Struggle for Freedom: A Post-Colonial Awakening?

Apr 28, 2005
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Chopin's work transcends the feminist genre with its message of liberation...

Cons:May be too methodical for modern audiences...

The Bottom Line: Chopin's novel is a timeless work emphasizing the universal struggle for freedom and personal fulfillment...

Kate Chopin's The Awakening has been lauded by critics for over a century as an essential contribution to the canon of feminist literature. Yet, as the evolution of society continues, it is possible that the genre may grow obsolete as world culture continues to redefine itself, its value systems and mores ever changing. In doing so, scholars of the future may well view Chopin's work to be a masterpiece of post-colonial literature by the end of the century.

As we have seen in the genre of black literature, changing signs and times often cause the obsolescence of genres, or their evolution into different forms. That which was known as Afro-American literature has mutated into African-American literature, or may have even been rejected or relegated to a position of obsolescense or irrelevance as belonging to a bygone era of the 60's-70's. With the advent of DNA testing, we may one day see the term 'African-American' be replaced by more precise classifications as Africans, like European-Americans, may be able to more closely define their places of origin. At that point, we question whether there will be a plethora of subcategories of black literature, or whether it, like the multitude of Hispanic, Indian, Asian and Arabic writings, will be encompassed by the broader term of Third World, or, post-colonial literature.

We may well see the genre of feminist literature be equally absorbed. Like the term 'Afro-American', we find that, among academic society, 'feminist' has already been replaced by the category of 'Women and Gender' studies. Already the women of the 21st century have distanced themselves from their activist predecessors, many equating 'feminist' with the militancy of Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer. Also, the advancement of women has made quantum leaps, a female Secretary of State having already been appointed to the US Cabinet. After the election of a female President, the acceptance of female priests into the Catholic system, and similar milestones have been surpassed, the notion of women's rights may have faded into obsolescense. Again, like black literature, we may find their struggle for emancipation incorporated into the broader spectrum of humanist literature, or Third World (post-colonial) literature.

We find that history and social evolution continues to reshape and redefine concepts in order to fit the needs and perspectives of present and future generations. Political and social movements are often reinterpreted and incorporated into new concepts and discourses along the course of time, allowing them to be synthesized into relevant issues and doctrines of new communities and societies. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the Third World, where new nations have taken the inherited traditions and teachings of parent countries and transformed them into new philosophies, injecting them with their own ideas of revolution and regeneration. In this, the entirety of literature of the Colonial Era becomes the fertilizer of the breeding ground of the Third World, from which rises a new harvest of understanding and translation.

From this, we can take Kate Chopin's novel as a gem of inspiration, a tale of a woman in New Orleans who seeks emancipation from colonial society in the late 1800's. Edna Pontellier is a woman going through a mid-life crisis, awakening one day to discover that her happiness in life has all been an illusion. Her beautiful home, her marriage to a successful businessman, her children, her social circle are now things she sees as having been imposed upon her by society, her inheritance as part of the system, an adopted child in the world that she has come into as a predetermined sequence. She reevaluates her situation and comes to the realization that she needs her independence, her individual freedom, whatever the cost.

In this study we will introduce evidence from the works of such writers as Chinua Achebe, Edward W. Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha in proving that Chopin's novel resonates with essential themes of post-colonialist literature. We will also use the guidelines proposed by Richard Ohmann in qualifying Chopin's work as helping to shape the post-colonialist canon.

Ohmann proposes that 'a canon - a shared understanding of what literature is worth preserving - takes shape through a troubled historical process'. We observe how the struggle for freedom is expressed in Chopin's work and comparing it to that of Robert Conrad alongside a critique written by Chinua Achebe.

