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Kate Chopin & The Awakening Literary Perspectives Critical Responses in 1899 (Published April 1899) • “Trite and sordid” • “Essentially vulgar” • “Unhealthily introspective and morbid in feeling” • “. . .its disagreeable glimpses of sensuality are repellent" (from The Outlook,1899) From the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat (1899) "It is not a healthy book; if it points any particular moral or teaches any lesson, the fact is not apparent. . . . Mrs. Pontellier does not love her husband. The poison of passion seems to have entered her system, with her mother's milk." From The Providence Sunday Journal (1899) "The worst of such stories is that they will fall into the hands of youth, leading them to dwell on things that only matured persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires. It is nauseating to remember that those who object to the bluntness of our older writers will excuse and justify the gilded dirt of these latter days." The Chicago Tribune June 1, 1899 “That the book is strong and that Miss Chopin has a keen knowledge of certain phases of feminine character will not be denied. But it was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction.” From The Nation (1899) "Had [Chopin] lived by Prof. William James's advice to do one thing a day one does not want to do (in Creole society, two would perhaps be better), flirted less and looked after her children more, or even assisted at more accouchements . . . we need not have been put to the unpleasantness of reading about her and the temptations she trumped up for herself." Public Opinion, June 22, 1899 “If the author had secured our sympathy for this unpleasant person [Edna] it would have been a small victory, but we are well satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf.” Extracted from the Norton Critical Edition (Ed. Margo Culley, 2nd ed., New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994). Chopin’s response: “Having a group of people at my disposal [the characters in her novel], I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. . . . “I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did.” (Chopin’s response cont.) (Book News July 1899). Contemporary Response to The Awakening “She’s one of those writers whose sense of craft puts her right on the edge of poetry. . . . The rediscovery of The Awakening came as a Godsend, the most incredible gift to the women’s movement” Prof. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Emory U. Others deplore the novel’s “misuse as a political manifesto” for feminism. “The Awakening is consummate art. The theme is difficult, but it is handled with cunning craft. The work is more than unusual. It is unique. The integrity of its art is that of well-knit individuality at one with itself, with nothing superfluous to weaken the impression of a perfect whole.” C.L. Deyo, reviewer Contemporary Controversy When Chopin’s work became available in the 1970s, scholars defined her as a feminist, a local colorist, a regionalist, a romantic, an anti-romantic, a neo- transcendentalist, a realist, a naturalist, and an existentialist. Critics are still debating the issue. Well? • Realism? • Regionalism? • Local Color? • Naturalism? • Romanticism? • Feminism? On Realism • presents an accurate imitation of life • the characters are drawn to present the reader with the illusion of actual experience • topics covered include love, marriage, parenthood, infidelity, and death • characters find life dull and are often unhappy, but find touches of joy and beauty in life (M. H. Abrams) On Local Color and Regionalism fiction and poetry that focuses on the characters, dialect, customs, topography, and other features particular to a specific region. Its weaknesses may include nostalgia or sentimentality. More on Local Color • According to the Oxford Companion to American Literature, "In local-color literature one finds the dual influence of romanticism and realism, since the author frequently looks away from ordinary life to distant lands, strange customs, or exotic scenes, but retains through minute detail a sense of fidelity and accuracy of description" (439). Local Color vs. Regionalism • “Regional literature incorporates the broader concept of sectional differences, but some critics have argued convincingly that the distinguishing characteristic that separates ‘local color’ writers from ‘regional’ writers is instead the exploitation of and condescension toward their subjects that the local color writers demonstrate” (From the Encyclopedia of Southern Literature). Local Color vs. Realism Eric Sundquist: "Economic or political power can itself be seen to be definitive. . .those in power (say, white urban males) have been more often judged 'realists,' while those removed from the seats of power (say, Midwesterners, blacks, immigrants, or women) have been categorized as regionalists“ (from the Encyclopedia of Southern Literature). What does Chopin do? • Draws on personal experience to color the settings, details, and characters. •Presents a clearly drawn portrait of life on Grand Isle and in New Orleans. • Shows Catholic Creoles with European customs, polyglot witty speech, rich agricultural landscape of picturesque Natchitoches Parish. • Skillfully integrates French in the English narrative •Develops a moving, soaring, lyrical, poetic style with beautiful use of imagery •Exceptional depictions of nature -- not necessarily as a benevolent force Naturalism “The naturalist often describes his characters as though they are conditioned and controlled by environment, heredity, instinct, or chance. But he also suggests a compensating humanistic value in his characters or their fates which affirms the significance of the individual and of his life. . . . “The tension [for the naturalist writer] is. . .between the new, discomfiting truths. . .found in the ideas and life of the late nineteenth-century. . .and. . .his desire to find some meaning in experience which reasserts the validity of the human enterprise” (from Pizer’s Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth- Century American Fiction, rev. ed. (1984). Romanticism “a tendency towards melodrama and idyll; a more or less formal abstractness and, on the other hand, a tendency to plunge into the underside of consciousness; a willingness to abandon moral questions or to ignore the spectacle of man in society, or to consider these things only indirectly or abstractly” (Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition ix). Feminism Chopin denied that she was a feminist or a suffragette. Her fiction repeatedly deals with female characters’ efforts to find place, love, and autonomy in a society that denies these needs. According to Treu, Chopin took women seriously and had a different understanding of freedom: spirit, soul, character living life within the constraints the world and God gave. Chopin wrote about many kinds of people, but all seem to lack a clear concept of their own roles and purposes in life; a constant groping for self-knowledge shapes their personalities and actions. Literary criticism involves judging the value of literature based on such things as the personal and/or cultural significance of the themes, the uses of language, the insights and impact, and the aesthetic quality of the text. Part of a critic’s job is to patrol the boundaries of good writing and determine what cultural value should be placed on a text. What constitutes, guides, and legitimizes interpretation? Literary theory attempts to explain what the nature of literature is, what functions it has, what the relation of text is to author, to reader, to language, to society, to history. Since literary theory provides a position through which or from which the reader/critic interacts with the text, the theoretical stance will prejudice—or at least inform—the critic’s evaluation. Source: Lye, John. “The Differences between Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, and ‘Theory Itself.’” For ENGL 4F70: Contemporary Literary Criticism. St. Catherine’s, Ontario: Brock University, 1998. 18 Mar. 2005. www.brocku.ca/english/courses/4F70/crit.vs.theory.html. Theories of Literary Criticism: Marxist: challenges power structure Feminist: Marxist re females New Historicist: bio & historical context Archetypal/Mythic: universal patterns Freudian: sexual archetypes & unconscious New Criticism: explores how the text is written Postmodernist/Deconstructionist: the value of any text is relative, personal, and subjective What are her themes? • the dilemma of an individual’s conflicting responsibilities to others and to herself • a wife’s impatience and frustration with marriage • A rejection of the traditional roles of women • a woman’s acknowledgement of and responses to her sexual urges • the results of acting on one’s nature and impulses • alienation • the search for freedom • the search for identity—a theme that recurs in Chopin’s work How do her themes fit in with the various literary aesthetics, theories, and perspectives? 1. Find passages, evidence that identify it as belonging to your literary school; then explain how critics with your perspective would interpret the novel (20 min.). CFHS: Naturalist, Feminist & Marxist RHS: Romantic & Archetypal/Mythic SHS: Realist, Regionalist & Historicist 2. Report back (3 min. each; 10 min. total) 3. Vote?
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