Wednesday, June 19, 2013

June 19, 2013: American Swims: Edna and the Ocean

[For me, summer has always meant swimming: in the pool across from my childhood home, at the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, with my boys. So in honor of the summer solstice, this week’s series will focus on meaningful swims in American culture and history. Add your responses and summertime thoughts for a warm weekend post, please!]
On the two interconnected and ambiguous scenes that offer a mirror for each reader’s identity and ideals.
I’ve taught a lot of texts in my time (he said sounding old), including some that inspired very strong opposed responses: sympathy for or condemnation of Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas; laughter with or horror at Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy; intellectual excitement at or angry frustration with Gloria Anzaldúa’s style. But I’m not sure that any class discussions have been as divisive as those over Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), and specifically over how we read her protagonist Edna Pontellier. Each of the three times I’ve taught the novel, the class has been evenly divided into profoundly opposed camps: roughly half of the students sympathizing with Edna and applauding her tentative moves toward awareness and independence; the other half disliking her and criticizing her arc as self-indulgent and foolish.
The culmination of those arguments is also the famous culmination of the novel (SPOILER ALERT!): Edna’s final, suicidal swim into the Gulf of the Mexico. That swim is certainly tragic however we read it; but again, I’ve had plenty of students read it sympathetically and with understanding, and plenty of others do so critically and angrily. But just as complex and ambiguous, and foundational to how we read that final swim, is Edna’s first true journey into the Gulf, in Chapter 10; having “attempted all summer to learn to swim,” she suddenly gets it and decides “to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” The next two sentences are a master class in narrative ambiguity: “She had not gone any great distance; that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.” When she does make it back to shore, Edna says to her husband, “I thought I should have perished out there alone,” to which he replies, “You were not so very far, my dear; I was watching you.”
Is Mr. Pontellier expressing his watchful concern, or downplaying her achievement? Was it an achievement (given her prior lack of experience), or is she silly to think so (due to her prior lack of experience)? Has she experienced a titular awakening, one that carries her past gendered expectations or history? Or is she seeing a fantasy version of the world, one not borne out by its realities? The answers depend in part on whether we emphasize or downplay Edna’s own perspective; and in part on whether we read the narrator in a phrase like “her unaccustomed vision” as sympathetic to Edna’s growth or pointing out her naivete. But because of those ambiguities, those answers also depend on our own perspectives and experiences, how we see the world and how we analyze themes such as gender and identity, marriage and independence, history and social change. They’re all caught up in Edna’s swims, but what’s under the surface of those Gulf waves depends a lot on we navigate the waters ourselves.
Next American swim tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this book or these questions? Other summer links you’d highlight?

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