Although the struggle for freedom is a paramount issue in the canon of post-colonial literature, we find that its pursuit is often a cause of contention among post-colonial critics. Works such as Heart of Darkness fall into disfavor with many post-colonialists, Chinua Achebe among the most notable. Written in the same era as Awakening, we find many parallels between its major protagonist, Walter Kurtz, and Chopin's heroine, Edna. Yet if we compare the colonial settings of New Orleans and the Congo, we find overlapping scenarios that may cause consternation to post-colonialist, or Third World, literary scholars of the future. It may well cause them to revise their priorities as we successfully argue the case of both Chopin and, in turn, Conrad as major contributors to post-colonial literature.

"But Conrad chose his subject well - one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with the psychological predisposition of his readers or raise the need for him to contend with their resistance. He chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths," Achebe contends in viscerating Conrad's tale. He could well have delivered a similar indictment against Chopin, who was forced to deal with the psychological disposition of a patriarchal society in her time, and would contend with their resistance. In fact, Awakening was denounced and banned by critics and book dealers, sending Chopin into literary oblivion. Yet as we compare the works, we find them resonant with messages of liberation and defiance of social tradition. If we consider the hostility inspired by Conrad's depiction of the Congo by modern critics, we can compare them to that faced by Chopin in a different social atmosphere. As previously discussed, literature will always be reinterpreted and redefined to fit the contemporary outlook.

Chopin addresses such issues and, essentially, makes a mission statement to her detractors in Chapter Sixteen as Edna declares to Madame Ratignolle: “I would give up the unessential, I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear, it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.” She recognizes the need for compromise as a fact of everyday life. Expecting every egocentric desire to be fulfilled takes us to a stage of post-infancy, a second childhood with a tunnel vision of the welfare of those around us. Often we are asked to surrender things of value to us in various tradeoffs, or opportunity costs, as we negotiate our interests as opposed to those of others. It is here where we assess what is unessential, or of relative importance. Money can often be a primary concern, while our own lives are considered of ultimate value by society. Yet the selling of one's soul transcends the material, and is a focal point of discussion among the spiritual community. It is on principle upon which martyrs are made, and we see Edna martyring herself for her principles. It is a statement that may well have been made by Chopin herself in sacrificing her career for her freedom of artistic expression. Even if Achebe may have misjudged Conrad in his assessment of Darkness, he could have made no such mistake about Chopin.

The 'guarantee' implied by Achebe alludes to what he contends is the xenophobic mindframe of late-1800 society. The critic maintains that the intended audience has been saturated with prejudgmental attitudes and concepts of what the Dark Continent constituted. He pays little attention to the essential message of the work, the epiphany of Marlowe in venturing into the symbolic 'heart of darkness' to discover the reality of the evil that rules men's souls. Kurtz, like Edna, plunges into the abyss, determined to find the better angels of our nature as human beings. Instead he finds increasing alienation, bitter frustration, initial feelings of rage and denial that eventually succumb to morbid acceptance. In turn, we can make a comparison to the struggle of Third World nations in the global community. At first exhilarated by their freedom (through either electoral process or violent revolution), they find themselves alienated as newcomers to the New World Order, underdeveloped nations in need of aid, full of indignation and resentment as they furtively try to reestablish their identity from a global perspective.

"Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness," Achebe asserts. In this we can hear the echo of critics impugning the work of Chopin, who insisted that her true agenda was in undermining the patriarchal society of her time and reestablishing male-female relationships and family values. The test of time has validated Chopin's novel, demonstrating that it is not as much a condemnation of Victorian values of late 19th century New Orleans, as much as a reflection of the struggle of a woman trying to establish her own identity. The 'deterioration' of Edna's mind 'caused by solitude' leads to her self-destruction, not very different to the demise of Kurtz. The essential messages of both works are self-evident: the quenching of the human spirit will lead to the destruction of the individual. It is a integral principle of Third World philosophy which cannot be overlooked by post-colonialist critics, despite the ramifications they may attribute to the individual work.

