How To Love Lit Podcast
Phillis Wheatley - Poet of the Revolutionary Era - ”His Excellency General Washington”

Phillis Wheatley - Poet of the Revolutionary Era - ”His Excellency General Washington”

July 2, 2022

Phillis Wheatley - Poet of the Revolutionary Era - "His Excellency General Washington"

 

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver.

 

And I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the how to love lit Podcast.  Today we conclude our series on the Foundational Documents of the United States by giving homage to one of America’s earliest poetic voices- the notable Phyliss Wheatley Peters.  The second woman on the American continent to publish a work of literature, and the first African American woman to do so. 

 

She truly is a remarkable woman, not just for her incredible intellect, which we’ll describe in just a moment, but for her ability to express a voice, in spite of all odds, in an era, where a voice like hers should never be heard.  I was reminded of this last night when we were watching a  PBS reality show called Manor House- it’s an interesting social experiment set in Britain where volunteers recreate the lifestyles of the stratified society of Edwardian London in an old Manor house that has been restored to its former glory.  One of many things that struck me in watching these characters relate was how lower servants were NEVER to be seen by the ladies and gentleman of the house, and if by some horrible accident a lady walked when while a servant was cleaning, the servant was to retreat to a corner and immediately turn around standing frozen pretending not to exist until the lady walked out.  We watched that happen and how demeaning it was for the maidservant  (even though she knew she was playing a part- and she really wasn’t actually lower than the “lady’) and how uncomfortable it made the lady feel (who in reality was a middle class modern woman herself).  The “lady’s’s comment was, I’m just glad I’m near-sighed and when I walk around the house without my glasses, I don’t actually see this happening a lot. 

 

And that is an interesting metaphor and really great psychological point to make- she preferred to walk around near-sighted, not actually seeing what was happening because it made her feel uncomfortable, guilty or maybe even ashamed of what was happening.  Well, today, we want to put on our own literary and historical  glasses and  shine a spot light on a remarkable American woman, celebrate her work, and give her voice the respect it deserves.

 

Exactly, extract her from the hidden corner of the room (to go back to our metaphor), and make the argument that this woman established herself as one of the earliest icons in the American canon- well ahead of her time and in spite of the most incredible odds.

 

So, the beginning- Phyliss Wheatley was born, we think, around 1753 in Gambia, Africa and captured by slave traders and brought to American in 1761.  She said almost nothing herself about this period of her life.  After arriving, She was sold immediately to the Wheatley family in Boston.

 

Of course, that’s already a sad sad start.  She is seven maybe eight years old.  What can you tell us about how this could have happened.

 

Well, there is no doubt this is a dark story.  Gambia at this time is not an official colony of England, although it will become one during Wheatley’s life.  The British had actually already abolished the slave trade in 1807 all over the British Empire, but obviously it was still going on.  It is traditionally accepted that over 3 million Gambians were stolen.  They were stolen, mostly by neighboring tribes, they were sold to African traders on the continent, who sold many to each other- for slavery was practiced all over the African continent, but the majority were sold to be sent the Americas.  The most lucrative and simplest way to monetize a person you stole from a different tribe was to sell them to the Europeans for work in the Americas, both North and South.  This accounts for, by far, the largest number of slaves. They were captured and taken across what is called the Middle Passage.

 

Of course, the earliest and best depiction of how this felt was written by another important name in African Literautre or perhaps Western literature- I think both groups of people could claim him- Olaudah Equiano.  Originally a Nigerian who published his story in 1789 in England.  He really was instrumental in bringing public awareness to this horrible reality.  His book was extremely popular both in England and in  the United States.  It’s a difficult read; I had my kids do it one year over the summer, and that was a real struggle.  Anyway, the reason I bring it up is because he describes his experience of being captive which I speculate would have been very similar to Phyliss’ experience.  Let me read you a small excert from his account-

 

My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter. As I was the youngest of the sons, I became, of course, the greatest favourite of my mother, and was always with her; and she used to take particular pains to form my mind. I was trained up from my earliest years in the arts of agriculture and war; and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors. In this way I grew up till I was turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my happiness in the following manner: Generally, when the grown people in the neighborhood were gone far in the fields to labor, the children assembled together in some of the neighboring premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us—for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize. One day as I was watching at the top of a tree in our yard, I saw one of those people come into the yard of our next neighbor but one, to kidnap, there being many stout young people in it. Immediately on this I gave the alarm of the rogue, and he was surrounded by the stoutest of them, who entangled him with cords, so that he could not escape, till some of the grown people came and secured him. But, alas!, long it was my fate to be thus attacked, and to be carried off, when none of the grown people were nigh.

One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The next morning we left the house, and continued travelling all the day. For a long time we had kept the woods, but at last we came into a road which I believed I knew. I had now some hopes of being delivered; for we had advanced but a little way before I discovered some people at a distance, on which I began to cry out for their assistance; but my cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack.

Of course he’s going to go on later to describe the awfulness of the boat, and that cannot be understated- the awfulness of being stolen and disconnected from family, could be the worse horror.  

 Phyliss is at least three years younger than that, maybe four.  Her arrival is only described in the first biography ever done of Wheatley which wasn’t until 1984.  It reads she arrived “a poor, naked child” who had no other covering than a quantity of dirty carpet about her like a filibeg”.  And let me say, that the Wheatley’s got her for a bargain.  They only paid 10 sterling for her (the going rate for a prime male slave was 35 sterling).  But Phyliss was frail, had a fever, and looked like she might just not make it.  Her mistress, Susanna Wheatley, (who had lost a child of her own daughter at age 8 )picked her from all the other females to work as a domestic.  The name of the ship was the the Phillis- hence Sussana choose to name her new acquisition, phyliss Wheatley.

 

Well, history is a mixed bag of praise and condemnation for the family’s treatment of Phyliss and there is a LOT of scrutiny of this family for their treatment of Phyliss- because it was so unusual.  They educated her, they valued her, they elevated her and open doors for her that were not open to almost anyway else- and I’ll give you just a little example, Phyliss was given as many candles as she needed so she could stay up and work on her writing as late as she wanted- how unusual for a world where almost 50% of the white female population could not even write their own names.  However, they also benefited from her genius and it served them as she served them, so make what you will of that.   Susanna at least was kind and generous towards her.

 

 To their credit, in some sense, they did recognize that Phyliss was extremely unusual, especially curious, and “obviously precocious” to use the phrase, Mary, Susanna’s daughter (who was around 10 years older than her) used to describe her.   Of course on the other hand, Susanna had purchased her because she wanted to purchase for herself a companion now that her own children were getting older and moving out into the world, so maybe out of nobility, maybe out of a desire to have an educated companion- we can’t determine motives this long after, but we do know, she tasked Mary with educating this little girl who didn’t speak a word of English.  Now, you have to remember that in Boston at this time, the population was 15,000 people, 1000 were black, only 18 were free and ZERO went to school, but at the same time, it wasn’t yet illegal to educate black slaves. In the north, most slaves were house slaves and if you openly starved or mistreated them, you were looked at as a bad person- even among slaveholders.  . 

 

And let’s drop in a little historical timeline context....Phyliss drops into the united states as a little girl in the early 1760s at age 7-8.  Within the next ten years this is going to transpire in the US. 

March 1775 – Patrick Henry’s Speech

April 1775 – Battle of Lexington and Concord

May 1775 – Washington is made commander of the continental army

May-December – several battles have occurred

October 1775 – Wheatley writes her poem for Washington

 

It’s amazing really, when she got here she could not speak one word of English, although there is no consensus what she did speak, maybe she was from the Fulani tribe, maybe she wasn’t.  But, within 16 months of her arrival (and remember her age) she could read the Bible, as well as Latin and Greek classics.  She had studied geography and even astronomy.  I’d say that rivals pretty much any modern student.  I’ve even heard that by the end it, her education rivaled most Harvard educated men of her day- impressively. By the age 11, we already have her first known piece of writing- which I think is not only amazing- but truly sweet.  She wrote a letter to a family friend by the name of, a Native American missionary named Samson Occum to raise money to fund the education of Native Americans in New England. – if you can believe a little slave girl who was the only black girl who could read would be advocating for another people- incredible, but I want to bring up something just as remarkable.   Occum and she apparently struck up a friendship and in 1774, she wrote him again. This letter, Garry, is more famous. I want to read this to you and just tell you that an 11 year old read it.  What do you think?

 

Rev'd and honor'd Sir,

 

I have this Day received your obliging kind Epistle, and am greatly satisfied with your Reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reign'd so long, is converting into beautiful Order, and [r]eveals more and more clearly, the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably Limited, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one Without the other: Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian slavery; I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means, for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures.

 

 

Well, first of all the language is incredibly complex.  And she clearly has read the Bible and many of the same texts as Jefferson, Madison and the revolutionaries, but because of her circumstances, she as a young African woman, can understand these concepts in ways the others cannot.  This little girl has a clear central vision of God’s call to freedom-

 

for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance;

 

I love that line.  Wow! 

 

I agree completely.  And she writes this  in 1774 trying to convince the man who would found Darthmouth College that the Revolutionaries advocating for their own freedom while upholding slavery in American were living an untenable contradiction.  Because the Wheatley’s were so well-connected, Phyliss seemed to have a lot of conversations about these kinds of things with very important people. And she could go head to head with them talking about the ideas of Descarte and Rousseau.  There is a lot of documentation, that unlike any other slave I’ve ever heard of, she would be invited to dinner parties with the Wheatley’s.  They woldn’t let her sit at the main table with the family, she’d have this little table over in the corner, but she was expected to engage all their guests in conversations.  Her opinion was requested and expected.  She was to debate and engage not just the women but the MEN of her day on this intellectual level.

 

Again, what a minefield that must have been- and what she must have thought about this arrangement- where she is clearly not an equal- but yet not a slave- she is an other- a non-sexualized entity perhaps.  Of course, what I find most fascinatsing about what you described to me is what she was able to GLEAN from that- and that we can see in her writing.  She learned to use their language- the language of religion- and she also learned to use the language of American rhetoric- she knew these men honed in on the value of liberty and she makes use of this to get admission into their world.  Her poetry is patriotic and it’s religious.

 

Indeed, one of her earliest is called “America” where she says, “Thy Power, O Liberty, makes strong the weak”.  There is hope there in those lines.  I see youthful idealism in a lot of her writings, that perhaps America will be what these men say it will and it will apply to her.  She had every reason to believe that it might.  She seems to be ambitious and she seems to want to make a political and literary name for herself, and in these early years- she’s using the power structures of the day in her own way to make that happen.  One thing that I find incredibly clever is that almost a third of her poems are elegies- she memorialized people who died.  Of course, we don’t know why, but I do find that particularly smart- if that isn’t a way to endear yourself to people’s loved ones, I don’t know what is.  Probably her most famous poem was dedicated to George Whitefield, and that’s eventually what got her recognition to be published, but I’m getting a little head of the story.   

 

If we do look at Wheatley as a political person, it certainly makes her independent in her view of herself and not so different than other black poets of her day which many people don’t even know about.  I think the two most famous are Lucy Terry and Jupiter Hammond who today are studied because we have a renewed interest in revisiting colonial history through a different lens.  But Lucy specifically composed poetry about Africa- things that were relevant to Africans probably more interesting honestly, but sadly- except for one poem called “A Bar’s Fight” are all gone.  Nobody knows anything about her outside of history circles.   Hammon, is a little more famous, he is the first African-American to publish anything in the Americas- but unlike Wheatley or even Lucy Terry, he was never ever to leverage his talents into gaining his own freedom, something Wheatley was able to do. 

 

I like looking at Wheatly like that because, to me, it creates a view of her, not as a sell-out to the white establishment, but a person who leveraged her talents to make a place for herself.  I do want to point out that one of Jupiter Hammon’s surviving poems is named “An Address to Miss Phyliss Wheatley, Ethiopian poetess, in Boston, who came from Africa at eight years of age, and soon became acquainted with Jesus Christ.” 

 

Well, readers may wonder what you’re talking about when you talk about how her writing is controversial when you compare the way she writes compared to how African Americans were writing or even feeling at the time- Read for us that famous controversial poem that she wrote at age 15 titled “On Being Brought from Africa.”  She has been totally slammed for this.

 

I’ll read the poem.

 

What do you think- at first pass it seems she’s called Africa Pagan- and that she’s so grateful to have been stolen and brought here to America to be “saved”.

 

True- but like all poetry- don’t read it just once- and I think there’s more to it than that.  Remember, almost every single person who is reading this poem owns slaves.  Remember, almost every single person she elegized owns slaves- let’s look at it rhetorically as well as poetically.

 

First poetically- it’s in iambic pentameter- very clever- that was considered good writing at the time.  Today we may think it’s sing songly- but it was a style people like.  She wrote in heroic couplets- that means every two lines rhymed.  Even today- when I ask my students to write a poem for me- if I give them no guidance- this is what they write- heroic couplets- they just think that’s what a good poem is- and actually, it takes me almost an entire year to break that entrenched concept.

 

So, why do I bring that up?  I think this is rhetoric and she’s making a case that Black people are people too- as horrible as that is to say.

 

The worse line in the whole poem is this line, “Their colour is a diabolic die”- that’s in quotes meaning- that’s what you people think of us- but that’s not what God thinks.  When she references the black race she uses the word “sable” and that word “sable” even today has connotations of nobility, beauty, a sable coat is a status symbol and are extremely expensive.

 

I want to think she’s using their own logic against them- when she says if you truly believe you did me a favor by bringing me over and introducing me to Jesus- then by your own logic, you admit that I’m a person.  I may be refined.  I’m going to heaven.  I’m worthy.  Now what do we do that- I’ll tell you this, if your first premise is black people are beautiful; your second premise is they are worthy for Jesus to save and bring to heaven- then the conclusion that must follow is—then I must treat them with as much beauty and worthy as Jesus.

 

Wheatley in this peom doesn’t directly connect those dots, but she comes close- and listen- she’s 15 years old.  She’s reading this to pwerful people; she’s a slave.  I think it’s bold.

 

It’s definitely a delicate line to walk.  And it’s a political line, and I amazed at how she was able to walk this line- both with the Americans and with the British.  Remember, these two groups are not getting along all that well, but Phyliss manages to get her work printed in England as well as in America- maneuvering skillfully between these two groups.  The earl of Dartmouth, Thomas Woodbridge, definitely a man who believed in the class system came to Boston and wanted to meet Phyllis. This is what he said, “While in Boston, I heard of a very extraordinary female Slave, who made verses on our mutually deceased friend; I visited her mistress and found by conversing with the African that she was no imposter.  I asked if she could write on any subject; she said yes; we had just heard of your Lordships appointment; I gave her your name, which she was well acquainted with.  She immediately wrote a rough copy of the included address and letter, which I promised to convey or deliver.  I was astonished and could hardly believe my eyes.  I was present when she wrote, and can attest that it is her own production.’

 

And it was her ability to charm the political movers of her day, specifically within the Methodist church.  And she did charm them, although not without the help of Susanna who basically promoted her and promoted her until finally she landed the a particularly powerful patron, the countess of huntington in Londonm that helped her secure publication for her first book of poetry, not in Boston where it was rejected, but in London in 1773- it’s also in this book that we have the only real picture of Phyliss as the Countess insisted it be in the book.  This is. Remarkable feat for any woman- a American woman had not published a book  since Anne Bradstreet (140 years earlier)  And I’m sure on that trip, Phyliss thought she had made it.  She was celebrated.  She met all kinds of royalty.  She got to visit Westminster Abbey, the royal Observetory, The Tower of London- all kinds of amazing places- and remember she’s only 18.  She was treated almost as an equal really.  Her book sold well in both England and Scotland.  It made her a celebrity- truly.  But most importantly, it really opened the door to her emancipation- because her fame put a lot of pressure on the Wheatley’s to free her.  Basically this trip won her her freedom.  It is entirely possible that she would have just stayed over in London, but Susana’s health is in steep decline, so she comes back to America.   This, in retrospect might have been a personal mistake. For one thing, she had to turn down her invitation to meet the King as well as Countess Huntington who had made all this happen for her.

 

Well, there is no doubt things went downhill fast, and a lot of that, honestly had a lot to do with the American Revolutionary War- it’s not a great time to be a poet.  But the story goes that Wheatly arrives back in the US before her book even gets published, so she wasn’t even one of the first ones to have a copy.  She leaves in July.  Arrives in the US in early September.  I do want to remind you that, just this cost her.  We hadn’t mentioned the political situation, but there was legal precedent for slaves who entered England to be free

 

- and there is poetic evidence that Phyliss knew this when she went over there.  She calles England “Health, celestial dame- health in that particular poem referencing Freedom…for thee Britania, I resign New England’s smiling fields.”…well, now she’s giving up all that.  But she goes back, still trying to market her book while caring for Suzanna.  .  On October 18, Phyliss writes “ Since my return to America, my master, has at the desire of my friends in England given me my freedom, the instrument is drawn , so as to secure me and my property from the hands of the executors, adminstrators of my master, and secure whatsoever she be given me as my own.”

 

Suzznna dies on March 3 of 1774 leaving Phyliss to fend for herself.  Neither of Suzanna’s children care to take care of her. Her husband lets her live with him but by October, she is set free except with nothing and at the worst possible time to be on the street. 

