- Kate Chopin’s Narrative Techniques and Separate Space in The Awakening
In this essay, I approach Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) from the perspective of Chopin’s narrative techniques, especially her dexterous use of free indirect discourse.1 Through this approach, I disentangle the elaborate methods Chopin employed to make her novel fascinating and puzzling. More importantly, I argue that Chopin’s purpose behind her techniques was to deliver the first modern American female artist onto the American cultural landscape. By definition, free indirect discourse is a technique that involves “a mixture or merging of character and narrator” in a single utterance (Martin 138–139).2 An author chooses free indirect discourse to represent what a character is thinking or speaking while simultaneously indicating the narrator’s attitude toward the character. For instance, when describing Edna’s relationship to her husband Léonce, Chopin’s narrator first relates what Edna thinks, then adds her authorial comment: “[Edna] fancied there was a sympathy of thought and taste between them, in which fancy she was mistaken” (Chopin 62; emphasis added). The first half of this statement describes Edna’s belief that she and her husband share similar thoughts and tastes. In her opinion they are very compatible. The second half reveals the narrator’s opinion that Edna’s perception is quite wrong. Chopin uses similar techniques extensively throughout the novel. [End Page 103]
Chopin uses free indirect discourse because she is concerned with representing the emotional, spiritual, and artistic awakening of a female artist battling against prevalent cultural norms of wifehood, motherhood, romance, seduction, and conventions of female writing. By separating what Edna is thinking from the narrator’s comments, Chopin shows the changing distance between the narrator and Edna, which enables the reader to see Edna’s gradual development over a series of conversations along the plotlines of the novel. During the process, Chopin also allows Edna to approach closer and closer to the narrator’s opinions. Through these subtle techniques, Chopin charts Edna’s remarkable journey of growth both as a woman and as a female artist. Edna’s growth and its artistic meaning can be illustrated by looking at seven representative passages through which Chopin develops a female quest for a separate spiritual and artistic space. She embodies that idea in Edna’s voice, letting Edna talk with representative voices of the era, sometimes more than once, including Léonce Pontellier, Robert Lebrun, Madame Ratignolle, Alcée Arobin, and Mademoiselle Reisz. Chopin thus offered Edna as the first modern American female artist, at the same time giving birth to herself as an artist.
Critical literature on The Awakening reflects a gradual shift in literary scholarship—a moving away from interpreting thematic contestations to evaluating Chopin’s artistry at creating fiction, most recently separating Chopin’s authorial discourse from the characters’ discourses. I roughly categorize the readings into four groups. Since its publication in 1899, the novel has been read on four major levels, all of which have enriched our understanding. The first level, also the most accessible, focuses on Edna’s sexual awakening. For instance, in 1994 one critic thinks Edna acts only for “her own pleasure” (Dawson 6), which presumably refers to sexual pleasure. The second level goes deeper and takes the cultural approach, focusing on Edna’s quest for a feminine mode of subjectivity. These critics believe that Edna is negotiating a difficult position between the abject mode of a mother-woman and the masculine mode of an assertive artist. Critics conclude that Edna is dissatisfied with both choices but that she cannot find a third way out because the American society does not allow a “symbiotic” world of power at that time (Schweitzer 161–191). The third level goes still further and deals with women’s relationship with language. It examines women’s right to discourse and analyzes Edna’s quest for independent thinking and self-consciousness through self-articulation. Patricia Yaeger, for example, points out that the novel gives conflicting [End Page 104] signals. She believes that Edna’s struggles illustrate that American women largely lack the language to express themselves at the end of the nineteenth century. Jacqueline Buckman, however...