernard Shaw's 1891 essay "The Womanly Woman," in which he defends Ibsen's portrayal of feminist heroines by comparing women to parrots. Black, however, quickly notes that Shaw's connection between women and birds is not the first. In 1772, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft describes women: "Confined then in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch" (98). The use of bird imagery to represent entrapment is a metaphor established well before Chopin and Cather write. Chopin and Cather carefully craft all references to birds to reveal the positions the protagonists find themselves in and the movement they make over the course of the novels as they determine and pursue their dreams.
More than a century after the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Chopin in The Awakening and Cather in A Lost Lady explore how women are kept in cages—albeit gilded—and what obstacles the protagonists, Edna Pontellier and Marian Forrester, encounter when they attempt to escape. Edna is associated with several birds over the course of the novel, but the most important are the parrot and mockingbird in the opening scene and the white bird that appears in her dream and then over the sea before her final swim. Unlike Edna, who is associated with several birds, Marian is coupled primarily with one bird, the blinded female woodpecker.
Both Chopin and Cather spend time constructing intricate scenes with birds. Chopin begins her novel with a noisy and surprising scene:
A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: 'Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! 3 That's all right!'