 

Her most famous poem comes at this time.  It’s written “To His Excellency, General Washington.”  It’s my favorite one of hers, honestly.  It’s dated October 25, 1775- this is not an awesome time for the Ameicans in the war.  They had no reason to believe they were going to win for sure.  But, there is also no one more prominent at the time on the American side than George Washington.   I know this is speculation, but I don’t claim to be a historian, but I truly believe she must have hoped the General Washington would publish the poem and help launch her career again.  This strategy is what had worked in the past.  It’s what she knew to do.  She sent him the poem in a personal letter.  He wrote the following letter back- which is quite an honor, but if it were me, I’d be disappointed.  Garry want to read it.

 

 

from George Washington to Phillis Wheatley, 28 February 1776

To Phillis Wheatley

Cambridge February 28th 1776.

Mrs Phillis,

Your favour of the 26th of October did not reach my hands ’till the middle of December. Time enough, you will say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But a variety of important occurrences, continually interposing to distract the mind and withdraw the attention, I hope will apologize for the delay, and plead my excuse for the seeming, but not real, neglect.

I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrics, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents. In honor of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the Poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the World this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of Vanity. This, and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public Prints.1

If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am, with great Respect, Your obedient humble servant,

  1. Washington

 

 

Yikes- well there it is- no, I’m not publishing it, but it is wonderful.  Shall we read it.  I do want to point out a few things to look for because anytime we read something this old, it’s so easy to get lost in the language. 

 

The first thing you MUST understand is that Wheatley invented a classically styled goddess of the American Revolution named “Columbia”.  To me this is so cool because Columbia is a word we just throw around all time time and nobody even knows what it’s about.

 

True, there’s Columbia pictures, Columbia University, The Columbia Space Shuttle. 

 

Well, Wheatly just made it up- right here.  Maybe it was use before this, I can’t find much reference to the term.  I’m confident she popularized it.  What she does in this poem is use the word Columbia in reference tpo the United States.  She says, “Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.  Meaning I’m going to write you a little bit about America, but I’m making her a girl.  I’m also not just making her a feminine form of a land cluster- I’m going to elevate this girl into an an embodiment of freedom.  I’m going to create a mythology around it.

 

And you must remember, this is a girl who had spent all of her education studying mythology.  She knew a lot about and here, she’s going to make up her own mythology but this mythology is about America- not the real America, because that didn’t exist.  It’s 1775.  It’s what she WANTS it to be and she’s going to write her thoughts of what America should be to the General who may make it happen.

 

So, with that idea in mind- let’s read it. 

 

It does read very Greek-like.  The references to olives and laurels and then the Greek God of wind, Aeolus- storming in the night. 

 

Exactly, I’m glad you bring that.  In terms of structure, there are five stanzas.  Everything is written in iambic pentameter and heroic couplets- that’s her style.  She never drops the rhyme.  And she litters it with all these Greek sounding references.  It’s the idea that there is nobility- god-like nobility in what Washington is doing- even if in reality- he’s covered in mud with his soldiers all dying of small pox and exposure.

 

Another thing to point out is that it’s addressed to this heavenly choir- the Celestil Choir in the first stanza- then in stanza 3 she addresses the Muse- remember in Greek mythology- the muses are dieties that give artists inspirstion for creation.  She’s saying- look muse- look at Columbia- look at Washington- let me tell you about this amazing guy.  Read on through stanza 4.

 

Garry read’s this part.

This next stanza is where Wheatley takes her biggest risk.  Remember, this is the girl who almost met King George in person.  She has been treated like a celebrity in England= but she is going to take sides here.  She sides with the Americans.  Before the war is over, she is not only going to say, I think the Americans are going to win, she says Britannia (obviously a personification of Britain) is going to droop it’s head- she references Britannia’s thirst of boundless power- yikes.  And the reason she pins her hopes on Columbia in this fight is that, it appears she’s still a true believer in the cause.

Read this stanza until tne end of the poem.

 

Garry read’s til the end.

 

She says, “The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!”  Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales, for in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.”  Since she’s already referenced the French when she says, “Gallic powers”- there is little doubt- the French are part of the ones watching, even as they help America fight. 

 

When she says, “Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side thy every action let the goddess guide.”- she is not acknowledging the greatness of the land west of the Atlantic- she’s acknowledging the ideals she upholds to be imagined in this personified Columbia. 

 

It is a dream she was never going to see realized in her lifetime.  After the revolution Wheatley moves into a lot of hardship.  As we all know, the story of freedom is just getting started, and African-americans, even famous ones, are at the bottom of the social ladder.  Times are devastatingly hard as we talked about last week with the constitution- Wheatley had married a man, John Peters, three months after emancipation, but it seems her marriage wasn’t a happy one. Finances were a big problem and John actually ended up in debtors prison leaving Phyliss to work apparently pregnant as a scullery maid- that’s the hardest work there was.   She had three children who all died- the last died with her due to complications with childbirth.

 

I can only imagine was was heartbroken at a dream that was lost- But  as we look back at her 200 years later, I have to say that she was the muse that helped bring to life the idea of Columbia- not the nation, but the vision- she saw it.  She saw it in it’s idealized form, and perhaps, it’s safe to say, she even influenced it.  Washington was a slaveholder who did emancipate his slaves upon his death- and there were others who understood the contradiction of this new place.  As Wheatley points out in lines 5-6 of the poem, the world was watching the American experiement- this idea of creating a Columbia is much larger than just the United States- and it seems little pHyliss Wheatley had some insight into this perspective- it’s challenges but future potential. 

 

The phrase “first in peace” is THE most famous phrase in this poem and was used later at Washington’s funeral.

 

The renowned quote appears shortly before the conclusion of Henry Lee's 3,500 word eulogy in a longer passage extolling Washington's contributions to the nation: “First in war- first in peace- and first in the hearts of his countrymen,

 

I guess, as we close out this series on American historical documents, it’s appropriate that we not only end talking about the first American president, but it’s appropriate to look at him through the beautiful personification of one of the first muses to understand not just America’s potential in regard to liberty- but the potential of this idea across the globe- sweet phyliss.

 

Well, that’s a wrap- next week- we are going to cross the ocean back to Europe- but this time, we’re going to fly over England and land in the Czech Republic to talk about one of Eastern European’s most anthologized existentialist (if you want to call him- that, he didn’t-) but the enigmatic Franz Kafka and the reading of his great Novella The Metamorphosis. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Bishop - Pink Dog - The Iconic Work Of One Of America’s Favorite Poets!

Elizabeth Bishop - Pink Dog - The Iconic Work Of One Of America’s Favorite Poets!

June 25, 2022

Elizabeth Bishop - Pink Dog - The Iconic Work Of One Of America's Favorite Poets!

 

 

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

And I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  Today we are going to begin to explore the life and writing of one of America’s most beloved 20th century writers, Elizabeth Bishop.  During her lifetime, even though her outpouring of work was small, it was widely admired and lauded.  She was granted two Guggenheim Fellowships, was a consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress, received the American Academy of Letters Award, the Pulitzer for her publication North and South, the National Book Award as well as the Order of Rio Branco by the Brazilian government- yet for a long time, even though widely respected in critical circles,  her work wasn’t widely read or even widely anthologized.  Today, however, years after her death, she is recognized as one of America’s greatest poets.  Christy, what about Elizabeth Bishop is so great and why did it take so long for her work to be widely disseminated?  Or maybe more basically, why do you enjoy her work personally?   

 

Well, there are a lot of ways to answer that question.  First, for those who may not be familiar with her, let’s situate her in history. 

 

Okay, she was born in 1911 and died in 1979, so she lived through both World Wars, the Great Depression, all the way through to the Vietnam War, if we’re looking at in from a strictly American perspective which I would say is fair, since she’s American.   

 

For sure, although, none of those things really show up in her writing, now that I think about it.  Bishop wrote about nature, about the sea- and I know the way I just said that makes her sound really basic and boring, but she isn’t at all.  I wouldn’t like her if she was and I hope I can show that.  But let’s just think of her first in regard to all those accolades, why did the critics like her so much.  Well, one reason is that Bishop is a technically excellent craftsman.  That is undeniable.  Every word is calculated.  She has one poem, “The Moose” that took her 20 years to complete; she was so conscious of every individual word- no let me rephrase that-  was conscious of words, but not just words, she was conscious of the sounds of the words and how they went together, of the rhymes, the patterns, every single detail even to the order of the letters is thoughtful- in the poem we’re reading today she split the word an as in the article a plus n into two lines putting the a on one line and the n on a different one because she wanted the effect it created.  It’s that meticulous that is technically impressive.  It’s also that sort of thing that keeps her body of work very small.  She only published 101 poems.  It’s hard to generate large quantities when you’re that obsessive about every technical detail.   I’ve read every single one of them, and I cannot say that about almost any other poet, usually I read the greatest hits and move on.   So, there’s that but obviously technique doesn’t make anyone necessarily enjoy a work or any body of work, it makes you admire it, but that’s different.   

 

What I find enjoyable about her is that Bishop is a poet in the old sense of the word in that she sees the world differently.  She portrays the world as she honestly understands it to be, not how she wishes it were.  And often the way she sees things is different than how I would see them.  Her perspective is fascinating.  She was such an observer.  She watched nature, people, how things fit together and her mind made these incredible analogies.  She saw the world geographically.  Her first poem was called “The Map” and she wrote it while sitting on the floor in her apartment in New York staring and thinking about this map on the wall. She wonders why we’re so fascinated with maps, what they mean to us, and she hypothesizes about that.  She’s just very interesting.  Lots of her poems are like that.  She watches a Sandpiper in the sand and sees herself in this little bird and how it interacts with the world.  She describes the moment when she was a little girl in another poem when she realizes she’s a separate person from her aunt while she was sitting and staring through a National Geographic magazine.   

 

So, it’s her insights that you like? 

 

I think so.  Her life experiences were definitely unique.  They were defined by a lot of travel, which I appreciate especially across the country of Brazil, but they were also defined by tragedy. 

 

 But I would not say that she’s a tragic person.  She’s not, she was kind of detached, honestly and that’s how she writes.  She saw tragedy, but she also saw beauty.  She saw the tensions of life very clearly the tearful/comic side of the same thing the fragile/tough side tender/brutal sides- life has all of it all of the same time and somehow she artistically puts words to that.   All three of those separate tensions we’re going to see in the poem we’re reading today.  When I first started preping for this podcast, I had this idea that we would do my three favorite poems of hers, but I’ve since decided that’s not possible.  It will take our entire episode just to do one, so I picked one about Brazil.  Maybe one day we can circle back to her and do a different one, I know we’re not going to come close to doing justice to her body of work today, but the goaI is to introduce you to Bishop and. Maybe help you enjoy her work, especially if you’re not familiar with her and even if you’re not necessarily a poetry buff.  I love her, so I hope I can help you love her too. 

 

Okay, well, let’s get into a little of her bio.  Like we said, she was born on Feb 8, 1911 in Worchester, Massachusetts, but she calls Great Village, Nova Scotia, Canada home.  She lived there until the death of her mother, but her father died when she was 8 months old from Bright’s disease. 

 

What is that?  I’ve never heard of it.   

 

Well, we don’t use that term anymore; it’s a historical term that references what today is a collection of different kidney diseases.  Today we call it nephritis.  In this case it was fatal, and this event sent the Bishop family into turmoil.  Eliizabeth’s life was altered and sent adrift; honestly, she would really settle and establish roots anywhere, not in her entire life.   

 

Which is crazy when you think she was literally 8 months old when that happened.   

 

True, beyond just the loss of a father, his death led her mother to spiral into cycles of mental illnesses.   She was committed to a mental institution when Elizabeth was only five.  Elizabeth never saw her mother again because at the time it was thought to be too traumatic for an institutionalized woman to see her child.  By the time Elizabeth was really old enough to make the decision to visit her mother as an adult, her mother died.    

 

Bishop expresses vivid memories of her mother screaming and draws from this entire experience in one of her few short stories called “In the Village”. 

 

 So, basically as an orphan child, Elizabeth bounced around from home to home eventually preferring to staying at boarding school.  The original problem was that her father’s family was wealthy and prominent and didn’t want her raised in the little Canadian village her mom’s parents lived in so they moved her back to Boston.  To put it in Bishop’s exact words, “I was brought back unconsulted and against my wishes to the house my father had been born in.” However, they were not a loving family, and she developed all kinds of illnesses in their home.  She eventually settled in to live with her mom’s older sister, Aunt Maud, who also lived in the US.  The paternal grandparents paid for Elizabeth to attend expensive private schools and expensive summer camps bringing her upbringing to their standards.  She was a good student and ultimately was accepted into and attended the prestigious Vasser College.  

 

You know your brief description makes it sound like it all worked out pretty well, but in fact, if you read what Bishop says about her growing up years, she describes them as lonely.  In fact, she very famously told one of her closest friends, the celebrated confessional poet Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.  

 

True, and in a real sense she was alone- even though she was around people all the time.  For one thing, she was the consummate outsider, but another very important and defining reason was a dark secret she was living.  George Sheperdson, her uncle specifically Maud’s husband, verbally, physically and sexually assaulted and abused her from the age of 8 to 19- those formative years while she lived with them.  None of this was known at the time.  The details and terror of which was detailed in a 22 single-spaced letter she wrote to her therapist years later and disclosed only after her death by researchers.  One example being a time, he literally dangled her over a second-story balcony by her hair.   

 

 Yeah and the fact that we know about seems invasive for a person who was so incredibly private and shy her entire life.  

 

True- I’m sure there’s a lot about her life that she would not have wanted to be disclosed to the level it is today.  Her sexual orientation being the most obvious.  Her most important relationships were romantic relationships with women, and although she didn’t really keep this a secret and all of her friends and acquaintances understood her sexuality, it wasn’t something she paraded, and it certainly wasn’t talked about.   

 

No, of course not, especially in the days in which she lived.  There’s a lot to say about her romantic relationships, actually there’s a lot to say about Bishop’s life in general.  She wrote extensively about Nova Scotia, she lived in DC, she lived in Key West but the focus of this episode will be on her time and relationship with Brazil, the Brazilian people and the culture she fell in love with- a place where she found happiness. 

 

Indeed- she visited there in 1951 when she was forty years old with no plans to stay.  She had an old school friend from Vasser named Mary Morse who lived there with a woman she had actually met a few years before, Lota de Macedo Soares, but the purpose of her trip was just vacation.  While there, she ate a cashew fruit, which is the orange fruit connected to what we think of as a cashew which is just the nut part.  Except Bishop had a horrible reaction to it, and the reaction put her in the hospital. Lota and she got close while Elizabeth recovered and Lota invited her to stay, and she did.  While living with Lota, Elizabeth would write some of her most celebrated poetry among which would be the work for which she received her Pulitzer.  

 

You know Lota de Macedo Soares was a member of the ruling oligarchy of Brazil.  Her family was wealthy, well-connected and important.  She was also a self self-taught architect of note.  Her most famous work is the prestigious Flamengo Park- the large and important landmark basically the Brazilian equivalent of Central Park.  It’s right there on Guanabara Bay the famous water you see in pictures of Rio.   

 

Many biographers call Lota “the love of Elizabeth’s life”, not necessarily because she was the only important romantic relationship in Elizabeth’s life because she wasn’t, but because of the strong influence she exerted on her in so many ways.   

 

With Lota, Elizabeth found a home in Brazil and made personal connections in ways she hadn’t before, and she was happy there.  She lived there permanently for 15 years but then she went back and forth from the US to a new home she owned and maintained in Ouro Preto (which by the way is near my home in Belo Horizonte).  She did this until 1974 just five years before she died.  Bishop’s most famous poem may be the villanelle “One Art”, which is a poem about losing things, but in that poem two of the three homes she references are in Brazil: one in Rio and the one in Ouro Preto.  Of course, in that poem she also references losing two cities, two rivers and a continent- all Brazil.  I know I’m biased, so take it for what it’s worth, but Brazil is one of the friendliest and most welcoming places on planet earth, and Brazil loved her back. 

 

True, and of course lots of people feel that way about Brazil, but in Bishop’s case, she saw a Brazil that only the most privileged ever see.  Lota’s family was a political family, and Bishop had a front row seat to the cultural, political and social movers and shakers of the Brazil of the 50s and 60s.   This time period was an important one historically for Brazil for many reasons-  not least of which of which was building a capital city, Brasilia, in middle of the country- a place that had almost no development at the time- and moving the seat of government from Rio to Brasilia- a huge and expensive ordeal.   

 

Lota owned an apartment on the famous Copacabana beach- she and Elizabeth lived there.   

 

 Let me add that at the time, this was one of the most expensive tracts of real estate in the world.   

 

Besides the apartment on Copacabana, Lota and Bishop lived most of the time at a family farm called “Samambaia” is the the Portuguese word for fern.  This estate is privately owned to this day, although I’d love to visit it, and is about an hour outside of the city, near Petropolis. 

  

Their home out from Rio was an amazing estate- I’m not sure I want to try pronouncing that, it is an architectural marvel of the period- a. modern house set in the wild rainforest.  They had servants, garderners and cooks.  They received dignitaries and hosted celebrities from all over the world.  Lota built Bishop a studio with a glass window overlooking the beautiful lush tropical jungle landscape where she could go and write. 

