Chopin, The Awakening and Impressionist Perception (Group 2)

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Some of the slides for today talk about idealized depictions of motherhood and family in the visual arts during the mid-1800s. By the late 1800s, the time of Chopin’s novel, Impressionists painted domestic life in daubed patches of light and color, eroding sharp defined contours and avoiding static poses in favor of fleeting moments. Edna often sees the world as a series short-lived impressions–glistening water, distant umbrellas, hazy memories, colored clumps of flowers and grasses. Objects and even memories are fluid and soft more than permanent and sharp, caught at a particular moment:

The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight. A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.  (Chopin, Chapter XXXIX)

What does Edna’s impressionist sensibility tell us about her state of mind? How would Edna view Potthas’s On the Beach? What would jump off the canvas for her? How would it make her feel? Would she see it as beautiful? Terrifying? Something more complicated? Would her view suggest depression? Happiness? Do you see the image in the same way that you think Edna would? You don’t have to answer all of these questions, but write a paragraph of two thinking about this image and Edna’s way of seeing the world.

6 thoughts on “Chopin, The Awakening and Impressionist Perception (Group 2)

  1. Colston Merrell

    Part of the reason why The Awakening reads like a novel with such greater scope than it has (I was shocked to reach the section where Robert returns and discover that he’d only been away for three months) is because we spend much more time in Edna’s head, reeling within her daydreams and anxieties and sitting in static images like splotches of paint, than we do watching the concrete passage of events. Though very little time passes in the novel, the whole thing has the hazy quality of a dream or vacation, and neither its sensuality nor its despair are ever clearly defined. More than once I began a long passage involving Edna’s (obviously sexual) yearnings, and (knowing something about the reputation of the book, though nothing of its plot) expected this to be the part where she finally “awakens” describing in detail some fantasy or onanistic act that would mark some kind of shift in the novel’s trajectory. Really, though, the whole thing came and went like an impressionist painting and when Edna finally killed herself (?) at the end, I went looking for evidence that would support such a drastic action (This probably isn’t fair to Chopin, but as a reader with access to quite a lot of modern and postmodern fiction, I’m personally a little sick of and put off by suicide as an ending. In 2021, there’s something that feels cheap and tired about it, and while I certainly would hate to judge an author retroactively for tropes that have probably come to develop, in part, from her own [very probably revolutionary at the time] work, as someone who has been impacted by mental illness on a personal and family level, the whole thing strikes me as unimaginative when I find it unearned.) and ultimately concluded that while Edna’s mental state was so depressed that no one moment could clearly foretell of her fate, the prose style itself was indicative of a protagonist who was highly cerebral, interior, and prone to grand romanticism, all of which are signals for classic depression and are present on every page.

  2. Annabella Twomey

    While I believe the painting could evoke multiple feelings from Edna’s impressionist sensibility, I think she would ultimately feel confused and maybe slightly depressed and troubled by it. While there is a lot going on in the picture, the main focal point is the mother tending, at least in some ways, to her child by holding its arm (though I agree with the points made by some of my peers that it could be significant woman is looking away wistfully at the skyline/ocean). Edna could never fully bring herself to be fully involved as a mother and she’d likely recognize her obligations that were so often forced upon her, despite knowing that “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman.”

    As Andreya brought up, there is so much restriction in the painting, from the main woman appearing to grasp her child’s arm quite harshly presumably to keep him from running into the water, while the other woman in the photo holds both the umbrella and a hat, which seems unnecessary; she is truly shading herself completely from the sun and wind, perhaps representing her as the average woman of this time sheltered from the natural world and trapped in a sphere of domesticity.

