Posted by: zhiv | January 11, 2010

ST#3: Chopin and Yates: Edna Pontellier and April Wheeler

I’m continuing to look at Chopin stuff. One class back in the day, reading Chopin and Wharton and Cather, maybe Jewett, could have saved me a lot of time right now and I wouldn’t be worrying about this stuff. I should note now, as long as I’m in Stray Thought territory, that my daughter really didn’t like The Awakening when she read it in high school; perhaps that’s one reason why it only registered on my radar recently.

But since we’re Yatesians around here, what about Edna and April? We’ve discussed before how Yates was influenced by Chekhov, and one of my current exploratory efforts is to think about the parallels between Chekhov and Chopin, both of them boosted by Maupassant.

So I don’t mind jumping ahead to Yates from Chopin. And let’s use the loose ST format to do a quick comparison. Married with two kids: check. Detached from home life and duties: check. Detached from husband, whose life in the city and business absorbs him: check, more or less. Experiences “Awakening,” sense that life in role of Angel of the Hearth won’t cut it: check. Edna is an amateur artist who expresses her creativity in creating her own home and giving her dinner party; April stumbles in amateur theater to open her story, then has the dream of moving to Europe to be the breadwinner for her writer husband. Has sex with inappropriate romantic mate: check. Suicide: check, sort of.

The comparison has its limitations, of course, as RevRoad is an even-handed story of a marriage, while The Awakening is a feminist text that focuses on its female main character. What’s interesting is the way that April Wheeler follows the basic road laid out by Edna Pontellier, and perhaps this makes the case for a stronger feminist reading of RevRoad.

One guesses that Yates wasn’t aware of Chopin, and The Awakening was a subterranean text through the 60s and up to 1970. It would be interesting to discover that he read it in the the interim, after RevRoad but before Easter Parade, which might well be possible, and Easter Parade is an even more complex text from a feminist perspective.

I read Elaine Showalter this weekend and was impressed by her view of The Awakening as a “solitary text.” Her essay describes how The Awakening fell short of breaking through and becoming influential, the times and fates (and patriarchal publishing world and society) conspiring against it, and she wonders what effect it might have had. Perhaps there would have been no April Wheeler, if the culture already had a general awareness of Edna Pontellier. But that’s the way it goes I guess.

Chalk another one up for the continuing series of term paper ideas for college students: talk about Edna and April. Provides an interesting perspective on both texts, and it seems like an especially powerful way to look at RevRoad, giving April greater heft and even sympathy than the standard reading. Like I said, my unawakened daughter didn’t like Edna, and perhaps we see April as more of a victim (and less awakened) than we should.

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Responses

  1. Very interesting. I really do have to read this book.
    Two things strike me:
    1.’Perhaps there would have been no April Wheeler, if the culture already had a general awareness of Edna Pontellier’ – I think that’s exactly right. The process of awakening is so gradual in literary terms.

    2. ‘perhaps we see April as more of a victim (and less awakened)’ I think April’s ‘awakening’ is to who she is and to who Frank is and the tragedy for her is that she doesn’t see that this is part of a pattern of female/male behaviour; there is no feminist body that she can join in the fifties to discuss the fact that the pedestal she put Frank on (and which he enjoyed being on) can’t hold him. Milly Campbell and Helen Givings, both thoroughly unawakened, compound her isolation. Her awakening (and Yates’s) is less ideological and more personal.

    Nice post, zhiv. I enjoyed that.


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