 

Yes, that does seem glamorous.  And although Elizabeth never was a fluent Portuguese speaker, she did translate and co-edit Brazilian poetry into English and studied the culture, geography and history extensive.   She traveled everywhere including down the Amazon river with Alduous Huxley to see the Indian tribes, I might add.  She was very much an exporter of Brazilian culture all around the world, and not just through her poetry about Brazil.  She wrote a book on Brazil for the Life World Library series that was marketed and sent to homes all across America as one of those coffee table books with pictures in it.  So, even if people didn’t know Bishop for her poetry, they may have had exposure to her work on Brazil if they owned a coffee table book from Life.   

 

The Poem I want to feature today is about Brazil, but she actually didn’t finish it until 1979 when she was living back in the US years later.  It’s titled “Pink Dog” is actually the last poem Bishop completed before she died of a brain aneurism that same year.  

 

I love this poem for many reasons- but I think it’s a great example of what Elizabeth Bishop is really great at.  What Bishop does is she observers the world- so in this case, she is observing a dog that she sees walking up a major Brazilian thorough fare that takes people to that world famous Copacabana beach.  So, in one sense you can read this poem to be about a dog- and that is exactly what it is.  She observed a dog interact in the world.  But what we see also are layers of analogies in the dog- we understand pretty quickly that this poem is about a social problem in Brazil.  The dog is representing the homeless population an it’s exposing a terribly politically inconvenient atrocity that was happening and was exposed at that time Bishop was living in Rio.  So there’s that layer of understanding- the historical side of it, but then- we can see there’s a personal side of it too.  Maybe she saw herself in that pink dog.  Maybe we can see ourselves in it- the dog is a metaphor at the individual level as well as at a societal one.  It’s really something you can think a long time about and really not get tired.  I know that sounds so nerdy, but if you’ll track with me, I think you’ll see that it’s true and makes the work very interesting.   

 

So, let’s read it and then go through it.  Is that the best way? 

 

 

Yes- I think it is. 

 

Read the poem 

 

Let’s set the scene:   

 

The Sun is blazing and the sky is blue, Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue; Naked, you trot across the avenue.   

 

If you’ve ever seen  a picture of  Cobacabana beach in Rio- this is it.  Umbrellas line the beaches.  The beach in Rio in the summer (which by the way is December through February) is harsh and very hot; the skies are clear of clouds much of the time even though it’s raining season- the view with Sugar Loaf in the mountain and Jesus Christ the Redeemer overlooking from behind is spectacular.  But notice the language here, and this is what I mean by how careful Bishop is with words- the umbrellas clothe the beach- this reference to clothes is important because it’s going to contrast with this poor dog.  The dog is naked.  And if you’re looking at this poem on the page, you’ll see that the word naked is capitalized and also set off by a comma on one side and a period on the other it’s isolated in the poem- the dog is isolated in its nakedness.   

 

Of course I hate to bring this up- but aren’t Brazilian beaches known for the lack of clothing!!   

 

Ha!  Well- yes and no or mais or menos as they say down there, and there’s irony even in that too.  Bishop knows that’s the reputation!  But no one is actually naked. In Rio. These are not topless beaches- we’ve all seen the Brazilian bikinis, they may be nearly naked from an American perspective, but they are clothed even if they are as itsby bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikinis!  Also notice the phrase every hue- that’s another thing, any North American might notice on a Brazilian beach.  The skin tones- there is every hue.  Brazil is a land of great diversity of hue much like the Creole people of New Orleans.  We’ve talked about this before.  The shades of skin tones are as diverse as any array of beach umbrellas and all beautiful- light brown to olive to mocha.  And we may have seen a movie with people or even dogs strolling the famous sidewalk in front of  Avenida Atlantica- that famous strip along Copacabana anf further down Ipanema beach.  

 

Let’s talk about Copacabana beach for those who may not know.  It’s one of the most famous beaches in the entire world.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced at the Copacabana Palace Hotel.  Princess Dianna stayed there.  On February 18, 2006, The Rolling Stones performed one of the largest free concerts in Rock and Roll history there- With an audience of 1.5 million people, if you can imagine such a thing.  It’s legendary and yet, it’s a public beach.  Brazil, although a very hierarchical country, as we see even in the life of Elizabeth Bishop, has a beach culture that is very democratic.  Anyone can go to the world famous Brazilian beaches.  The beach is a great equalizer in that way- this is different than Martha’s Vineyard or Malibu in the US which are very elite places with limited access to average people. 

 

I also want to point out that if I were reading this poem in 1969 when it came out, I would likely immediately think of that world hit song “Girl from Ipanema”-  Ipanema is the next beach over from Copacabana and the visual imagery is the same.  That song, although a Brazilian bossa nova song originally recorded in Portguese also has an English version and won a  Grammy in 1965.  It also, by the way, is the second most recorded pop song in music history.   

 

Well, that song would have been on the radio constantly at the same time Bishop is writing Pink Dog.  And the first part of the poem can easily be interpreted as a big of a parody of that song, especially if you listen to the Brazilian lyrics.  The words in the Portuguese version are “Olha que coisa mais linda mais cheia de graca e ela menina que vem e que passa num doce balanc0 a caminho do mar… 

 

So is the Brazilian version different  

 

I think it is slightly in its focus- the Brazilian version heightens the focus of looking at the girl- let’s translate it-  

 look at the most beautiful thing so full of grace, it’s a girl who comes and who passes by with this sweet swing of her hip on her way to the sea.  It goes on to talk about her “corpo dourado”- or golden body- it references the sun and then as this line “o seu balancado e mais que uma poema.  E a coisas mais linda eu ja vi passar.”  Translated meaning- the way she shakes her body is more than a poem.  It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen crossing.   

 

So, that’s our starting point- that’s the context of Bishop’s little dog.  But let’s look at our dog in the next stanza- by the way – this poem has fifteen stanzas of exactly three lines each and every stanza rhymes within itself- meaning the rhyme and rhythm it creates is a bit musical- much like the samba or the bossa nova of Rio. 

 

Oh never have I seen a dog so bare! 

Naked and pink, without a single hair… 

Startled, the passersby draw back and stare. 

 

  Well, if we have the song in the back of our minds, it’s definitely a parody.  These onlookers are staring too, but they’re not staring because the dog is the the most beautiful thing full of grace superceding the grace of poetry itself.  They’re staring because it’s ghastly- it’s not wearing a skimpy bikini, it’s bare and naked- raw- bald. 

 

Exactly- we don’t want this nakedness.  And pink isn’t good either- it’s not the kind you get from a light sun tan- it’s the sickly kind.   I do want to add, Bishop scholars who really have studied the multiple drafts with Bishop’s annotations in the margins of the poem tell us that there was an actual pink dog that Bishop saw that inspired the poem.  She saw it not on Avenida Atlantica which is the beach road, but on Avenida Princesa Isabel which is the avenue that takes you to the beach from the interior of town.  It’s the access road perpendicular to the beach road that runs into Avenida Atlantica.  It’s a commercial street, not a touristy one.  On this street the passerbyers wouldn’t be semi-naked like beach people might be anyone- so the dog would look even more out of place.  Let’s read the next two stanzas as they talk about the dog.  

 

Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies. 

You are not mad; you have a case of scabies 

But look intelligent.  Where are your babies? 

 

A nursing mother, by those hanging teats. 

In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch, 

While you go begging, living by your wits. 

 

 

These stanzas are interesting, first this is what we call an apostrophe, Elizabeth talks directly to the dog even though the dog can’t talk back.  She, from the third line onward, switches to the second person.  YOU are not mad; YOU have a case of scabies.  Where are YOUR babies?  This is a female dog.  She’s ugly- not crazy- we can tell she’s a mother by the hanging teats but there are no babies.  This is when we get into the social commentary.  What slum did you come out of?  What favela as they are called there.  The mother is out scavenging while sickly and having to leave her babies unattended.   

 

And of course the favelas are impossible not to notice when we drive through Rio or really any major city in Brazil- the contrasts between the rich and the poor are enormous- the beautiful landscapes juxtapose with these favelas or slums that line the mountains.  The richness of Copacabana side by side in obvious contrast to the realities of urban poverty. 

 

And Bishop uses an expletive here= which stands out as strange and harsh because she obviously has sympathy for the dog.  She’s not shaming the dog. But she uses the expletive to show that this dog is despised by her society.  She’s a beggar; people are afraid of her; she’s marginalized because of her looks.  She looks crazy.  Her hips are not swaying, her teats are.  It’s gross.  She’s marginalized maybe by how she’s making a living, by her social standing.  This dog is everything the girl from Ipanema is not. 

 

Didn’t you know? It’s been in all the papers, 

To solve this problem, how they deal with beggars? 

They take and throw them in the tidal rivers. 

 

Garry, this requires a historical and political explanation.  What is she talking about? 

 

Sure, and of course every country has its dark chapters, but during the sixties, there was a push in Brazil to get the squatters who were living in favelas which were on valuable real estate to be displaced and put to live outside of town- out of sight and certainly away from the affluent and middle-class neighborhoods.  This was not just in Rio, but all over the country.  However, Governor Lacerda, the governor of Rio,  was implicated in a scandal with his effort to “clean up” if you want to use that word, these urban areas.  The authorities were known to collect these homeless people- often the drug addicted, the mentally ill, crippled, definitely beggars but they shoot them and throw into the Rio Guarda.  Here’s a quote from Governor Lacerda himself, “Once there appeared floating in the Guarda River the body of a man who had been tied up, with bullet holes in his neck, and that another had survived and gone to the police station in Santa Cruz or Campo Grande- I do not know where-and  reported that the police had taken him there and thrown him into the river.”   

 

Of course, Bishop references this like we know what she’s talking about… 

 

Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites 

Go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights 

Out in the suburbs, where there are no lights. 

 

If they do this to anyone who begs, 

Drugged, drunk or sober, with or without legs, 

What would they do to sick, four-legged dogs? 

 

Apparently there was an agency called the “Beggar Recovery Service”- you know everything terrible has a nice title.  But “recovery” in this context meant drowning.  They were recovering the city and handling the problem of beggars by literally getting rid of them in the river.  This, once it got out, provoked an international scandal, actually.  And Bishop draws attention to it very subtly with this pink dog. 

 

She also makes a risky but very Brazilian-like joke.  Brazilians, by the way, are very irreverent when it comes to their humor.  They make fun of everything; nothing is sacred.  Brazilian humor for the most part is not politically correct.  They mock everything- especially themselves-.  This comes from a long history of being a suffering people with no democratic voice- what could they do?  The rulers did what they wanted, so all they could do is make a joke of their situation.  Often, the more terrible something was the more they mocked it.  Today, even though, they are a democracy and have more of a political voice, this humor still persists.  Here, Bishop injects a little Brazilian humor,  

 

In the cafes and on the sidewalk corners 

The joke is going round that all the beggars 

Who can afford them now wear life preservers. 

 

That’s terrible! 

 

I know, right, but I bet you anything that was an actual joke that really went around.  The situation was so terrible.  There’s nothing to be done, so the best we can do is make it a little funny joke that brings attention to the terrifying situation, and Bishop  uses this very Brazilian of strategies and brings our attention back to the dog….it’s too bad off to survive being thrown into a river.   

 

In your condition you would not be able 

Even to float, much less to dog-paddle. 

Now look, the practical, the sensible 

 

After those three lines there is a break- to a new stanza, but the break gives us time to think.  What would be the solution for this little dog..this helpless ugly girl mother beggar dog…what would be sensible and practical…and of course the solution is ironic…because of course it’s. not sensible or practical in any traditional sense…but yet the irony is that perhaps it is… 

 

solution is to wear a fantasia. 

Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a- 

N eyesore…But no one will ever see a 

 

Dog in mascara this time of year. 

Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here. 

What sambas can you dance?  What will you wear? 

 

So many interesting things to say here.  First of all the word solution is not capitalized even though it’s starting a stanza—it’s not a practical solution because it’s not a permanent solution, but if the inevitable cannot be avoided forever, perhaps the solution is to wear a fantasia- that’s the Portuguese word for costume- except it’s a pun here- you can see the word looks like fantasy.  The solution is to live a short fantasy- to pretend for a moment this is not your fate.   The delusion of Carnaval won’t last but til Wednesday, but at least for tonight you can dress up in a fantasy- you can make believe you are not the eyesore you are every other day of the year.  And here you see the a-n being split on two lines= all three of these lines end with the letter a.  The social commentary is scathing…just dress up the problem…hide the eyesore with a rhyme, even a contrived one…there’s a reference to religion with Ash Wednesday, but also the spellin of the word Carnival…another detail Bishop doesn’t use the Brazilian spelling of Carnaval like they use to reference the holiday she uses the English Carnival…our word connotes those chaotic traveling little circus type things with rides and whatnot.  She’s making another pun- she brings all of our associations with carnivals here, many of which aren’t all that super-positive.  It highlights the chaos of the party is here. 

 

There are two rhetorical questions- what sambas will you sing?  What will you wear? 

 

Again this speaks directly to the history and culture of Carnaval in Brazil.  Garry tell us why the reference to Samba is interesting from a historical perspective? 

 

Well, I’m definitely not a expert on Brazilian history.  But Samba is Afro-Brazilian by heritage.  It’s associated historically with the slums of Rio and originally associated with the abolition of slavery.  And even though Samba today is associated with Brazilian culture and heritage as a whole, the Samba schools are still strongly associated with working class communities.  In Rio, and you can even tour these today in Rio, and this is historically true, it was the working class neighborhoods that would compete in the parades at Carnaval.  Each Samba school creates original songs, they  practice original choreography, they have elaborate costumes and build magnificent floats.  They are majestic, elaborate and we can see them on tv all over the world during the three days of Carnaval.  During Bishop’s day the parades and the competition were in the streets, today it’s more organized, there’s an official stand called the Sambodrome with seating and waiting areas.   

 

Of course, Bishop, likely along with everyone else, saw this commercialization of the street party coming…look at her final two stanzas.. 

 

They say that Carnival’s degenerating 

-radios, Americans, or something, 

Have ruined it completely.  They’re just talking. 

 

Carnival is always wonderful! 

A depilated dog would not look well. 

Dress up!  Dress up and dance at Carnival! 

 

Well, even in her day, the Carnaval was becoming commercialized- today it’s even more so- with some events costing thousands of dollars to attend, but beyond just being more expensive, it became more tightly organized and controlled by elite people.  Let me read a quote, “Much of the fun at Carnival has also been spoiled by the government’s forbidding costumes or floats that make sport of politicians, the church or the military.  Some of the cleverest displays of wit were formerly inspired by these old reliable objects of satire.  But radio and loudspeakers have done the most damage.  The virtue of Carnival has always been its spontaneity and the fact that all the songs, music and dances came directly from the people themselves.  When commercial songwriters start composing songs for it, and when these songs are broadcast long before Carnival, all charm is lost.”  Bishop said.  And of course, we’ve seen that over and over again in all kinds of areas- especially here in America.  We take something that is fun and free and of the people and the big boys (as we call them) monetize and control it.  We make it grander in some ways, more professional, but by doing that we also takes away everything we originally liked about it- are we erasing all the original magic- Bishop doesn’t think anyone can do that. 

 

So, we see the slight of hand as Bishop through her pen takes us through the various ways of understanding her pink do.  We start with the social, then move to the political then on to the commercial… This dog that we first saw on the beach of Copacabana  invokes the beautiful girl from Ipanema…but quicly morphs to this social outcast slum dweller who one week a year is celebrated dancing the samba in beautiful fantasy…Garry, any thoughts… 

 

Gosh…lots of them…there’s a lot to unpack here.  It’s an indictment on how we treat the downtrodden for sure,  Of course, she situates her poem in the political situation of Rio in the 1960s, but there is definitely a universality here.  Rio is not alone in its stratification of society- that’s our natural human tendency, it’s actually unavoidably human- but she comments how how we hide this- layering the beautiful on the top the ugly- pretending and ignoring instead of addressing the complex and messy.  All of us do this as societies, but we do it as individuals as well. 

 

Exactly, and of course- that’s what’s so great about a lot of Bishop’s poems- this is one example but she does this all the time. She sees something in the world that’s really there- she describes it in detail, but in the detail we find the metaphorical- we find the political, we find the social, but we also find the personal.  If I read this poem for a third time, and I’ll spare you listening to it a third time, but if you read it again, you can also read this poem as if the speaker identifies with the pink dog as an individual or maybe with the onlooker looking from the outside.  Bishop was an outsider most of her life.  You can see it both ways here.  She was an outsider as a child, but even in Brazil where she finally found her home, she was an outsider.  And in one sense isn’t that what the pink dog ultimately is, an outsider?  But the outsider is also the observer, and this observer is detached, a narrator to something I am not interested in solving but observing.  The narrator isn’t doing anything, except perhaps inviting us to empathize…she’s not preaching…or judging us, how could she, the narrator isn’t doing any more than just watching…She’s even funny and irreverent, in the most Brazilian of ways.  But she expresses genuine empathy.  She writes with a  “just think about it attitude”, and it’s nice…In this case, she says, think about the pink dog.  She sees the the actual animal, she sees IN it the beggar on the street, but beyond that..perhaps the pink dog is more…perhaps a pink dog on Copacabana is not the only one in a fantasia.. may be all of us are at times…even a closeted rich socialite can feel that way too. 

 

And this was the last poem she wrote.  How interesting?  The pink dog was an image that stuck with her for over twenty years.  Well, I have to admit, there was way more to that poem than I thought at first past.  And the devil literally is in the details.   

 

Indeed it is. 