In Darkness, we see how Kurtz has gone to the far corners of the earth to find true peace and harmony. He envisions building a profitable and paradigmatic outpost for the Company, unaware that he will be overwhelmed by the isolation and crushed by his inability to survive outside the support system of society. It is correlative to the spiritual journey of Edna, who sees herself leaving home for her own place of spiritual freedom in the pigeon house, free to explore her artistic and romantic horizons. Only she, like Kurtz, shattered by isolation and disconnection, loses her sense of self-worth and chooses death rather than to return to the subjugation of the Establishment. Again we point to the fact that this is a fundamental struggle to each and every Third World nation and its citizens seeking acceptance in the New World Order. Compliance to accepted norms is the only way to avoid isolation from the world community. If Achebe sees this as the message of Chopin, he would be able to see this in the work of Conrad, and vice versa. We can therefore argue that it makes Chopin's work an essential inclusion into a post-colonialist canon.

Further proof of this similarity can be seen in a passage from Awakening: "The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth." Achebe might say that Chopin is concerned not so much with New Orleans as with the deterioration of an American mind caused by solitude and (emotional) sickness. Both Kurtz and Edna, again, face similar struggles against tradition and prejudice that find kindred spirits within the Third World community. Perhaps Achebe may have held reservations about the intent and message of Conrad's work, but there is little room to doubt the philosophical motivations behind that of Chopin.

Again we turn to Ohmann in qualifying Chopin's novel as canonical literature: "It emerges through specific institutions and practices, not in some historically invariant way." Here we find this evident as we introduce statements written by Edward W. Said, comparing them to passages from Chopin in bolstering our argument.

Said's basic principles encompass the struggle against imperialism and its dominance over the Third World and the obfuscation of its virtues. It is a more generalized argument focusing on the balance of power and its effect on society and culture. When we superimpose the work of Chopin upon this polemic, we find that it settles favorably against the backdrop of struggle against imperialist prerogatives. If we consider the patriarchal society of late 19th century Louisiana, we find not only the colonial spirit but the Napoleonic letter of the law of its society in full force. The European traditions and their reactionary spirit are reinforced in the New World, disallowing any notions of counterculture or rebellion. The notion of a woman writer questioning the socioculture of the era was anathema. In retrospect, the banning of Chopin's work makes it a prime candidate for validation as a canonical work in post-colonialist literature.

"A second qualification is that ideas, cultures and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied," Said affirms in his work, Orientalism, as he attempts to qualify literature in defining the validity of the Oriental identity. We can use this as a paradigm in qualifying Awakening as defining the post-colonial identity. The force, or configurations of power, in Chopin's novel are clearly illustrated. We see the idea of the social structures portrayed in the framework of home, marriage, family, industry and community. We see the culture of the Creole society manifested in the triple-tiered social infrastructure: the upper and middle class, the lower class, and the outsiders. We also see the histories of the society implied by the text, the continuity suggested by tradition, a state of perpetuity that suggests a God-like quality in that it is, it was, and always will be.

In qualifying Awakening as an essential contribution to the post-colonialist canon, we must also determine its configuration of power. It manifests itself in the force of socioculture reinforcing the social more, the irresistable element that negates the priorities of the individual as surely as any form of fascism or totalitarianism. It is here where we see the schism between Marxism and post-colonialist philosophy in that it is impossible for the individual to realize their full potential if self-worth is eclipsed by needs of the greater community. We see how Edna's need for self-discovery transcends any preconceived notions of social acceptance or validity. She is bound to the social structure as certainly as she is to its legal ramifications. Though not physically incarcerated by her society, she finds herself subjugated by its configurations of power in spiritual constraint.

In Chapter Fifteen, we read: "The past was nothing to her; offered no lesson which she was willing to heed. The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate. The present alone was significant; was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded." As we contemplate the statement of Said, we may conclude that it was the 'ideas, cultures and histories' that meant nothing to Edna, offering her no lesson which she was willing to heed. The configurations of power are often the testament and legacy of the past, that which tortures and convicts. Losing what she has held, being denied her demands, are comparable to that of Third World entities coming into being through revolution but finding themselves subjugated within a new global community and its system.

