Chopin, The Awakening and Impressionist Perception (Group 3)

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Edward Henry Potthast, On the Beach, c. 1890

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.

Edward Henry Potthast, On the Beach, c. 1890

6 thoughts on “Chopin, The Awakening and Impressionist Perception (Group 3)

  1. Joseph Levine

    The painting, with its featureless faces and ambiguous postures, makes for an ideal image for someone like Edna to project her conscience onto. When trying to imagine what Edna would be thinking, I imagine the woman in the yellow skirt having a purposefully guiding her young child closer to the waves. Like Michael mentions, this could be to convey to her child the symbolic power of the ocean, how it invigorates and nourishes with its icy touch; the mother could be sharing a tender moment in exposing the young boy to the ocean’s effect. In a more morbid vision, I could also see Edna imaging the woman mischievously walking her child closer to the waves, flirting with the idea of releasing him into the sea to never look back. In terms of what would terrify Edna, I was struck by how the mother, wearing an inhibiting dress, is forced to stand at a far distance from the wave, unable to swim as she tends her child. Edna would likely be repulsed by this image of a woman bound her womanly obligations.

    In the background of the painting we see what appears to be two young girls, one on the left and one on the right. Edna may see the girl on the right as pleading with her mother to attend to her, to forgo her transfixion on the freedom of the ocean. For the girl on the right, Edna may see her as a projection of herself as a child, free to approach the sea, and this relates to her seeming desire for a renewed childhood as described in the slides. This nostalgia could place Edna in any one of the people in the painting, in either of the children, the apparent mother, or the woman with the umbrella further down the shore.

    In my view, I see the painting as a mother lovingly introducing her young children to the pleasure of the beach. I was, however, struck by the facelessness of the people, which is a necessary piece to contextualize the mood of the scene. My interpretation of the painting is likely due to my own memories of being taken to the sea by my parents, and how I was similarly guided by the hand to face the ocean’s breadth.

  2. Alexandra Lawson

    For Edna, there seems an ever conflict between embodying the idealized mother and her other urges and emotions. Much like Haley discussed, Edna is often compared to and comparing herself to other mothers in the story. Yet continually she is drawn to other things; whether it be Robert or Arobin or simply to the ocean. The sea almost embodies a person to her, as she describes the “voice of the sea whispering through the reeds” (31) or the way that it “lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke” (95). Similarly, I think that Edna would be drawn to the sea in this painting. The outer horizon is somewhat dark and turbulent, I suspect much like the sea did throughout the story it would call to her, and invite her. Maybe it would frighten her, but I suspect at the same note it would also excite her. I think that Edna would revel in the frightening beauty of the sea, before being drawn back to the women and children in the painting. While the sea itself, I believe would bring a certain joy for Edna, I also think that the women in the foreground would create a sense of depression. There is a part of Edna that would be drawn to the sea, and another part bound to these women and the children. This conflict is much like the conflict that she encounters throughout the story. She loves her children, but seems hopelessly drawn to other things and pulled by invisible urges who’s roots she is unable to recognize.

    The way Edna would view the image is quite different from the way that I do. This conflict between the sea and the people in the painting does not exist for me. When I view the painting, I imagine myself as one of the children, especially the one in brown walking barefoot on the beach. This image reminds me of my own childhood, visiting my grandmother at her house on the beach. Rather than an image of melancholy and conflict, it brings to me a childlike joy.

  3. Haley Glover

    Edna is preoccupied with her position in society compared to other idealized mothers such as Madame Ratignolle, who she repeatedly defines as a Madonna. From the beginning of the novel, Edna states that she is not a “mother-woman.” A type of person she describes as, ” women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (19). For example, while Madam Ratignolle makes winter clothes for her children in summer, Edna paints Madame Ratignolle as an idealized madonna; the “mother-woman” Edna knows she cannot be. Due to this infatuation with the hierarchical norms Madame Ratignolle represents, I think Edna would look at Potthast’s painting with yearning but also solace. The women in the painting appear to be focused on nothing else but their children. The woman in the foreground holds her child by the hand, keeping him safe from the tumultuous sea, while the woman beside her appears to keep close watch of the child entering the water. However, due to the impressionist nature of the painting it is not clear whether this woman looks to her child or out to the sea. A position Edna inhabits in society, she must give off the impression that her full attention is on her children when in fact it drifts ceaselessly to the chaos of the sea. For Edna, her mind wanders to the solitude the sea offers while her children remind her of the role she is unable to fulfill completely. As a means of escape, the sea in the painting offers Edna a space of solace. The sea consistently drowns Edna’s yearning consciousness. For example, when telling her husband she would not go to the beach she is drawn into the sounds of the Gulf. Chopin writes, “her glance wandered from his face away toward the Gulf, whose sonorous murmur reached her like a loving but imperative entreaty” (31). Similar to how the sea pulls her in and away from the reality and social obligations surrounding her, the painting could offer a multidimensional space of yearning for social normativity but also a solitude in the sea.