 

Thanks for listening, as always please support us by sharing this episode with a friend, via text message, email, Instagram, youtube, or however you share things.  Come visit us at our website www.howtolovelitpodcast.com.  If you’re a teacher, you can get supporting materials and ideas for using podcasts for instruction,   You can also get a tshirt or other podcast merch.  And of course, please connect, and join in the conversation whether you think we got it right, or we missed the boat.  We’d love to hear from you. 

 

Peace out! 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

  

The Alchemist Episode #4 - Magical Realism, The 7 Rules, And becoming the wind!

The Alchemist Episode #4 - Magical Realism, The 7 Rules, And becoming the wind!

June 19, 2022

The Alchemist Episode #4 - Magical Realism, The 7 Rules, and becoming the wind!

The Alchemist - Episode #3 - Journey to the oasis! - Personal legends, omens…..and sheep!

The Alchemist - Episode #3 - Journey to the oasis! - Personal legends, omens…..and sheep!

June 18, 2022

The Alchemist - Episode #3 - Journey to the oasis! - Personal legends, omens.....and sheep!

The Alchemist - Episode #2 - Learn the rules of the universe!

The Alchemist - Episode #2 - Learn the rules of the universe!

June 12, 2022

The Alchemist - Episode #2 - Learn the rules of the universe!

The Alchemist- Meet the author, Paulo Coelho and get introduced to his most famous work

The Alchemist- Meet the author, Paulo Coelho and get introduced to his most famous work

June 11, 2022

The introduction to the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Meet the author, Paulo Coelho and get introduced to his most famous work

Guy de Maupassant - The Necklace - The Master Of The Short Story At His Best!

Guy de Maupassant - The Necklace - The Master Of The Short Story At His Best!

June 4, 2022

Guy de Maupassant - The Necklace - The Master Of The Short Story At His Best!

 

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  Today we are going to journey to France and meet one of the greatest short story writers in the world- he influenced O Henry, Chekov, Kate Chopin and many others- this would be Guy de Maupassant.  And the story we will be reading and discussing is his most famous story, “The Necklace”. 

 

Guy de Maupaussant didn’t live very long.  He died right before turning 43, but fortunately during his life he got to enjoy financial success and even fame.  He wrote over 300 stories, six novels, three travel books and a bunch of poetry.   

 

So, let’s date him exactly.  He was born in 1850 and died in 1893.  If we put that in historical context in the America’s, we were living through the American Civil War.  Europe in general was experiencing the good and bad of the height of the Industrial Revolution(we talked  about that briefly when we talked about Charles Dickens but also William Blake-some of the excesses were pretty terrible and were felt all over Europe), but France in particular under the leadership of Emperor Napoleon 3rd, made great strides to modernization.  France led the world in many ways.  Unfortunately this all came crashing down to some degree with Emperor Napoleon III, reluctantly really, led France into the Franco-Prussian war.  As with every other war, it was an atrocity, although we don’t talk about it much today.  Among other things, it changed the landscape of Europe and the. European balance of power from then on.  

 

Yeah, I guess I’ve heard of the Franco-Prussian war, but I can’t say I understand it very well.   

 

This war was between France and what is now primarily what we call Germany.  However, this isn’t exactly accurate because our maps have changed so much since those days.  The German confederation led by the Kingdom of Prussia defeated Napoleon III and France’s Second Empire. Napoleon the 3rd, would be the last emperor of France. Guy de Maupassant volunteered in that war and pulled from his experiences in the war for a lot of his stories.   

 

I’m sure MauPaussant’s war experiences were one big influence and subject of his writing, but certainly not the only one.  De Maupassant observed  all levels of French society starting with prostitutes to soldiers and upward on the social scale.  He was very interested in social struggle and in some ways a little cynical about the whole thing.   A lot of his stories convey a sense of hopelessness really- trying to fight fate.  Which in some ways is interesting in light of the fact that he did financially and professionally well for himself in spite of some very difficult obstables not the least of which is his parents fairly traumatic divorce.  He grew up in Normandy which is in the North of France. His mother filed for and got divorced from his dad for his being a womanizer- 

 

 a woman being granted a divorce was unusual for that time.   

 

Well, it was, and Guy was raised by his mom.  He went to Catholic school which apparently wasn’t a positive experience, and he orchestrated his own expulsion.  Eventually, he moved to Paris, and his mother introduced him to a man who would be the single greatest influence in his life, outside of his mother, Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert was famous and he was a writer.  His most famous book- Madame Bovary-maybe one of the most infuriating books I’ve ever read- of course that’s intentional.  is beautifully written and admired as a powerful work concerned with human frailty .   

 

Well, Flaubert introduced de Maupassant to other famous writers and off his career started.  He was prolific and well-received.  After a few years, he was able to quit his day job and live off his writing and in a high style. 

 

Yes, amd he apparently inherited his father’s taste in women, for he too has been labeled by history as “a womanizer.”  He was single, had many relationships: these included relationships prostitutes all the way to many other women of high rank including countesses.  He even had three children with one lover.  Unfortunatetly, his lifestyle ultimately resulted in his contracting syphilis.  As his syphilis progressed his writing got more and more shocking because he himself was losing his sense of reality.  Eventually he became convinced that flies were devouring his brain.  He tried to shoot himself, then he rammed a paper knife into his throat.  This got him taken to an asylym where he stayed until he died just a few months later.   

 

Wow.  That ending is somewhat shocking.  

 

Well, it truly is and perhaps ironic that a writer so respected for his ability to see real life for what it really was, ended his life without a real notion of reality.   

 

Well, Tolstoy, the Russian writer found him worthy enough of a writer to write a very long and complimentary piece titled “The Works of Guy de Maupassant”.  He claimed that de  MauPaussant could see with his own eyes things as they were, see their meaning, see the contradictions of life, which are hidden from others and vividly present them.   

 

Yes, and that in a nutshell is basically what what he’s famous for.  At that time, many writers in France, and this includes Flaubert, de MauPassant’s mentor, but also others most notably Emile Zola, were moving away from a romanticized way of writing about the world towards a move gritty realistic way.   The trend was to portray life as it really was- we call this realism.  Of course, we saw this with Ibsen and the theater.  In Ibsen’s plays he also  portrayed real life, but Ibsen was working in the theater.  We saw this with Chopin.  But the French were doing this first and most notably in the plastic arts, like painting. One notable and famous early example was a politically controversial artist by the name of Gustave Coubert.  He would paint peasants, which wasn’t that big of a deal, but in his work, tney weren’t out in some field happily picking wheat.  They were miserable.  He was showing that life was hard—people didn’t like that in their paintings.  They wanted the romantized versions showing how beautiful life was., Guy de Maupasasnt was in this vein.  He didn’t want to make people or life look like they were better than they really were.  However, de Maupassant wasn’t just a realist in the sense that he wanted to portray real life, he extended this idea further into a branch which we call naturalism.  Now, I know I’m throwing out a lot of -isms and that can get boring, but if you understand what these guys were doing it actually makes reading the stories more interesting.  De Maupassant was of the mindset that nature held a very large sway on your agency in the world.  In other words, it’s not really possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps- the powers of this world are going to win.  He saw this in evolutionary terms- This is survival of the fittest type thinking.  The strongest survive, the weakest die and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.  God is not coming to your rescue; there is no prince charming that will swoop down.  Nobody is coming to save you.  John Steinbeck thought like this too and we see that in Of Mice and Men.   

 

That kind of writing is pretty dark.   

 

Well, it certainly can be.  But our story today isn’t as dark as Of Mice and Men; no one dies, but we do see that people are what they are, and they are not always good.  They are selfish and often stupid.  Also, they will be products of their environment.  It’s not likely that you will rewrite your story to overcome your circumstances- not really- most people will succumb to their environments.  De Maupassant said this about what he wanted to do, He wanted to “write the history of the heart, soul and mind in their normal state.”  His goal was not “telling a story or entertaining us or touching our hearts but at forcing us to think and understand the deeper, hidden meaning of events.” 

 

So, let’s do it….this story, “The Necklace” is set in Paris sometime during the 1800s.   

 

 

 

She was one of those pretty and charming girls born, as though fate had blundered over her, into a family of artisans. She had no marriage portion, no expectations, no means of getting known, understood, loved, and wedded by a man of wealth and distinction; and she let herself be married off to a little clerk in the Ministry of Education. Her tastes were simple because she had never been able to afford any other, but she was as unhappy as though she had married beneath her; for women have no caste or class, their beauty, grace, and charm serving them for birth or family. their natural delicacy, their instinctive elegance, their nimbleness of wit, are their only mark of rank, and put the slum girl on a level with the highest lady in the land. 

 

De MauPaussant immediately situates our protagonist in the social system of her day. During this period of European history, classes were very stratified.  There was the highest class, there were the peasants, but because of the Industrial Revolution, there was a growing middle class- but even the  middle class was stratified. The woman in this story, is from a family of artisans.  That’s one class up from peasants but not prestigious or powerful by any definition.  Artisans work with their hands. Bottom line, our protagonist is born poor; however, because she is so gorgeous she is able to have a little upward mobility.  Her beauty, according to our story “puts the slum girl on a level with the higest lady of the land.”  Her husband, on the other hand, is a bureaucrat- that’s better than a bricklayer of other working class people, but certainly not high ranking.   

 

I do notice a little editorializing on the narrator’s part in that he comments that women live outside of the class system since they cannot work.  They have only their physical attributes, their elegance and their social smarts as a way to improve their lives, NOT their ability to work for a living. 

 

Indeed, and what makes this girl upset is that she thinks she is better looking and basically better than her husband because she’s beautiful.  Her beauty, in her mind, means she DESERVES something in this life.  She deserves luxury, and since he can’t provide that, she suffers.  She’s tormented use deMaupassant’s words.  Let’s read how she thought of her life.  

 

She suffered endlessly, feeling herself born for every delicacy and luxury. She suffered from the poorness of her house, from its mean walls, worn chairs, and ugly curtains. All these things, of which other women of her class would not even have been aware, tormented and insulted her. The sight of the little Breton girl who came to do the work in her little house aroused heart-broken regrets and hopeless dreams in her mind. She imagined silent antechambers, heavy with Oriental tapestries, lit by torches in lofty bronze sockets, with two tall footmen in knee-breeches sleeping in large arm-chairs, overcome by the heavy warmth of the stove. She imagined vast saloons hung with antique silks, exquisite pieces of furniture supporting priceless ornaments, and small, charming, perfumed rooms, created just for little parties of intimate friends, men who were famous and sought after, whose homage roused every other woman's envious longings. 

When she sat down for dinner at the round table covered with a three-days-old cloth, opposite her husband, who took the cover off the soup-tureen, exclaiming delightedly: "Aha! Scotch broth! What could be better?" she imagined delicate meals, gleaming silver, tapestries peopling the walls with folk of a past age and strange birds in faery forests; she imagined delicate food served in marvellous dishes, murmured gallantries, listened to with an inscrutable smile as one trifled with the rosy flesh of trout or wings of asparagus chicken. 

She had no clothes, no jewels, nothing. And these were the only things she loved; she felt that she was made for them. She had longed so eagerly to charm, to be desired, to be wildly attractive and sought after. 

She had a rich friend, an old school friend whom she refused to visit, because she suffered so keenly when she returned home. She would weep whole days, with grief, regret, despair, and misery. 

It’s a very long description describing her “misery.”  It’s also a long description of the things she imagines she deserves.  And again, we see our narrator communicating through the subtext that maybe, this woman’s perspective does not align with her reality.  She describes how bad her house is..but notice she has a MAID!!!  So, obviously, she is better than some people.  Also, she complains that she doesn’t have elegant food over her dinner, so obviously she’s not starving.   

 

If you listen to how she behaves it’s pitifully over-dramatic.  Listen to the language- it is as if she were in a war zone, but the reality is, she’s not as well off as her friend friend from her old school days.  The text states the ONLY thing she loves is clothes and jewels.  She weeps for whole days with grief, regret, despair and misery, but what is she weeping over?  We are set up to question this woman’s priorities and perspectives. 

One evening her husband came home with an exultant air, holding a large envelope in his hand. 

" Here's something for you," he said. 

Swiftly she tore the paper and drew out a printed card on which were these words: 

"The Minister of Education and Madame Ramponneau request the pleasure of the company of Monsieur and Madame Loisel at the Ministry on the evening of Monday, January the 18th." 

Instead of being delighted, as her-husband hoped, she flung the invitation petulantly across the table, murmuring: 

"What do you want me to do with this?" 

"Why, darling, I thought you'd be pleased. You never go out, and this is a great occasion. I had tremendous trouble to get it. Every one wants one; it's very select, and very few go to the clerks. You'll see all the really big people there." 

She looked at him out of furious eyes, and said impatiently: "And what do you suppose I am to wear at such an affair?" 

He had not thought about it; he stammered: 

"Why, the dress you go to the theatre in. It looks very nice, to me...." 

He stopped, stupefied and utterly at a loss when he saw that his wife was beginning to cry. Two large tears ran slowly down from the corners of her eyes towards the corners of her mouth. 

"What's the matter with you? What's the matter with you?" he faltered. 

But with a violent effort she overcame her grief and replied in a calm voice, wiping her wet cheeks: 

"Nothing. Only I haven't a dress and so I can't go to this party. Give your invitation to some friend of yours whose wife will be turned out better than I shall." 

He was heart-broken. 

"Look here, Mathilde," he persisted. :What would be the cost of a suitable dress, which you could use on other occasions as well, something very simple?" 

She thought for several seconds, reckoning up prices and also wondering for how large a sum she could ask without bringing upon herself an immediate refusal and an exclamation of horror from the careful-minded clerk. 

At last she replied with some hesitation: 

"I don't know exactly, but I think I could do it on four hundred francs." 

He grew slightly pale, for this was exactly the amount he had been saving for a gun, intending to get a little shooting next summer on the plain of Nanterre with some friends who went lark-shooting there on Sundays. 

Nevertheless he said: "Very well. I'll give you four hundred francs. But try and get a really nice dress with the money." 

 

Again, the focus of our story is Madame Mathilde Loisel.  Her husband, so proud of himself, has scored for his miserable and despairing wife a very impressive and selective invitation to go to a ball, an event for elite people.  She weeps for days because she doesn’t have a certain life, and he’s finally found something he thinks his wife will appreciate.   What follows is a dialogue between the two where we see Mathilde very obviously condescend to and degrade her husband. She also manipulates him to get something she wants.  She says this, 

 

Only I haven't a dress and so I can't go to this party. Give your invitation to some friend of yours whose wife will be turned out better than I shall." 

He was heart-broken. 

 

In other words, give this invitation that you think I’ll like to a better man than you.  Find a bigger man who can take care of his wife better than you can take care of yours.  This is passive aggressive and accusasatory and it  has the desired effect.  She breaks his heart.  He wants to know how much it would cost to satisfy her, and we notice that she takes her time before responding.  She asks for exactly the amount he has set aside for a hunting trip- we aren’t told this is a coincidence, but we have been led to believe this is a self-centered manipulative woman.  He gives her the whole thing.   

 

 

The day of the party drew near, and Madame Loisel seemed sad, uneasy and anxious. Her dress was ready, however. One evening her husband said to her: 

"What's the matter with you? You've been very odd for the last three days." 

"I'm utterly miserable at not having any jewels, not a single stone, to wear," she replied. "I shall look absolutely no one. I would almost rather not go to the party." 

 

Again- the hyperbolic language demonstrates her total contempt and ingratitude for her husband.  She’s miserable because she doesn’t have jewels.  Remember- clothes and jewels are the only things she loves. She’s humiliated, and she looks to her husband to problem-solve for her.   He’s going to recommend she go see her rich friend- which she does.   

 

"Wear flowers," he said. "They're very smart at this time of the year. For ten francs you could get two or three gorgeous roses." 

She was not convinced. 

"No . . . there's nothing so humiliating as looking poor in the middle of a lot of rich women." 

"How stupid you are!" exclaimed her husband. "Go and see Madame Forestier and ask her to lend you some jewels. You know her quite well enough for that." 

She uttered a cry of delight. 

"That's true. I never thought of it." 

Next day she went to see her friend and told her her trouble. 

Madame Forestier went to her dressing-table, took up a large box, brought it to Madame Loisel, opened it, and said: 

"Choose, my dear." 

First she saw some bracelets, then a pearl necklace, then a Venetian cross in gold and gems, of exquisite workmanship. She tried the effect of the jewels before the mirror, hesitating, unable to make up her mind to leave them, to give them up. She kept on asking: 

"Haven't you anything else?" 

"Yes. Look for yourself. I don't know what you would like best." 

Suddenly she discovered, in a black satin case, a superb diamond necklace; her heart began to beat covetousIy. Her hands trembled as she lifted it. She fastened it round her neck, upon her high dress, and remained in ecstasy at sight of herself. 

Then, with hesitation, she asked in anguish: 

"Could you lend me this, just this alone?" 

"Yes, of course." 

She flung herself on her friend's breast, embraced her frenziedly, and went away with her treasure. 

 

Again notice the words, her heart beats “covetously”.  Her hands tremble.  She’s in ecstacy.  She embraces her friend in a frenzy.  

 

 The day of the party arrived. Madame Loisel was a success. She was the prettiest woman present, elegant, graceful, smiling, and quite above herself with happiness. All the men stared at her, inquired her name, and asked to be introduced to her. All the Under-Secretaries of State were eager to waltz with her. The Minister noticed her. 