"Culture, of course, is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions, and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent." If we consider Said's remarks from the post-colonialist perspective, we are forced to place Chopin's work firmly within the post-colonialist canon. Again we find the spirit of rebellion and contradiction to be essential in finding resonance with the works of both Said and Chopin. Awakening tends to focus on cultural pursuits, the major motifs of music and art. It is the music of Mademoiselle Reisz that emancipates, having a power and attraction beyond that mechanically churned out by other musicians throughout the story. It is augmented by her skill of painting that makes her realize there is life beyond the structured environment. She realizes her own ability to create, equivocal to that of Madamoiselle Reisz's.

We consider the ideas of the culture of the civil society, the ideology of the patriarchal hierarchy, specifying the need for the individual to unilaterally accept their roles in society. If Edna accepts the idea of culture, she becomes like the Creoles, exemplifications of the social more. If she accepts the ideal of institution, alike that of Louisianan society, she accepts the paradigm of the Creole woman as a role model, the righteous woman beyond transgression. She therefore places herself beyond its grasp, an individual, a white woman, unwilling to relinquish her social identity.

We also consider the institutions and persons that predicate the attitudes of the 'other persons'. Once Edna steps out from the atmosphere of the 'other persons' she suffocates in that of 'the Other'. When she seeks to liberate herself from the mindframe of wife, mother, daughter, and member of New Orleans society, she finds herself alienated from her support groups and faced with the prospect of isolation, abandonment and the depressive state that may ensue. What we find is that Edna has exercised her right of non-consent, yet is faced with social domination. She is forced to seek her own counter-culture, which manifests itself through Reisz's music and her own artwork. Yet it is not enough to sustain her, and this may be the lesson for Third World scholars. People and nations need interaction with the rest of the world. Without it, they cannot thrive and develop. If Chopin's message is taken as a universal lesson, therein lies its moral value.

Chopin reflects upon this state of being and non-being in Chapter Twenty-Eight as Edna contemplates the effects of her awakening: "Edna looked straight before her with a self-absorbed expression upon her face. She felt no interest in anything about her. The street, the children, the fruit vender, the flowers growing there under her eyes, were all part and parcel of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic." It is this sense of alienation that provides for empathy with 'the Other', the pervasive sense of isolation which leads to apathy, depression, and eventually, feelings of self-devaluation and expendability.

Once more, we use Ohmann as a guiding light in further demonstrating Chopin's authenticity as a post-colonialist writer. In regards to the institutions from which the canons emerge, he writes: "These institutions are likely to have a rather well-defined class base." This provides us with a segue into comparing passages from Chopin to those of Gayatri Spivak.

"In orthodox 'internationalist' intellectual Marxism, whether in the First World or the Third, the pure form of consciousness remains, paradoxically, a material effect, and therefore a second-order problem," writes Spivak. It is here, he maintains, where feminist and black scholars prepare arguments against the inherent characteristics of sexism and racism in the system. We can see this in Edna's situation where her awakened conscious is, indeed, seen as a material effect, and a second-order problem to those around her. From a Marxist point of view, her husband Leonce is a model capitalist, whose greatest goals in life are creating capital, increasing his net worth, manifesting his achievements through the accumulation of possessions, and enhancing his position within bourgeois society. Edna's awakening is a material effect, brought on by a need for self-assertion and liberation from peer pressure and her environment. They have no bearing on the class struggle or the economic environment of Leonce's microcosm. Therefore, again we can see Edna's struggle reflected in those of Third World nation and people as their spiritual needs are often swept under the rug in pursuit of economic equilibrium. Chopin's message is resonant with that of Spivak in demonstrating how money and power tend to dehumanize and destroy in a materialistic world.