  4. William Koch

    I wonder how Edna might view the figures of the women and children in the picture as they relate to the sea. Additionally, I wonder how she might view them as they relate to her experiences in the novel and how she does not conform with the 19th-century feminine ideal. The woman in the foreground is bound to her child, in a literal sense that we see the child grabbing at her arm as she bends down to interact with them. She entertains the child’s curiosity with the sea, such that the child’s perceptions dictate her own. She experiences the conditions of the ocean and the beach with the child, and in this sense does not have a completely unfiltered, unadulterated experience. She cannot just take in the experience of the ocean because her role as a 19th-century mother, to a certain degree, does not permit it. Meanwhile, one could interpret the woman figure behind her as disregarding her responsibilities as a mother to have an independent experience of observation. She appears to gaze out towards the water while the young, unaccompanied infant nearest her appears to be screaming or crying. Similarly, the older child that walks towards the water is notable because of the distance between them and the woman gazing towards the ocean. Of course, I am making a gendered assumption that these are her children, but assuming they are, she is prioritizing her individual personhood over the momentary care of and attention to her children. One might view this piece as a presentation of two types of 19th century motherhood and womanhood, one in which a mother fulfills her domestic duties, and the other in which a mother disregards them to act as an independent, thoughtful agent. I imagine that Edna might empathize more with the latter.

  5. Michael Frank

    The sea has a way of serving as a metaphorical stand-in for a half-dozen enormous concepts. It is both life, death, the collective, God, etc. In the case of The Awakening, the sea is limitless and freeing, but simultaneously is key for a dark telling of the “rebirth” myth. In this picture the sea takes up nearly 70% of the image (fitting), yet seems utterly distant from the mother in the foreground. She is peering off into the distance, utterly detached from the child by her side. I think Edna would identify with this relation to the freedom the sea has to offer– it is vast, yet completely distant. “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul.”

    Death as freedom is a theme (perhaps one worth scrutinizing) that we have already seen in our readings and will continue to address throughout the course. The conclusion to The Awakening is a pretty dour take on this theme, but is an unrestrained perspective of the cost of independence. Perhaps Edna would assume the mother in the painting feels the same as she does as the color of the world melts around her– Only the sea is certain. The picture certainly doesn’t deny that potential for melancholy.

  6. Dan Cielak

    In looking at Potthast’s impressionist painting, On The Beach, I believe that Edna’s melancholy fittingly reflects the style and content of the painting. Her fluid recollections of her time spent with Robert at Grand Isle and the hazy memories she alludes to throughout the novel, seem to hint at a dream-like state of mind. Prior to Robert’s departure to Mexico, she regards her experiences as being very pleasant, yet once she returns to New Orleans, her mind is clouded by the circumstances that present themselves to her. For example, her affair with Alcee Arobin seems like a subtle attempt to recreate the joy she felt over the Summer. As I read this part of the novel, I was never fully convinced that she genuinely liked Arobin. She seems to engage in the relationship because it satisfies some internal desire to be scandalous and depart from her unfulfilling, domestic lifestyle with Mr. Pontellier. Likewise, the decision to move into a new home seems like a forced attempt to create some alternate reality: a reality where she is fully and economically independent. Through these yearnings, I read her character as someone whose general outlook on life is very dreary. She wants the type of happiness she experienced at Grand Isle to be permanent, so she forces her reality into some dream-like state of being.
    If Edna was to observe this painting, I believe she would notice several things. First, I think she would admire the woman holding the child. Up until the very end of the novel, where Edna’s depression leads her to suicide, I think Edna cares deeply for her children, Etienne and Raoul. And, even though she takes her own life, leaving her young children motherless, I think that she is a well intentioned mom who wishes the best for her children. I also think that Edna would gravitate towards the depiction of the water. Here, the water seems gentle and rather inviting. As I recall from chapter 10, the ocean plays a significant role as it is the first instance where Edna is able to break from her shell and ‘awaken’ by venturing into the water despite not knowing how to swim. Thus, from this experience, I think Edna would be attracted by how the water is painted and find that it brings back good memories.

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