She danced madly, ecstatically, drunk with pleasure, with no thought for anything, in the triumph of her beauty, in the pride of her success, in a cloud of happiness made up of this universal homage and admiration, of the desires she had aroused, of the completeness of a victory so dear to her feminine heart. 

 

What is interesting about this account of the party is that it’s so short.  Her delusions of gradeur at the beginning were described in more words.  She’s a hit.  She’s the most beautiful woman there and by far.  All the men want to dance with her.  The Minister himself notices her.  She is “drunk with pleasure”.  All she thinks about is her triumph, her success the “universal homage and admiration”. Her presence at the ball is a complete victory.  In other words, she gets everything she wanted.  Except, it only lasts two short paragraphs.  

 

She left about four o'clock in the morning. Since midnight her husband had been dozing in a deserted little room, in company with three other men whose wives were having a good time. He threw over her shoulders the garments he had brought for them to go home in, modest everyday clothes, whose poverty clashed with the beauty of the ball-dress. She was conscious of this and was anxious to hurry away, so that she should not be noticed by the other women putting on their costly furs. 

Loisel restrained her. 

"Wait a little. You'll catch cold in the open. I'm going to fetch a cab." 

But she did not listen to him and rapidly descended-the staircase. When they were out in the street they could not find a cab; they began to look for one, shouting at the drivers whom they saw passing in the distance. 

They walked down towards the Seine, desperate and shivering. At last they found on the quay one of those old nightprowling carriages which are only to be seen in Paris after dark, as though they were ashamed of their shabbiness in the daylight. 

 

Notice how much attention is paid to the fact that she’s ashamed.  This paragraph is just as long as the entire party.  She races out the door because she’s ashamed of her coat.  Her husband literally tries to restrain her, but she’s in a rush.  She shouts, she walks, she’s out pacing in the streets ashamed of her “shabbiness.” 

 

It brought them to their door in the Rue des Martyrs, and sadly they walked up to their own apartment. It was the end, for her. As for him, he was thinking that he must be at the office at ten. 

She took off the garments in which she had wrapped her shoulders, so as to see herself in all her glory before the mirror. But suddenly she uttered a cry. The necklace was no longer round her neck! 

"What's the matter with you?" asked her husband, already half undressed. 

She turned towards him in the utmost distress. 

"I . . . I . . . I've no longer got Madame Forestier's necklace. . . ." 

He started with astonishment. 

"What! . . . Impossible!" 

They searched in the folds of her dress, in the folds of the coat, in the pockets, everywhere. They could not find it. 

"Are you sure that you still had it on when you came away from the ball?" he asked. 

"Yes, I touched it in the hall at the Ministry." 

"But if you had lost it in the street, we should have heard it fall." 

"Yes. Probably we should. Did you take the number of the cab?" 

"No. You didn't notice it, did you?" 

"No." 

They stared at one another, dumbfounded. At last Loisel put on his clothes again. 

"I'll go over all the ground we walked," he said, "and see if I can't find it." 

And he went out. She remained in her evening clothes, lacking strength to get into bed, huddled on a chair, without volition or power of thought. 

Her husband returned about seven. He had found nothing. 

He went to the police station, to the newspapers, to offer a reward, to the cab companies, everywhere that a ray of hope impelled him. 

 

Notice the juxtaposition here- after the necklace is lost, the husband takes the initiative to look for it.  He looks for it until 7am.  Matilde lays in bed.  He walks, he goes to the police, he goes to the newspapers, he offers a reward.  She does nothing. 

 

She waited all day long, in the same state of bewilderment at this fearful catastrophe. 

Loisel came home at night, his face lined and pale; he had discovered nothing. 

"You must write to your friend," he said, "and tell her that you've broken the clasp of her necklace and are getting it mended. That will give us time to look about us." 

She wrote at his dictation. 

 

By the end of a week they had lost all hope. 

Loisel, who had aged five years, declared: 

"We must see about replacing the diamonds." 

Next day they took the box which had held the necklace and went to the jewellers whose name was inside. He consulted his books. 

"It was not I who sold this necklace, Madame; I must have merely supplied the clasp." 

Then they went from jeweller to jeweller, searching for another necklace like the first, consulting their memories, both ill with remorse and anguish of mind. 

In a shop at the Palais-Royal they found a string of diamonds which seemed to them exactly like the one they were looking for. It was worth forty thousand francs. They were allowed to have it for thirty-six thousand. 

They begged the jeweller not to sell it for three days. And they arranged matters on the understanding that it would be taken back for thirty-four thousand francs, if the first one were found before the end of February. 

Loisel possessed eighteen thousand francs left to him by his father. He intended to borrow the rest. 

He did borrow it, getting a thousand from one man, five hundred from another, five louis here, three louis there. He gave notes of hand, entered into ruinous agreements, did business with usurers and the whole tribe of money-lenders. He mortgaged the whole remaining years of his existence, risked his signature without even knowing it he could honour it, and, appalled at the agonising face of the future, at the black misery about to fall upon him, at the prospect of every possible physical privation and moral torture, he went to get the new necklace and put down upon the jeweller's counter thirty-six thousand francs. 

 

By this point in the story, no one should have any respect for Matilde.  She has done nothing for herself.  We even find out that he has a pretty good inheritance from his father, and he spends the entirety of it to partially pay for this necklace his wife lost.  Listen to the language, he is appalled at the agonizing face of the future, at the lack misery about to fall upon him, at the prospect of every possible physical privation and moral torture….it’s very inflated language- in fact, the sentence structure and contrasts very obviously with the language used to describe Matilde  in all of her glory.  The inflated misery will be as inflated as her momentary glory- except it will last into the infinite future. 

 

This stands out!  His misery is undeserved.  Her short-lived fabricated glory is undeserved.  He is grounded in his own reality; she does nothing to fix her problem; it is his to solve.   

 

When Madame Loisel took back the necklace to Madame Forestier, the latter said to her in a chilly voice: 

"You ought to have brought it back sooner; I might have needed it." 

She did not, as her friend had feared, open the case. If she had noticed the substitution, what would she have thought? What would she have said? Would she not have taken her for a thief? 

*** 

Madame Loisel came to know the ghastly life of abject poverty.  

From the very first she played her part heroically. This fearful debt must be paid off. She would pay it. The servant was dismissed. They changed their flat; they took a garret under the roof. 

She came to know the heavy work of the house, the hateful duties of the kitchen. She washed the plates, wearing out her pink nails on the coarse pottery and the bottoms of pans. She washed the dirty linen, the shirts and dish-cloths, and hung them out to dry on a string; every morning she took the dustbin down into the street and carried up the water, stopping on each landing to get her breath. And, clad like a poor woman, she went to the fruiterer, to the grocer, to the butcher, a basket on her arm, haggling, insulted, fighting for every wretched halfpenny of her money. 

Every month notes had to be paid off, others renewed, time gained. 

Her husband worked in the evenings at putting straight a merchant's accounts, and often at night he did copying at twopence-halfpenny a page. 

And this life lasted ten years. 

 

At the beginning of the story, we see that she thought she was poor.  Now, she has come to know what real poverty looks like.  Now she is “glad like a poor woman.”   

At the end of ten years everything was paid off, everything, the usurer's charges and the accumulation of superimposed interest. 

Madame Loisel looked old now. She had become like all the other strong, hard, coarse women of poor households. Her hair was badly done, her skirts were awry, her hands were red. She spoke in a shrill voice, and the water slopped all over the floor when she scrubbed it. But sometimes, when her husband was at the office, she sat down by the window and thought of that evening long ago, of the ball at which she had been so beautiful and so much admired. 

 

If you remember, this is how she started.  She was pretty but she was poor.  Now she’s poor and ugly, like everyone else who she thought she was better than. Even her dillusions have stopped.  All she has is the memory of her one moment of glory.  

 

What would have happened if she had never lost those jewels. Who knows? Who knows? How strange life is, how fickle! How little is needed to ruin or to save! 

One Sunday, as she had gone for a walk along the Champs-Elysees to freshen herself after the labours of the week, she caught sight suddenly of a woman who was taking a child out for a walk. It was Madame Forestier, still young, still beautiful, still attractive. 

Madame Loisel was conscious of some emotion. Should she speak to her? Yes, certainly. And now that she had paid, she would tell her all. Why not? 

She went up to her. 

"Good morning, Jeanne." 

The other did not recognise her, and was surprised at being thus familiarly addressed by a poor woman. 

"But . . . Madame . . ." she stammered. "I don't know . . . you must be making a mistake." 

"No . . . I am Mathilde Loisel." 

Her friend uttered a cry. 

"Oh! . . . my poor Mathilde, how you have changed! . . ." 

"Yes, I've had some hard times since I saw you last; and many sorrows . . . and all on your account." 

"On my account! . . . How was that?" 

"You remember the diamond necklace you lent me for the ball at the Ministry?" 

"Yes. Well?" 

"Well, I lost it." 

"How could you? Why, you brought it back." 

"I brought you another one just like it. And for the last ten years we have been paying for it. You realise it wasn't easy for us; we had no money. . . . Well, it's paid for at last, and I'm glad indeed." 

Madame Forestier had halted. 

"You say you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?" 

"Yes. You hadn't noticed it? They were very much alike." 

And she smiled in proud and innocent happiness. 

Madame Forestier, deeply moved, took her two hands. 

"Oh, my poor Mathilde! But mine was imitation. It was worth at the very most five hundred francs! . . .  

 

And of course the irony.  If you remember, irony is when things are opposite.  Here we have situational irony.  The situation is the opposite of what we should have expected.  And the story ends with an ellipsis…what happens next has no consequence.  The self-delusion, the self-serving nature, the lack of agency, all of it…was it her destiny, was it her personality, was it her society, de Maupassant ends with an ellipsis, but he has led us to his conclusion.   

 

If we go back to the essay Tolstoy wrote about Guy de Maupassant, this is what he had to say, 

 

There has hardly been another such an author, who thought so sincerely that all the good, the whole meaning of life was in woman, in love, and who with such force of passion described woman and the love of her from all sides, and there has hardly been another author, who with such clearness and precision has pointed out all the terrible sides of the same phenomenon, which to him seemed to be the highest, and one that gives the greatest good to men. The more he comprehended this phenomenon, the more did it become unveiled; the shrouds fell off, and all there was left was its terrible consequences and its still more terrible reality.- Tolstoy 

 

Oh, I feel like for me to comment here would be swimming in dangerous waters. 

 

HA!  Yes, it seems that Guy de Maupassant loved women passionately in every way until the day he died, but he was a realist; he was a naturalist.  Humanity is what it is- both men and women are equally human, and he felt no need to romanticize our essence.  It’s kind of refreshing, really.  

 

Well, we hope you enjoyed this very famous short story by one of our world’s greatest writers of short stories.  Thank you for being with us today.  If you enjoy our work, please like us on social media.  Give us a review on your podcast app, but most importantly share our podcast with a friend.  That’s how we grow. 

 

Peace out! 

 

 

 

Dolly Parton - The Ultimate Local Color Songwriter!

Dolly Parton - The Ultimate Local Color Songwriter!

May 28, 2022

Dolly Parton - The Ultimate Local Color Songwriter!

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 4 - Symbolism, Romanticism, Nihilism And A Dissonant Ending!

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 4 - Symbolism, Romanticism, Nihilism And A Dissonant Ending!

May 21, 2022

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 4 - Symbolism, Romanticism, Nihilism And A Dissonant Ending!

 

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver. We’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This is our final episode in our four-part series of Kate Chopin’s masterpiece The Awakening.  There is a lot layered in such a short book.  In episode 1, we discuss Chopin’s life, we introduce the concept of “local color” and we arrive on the colorful shores of a summer resort village in Grand Isle, Louisiana.  Episode 2 we spend time on Grand Isle.  We meet Edna, Adele, Mr. Pontellier, Robert Lebrun and Madame Reisz.  We watch Edna awaken to an inner awareness she had never understood before, and we see this awakening occur through a physical sensuality she has never experienced before.  She learns to swim.  Edna Pontellier leaves Grand Isle a very different person than how she arrived at the beginning of her summer. Episode  3 we start with chapter 18 as Edna arrives back home in New Orleans.  Nothing would be the same.  She cannot  conform to the roles she has previously played.  She does not fit into the culture; she doesn’t want to anymore.  She abandons almost all that she had previously identified with and experiments with different lifestyles: the arts, the horse races, men, ultimately she decides to leave the ritzy Esplanade street and take up residence in what she calls her Pigeon House just around the corner.  Today, we begin with chapter 26 and we follow Edna’s progression through the end of the book.    

 

Stylistically Chopin wrote what we call a realistic novel. The story, the settings, the characters truthfully represent the real world.  Grand Isle really exists and the resort there existed in the way she described it.  The same is true for Esplanade Street.  The details are accurate as Chopin represents the reality the great city of New Orleans at the turn of the century.  The French language, the customs, the way people behave, the races, the music, even the Song, “Ah, si tu savais”…is a real song. All of these things reflect reality.   However, as we get farther to the end of the novel, and as the reader gets more submerged into Edna’s perspective, things get more and more romanticized.  Objects that seemed liked just objects at the beginning are now understood to be metaphorical and are symbolic.  We notice that objects are repeating and evolving- they are motifs.   In other words, the objects are still what they have always been, but they have taken on to mean MORE than just what they originally meant.  We understand things to be symbols in two ways.  The first way is whey the author spends an inordinate amount of time describing something that maybe isn’t THAT important otherwise.  A second way is when we notice something to keep showing up over and over again.  Here’s one example  There is music in the beginning.  It’s described in detail, but notice just how much music there is in this book.  Notice how much time is devoted to describing it.   There is music in the middle and there is music at the end.  It means something, but of course it’s up to us to draw our own conclusions as to what.  The birds work the same way.  There are birds on the first page, they come back in the middle and there is a bird on the last page.  It means something.  Food and meals are often symbolic.  Meals are archetypal symbols for fellowship.   Chopin use meals as a way to sort track what’s going on with Edna and her relationships throughout the story.  Following the symbols helps us understand the universality of the story.  The biggest symbol is the sea, and by the end of the book it takes on mythic proportions.  The sea, as we pointed out in the beginning is personified.  It’s alive.  But by the end, if we look carefully, we see in the description that the ocean is described as a serpent- uh ohh.  That’s a Biblical symbol- but even in the Bible a serpent is not just one thing.  But it’s not just the Bible that that is alluded here in these ocean references.  Edna as called Venus, and Venus emerges from the sea. What is that about? Although everything is still realistic- there are no superheroes or magic or pirates or fairies of any kind, there symbols somehow feel allegorical; is Edna even a real person or is she a type?  I know that’s a little hyperbolic, but not by much.  Today as we end our discussion, I’d like to see this book as indeed political; there certainly is that side of it, but that is just the surface.  It goes beyond that to ask questions that are personal.  But before we can do that, we must first address the political.  Chopin was, by her very essence, a woman in the vein of what Europeans of her day called the “New Women” of the fin de siècle.    Garry, Chopin, was a well-read French speaker and reader very attune to the political, social and literary movements of her day, but we are not- although I will say, I’ve learned a lot about new women by watching them evolve in Downton Abbey, but what is a “new woman” and what does the term “fim de siècle” mean beyond the obvious translation of end of the century. 

 

The term “New Woman” was actually an invention of the British media- it’s not an American thing- and you’re right, it’s showcased in a lot of period pieces.  Here’s one tell, a new woman might be the one riding a bicycle as a display of her independence. 

 

A bicycle.  That’s funny.   

 

You’d have been the first to get your hands on one, I’m sure.  Think about it; just being able to wear clothes that would allow you to ride it would be liberating.  Anyway, the term first came out in the The Woman’s Herald in August of 1893.  To use the newspaper’s words, “woman suddenly appears on the scene of man’s activities, as a sort of new creation, and demand a share in the struggles, the responsibilities and the honurs of the world, in which, until now, she has been a cipher.”  This feminist vision, as you can imagine was highly controversial and threatening to the status quo.  Among other things, it involved a new definition of female sexuality.  Some considered this alone to be the beginning of the apocalypse- the world was certainly turning upside down.  The mainstream media portrayed the new woman as a mannish brute towering over men- someone who is extremely hideous and monstrous- something most women obviously would not want to embrace- very propagandic.  Opponents were making caricatures as negative as possible of these “independent women”  wearing masculine clothes and pursuing unwomanly pursuits like sports, politics or higher education.  

 

How dare they? 

 

There was a lot of cigar smoking in these pictures.  These were meant to be negative images; the women would have angry faces, maybe with their hands on their hips scowling at the reader.  But in the feminist media, the new woman was portrayed very differently.  The traits were the exact same but portrayed in a positive way.  The new woman in these publications  was portrayed as a social warrior defending her home, using her political positions, social standings to compliment traditional household duties.  The idea being a new woman didn’t neglect her family she was a better provider and defender of self and family because of it.  The main difference between these new visions of a new woman had to do with what you do with motherhood.   Femininist media created images of women incorporating traditionally male domains not necessarily excluding motherhood.   The big political interests that stand out were women’s suffrage and property rights. Women were interested in careers outside the home and higher education.   Women’s periodicals emerged with pretty large readerships, and not all of these readers were women.  Women were publicly and in writing asking other women to openly express their views on contemporary life- this was new.  The question of the era was “What is the role of the ‘new woman’?” I quote the North America Review here, “the great problem of the age is how to emancipate woman and preserve motherhood.”   In the 1890s, the new woman wanted to be what some called a “respected radical”.   