We find evidence of Edna's struggle against these values as Chopin writes in Chapter Six: "In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her." It anticipates her spiritual epiphany as she begins awakening to her need for independence, intellectual maturity and her own sexuality. Spivak would agree that Leonce's attitude towards her self-discovery is sexist and chauvinistic. We also see Edna's response reflecting her new mindframe in Chapter Eleven: "She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted. She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command." Third World scholars would applaud such an episode as illustrating the appropriate response to domineering force, again placing Chopin's work at the forefront of historic works exemplifying the universal struggle for freedom and dignity.

"When a line of communication is established between a member of subaltern groups and the circuits of citizenship or institutionality, the subaltern has been inserted into the long road to hegemony." By reflecting on Spivak's statement, we can compare Edna to the subaltern in her microcosm. As a citizen of New Orleans society and a party to the institutions of marriage and motherhood, she has long since embarked on the road to hegemony. Spivak suggests that this is a one-way journey of no return, and Chopin's story proves paradigmatic. Citizenship and institutionality are most often the result of rite of passages during one's lifetime, marking milestones rather than diversions. The line of communication becomes a tractor beam that compels the subaltern deeper into the circuitry, eventually making them part of the network. For Edna, her course was set by her father, already a respected member of the New Orleans community. This pattern was reinforced by her marriage to Leonce and her introduction into upper middle-class society. Once she borne children, established her inner circle of friends, and settled into her new property and community, she was well on the path to hegemony.

Again we can compare Spivak's theory to the ideas expressed by Chopin from a post-colonialist viewpoint. When Third World people and nations begin dealing within the New World Order, they are forced to play up to the level of the dominant powers-that-be, having to join the country club of the United Nations and join its various institutions to gain international acceptance. At this point they have become a part of the Order, the synthesis of their society and culture into the international community. The only alternative, as we can see in the story of Edna, is withdrawal, regression and self-destruction. Again we find this universal truth as an essential component of the post-colonialist construct.

Chopin implies this in Chapter Thirteen as Edna asks Robert: "How many years have I slept? The whole island seems changed. A new race of beings must have sprung up, leaving only you and me as past relics. How many ages ago did Madame Antoine and Tonie die? And when did our people from Grand Isle disappear from the earth?" She is beginning to descend into a state of fantasy and denial, hoping to slip away with Robert into a romantic nirvana she will never achieve. For it is Robert who is unwilling to take the risk, having 'been inserted into the long road to hegemony', as Spivak would say. It proves that Chopin's ideas are correlative to those of post-colonialist writers seeing choices of compliance or repression as default options.

Finally, we call upon Ohmann once more as we conclude our qualifying introspection into the work of Chopin. He asserts, "Although the ruling ideas and myths may indeed be, in every age, the ideas and myths of the ruling class, the ruling class in advanced capitalist societies does not advance its ideas directly through its control of the means of mental production. Rather, a subordinate but influential class shapes culture in ways that express its own interests and experience and that sometimes turns on ruling-class values rather critically - yet in a non-revolutionary period end up confirming root elements of the dominant ideology, such as the premises of individualism". This resonates beautifully with the sentiments of Homi Bhabha as we bring forth his works as a final qualifier of that of Chopin.

"Forms of popular rebellion and mobilization are often most subversive and transgressive when they are created through oppositional cultural practices," Bhabha proposes in his Commitment to Theory. We see this statement reflected again by Edna's return to her artwork and her embracing of Reisz' music as her form of countercultural rebellion. We also see her romantic 'awakening' in her love for Robert and her toying with Alcee as an act of rebellion against the social mores of family life and the sacredness of marriage as an institution. The rebellion in her heart manifests itself in her mobilization to achieve these goals and desires, although she is frustrated in her romantic endeavors by Robert's refusal to break the social code. We find them subversive in undermining the stability of Leonce's household, and transgressive in polarizing and alienating her from her social circle. It is the 'oppositional cultural practice' that begets the tragedy of Edna choosing to end her life in a final act of rebellion against the traditions of her peers.