    In “The Awakening,” I was struck by the constant appearance of literary binaries and dualities throughout the novel: Edna’s relationship with Robert and Léonce, her New Orleans home and her vacation home in Grand Isle, Edna’s tranquil rebellions and reflections in the night versus her various moods in the day, and finally her relationship with the sea and the sand, or land and the beach, with the ocean ending up being her ultimate escape. The frequency of these opposite binaries remind us of Edna’s conflict of her expected societal role vs. her true desires, but also the constant alternation in between both, because she doesn’t truly make a decision. Ultimately she doesn’t want to be anyone’s womanly pawn, so she also does not want to give herself to a new man (Robert) but she also doesn’t want to completely reject societal norms and embody a alternative type of woman like Mademoiselle Reisz. Their interactions sometimes appear to be the closest thing Edna can get to happiness at times, as she reflects, ““she felt that she could not give too much time to a diversion which afforded her the only real pleasurable moments that she knew. When Mademoiselle Reisz came and touched her upon the shoulder and spoke to her, the woman seemed to echo the thought which was ever in Edna’s mind; or, better, the feeling which constantly possessed her,” (151). She can’t truly make a decision for either pathway (not that she even really has a choice to begin with since she is a married mother) so she retreats to the place where doesn’t have to answer to anyone or make any decisions.

  3. Carl Langaker

    It’s hard to come with new observations when so many great points have already been made! Firstly, I entirely agree with the points made by Andreya, Liz, and Michael – the painting feels somehow divided between two lifestyles. While the child clad in dark freely approaches the water, we see the two women in the background distancing themselves. I think the woman with the umbrella aptly captures Edna; she has not left her crying child, yet she is simultaneously not as attentive as she should be – rather, she looks towards the water, a curiosity that to me evokes the question of whether the grass is greener on the other side. The woman holding her child, on the other hand, feels more like an Adele character – fulfilling the tasks expected of her, and taking pride in doing so.

    Something that really spoke to me was the scene where Mademoiselle Reisz plays Frederic Chopin’s «Fantasie Impromptu» in chapter XXI, one of the most emotionally gripping songs composed for the piano, and a staple of the romantic and impressionist movement in classical music. This scene for me is very much comparable to Edna looking at an impressionist painting – she describes the music as «strange and fantastic – turbulent, insistent, plaintive and soft with entreaty» (166), and is left sobbing by herself as she listens. Her emotions capture the impressionist notion of speaking to feelings, and the sense of longing that is very much present in the piece speaks to Edna, as she desires freedom from this life that is chaining her down. If we tie this to the painting above, I think Edna might have a similar reaction – an outing to the beach has connotations of joy and happiness, yet Edna would likely see it as a symbol of the joy that she is unable to find in her own life. The woman with the umbrella seems an innocent figure, yet through the lens of a woman who is expected to uphold a lifestyle that she did not necessarily choose, the painting could be quite devastating.

    What I found interesting about this book is that it as a whole feels very similar to Ibsen’s «A Doll’s House», yet Edna’s way out is killing herself, while Nora is able to simply leave. This leads me to wonder if Edna had that choice too? Or was Edna’s fate the only path she could have taken in order to free herself?

  4. Andreya Zvonar

    Edna’s impressionist sensibility tells us that she is concerned with feeling alive. Impressionist art, unlike its predecessors, forgoes grand moments for the beautiful ones – moments that give you feeling. Edna works much in the same way. She no longer minds for her assigned role in the world, rather the moments that will make her feel something. Furthermore, Impressionism specifically focuses on the quality of light. Many times, Impressionist painters will paint the same scene over and over, only during different seasons and different times of day, each one showing different light. In all, this is what gives Impressionist paintings their “momentary” feeling. It also suggests movement and scenes that are evolving. Chopin’s story reflects this same idea: repeating scenes of Edna at varying moments and her slowly evolving sensibility (her awakening).

    In regard to the painting, I find that Elizabeth addressed Edna’s relationship to each figure well. Edna would certainly be captivated by the painting for a moment; however, I think that the painting would incite in her the desire to leave the room and go to the ocean herself. Edna’s character is impulsive at times, and she feels the most free when she is outside. Therefore, while the painting’s subject matter might intrigue her, I find that Edna is not the type of person to sit and look at art. Nevertheless, if Edna were to study the painting, she would be intrigued by its context. The painting captures the feeling of the scene very well, from the wind, the sun, and the rather unappealing waves and water. As Elizabeth mentioned, the ocean is symbolic in Edna’s awakening, and thus it would most likely be the first thing she would notice.