 

And of course, we don’t have to get far into The Awakening to see these political and social concerns embedded in Chopin’s work.  She is a voice speaking to this socio-political moment in time, and she’s commenting in a serious way on women’s struggle to speak- Edna struggles to speak for herself at everyone point in the book.  Interestly enough, Edna didn’t have a mother and doesn’t know what to do with motherhood.  She had no personal role model. 

 

I noticed that, and it matters psychologically when we watch Edna vacillate at the end of the book.  Chopin created a character of extreme economic privilege for her day, yet still, Edna has terrible trouble articulating even to herself what she feels or what she wants.   The reasons for this are not simply resolved.  Chopin seems to suggest to me that for sure there are political, social and cultural adjustments that must be made giving women more rights, but that’s just one part of it.  Chopin illustrates this from the vantage point of a woman.  There must be a redefinition of respectable womanhood that is not so polarizing.  Here there are only two versions of respectable women-  Madame Reisz and the other Adele Ratignole.  

 

By chapter 26 Edna clearly understands she is not one or the other, but there is an inarticulate lostness.  Where does Edna fit in?  She tells Madame Reisz that she’s moving out of her home, and for a brief moment you wonder if she’s got some sort of radical plan, except she doesn’t and her reasons don’t even make a lot of sense.  They’re emotional. She’s literally moving  “just two steps away in a little four-room house around the corner.  It looks so cozy, so inviting a restful, whenever I pass by, and it’s for rent.  I’m tired looking after that big house.  It seemed seemed like mine, anyway- like home.  It’s too much trouble.  I have to keep too many servants.  I am tired bothering with them.”  She goes on to say when Madame Reisz doesn’t buy that explanation, “The house, the money, that provides for it are not mine.  Isn’t that enough reason?” 

 

Obviously those are NOT reasons enough- what does she get out of this move? When Madame Reisz asks how her husband reacted to this plan this is her response, “I have not told him.   I only thought of it this morning.”   

 

Very impulsive. 

 

SOO impulsive.  I’m ashamed to say, I know people that do things like this, but this is not my vision of the real pioneers of the women’s movement- not today or from the turn of the century- women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Isadora Duncan, Clara Burton, Mary Wollstonecraft- they aren’t anything like Edna Pontellier. 

 

Well, no they are not, Edna has some deficiencies for sure, and they express themselves in various ways.  One of these is expressed through this confusion of passion with relationship like we see with Robert LeBrun.   She indulges in fantasy which is fun, of course, and the idea of Robert is a wonderful fantasy. 

 

This is something else that frustrates me, personally, with Edna. I keep wanting to say, “snap out of it, child!”  Chopin builds this tension but she never lets Edna snap out of it.  And even though the title of this book is The Awakening, and it is true is that Edna awakens continuously throughout the book, There is another sense paradoxically where Edna is always asleep literally and figuratively.  Edna is not a villain; Edna is not a pathetic character; Edna is a realistic character who vacillates all the time between this illusion and reality.  She’s continually uncovering things that haven’t been real, but then constructing things that are totally fake- like her life in this pigeon house or her relationship with Robert. Unpacking Edna is seeing a real life- a struggle. Chopin’s evolutionary character awakens from a very female - not a male one, not a neutered life; the complexity derives from realities that are unique to women, specifically those from the turn of the century, but the social and culture implications aside, in universal terms, what does it mean for Edna to be in love with Robert?  To love someone means something in a universal way.  People love in all cultures in all times all around the world.  For a woman to love a man as she claims to love Robert, what does she mean?  Is she saying she desires a life with him; does she want to take on any responsibility for his happiness or good?  That is what I find confusing, because Edna doesn’t seem to be doing that for anyone.  In what sense is Edna “in love” or should we not take her at her word on this?     

 

Ha!  Do we take anyone at their word when they are “in love”?  Of course, when she is asked to describe what she means, she describes the biochemical addiction we all feel when we can’t get enough of another person.  That experience is overwhelming for anyone; and Chopin has gone to a lot of trouble to show us that Edna has never been “in love” before.  Edna is a woman who recently just turned on her feelings.  Turning on our feelings is important, and it is very sad that it was so long in happening for her.  Contrary to popular opinion, feelings are good.  To experience feelings is not a sign of weakness. Not taking into account her feelings is what got her into a loveless marriage to begin with.  We have to learn to incorporate our emotions if we are going to live as a whole individual- a person with no dead spots.  Edna has lived from her childhood onward with lots of dead spots.  This has handicapped her in many ways.  In this case, what does it mean for Edna in Edna’s mind to love Robert LeBrun?  What does it mean if he loves her?  I’m not sure the relationship between these two is what is important for Chopin.  It appears to be the backdrop of a larger issue?  Love is not the end game for Edna; passion was the catalyst to her awakening, to be sure, but the relationship between Edna and Robert is not a Romeo and Juliet type story.  The Awakening is not a love story. 

 

Indeed, Madame Reisz recognizes that as well.  Madame Reisz calls Edna “Ma Reine” in chapter 26.  She then asks, “Why do you love him when you ought not?”    

 

And why does that term “ma reine” draw your attention? 

 

Because that term means, “My queen”, and that seems to be more in line what Edna wants instead of a relationship with Robert LeBrun.  What has Edna discovered in this world.  She’s discovered she doesn’t want to be woman-mother.  She discovered she doesn’t really want to be artist woman.  She’s trying out what it’s like to be a “man” in some ways.  But really what she wants is to be Woman-queen.  Which is a nice role- I’d like that to be that one as well. 

 

Ha!  Not a Disney princess. 

 

Heck no- I’m all for mother-queen.  But here’s Edna’a problem.  She’s not prepared nor does she seem creative enough to invent this role for herself in the actual real world in which she lives; she likely can’t conceptualize it.  This illusion of a mother-queen will be the model from here to the end of the book.  The thing is, it’s not real; Edna is creating an illusion.  In fact, this whole book is a discussion on illusion versus reality.  What did Edna awaken to, if not to the understanding that her entire life was an illusion- she was living an inauthentic life.  Except, look at what she does in response to that?  She’s building more illusion- exhibit A-  this relationship with Robert- if it is anything it is an expression of illusion.   

 

Edna doesn’t need a fantasy.  She needs hope.  She needs to see her own potential- a creative vision of what she can become, something she would like to become- if not mother, if not artist, if not horse-racer, if not socialite, then what. 

 

In chapter 27, Edna says this “Don’t you know the weather prophet has told us we shall see the sun pretty soon?”  The sun is a very ancient and universal symbol.  It represents hope.  It represents creativity; it’s a male archetypal symbol, btw, the sun represents energy.  If you remember, Edna can only paint in the sun, and that’s exactly right.  That’s all of us, we all can only create in the sun.  We can only move forward when we have hope.  The Sun gives us life and without it we live in darkness, without hope.  Edna is wrestling with finding hope, but that seems to be problematic because she can’t even decide if she’s a good person or a bad person.  Listen to what she says to Arobin, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think- try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly I don’t know.  By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilish wicked specimen of the sex.  But some way I can’t convince myself that I am.  I must think about it.”   

 

It is in that line that I think Chopin enraptures many female readers.  I want to read it again, “ 

By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilish wicked specimen of the sex.  But some way I can’t convince myself that I am.  I must think about it.”   

 

In other words, the world tells me I am a bad person because I’m not conforming properly.  I’m not doing the right things; but something inside of me defies that.  I don’t feel devilish.  But I’m told I am, and there is my disconnect. 

 

Indeed-and isn’t it interesting that it is here at this point that Edna revisits something Madame Reisz has apparently told her previously but we are only getting to see in this context after this confession, “When I left her today, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said, ‘the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.  It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” 

 

I agree, but what kind of bird is Edna?  Madame Reisz is not using language that suggest Edna IS this kind of woman.  She’s challenging her to be a certain way.  She’s saying if Edna wants to have a certain outcome, she must display certain characteristics.  But, notice the next thing that happens, Edna and Arobin kiss passionately.  “It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded.  It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.”  Chopin is very delicate in how she expresses the implied sex scene.  The entire chapter is very short- very different than how Shonda Rimes does these things in Bridgerton.  Let’s read it. 

 

Chapter 28 

 

I know this is not the majority view here, but this is not only Edna asserting independence.  This is Edna running into more illusion. From here, she immediately moves out of Leonce’s house, but not without running up a crazy expensive bill with a lavish dinner party.  Arobin calls it a coup d’etat.  “It will be day after tomorrow.  Why do you call it the coup d’etat?  Oh! It will be a very fine; all my best of everything- crystal, silver, and gold. Sevres. Flowers, music and champagne to swim in.  I’ll let Leonce pay the bills.  I wonder what he’ll say when he sees the bills.” 

 

This dinner party is very strange.  For a book so short, why should so many pages be devoted to a dinner party that is essentially meaningless in terms of plot development.   

 

It is long.  One critic pointed out that it’s literally, “the longest sustained episode in the novel.”  

 

So, why?  It does not develop the plot; it does not develop any characters; nothing provocative is uttered.  What is going on? 

 

Well!!!  Meals are never just meals- not in literature, not in the movies.  In fact, food is never just food.  It’s almost always symbolic of something.  Food is so essential to life, in fact it IS life,  but meals are essential to community.  They don’t just symbolize fellowship- they ARE fellowship.  This Thursday night we are going to celebrate our niece, Lauren,  graduating from Collierville High School, and how are we going to do this, we are going to eat together.  Eating together is bonding.  With that in mind, notice how many meals are consumed in this story.   

 

So, what’s with the dinner Edna holds?  Her family isn’t there.  Her husband isn’t there.  Adele, her closest friend, isn’t even there.  Many literary critics have suggested, and I honestly think there is validity to this, that Chopin is creating a parody of Jesus’ last supper.  Edna has invited a select 12 to join her on her birthday dinner.  There’s irony there.  In some sense, it’s not just a day where she is celebrating turning 29.  She sees herself as being reborn- her birth…day.  She is celebrating her departure, but unlike Jesus’ humble meal in the upper room before his crucifixion and resurrection- Edna goes high dollar.  She sits at the end of the table presiding over her dinner guests, who all have a magnificent time, btw. She wears a cluster of diamonds she had just received that morning from her husband.   There is a specially designed cocktail her father invented for her sister’s wedding that she didn’t attend; there are multiple courses, everyone has a special chair.  Everything was queenly.  Let me read the description of Edna, “The golden shimmer…. 

 

Page 103 

 

Madame Reisz on her way out at the end of the party again says this, “Bonne nuit, ma reine, soyez sage.”  Translated- Good night, my queen, be wise.” 

 

Well, you’ve made your case…she is playing the part of the queen. But who are the other people in this charade?  Specifically, why is  Mrs. Highcamp there who we know she doesn’t like, and why is she weaving a garland of yellow and red roses and laying it over Victor…according to Chopin transforming Victor into a vision of oriental beauty, his cheeks the color or crushed grapes and his dusty eyes glowed with a languishing fire. After that she drapes a while silk scarf on him. It’s just weird…and pagan feeling…nothing like the Lord’s Supper of the bible, if you were trying to make that comparison.   

 

No, it’s the very opposite. That’s why critics say it’s a parody of Jesus’ last supper.  It’s imitating but not recreating.  It feels pagan, doesn’t it?   Edna is Queen but she has no stated purpose; she is not Jesus sacrificing his life for the sins of the world.  Another moment of parody is when Victor, Judas’ like, quickly falls out of favor or betrays her so to speak by singing a song Edna associates with Robert.  But he is shut down. 

 

In the chapters that follow, we see Leonce saving face by remodeling the house as a way of explaining Edna’s odd behavior and moving out of the family home.  Edna feels happy about what she’s done.  Of course, these are all feelings but “Every step which she took to relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual.  She began to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life.”   Again, Chopin never gets far away from the idea that Edna is trying to understand for herself what is real and she is doing this by stripping down, an image we will see all the way to the end. 

 

And yet, the text never clarifies exactly what it is that Edna is learning about the world and herself.  She draws no conclusions, makes no provisions, takes on no responsibilities.  Reality is an immovable thing.  It is not something we simply escape- that is not possible. 

 

 

Well, I’m not sure Edna knows that.  She visits her children and weeps when she ssees them. Let me quote here, “She lived with them a whole week long, giving them all of herself, and gathering, and filling. Herself with their young existence.”  She tells then about the Pigeon house and the kids get real very quickly.  They ask her where they would sleep, where papa would sleep. Edna’s answer betrays her unwillingness to problem solve.  She says and I quote, “the fairies would fix it all right.”   

 

Edna rejects reality over and over again.  She responds with fantasy at every point.  Madame Ratignolle recognizes this.  In chapter 33 she pays Edna a visit at the pigeon house.  She asks about the dinner party.  She warns her about her behavior with Arobin, but she also makes Edna promise that when the baby comes, Edna would come be a part of the delivery.  Before leaving she says this to Edna, “In some ways you seem to me like a child, Edna. You seem to act without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary in this life.”   

 

Adele is referring to whatever is going on with Arobin, but really, the relationship with Robert is the epitome of her fantasy.  As long as Robert is flirting with no goal- like he did on Grand Isle, Edna is in love with him.  On Grand Isle they share a meal together.  They talk about spirits and pirates.  She loves that.  But here in New Orleans, Robert approaches Edna with a desire to be honest and she rejects that.  The text says that in some way “Robert seemed nearer to her off there in Mexico than when he stood in her presence, and she had touched his hand”.   After Edna’s birthday we see no more communal meals, Edna eats alone- there is no more fellowship at this point really with anyone.  Edna invites Robert to eat with her at a little restaurant called “Catiche”.  Edna requests a plate and puts food in front of him, but he doesn’t eat a morsel. He walks her home and comes inside.  Edna kisses him.  He confesses his love and how he is tormented because Edna is not free.  Let’s read this exchange. 

 

“Something put into my head that you cared for me; and I lost my senses.  I forgot everything but a wild dream of you some way becoming my wife.” 

 

Your wife! 

 

“Religion, loyalty, everything would give way if only you cared.” 

 

Then you must have forgotten that I was Leonce Pontellier’s wife.” 

 

“Oh I was demented, dreaming of wild, impossible things, recalling men who had set their wives free, we have heard of such things.” 

 

Yes, we have heard of such things.” 

 

There’s a little more back and forth until we get to this line of Edna’s, “You have been a very very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free!  I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not.  I give myself where I choose.  If he were to say “here Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours, I should laugh at you both.” 

 

He of course responds with, “What do you mean?”  He has no idea what Edna’s talking about.   

 

Exactly, and here is where the a plot complication makes things interesting.  Their conversation is interrupted when Madame Ratignolle’s servant comes to say that Adelle is having her baby.  Edna leaves Robert.  She says this to Robert, “I love you.  Only you; no one but you.  It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream.”   

 

Robert begs Edna, as if she really were Queen Edna.  He begs her to stay with him- to not go to Adelle.  This is kind reminiscient of the stereotypical female damsel in distress begging her hero to stay- except in revere.  She pulls away, promises to return and leaves him and  quote the text here, “longing to hold her and keep her.”   

 

This Birth scene is symbolic in many ways.  It also is a return to the female reality.  Is there anything more real in this world than bringing life into it?  This birth scene reminds readers that this is a uniquely female story because this is one way men and women engage the world differently and there is no way around it. Motherhood and fatherhood are not the same.  Edna goes to Adelle and begins to feel uneasy. Let’s read this paragraph from chapter 37.  

 

Page 127 

 

On the surface, it seems that Adele is hoping to inspire Edna to resume her role as a Woman-mother.  On the surface it seems that Edna is battling social conventions and her own sensuality.   

 

Of course, the whole experience leaves her dazed.  The doctor walks her home, and I quote, “Oh well, I don’t know that it matters after all.  One has to think of the children some time or other; the sooner the better.”  Let’s read the rest of this dialogue between the doctor and Edna. 

 

Page 128 

 

 

Even at the end of the chapter, Edna cannot articulate her own thoughts, not even inside her own head.  Still she remembers Adele’s voice whispering, “Think of the children; think of them.”  She meant to think of them; that determination had driven into her soul like a death wound- but not tonight.  Tomorrow would be time to think of everything.” 

 

Of course, when she gets inside the pigeon house there is no Robert.  He left a note. “I love you. Good bye- because I love you.”  Edna grew faint; uttered no words and stayed up the entire night, apparently just staring at a flickering lamp. 

 

Again, may I point out- light represents hope and hers is flickering.   

 

Speaking just in a general sense, we are co-creators of our reality- our circumstances proscribe lots of things, but we create out of those circumstances and we know it.  And since we know this, no person can run away from his own innate moral obligation to live up to whatever potential we find inside of us.  Whatever we determine that to be.  We cannot run away from that reality.  No matter how hard we try to put it off until tomorrow, that sense of obligation to create something out of our lives is inside of us.  We can’t run from it because it is not coming from outside of us.  Edna, in all of her confusion, and she, is very confused about a lot of things at various points in the book, but she never wavers about that.  She clearly says early on in the book, that she understood herself to have an obligation first and foremost to herself.  But what is that obligation- it is for her what it is for everyone.  She must meet her own potential.  We cannot fail at that.  If we feel we are failing at that, that’s when despair sets in.   