Chopin alludes to this struggle in Chapter Thirty-Two in omniscient narrative as Edna reflects on her new environment at the pigeon house: "There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual." We once again make the comparison to the Third World entity rejecting the New World capitalist standards and its imperialistic agendas, feeling the sense of global liberation in maintaining their independence despite the financial penalties. Cuba has stood as an example for Latin American nations for over forty years in refusing to bend to the will of its superpower capitalist neighbor. African nations have followed their own destiny, refusing to be subjugated by their European neighbors. Throughout the history of the Third World, we find examples of nations and their peoples refusing to be absorbed into the New World Order under the auspices of the Old World and its New World manifestation.

Further proof of Chopin's message comes as Mademoiselle Reisz addresses Edna in Chapter Twenty-Two: “And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must posses the courageous soul.” To which Edna responds, “What do you mean by the courageous soul?” Reisz replies, “Courageous, ma foi! The brave soul. The soul that dares and defies.” It is as much a philosophical declaration by Chopin in defying colonial convention as it is a message to her audience, a call to action to the downtrodden, the subjugated, the suppressed. We find it in the motto of the British Special Air Services, the elite commando unit: 'Who Dares Wins'. It is an enzymatic element of revolution, the ability to muster courage in the face of overwhelming odds to effect change. Third World peoples know this only too well, and such a statement in Chopin's work can be seen as a rallying cry for future generations.

"Political positions are not simply identifiable as progressive or reactionary, bourgeois or radical, prior to the act of critique engagee, or outside the terms and conditions of their discursive address." Here we find Bhabha leaning towards Marxist theory as he devalues polemics as an essential component of critical analysis, favoring instead the synthesis of the opposing viewpoints. It can be seen as part of Chopin's message as she uses the omniscient narrative to allow the reader a view of both sides of the argument. Although Edna is the sympathetic character, we also are allowed to empathize with Leonce as an embattled husband whose marriage is inexplicably crumbling apart. We also see Adele saddened by the slow estrangement of her friend, and both Robert and Alcee emotionally affected by their interactions with Edna. Although each of these characters are very different from one another, it is not the differences that create the conflicts, but the causes behind the effects. Leonce as husband, Adele as a moral paragon, and Robert and Alcee as paramours play distinct roles that provoke unique discourses. Again, we find that Bhabha and Chopin find common ground in introducing the concept of the sums equalling the whole, rather than the black-vs-white dichotomy. In dissecting the argument we find its elements essential in coming to an inclusive and diverse solution to social dilemmas, rather than seeking the either-or solution that perpetuates the colonialist error that, it can be argued, is at the crux of Chopin and Bhabha's arguments.

We see this in the colonialist mindframe of Leonce as he muses over Edna's awakening in Chapter Nineteen: "He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world." Again we hear the overtones of the omniscient narrative voice reflecting the author's worldviews. Politics is defined as the total complex of relations between persons in society. When we cast aside the fictitious self assumed as a garment, we no longer play politics. Edna was no longer playing politics with Leonce, just as Chopin was no longer doing with her colonial society in publishing Awakening. The message would be clear to the post-colonialist audience: to thine own self be true.

Chopin also demonstrates the utter isolation and solitude of the individual being who is denied the right to critique engagee as she writes in Chapter Twenty-Six: "Conditions would some way adjust themselves, she felt; but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself." It is a segue to the climax of the novel, in which Edna commits a final act of despair, her soul crying out in Chapter Thirty-Nine: "The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude." Statements such as these justify the message and the categorization of the story as an essential piece of post-colonialist literature. Emancipation brings with it a terrible price, but it does not have to be that way. In a society, or a world community, that values diversity and inclusivity, women and all those of different races, cultures and creeds can find their place and realize their own awakening.

In summation, we successfully argue that future generations of scholars may well find Chopin's work to be an essential piece of post-colonialist literature, eclipsing its position in feminist canon to which it has been relegated. We have demonstrated its authenticity along the guidelines of Richard Ohmann, and have introduced evidence from the works of such writers as Chinua Achebe, Edward W. Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha in proving that Chopin's novel resonates with universal themes of post-colonialist literature.

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