- The Masculine Sea:Gender, Art, and Suicide in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
“I’m a little cork which has fallen into the water and is carried away by the current. I have given myself over to painting, following the whims of the moment.”—Pierre Auguste Renoir
“I am becoming an artist!”—Edna Pontellier, The Awakening
In suggesting that he was nothing but a little cork carried away in the artistic enterprise, Renoir, one of the most important artists of his time, argued for the effortlessness of his talent. It was somehow beyond and outside of him to produce great art. He had only to accept its greater force, like a solitary swimmer accepting the power and immensity of the ocean.
This paradigm of the natural genius overcome yet transfigured by a talent greater than himself has long been associated with male artists in the Western world. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), Edna Pontellier cedes herself to the same artistic sea: a separate, alienated, and masculine definition of art and what it means to be an artist. Her position as a white, upper middle-class artist allows her to gender herself, and her self-gendering leads her to seek masculine prerogatives—those rights and privileges unavailable to her as a woman. It is those rights and privileges, however—Edna’s ability to inscribe herself within a masculine artistic framework—that lead not only to her artistic productivity but also to her suicide.
At various points in the text, Edna oscillates in her gender identifications and briefly relinquishes her hold on masculine privilege by engaging in reciprocal relationships with other women, most notably Adèle Ratignolle. Their bond affirms the validity of feminist aesthetics, which value unity, connection, and collaboration. But if Edna oscillates between gender self-identifications, she does not vacillate between racial and class distinctions. [End Page 189] Her self-identifications as white and upper middle-class remain inviolate throughout and, as I will argue, contribute to her eventual, somewhat petulant, decision to take her own life. As a woman of her race and class, Edna seeks the total freedom she associates with white, upper middle-class men that she is denied despite the masculine prerogative she gains as an artist. In this sense, she desires not a fundamental change in the racial, class, and social system of her world, but simply the elimination of the barriers which prevent her from accessing all the vestiges of white masculine privilege. Edna invokes a model of privilege that leaves the oppression of others—including the black women who take care of her children—in place.
Edna’s recognition that a white, upper middle-class male model of complete freedom will remain unavailable to her prompts her unpremeditated suicide. For the reader, this suicide functions as a warning. It serves not as a “cautionary tale”1 about the risks of challenging patriarchy’s restrictive bonds (as was often true of nineteenth-century fiction), but as a siren-warning of the dangers of privilege which breeds solipsism, even to the point of melodramatically taking one’s own life. For the white reader, the warning of the text forces the gaze inward, to evaluate a subject position (as an upper middle-class white person) which may maintain oppression. And for all readers Edna’s suicide encourages questions about the overall validity of a rights “access” model of social justice, in which disenfranchised groups are given the privileges of the dominant order. Perhaps, Chopin’s text suggests, it is time for a new social justice model based not on the access of privilege but on the true elimination of oppression.
Feminist critics often argue that writers of the nineteenth century depicted female protagonists as visual artists rather than writers to mark a commitment to their aesthetic work and investigate social and sexual subjects deemed “unladylike.” Like other writers, Chopin seizes on the trope of the female artist as a way to affirm the value of female engagement in the arts as well as to make a meta-commentary on her own artistic abilities as serious and dedicated. Critics from Elizabeth Ammons to John Carlos Rowe have argued that Edna lacks...