 

Edna looks at certain realities in her life and awakens to an awareness she doesn’t want to face.  She sees obligations in her future- not opportunities.  She doesn’t want tomorrow to come, but not going to bed does not put off the morning from arriving.   

 

The end of the book circles back to where it starts- Grand Isle.  Except it is not the Grand Isle of the summer.  Archetypally, Spring represents new birth, summer represents youth; fall represents adulthood or maturity.  Grand Isle is still there, but the women from the summer resort are not.  It’s barren. The sun and the warmth is not there either.  Edna returns to find Victor there.  She arrives to find that he’s been telling Mariequita all about her birthday dinner.  He has described Edna and and I quote, “Venus rising from the foam”.  If you remember from your Roman mythology, Venus is the goddess of love and is said to have emerged full-grown from the ocean foam.  So read into that what you will.  Anyway Edna asks him to prepare a meal of fish.  She then leaves Victor for the beach for a swim.  If you recall, it was at this place where she had her first swim and experienced her first real awakening.  But now this beach is dreary and deserted.  

 

Let’s listen to the thoughts in Edna’s head, “She had said it over and over to herself.  “Today it is Arobin’ tomorrow it will be someone else.  It makes no difference to me.  It doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontelllier- but Raoul and Etienne!”  She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.  Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. There was no one thing in the world that she desired.  There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.  The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her, who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days.  But she knew a way to elude them.  She was not thinking of these things when she walked down to the beach.” 

 

There’s a lot of nihilism in those comments.  Edna has found nothing that excites her passion.  “There was no one thing that she desired” – that’s the line that stands out.  Desire is the fuel of human behavior.  It’s where we see our potential.  This is a huge expression of someone who has given up all desire to have responsibility for anyone or anything- and it is unthinking here.  She is completely detached to a degree that it’s actually shocking.  I see why this book unsettled so many people.  We don’t want to believe people can detach like this.  We know it’s dangerous. 

 

 She wades out into this ocean because the seas is seductive.  It whispers, it clamours; it murmurs.  It invites her soul to want in the abysses of solitude.  Edna looks up to see a bird with a broken wing beating the air above and falling down disabled to the water.  She then takes off all of her clothes and stands naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun with the waves inviting her to come in, and so she does.  Let’s read this final page. 

 

Page 133 

 

 

We notice right away the sea is a serpent about her ankle.  Most of us think of a serpent as a symbol for the devil, and that’s true in the book of Genesis.  But that is not the only time we see a serpent in the Bible.  In the book of Exodus, the Israelites in the desert look up to a serpent on a stick for healing.  Archetypally a serpent is a symbol of rebirth. 

 

Edna retreats into thoughts of her childhood which reminds me that Edna has no mother.  Honestly, this does not read like a suicide. I For one, think, Chopin leaves it completely open ended.  Can we be sure Edna even dies?  Chopin ends this book entirely unresolved.  It’s disturbing.   

 

It hinges on what you want to do with that ocean.  And scholars have come to zero consensus on how to understand this ending.  Oceans symbolically can be sources of self-awareness.  They can be places to find rebirth.  But, what’s jarring about this ending is that there is nothing in Edna’s characterization at any point in the book to suggest that Edna wants a beginning or even an ending for that matter.  Edna doesn’t search for closure not one time in this story- even the bedtime story she tells her kids there’s no ending.  Edna is not just rejecting society’s roles for her; she seems to be rejecting herself as an individual here.  Do these final images of her childhood suggest she wants to start over or does she give up up? 

 

When ending a good song, every musician knows you have to create closure at the end or you don’t resolve the tension in the music.  Non musicians may not know that but they feel it when it happens. Try ending a song on the 5 chord.  And for a woman with such a keen sense of music, it seems Chopin purposely leaves her song unresolved.  There is no funeral; nobody on the beach; not even any thoughts of exit in Edna’s mind.  There is nothing.  Instead, Edna is focused on all the repeating elements of her own life’s story.  It is a totally directionless ending. 

 

And that’s what people love about it- it’s messy and unresolved.  It’s realistic but also kind of mythical.   I guess, if we want to we can finish the tale in our own minds.  We can either kill her off or revive her.  She either sinks into further illusion, or she awakens one final time into a creative reality.  The central motif of this book is this sleeping/waking thing that goes on the entire time.  And maybe that’s where we find ourselves-- hopefully to a much lesser degree than Edna- the messiness of life sets in when we find ourselves oscillating between waking up and further deluding ourselves at some lost point in our lives.  We will make a mess of things (as Chopin says about Edna) – being a victim of forces without and forces within.  Yet what happens after we go into the ocean- or do we even dare?  I like to see this ending positively.  I like to think of Edna rising up and finding she CAN attach to other humans in a way where one does not consume the other.  She can find meaning in her children, in work, in art, in society.   She can find a way to make peace with her culture, her society, her limitations from without and within.  In my mind’s eye, she arises out of the foam-like Venus to rob a term from Victor. 

So, whether it’s realistic or not- In my mind, Edna comes back up- A woman- Queen.  I know I’m adding extensively to the text and that is a terribly bad no no, but hopefully while she was under water listening to all those bees she came up with a good plan.   

 

HA!  You do like to find the silver lining in every storm.  Well, thanks for spending time with us today.  We hope you enjoyed our final discussion on this very perplexing piece of literature.  Next episode, we move from Louisiana up the road to our home state of Tennessee to discuss the music and life of our own Dolly Parton, self-made woman of this generation, whose displays the very idea of local color in her music.  We would ask you to please share our podcast with a friend.  Email or text them a link.  Share a link on your social media.  That’s how we grow.  Also, visit our website at www.howtolovelitpodcast.com for merchandise as well as free listening guides for teachers and students of English.   

 

Peace out. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 3 - Edna Pontellier Battles The Forces Without Only To Meet The Forces Within!

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 3 - Edna Pontellier Battles The Forces Without Only To Meet The Forces Within!

May 14, 2022

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 3 - Edna Pontellier Battles The Forces Without Only To Meet The Forces Within!

 

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This is our third episode discussing Kate Chopin’s controversial novella, The Awakening.  Week 1 we introduced Chopin, her life and the book itself.  We talked about what a stir it made during her lifetime ultimately resulting in it being forgotten and then rediscovered midway through the 20th century.  Last week, we spent all of our time on the vacation resort island of Grand Isle.  We met Mr. ad Mrs. Pontellier, as well as the two women who represent got Edna, our protagonist, two alternating lifestyles.  Edna Pontellier, we were quick to learn, is not a happily married woman.  Her husband is outwardly kind to her, but readers are told outright that love and mutual respect was never part of the arrangement between these two.  Edna is indulged by Mr. Pontellier, for sure.  He gives her anything she wants in terms of money or material, but in exchange, she is his ornament, an expensive hobby, a pet even- something to be prized- or as Ibsen would describe it- a beautiful doll for his doll house.   

 

The story starts in the summer at the vacation resort town of Grand Isle, Louisiana.  While vacationing on the island, Edna Pontellier experiences what Chopin terms “the awakening”.  She awakens to the understanding that she is not a pet or a doll in the doll house, and just like Nora in the The Doll’s House, she decides she really doesn’t want to be one anymore.  

 

No, I guess if that were the only thing to this story, we’d have to say, Sorry Kate, Ibsen beat you by about 20 years.  In Ibsen’s story, Nora awakens when her husband, Torvald, turns on her over money.   

 

That’s a good point, what awakens Edna in this book is not a marital crisis over money.  It is a crisis that awakens her, and it totally informs how she views her marriage, but it is a crisis concerning her husband at all that is the catalyst.   She is awakened to her own humanity by discovering her own sensuality.  I want to highlight that this awakening isn’t overtly sexually provoked.  No man comes in and seduces Edna; she does not go off with a wild vacation crew.  She is left vulnerable, if you want to think about it that way, because of loveless marriage, but she is sensually and emotionally provoked through three  very different relationships- all of which affect her physically as well as emotionally.  The first is with a Creole woman, Adele Ratigntole, one with a younger Creole man, Robert LeBrun, and the third with the provocative music of Madame Reisz.  Experiences with these three awaken something in Edna that encourages maybe even forces her to rebel- rebel against her husband, against the culture, against the person she has always been, against the roles she has played, against everything that she has ever known.   

 

The problem is- rebellion only takes you so far.  You may know what you DON’T want, but does that help you understand what you DO?  And this is Edna’s problem.  Where do we go from here? 

 

 And so, in chapter 17, we return with the Pontellier’s to their home in New Orleans.  And, as we have suggested before, New Orleans is not like any other city in America, and it is in these cultural distinctives of Creole life at the turn of the century that Chopin situates our protagonist.  But before we can understand some of the universal and psychological struggles Chopin so carefully sketches for us, we need to understand a little of the culture of this time period and this unusual place.  Garry, tell us a little about this world.  What is so special about Esplanade Street? 

 

Well, one need only Google tourism New Orleans and a description of Esplanade street will be in the first lists of articles you run into.  Let me read the opening sentence from the travel website Neworleans.com 

 

One of the quietest, most scenic and historic streets in New Orleans, Esplanade Avenue is a hidden treasure running through the heart of the city. From its beginning at the foot of the Mississippi River levee to its terminus at the entrance of City Park, Esplanade is a slow pace thoroughfare with quiet ambiance and local charm.  According to this same website, Esplanade Street, during the days of Chopin, functioned as “millionaire row”- which, of course is why the Pontelliers live there. 

 

It actually forms the border between the French Quarter and the less exclusive Faubourg Marigny.  At the turn of the last century it was grand and it was populated by wealthy creoles who were building enormous mansions meant to compete with the mansions of the “Americans” on St. Charles Avenue. 

 

“The Americans”? 

 

Yes, that was the term for the non-Creole white people.  The ones that descended from the British or came into New Orleans from other parts of the US. 

 

 Esplanade Street was life at its most grand- there is no suffering like you might find in other parts of New Orleans.  The Pontelliers were wealthy; they were glamorous; these two were living competitively.   

 

The first paragraph of chapter 17 calls the Pontellier mansion dazzling white. And the inside is just as dazzling as the outside. Mrs. Pontellier’s silver and crystal were the envy of many women of less generous husbands.  Mr. Pontellier was very proud of this and according to our sassy narrator loved to walk around his house to examine everything.  He “greatly valued his possessions.  They were his and I quote “household gods.” 

 

The Pontelliers had been married for six years, and Edna over this time had adjusted to the culture and obligations of being a woman of the competitive high society of Creole New Orleans.  One such obligation apparently centered around the very serious etiquette of calling cards and house calls.  This is something we’re familiar with, btw, since we watch Bridgerton.  It was something we saw in Emma, too.  Garry, talk to us about the very serious social business of calling cards.  

 

Well, this is first and foremost a European custom during this time period. It started with simple cards designed to announce a person’s arrival, but as in all things human, it grew and grew into something much larger and subtextual- and of course, with rules.  During the Victorian era, the designs on the cards as well as the etiquette surrounding were elaborate.  A person would leave one’s calling card at a friend’s house, and by friend meaning a person in your community- you may or may not actually be friends. Dropping off a card was a way to express appreciation, offer condolences or just say hello.  If someone moved into the neighborhood, you were expected to reach out with a card, and a new arrival was expected to do the same to everyone else.   

 

The process would involve putting the card on an elaborate silver tray in the entrance hall.  A tray full of calling cards was like social media for Victorians- you were demonstrating your popularity.   

For example, if we were doing this today, we would have a place in the entrance of our home, and we’d make sure the cards of the richest or most popular people we knew were on to.  We would want people who dropped off cards to be impressed by how many other callers we had AND how impressive our friends were. The entire process was dictated by complicated social rules, and as Leonce explains to Edna, to go against these rules could mean social suicide.  

 

It could also mean financial suicide because business always has a human component.  The function of an upper class woman would be to fulfil a very specific social obligation and this involved delivering and accepting these calling cards.  Every woman would have a specific day where she would make it known she was receiving cards, and the other ladies would go around town to pay house calls.  In some cases, a woman might remain in her carriage while her groom would take the card to the door.  During the Regency era like in Jane Austen’s day, there was a system of bending down the corner of the card if you were there in person, and not if you were sending it, but by Chopin’s day, I’m not sure if that was still a thing.  

 

The main thing was that the card would be dropped off on this special silver tray. If it were a first call, the caller might only leave a card.  But, if you were calling on the prescribed day, the groom would further inquire if the lady of the house were home.  A visit would consist of about twenty minutes of polite conversation.  It was important that if someone called on you, you must reciprocate and call on then on their visiting day.   

 

Well, the Tuesday they get back, Edna leaves the house on her reception day and does not receive any callers- a social no-no.  In fact, as we go through the rest of the book, she never receives callers again. This is an affront to the entire society, and an embarrassment to her husband; it’s also just bad for business, as Mr. Pontellier tries to explain to his wayward wife, let’s read this exchange. 

 

“Why, my dear, I should think you’d understand by this time that people don’t do such things; we’ve got to observe “les convenances” if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession.  If you felt that you had to leave this afternoon, you should have left some suitable explanation for your absences.   

 

One thing I find interesting.  Mr. Pontellier assumes that Mrs. Pontellier is on the same page on wanting the same things as he wants, and what he wants is to keep up with the procession.  They’d been doing this for the last six years, and doing it well. 

 

Another thing I notice is that he doesn’t rail at her for skipping out. Mr. Pontellier, unlike her father, even as we progress through the rest of the book, is not hard on her at all.  In fact, he’s indulgent.  The problem in the entire book is not that he’s been overtly abusive or cruel.  Read the part where he tries to kind of help her fix what he considers to be a serious social blunder. 

 

Page 60 

 

Well, if taken in isolation, this exchange doesn’t seem offensive, and I might even have taken sides with Mr. Pontellier if it weren’t back to back with this horrid scene of him complaining about his dinner then walking out to spend the rest of the evening at the club where he clearly spends the majority of his time.  You have to wonder what is going on at that club, but beyond that.  Edna is again left in sadness.  “She went and stood at an open window and looked out upon the deep tangle of tea garden below”.  (On an aside, if you’ve read Chopin’s story, the story of an hour, you should recognize the language here and the image of this open window).  Anyway,, Here again we have another image of a caged bird, or a person who is looking out in the world but not feeling a part of it.  “She was seeing herself and finding herself in just sweet half-darkness which met her moods. But the voices were not soothing that came to her from the darkness and the sky above and the stars.  They jeered and sounded mournful notes without promise, devoid even of home.  She turned back into the room and began to walk to and from down its whole length, without stopping, without resting.  She carried in her hands a thin handkerchief, which she tore into ribbons, rolled into a ball, and flung from her.  Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet.  When she saw it there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it.  But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet.  In a sweeping passion she seized a glass vase from the table and flung it upon the tiles of the hearth.  She wanted to destroy something.  The crash and the clatter were what she wanted to hear.” 

 

She’s clearly angry…and not just because Mr. Pontellier complained about the food and walked out of the house.  She’s angry about everything.  

 

Never mind the fact that we are never told what goes on at this club, but there are several indications in different parts of the book that Mr. Pontellier may be doing other things besides smoking cigars in crowded rooms.  Adele even tells Edna that she disapproves of Mr. Pontellier’s club.  She goes on to say, “It’s a pity Mr. Pontellier doesn’t stay home more in the evenings.  I think you would be more- well, if you don’t me my saying it- more united.”   

 

Although I will add, Edna quickly replies, “’Oh dear no!’ What should I do if he stayed home? We wouldn’t have anything to say to each other.”  - the fact remains that MR. Pontelier does not see any need to nurture any sort of human or intimate relationship with Edna- theirs comes across as a cordial business arrangement, at best, with Edna in the position of employee.   

 

True, and although I don’t know if this is the right place to point this out, but in terms of the sexual indiscretions that may or may not be going on when Mr. Pontellier is at the club, there is likely a lot in the culture at large going on under the surface that a person from the outside wouldn’t immediately be aware of.   Edna is naïve at first to all that goes on in her Victorian-Creole world.  There just is no such thing as “lofty chastity”  amongst the Creole people, or any people I might add, although Edna initially seems to believe that in spite of all the sexual innuendo in the language, nothing sexual was ever going on.  There are just too many indications otherwise in the story that that is not the case.  The reader can see it, even though Edna cannot.  

 

True, and if you didn’t catch it on Grand Isle, in the city, it is more obvious, and the farther along we go in the story, it gets more obvious as well.  Mrs. James Highcamp is one example.  She has married an “American” but uses her daughter as a pretext for cultivating relationships with younger men.  This is so well-known that Mr. Pontellier tells Edna, after seeing her calling card, that the less you have to do with Mrs. Highcamp the better.  But she’s not the only example.  Victor basically details an encounter with Edna of being with a prostitute he calls “a beauty” when she comes to visit his mother..ending with the phrase that she wouldn’t comprehend such things.  And of course, most obviously there is the character Arobin with whom Edna eventually does get sexually involved, but his reputation has clearly preceded him.   

 

 Well, Edna’s awakening to all of this would explain part of her anger, but  there is more to Edna’s awakening then just Leonce, or the new culture she’s a part of, or really any outside factor.  

 

Yes, and it is in the universality of whatever is going on inside of Edna that we find ourselves.  That’s what’s so great about great literature- the setting can be 120 years ago, but our humanity is still our humanity.   

