- Storm Warnings:The Eternally Recurring Apocalypse in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
A characteristic of literary naturalism is the representation of “limitations placed on the human will” (Pizer 5), and while naturalistic readings of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) have recognized the way that social and biological forces circumscribe Edna Pontellier’s potential to realize her version of self-fulfillment, they fall short of understanding the spatial histories of this post-apocalyptic novel’s Gulf Island settings: Chênière Caminada and Grand Isle. Critics such as Erik Margraf and Donald Pizer have read the novel’s representation of Edna’s Creole milieu and biology as deterministic forces, but they have found it difficult to account for the physical setting of the islands, which, at one time, represented a utopian promise of freedom from restrictive social conventions and mores for New Orleans and island residents. Margraf, for example, has conceded that unlike Edna’s Creole milieu, which does restrict her freedom and determine her behavior, the island environment is not “physically threatening” in the way that the natural environment typically is in other naturalistic novels (101). By the time the novel was published in 1899, however, [End Page 68] the utopianism of the island setting had been undermined by the Hurricane of 1893.
As Barbara Ewell and Pamela Menke have convincingly argued, this hurricane was on Chopin’s mind as she was writing The Awakening, but it has not yet come to the fore in critical discussions of the novel (6). Two thousand lives were lost in this hurricane on the Gulf Islands, including two thirds of the population on Chênière Caminada, and because of the disaster, the resort culture on Grand Isle went into a steep decline (Ewell and Menke 4–5). As the storm was widely publicized in newspapers at the time and for several years thereafter, for many of Chopin’s contemporaries, the utopianism of the island culture would have seemed elusive and unstable from the moment they opened the novel, and Chopin’s narrative space mirrors the instability of this utopianism. The hurricane appears in a series of “storm events,” or figurative imaginings of the Hurricane of 1893, within a post-apocalyptic setting; moreover, the spatial confluence of this dystopia of eternally recurring natural disaster coupled with the resort culture’s utopianism dramatizes the impossibility of fulfilling the utopian promise of liberation, not just from one’s social role and biology but also from the natural world order—from all the physical elements that, according to their own laws, conspire either to give pleasure or to wash away humankind’s hopes without a moment’s notice.
To recreate the resort culture’s utopianism and to represent the islands as sites of romantic and temporal liberation, Chopin uses a longstanding convention of landscape description that stretches back to Homer and Virgil called the locus amoenus trope. Meaning “pleasant, lovely place” in Latin, locus amoenus is an “ideal landscape” (Curtius 195). Capable of constructing perfect, ideal spaces, the trope has the potential to represent the greatest possible utopian strivings of a culture. It is only natural then that Chopin would use it to depict the islands as the utopias her audience imagined them to be prior to the Hurricane of 1893. Yet while Chopin employs the trope to construct the islands, she also disrupts their utopian image by revealing an underlying presence of mortality and hostility in these island cultures. Her imagery subtly evokes the recurrence of the hurricane in the novel, partly through indirect allusions to the cultural rhetoric in newspapers reporting on the Hurricane of 1893, and with each of these “storm events,” she emphasizes the tremendous power the natural environment has over Edna’s will, behavior, and embodiment. Ultimately, the hurricane’s presence in the novel acts as a metaphor for [End Page 69] the deterministic force of the natural environment and for all the forces that can determine our fates.
Furthermore, the recurrence of this traumatic event leads to hopelessness, an overwhelming sense of the absolute futility of utopian strivings, that is amplified by the extreme disparity that exists between the locus amoenus’s representation of the...