    Edna would ultimately find the scene melancholy. There is so much natural beauty, yet so much restriction in the figures. From the clothing of the women and their protective postures, to the children that are being so closely watched. This contrast is melancholy because it emphasizes the entrapment that Edna feels in her own role (the same role as that of the women figures). Part of the reason I say this is because I see the image in the same way. With the exception of the dark-clothed child, the figures are extremely tense. They do not seem to be relaxing at all. This makes me sad for the dark-clothed child, who seems to have wandered off in his/her own thoughts (much like Edna). Lastly, I admire how Pothas darkens his color palette as he moves closer to the ocean – not only with the clothes of the figures, but in the color of the water as well. This reinforces the idea of an “unknown ocean” that can either lead to death or freedom.

  5. Elizabeth Srulevich

    Impressionist painters forgo “sharp defined contours” and prefer hazier, softer depictions of “fleeting moments.” Edna herself forgoes the practical, “defined” contours of the life she’s expected to lead and instead lives for and within those hazier, softer, fleeting moments. Edna exists somewhere between the characters of Madame Ratignolle and Madame Reisz — the former serving as a near-perfect embodiment of traditional “womanhood” at the time, the latter as a representation of the opposite, which might be spinster-ism, being an artist, not conforming to social expectations for women both looks and personality-wise. Maybe that’s why Edna is an Impressionist. It’s a style that maintains a soft, “feminine” beauty while still showing a little “messiness.” If Edna doesn’t want to present a strictly and neatly composed image of herself in her daily life, then why should she want to do so with her art?

    Edna would likely be captivated by the painting. First and foremost, it’s set on the shore, and the sea itself — and being in/by the water — is a crucial site of transformation for Edna. Although that aside, I think Edna would be quite taken with the other aspects of the image as well, especially the figures depicted therein. Each figure in the painting seems to be engaged in their own differing thoughts and headspaces. To me, and maybe Edna, the woman holding the baby’s arm represents the constant selflessness that society expects of women, especially mothers. She’s literally hunched over as she protects that child (her own kid?) and looks out for any potential obstacles ahead. The woman with the umbrella might represent a woman like Edna. Whether she’s watching out for the kid in front of her or is just lost in thought is unknown, but what’s clear is that she’s ignoring the wailing baby behind her, even as the other woman is preoccupied with a different child. The woman with the umbrella is thus rejecting (in at least this small way) the duty of a “woman” by not consoling or even looking at that baby. Also — and not to read too much into the babies again — it’s interesting that the baby being held by the stooping woman is likely a boy (blue jumpsuit) while the crying baby left behind in her frilly pink dress is likely a girl. This suggests something about how men and women are reared differently, but I can’t decide what exactly that “something” is.

    Finally, there’s this brown-suited, long-haired character who’s walking into the ocean. While the rest of the characters are colored in pastel tones, this character is depicted wearing a clashing dark brown outfit. Is this character intentionally made to stand out from the rest? Would Edna resonate more with this child or with the woman with the umbrella? Is the woman with the umbrella in the painting looking out at that kid with a sense of longing, wishing she could be so free, or is she worried, or annoyed? Just some things to think about.

    1. Michael Taylor

      Liz, you beat me to the punch with your observation of the dark-clad child! I totally agree. I see the painting as roughly bisected – on the left are the pastel and parasol touting women and the children they dote over, while the right is dominated by the young child who is distinct and alone against the clutter of the left. Even the water on the right takes on a darker, more menacing aspect with rough waves and a brackish tide very much distinct from the calm and clear water on the left. In this we may (and Edna might) understand the dislocating unhappiness that Edna feels for the very things that please those around her; surrounded by “women who idolized their children … [and] worshiped their husbands” and herself possessing “[he who] all declared… the best husband in the world,” Edna nevertheless finds marriage devoid of bliss, just as the lone figure in the painting is surrounded by a foreboding sea that surrounds all else with pleasant, lapping waves.

      The gaze of the painting’s figures is also deserving of notice. The dark-clad child gazes out of the painting and into the sea: he or she longs for that which is beyond the confines of his or her circumscribed world and perhaps craves to embrace the sea’s vastness, as does Edna when she casts herself into the ocean, dreaming of youthful wanderings that seemed to have “no beginning and no end.” The other figures look on hopelessly, all captivated by the child’s exit from their world, but unable or unwilling to stop it. The mother grabs her son’s arm to hold him back from going to the dark-clad child, and here I imagine Doctor Mandelet instructing Mr. Pontellier, “let your wife alone for a while. Don’t bother her, and don’t let her bother you.”

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