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MARY CUFF University of Saint Michael’s College Edna’s Sense of an Ending: A Rhetorical Analysis of Chopin’s Use of Narrative in The Awakening PETER RABINOWITZ, IN HIS EXAMINATION OF THE RHETORICAL POWER OF beginnings and endings in fiction, notes that in nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels, beginnings and endings hold “privileged positions,” governed by a handful of metarules, one of which is “the metarule that leads us to expect balance in a text, to expect that the ending will somehow be prefigured in the beginning” (300, 305). The notion of a prefigured ending ties into Frank Kermode’s earlier concept of the “sense of an ending,” which he argues all readers develop as they encounter narratives. Rabinowitz and Kermode both acknowledge that the end of a narrative is rhetorically powerful because people have a natural inclination to organize and make sense of the entire narrative based on its ending. The beginning’s promises and the end’s fulfillment thus help the author to shape narrative expectations in order to get readers to sense a particular purpose to the story. However, Rabinowitz points out that there is also significant rhetorical power to narrative endings that upset the expected or promised ending, as in novels that begin conventionally and end unconventionally. Rabinowitz explains that such “novels often have endings that do not simply surprise . . . but that seem, when we get to them, flagrantly to defy what has come before—which end . . . with what musicians call a deceptive cadence” (305). This characterization seems particularly apt for the general perception of the ending of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Recent criticism of the novel has focused increasingly on its narrative and artistic elements, as opposed to the more thematic and social elements common to earlier readings. However, this approach has continued the deep scholarly divides over how to interpret the novel’s ending. The scholarly response to the ending typically falls into four camps. The first camp views Edna’s death as a suicide brought about by a crushing social script. There is a divide within this camp between scholarswhoviewEdna’ssuicideasaconventionaldeath-as-punishment ending that does not fit the novel and those who read it as essential to 328 Mary Cuff the novel’s social critique. This first subgroup includes many classics of Chopincriticism: for instance, Elaine Showalter’s complaint that suchan unconventional narrative concludes with an ending she believes to have beenexternallyimposeduponbothcharacterandauthor(81).GeorgeM. Spangler characterizes the end as “aconclusion for a novel other than the one she wrote, a conclusion for a novel much more conventional and muchlessinterestingthanTheAwakening.”(254).RachelBlauDuplessis provides the most direct comment on the narrative implications of the novel’s ending, noting that death, as opposed to marriage, is the ending merited by the female character who “has a jumbled, distorted, inappropriate relation to the ‘social script’ or plot designed to contain her legally, economically, and sexually” (295). More recent criticism from the second subgroup attempts to reconcile the ending to the rest of the novel by arguing that Edna’s death either subverts a patriarchal society or is her last method of escape. Catherine Mainland and Marion Muirhead argue that the ending depicts the arbitrary restrictions that society has placed upon a woman with as much natural talent as a man (Mainland 84-85; Muirhead 53). Jennifer Gray sees Edna heroically and tragically escaping from the dominant patriarchal ideology that would otherwise force her into the only socially acceptable role: motherwoman (71-72). The second camp, made famous by Sandra Gilbert, argues that Edna’s end is a creative return to the feminine realm. More recently, this strain has been continued by scholars such as Angela Hailey-Gregory and Jarlath Killeen. These scholars argue that Edna plunges into the sea not to die but to be reborn as a mythic Aphrodite or feminist Madonna, free from male models. A third camp insists that Edna’s end is deliberately ambiguous. Robert Treu is representative of this approach when he argues that the novel’s importance lies in the questions it raises, not whether Edna wants to die—or does die—at the end: “Kate Chopin had every right, I think, to deny her readers the pleasure...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 327-345
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-28
Open Access
No
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