 

 I agree and love that, but let’s get back to her setting for a moment. I think it’s worth mentioning that the 19th century culture of the Creole people in New Orleans is messy and complicated in its own unique way.  It’s fascinating, but for those who are not of the privileged class, life was often a harsh reality.  The world, especially in the South, was problematic for people of mixed race heritage.  So, and this is more true the closer we get to the Civil War and the Jim Crow era, but those who called themselves “white creoles” had a problem because of the large existence of the free people of mixed race ancestry in New Orleans.  There was a strong outside pressure to maintain this illusion of racial purity, but the evidence suggests this simply wasn’t reality.  Let me throw out a few numbers to tell you what I’m talking about.  From 1782-1791, the St. Louis Catholic Church in New Orleans recorded 2688 births of mixed race children.  Now that doesn’t seem like a large number, but let me throw this number out- that same congregation at that time same only records 40 marriages of black or mixed race people.  Now, I know Catholics are known for having large families, but I’m not sure 20 women can account for 2688 births.   

 

No, something feels a little wrong.  That number suggests another explanation may be in order.   

 

Exactly, and by 1840 that number grows from 2688 to over 20,000 with mixed raced Creoles representing 18% of the total population of residents of New Orleans.  And if that doesn’t convince you, here’s another indicator, during this same period many many free women of color were acquiring prime real estate in New Orleans under their own names.  These women had houses built and passed estates on to their children, but notice this detail, the children of these mixed-raced women had different last names then their mothers.  We’re not talking about small amounts of property here.  By 1860 $15 million dollars worth of property was in the name of children with last names that were not the same as that of their mothers, oh and by the way, a lot of that property was in the neighborhood where Edna rents her pidgeon house just around the corner from Esplanade street- in other words around the corner and walking distance from millionaire row.   

 

Well, that’s really interesting, and I guess, does add a new dimension to the subtext in the language for sure. 

 

Well, it does, and it is likely something readers of the day would have certainly understood, more than we do 100 years later when the stakes of identifying as being of mixed raced heritage are not the difference between freedom and slavery.  But beyond just that, it’s an example of cultures clashing.  Edna represents an outwardly prudish Puritan culture coming into a society that is French, Spanish and Caribbean- very different thinking.  This is a de-facto multi-cultural world; it’s Catholic; it’s French-speaking; it’s international.  She doesn’t understand what she’s seeing.  And in that regard, her own situational reality is something she’s realizing she is only beginning to understand, and she comes into it all very gradually. She is not, in Adele’s words, “One of them.”  In fact, there may have been irony in the narrator in Grand Isle suggesting that Robert LeBrun’s relationships every summer were platonic.  His relationship with the girl in Mexico we will see most certainly is not, but nor was his relationship with Mariequeita on Grand Isle, the girl they meet on the day they spent together.   

 

Indeed.  You may be right- perhaps there is a real sense that Edna has been blind, and perhaps not just to her husband but by an entire society that presents itself one way but in reality is something entirely different altogether.  When she visits Adele and her husband at their home, everything seems perfect- of course.  Adele is the perfect woman with this perfect life.  Adele is beautiful.  Her husband adores her.  The Ratignolle’s marriage is blissful, in fact to use the narrator’s words, “The Ratignolles’ understood each other perfectly.  If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union.”   

 

Do you think it’s sarcasm again?  Was it truly perfect, or just presenting itself to be perfect?  

 

It's really hard to tell.  Maybe they have worked out a great life together.  I think there is a lot in this passage to suggest they are truly happy together.  Edna even expresses that their home is much happier than hers.  She quotes that famous Chinese proverb “Better a dinner of herbs”.  The entire quote is “Better a dinner of herbs than a stalled ox where hate is.”- meaning her house has better food but she thinks of it as a hateful place- whereas this place is the opposite.  

Poor thing- she sees her reality for what it is.  I still see a little sarcasm in the narrator’s language, but even if Adele is every bit as perfect as she seems, and even if her home is every bit as perfect as it seems, and even if her husband is every bit as perfect as he seems, in the most real of ways, that could all be true and it wouldn’t matter.  E 

 

Precisely, The Ratignole’s life can be every bit as perfect as it appears. and it wouldn’t make Edna want it any more.  Edna leaves Adele’s happy home, realizing that even if she could have it it’s not the life she wants.  She wouldn’t want that world even if Leonce loved her.  It’s just not for her.  The problem is, that’s as far as she’s gotten with her problem solving.  All she knows is what she DOESN’T want.  Her new world is a world of negation.  She wants to quit, and so she does.  She absolutely disregards all her duties to the point that it finally angers Leonce enough to confront her.   

“It seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family.”   

An atelier is an artist studio.  It’ seems Edna has left all the responsibilities she had as a housewife as well as a mother.  And let me add, Edna was never dusting, cooking, or bathing her children.  She has several house keepers and nannies.  But now, she’s not even overseeing what others are doing.  Instead, she’s devoting herself entirely to painting.  And surprisingly, Leonce doesn’t even have a problem with that in and of itself.  Edna tells her husband, “I feel like painting.”  To which he responds, “Then in God’s name paint!  But don’t let the family go to the devil.  There’s Madame Ratignolle, because she keeps up her music, she doesn’t let everything else go to chaos.   And she’s more of a musician than you are a painter.” 

Yikes, that may be honest, but it does come across as a little harsh. 

I know.  I think it’s kind of a funny line.  To which, Edna has an interesting comeback- it’s like she knows it’s not about the painting. She says, “It isn’t on account of the painting that I let things go.”  He asks her then why she’s let everything go, but she has no answer.  She says she just doesn’t know.  Garry, do you want to take a stab at what’s going on with Edna?  

Well, I do want to tread carefully.  What is fascinating about this book is not so much that Chopin is arguing for any specific course of action, or warning against any specific set of behaviors.  She doesn’t condemn Edna for anything, not even the affair she will have with Arobin.  Instead of judging, Chopin, to me, seems to be raising questions.  And it is the questions that she raises that are so interesting.  Edna is desperately trying to rewrite the narrative of her life.  There is no question about that.  But that is an artistic endeavor, in some ways like painting or singing.   I guess we can say Chopin is blending her metaphors here.  Edna doesn’t want to be a parrot and copy, but she’s living her life exactly the way she is painting- it’s uncontrolled; it’s undisciplined; it’s impulsive.  I’d also say, it’s rather unoriginal.  There is no doubt that the social roles offered to her are restrictive.  There’s no doubt her marriage is a problem, but as we get farther into the story, it’s hard to believe that even if all of these problems could be rectified that Edna would be able define a life for herself.  We, as humans, are always more than a reaction to the social and cultural forces in our world- I hate to get back to the word we used last week, but I can’t get away from it.  Even under strict social norms, which I might add, Edna is NOT under for her time period- she is after all one of the most privileged humans on planet Earth at that particular time in human history, but even if she were under severe restrictions, she, as a human, still has agency- we all do. 

Yes- and to use Chopin’s words from chapter 6, Mrs Pontellier was beginning to realize her position as an individual as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world WITHIN and about her.  I think that Edna is like the rest of us in that it’s easier to understand and manage the world about us as opposed to the world within.  At least I can SEE the world about me- how can I see within?  How can I understand myself?  And so Edna goes to the world of Madame Reisz having discarded the world of Adele Ratignolle- the world of art, the world of the artist- which is where Edna goes in chapter 21.  I would argue that she sees it as the polar opposite of Adele’s reality.  There is the Adele version of being a woman- a totally objectified, sexualized but mothering type of woman= versus this version of womanhood who is basically asexually.  Perhaps Madame Reisz isn’t a woman at all- she’s an artist.   

Except that world, the world of the artist, comes with its own share of difficulties nevermind that it is simply more uncomfortable.  Reisz’ house is described as “dingy”.  There’s a good deal of smoke and soot.  It’s a small apartment.  There’s a magnificent piano, but no elegant food or servants or silver trays for calling cards.  She cooks her meals on a gasoline stove herself.  Let me quote here, “it was there also that she ate, keeping her belongings in a rare old buffet, dingy and battered from a hundred years use.” 

True, but there is also  the music and when the music filled the room it floated out upon the night, over the housetops, the crescent of the river, losing itself in the silence of the air and made Edna sob. The art is otherworldly, and there is something to that.  Something attractive maybe even metaphysical.  I want to talk about Kate Chopin’s choice of music.  I don’t think we noted this in episode one, but Chopin was an accomplished pianist.  She played by ear and read music.  She held parties, almost identical to the ones she described Madame Ratignole throwing in the book with dancing and card playing.  Music was a very big deal to Kate Chopin, so when she includes specific music in her writing, she’s not just dropping in commonly used songs, she uses artists she likes for specific reasons, and in this novel, the pianist Frederic Chopin is selected intentionally- and not because he has the same last name, although I did check that out- they are not related.  Garry, as a musician yourself, what can you tell us about Frederic Chopin, the Polish composer and pianist? 

Well, let me make this comparison, Frederic Chopin’s music in his day was the pelvis gyrating Elvis’ Rock in Roll of his day.  It was provocative.  19th century attitudes towards this type of harmony driven romantic music would seem hysterical to us.  They were seen as sensual and a destructive force, especially for women.  This may even be Chopin’s sassy narrator playing with us again- Frederic Chopin’s music is definitely driving sensuality in Edna. To say Kate Chopin is using it ironically is likely taking it too far, but I don’t know, maybe not.  This narrator has been ironic before. The main undeniable connection is that Madame Reisz plays Impromptus.  Impromptus are improvisational music.  Frederic Chopin wrote only four of them in his career.  The one Kate selects here is called Fantasie-Impromptu in C minor- it’s the only one in a minor key that he ever wrote.  You can pull it up on Spotify and hear it for yourself.   It is full of rhythmical difficulties.  It’s very difficult to play. It’s quick and full of emotion.  There is banging on low notes at times, thrills and rolling notes going faster and slower at others points.  Frederic Chopin, by the way, was a very temperamental person and in some ways shares a lot of the personality quirks of Madame Reisz. But he did have an interesting philosophy about music that I really like and does connect to our book.  He is recorded to have said this, “words were born of sounds; sounds existed before words…Sounds are used to make music just as words are used to form language.  Thought is expressed through sounds.  And undefined human utterance is mere sound; the art of manipulating sounds is music.” 

Interesting, music is thoughts as sounds.  I like the expression “undefined human utterance” especially in regard to Edna because she absolutely cannot get her thoughts out nor is she willing to share then with anyone.  She expresses more than once that her inner world was hers and hers alone. She can’t get her thoughts out when she talks to Adele; she can’t get them out when she talks to her husband, and she can’t get them out even with Madame Reisz which would have been a very safe space for her to express herself.  At the end of chapter 21, she’s sobbing at the music and holding in her hands a letter from Robert LeBrun crumpled and damp with tears.  

It would have helped her to have found someone to talk to, maybe the Dr. Mandelet that Leonce goes to in chapter 22 for advice about how to help his wife.   

What we find out from Leonce’s conversation is that Edna has withdrawn from every single person in her world.  She won’t even go to her sister’s wedding.  What the doctor sees when he goes to dinner at their house is a very outwardly engaging woman but an inwardly withdrawn one.  The Doctor wonders if she’s having an affair, but she isn’t.   

She is, to use the title of the book, One Solitary Soul.  As a human being, there are only so many types of relationships we find meaning in: we have our parents and birth family, we have our intimate relationship, we have our children (if we have any), we have our professional relationships, and we have our social friends- at least one of these has to be working for us.  Edna finds no satisfaction in any of them.  She doesn’t have a trusting relationship anywhere.   

Yes, every single relationship in her life is basically a burden.  Edna is trying to relieve herself of every single responsibility in the world hoping that getting out of relationships will help her expand her identity.  The problem is getting RID of responsibilities is not really the answer.  To find meaning in this world you must DO something worth doing.  Something that takes strength and energy.  Something you can be proud of.  Of course as a classroom teacher, that is what we do everyday.  It’s not helpful to give students high grades or marks for nothing.  It weakens them.  When you give them a difficult task and then they are able to do that task, they grow, they get strong, they learn they are capable of even great responsibilities.  If you want to get strong, you have to take ON responsibilities- you have to practice strength training, Edna goes the opposite way here.    

 Edna does look for models, and if she wanted a career path, or a professional life like we think of in  our era, Chopin threw in a character that could have served that function.  It’s what I see going on in  the chapters about the races.  Edna is actually really good at horse gambling.  She knows horses.  She knows the horse-racing business and knows it well.  The text actually says that she knows more about horse-racing than anyone in New Orleans.  In fact, it’s her knowledge about horses that puts her on the radar of the man she eventually has the sexual relationship with, Alcee Arobin.   

Let’s read the section where we see this relationship, if we want to call it that, take shape.  Arobin had first seen her perform well at the tracks and to use the narrator’s words, he admired Edna extravagantly after meeting her at the races with her father. 

Mrs. Highcamp is also a completely different version of a feminine ideal, although neither Edna nor the narrator seem to think enough of to give her a first name.  This confused me some when I read this because in my mind, Mrs. James Highcamp would have been this type of a liberated woman that Chopin might want to have Edna admire.  She’s clearly sexualy liberated, but beyond that she’s worldly, intelligent, slim, tall.  Her daughter is educated, participates in political societies, book clubs, that sort of thing.  But nothing about Mrs. James Highcamp is alluring to Edna at all.  She suffers Mrs. James Highcamp because of her interest in Arobin.  

Let’s read about these encounters between Arobin and Edna.  

Here’s the first one 

Page 86  

 

So, Arobin becomes fascinated with Edna, in part because she is so smart and different from other women.  At the end of that evening, they dined with the Highcamps. And afterwards Arobin takes Edna home.  The text says this “She wanted something to happen- something, anything, she did not know what.  She regretted that she had not made Arobin stay a half hour to talk over the horses.  She counted the money she had won.  There was nothing else to do, so she went to bed, and tossed there for hours in a sort of monotonous agitation. 

And so the relationship with Arobin is born out of boredom.   

Yes, the dominant movement in Edna’s life is always drifting towards boredom.  Edna wants to rewrite her social script, but she can’t seem to define what she wants.  She has trouble speaking, so she has no words to write her own story.  She doesn’t want to be a mother; she doesn’t want to work except in sunny weather; she has an opportunity with Mrs. Highcamp to get involved with political or literary women; but that doesn’t spark her interest.  She could make a name for herself at the races, but the money doesn’t motivate her- she’s always had it and in some ways doesn’t seem to know a world without money.  So, she’s going to default into this relationship with Arobin.  I’m going to suggest that she is again playing the part of the parrot.  Messing around with Arobin is just the kind of thing she sees men doing.  It’s what Victor does; it may be what her husband does; it is likely what Robert is doing down in Mexico, so she’s going to try to mimic male behavior since she hasn’t really found a female model she’s interested in emulating, and Arobin is an opportunitiy for this.   

And yet, she’s self-aware enough to not be seduced by Arobin.  The first time he really tries to make a move on her by kissing her hand, this is what she says which I find insightful, 

“When she was alone she looked mechanically at the back of her hand which he had kissed so warmly.  Then she leaned her head down on the mantlepiece.  She felt something like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour.  The thought was passing vaguely through her mind, “what would he think?” 

She did not mean her husband; she was thinking of Robert LeBrun.  Her husband seemed to her now like a person whom she had married without love as an excuse.  She lit a candle and went up to her room.  Alcee Arobin was absolutely nothing to her.  Yet his presence, his manners, the warmth of his glances, and above all the touch of his lips upon her hand had acted like a narcotic upon her.  She slept a languorous sleep, interwoven with vanishing dreams.” 

Garry, is there a connection between Edna’s boredom with her new life and her desire to pursue this relationship with Arobin.  

Well, again, Dr. Kate Chopin is playing the psychologist.  Science has absolutely confirmed there is a relationship with boredom and risk-taking behaviors.  In other words, the more bored you find yourself, the more likely you are to do something risky.  It’s one reason teenagers are so prone to dangerous behaviors like drugs.  They don’t know yet how to cope with personal down time.  They can’t manage their own boredom.  Bored people don’t know what they want to do.  They also score low on scares that measure self-awareness.  Bored people can’t monitor their own moods or understand what they truly want.  And here’s another characteristic that should sound familiar in the life of Mrs. Edna Pontellier, notice that last line “vanishing dreams”, Edna is not dreaming.  She’s not working at writing a script for her life..structuring a story for herself.  Her dreams and not building anything, they are vanishing.  That’s not good.  And it’s not that doesn’t have illusions, she does, but a dream is not an illusion.  Dreams are what inspire us to do something different. Both a dream and an illusion are unreal, but an illusion will always be an illusion- it has no chance of becoming real; out of dreams new realities are born.  We are not seeing Edna dream.  Her dreams are vanishing.   

Which brings us to the place where I want to end with this episode- chapter 26 and Edna’s decision to move out of her husband’s house.  I mentioned that this book is constructed with the archetypal 3 in mind at every point.  Edna has been living on Esplanade street- the wealthy gilded cage life, and she doesn’t want that.  She has visited Madame Reisz’s apartment, but she doesn’t seem to want that- it’s, and I quote, “cheerless and dingy to Edna”.  So what does she do? She moves two steps away from Esplanade Street, to a house Ellen calls, “the pigeon house.”  Pigeons are the oldest domesticated bird in the world.  They never fly far from home- homing pigeons is actually a term. She’s building an illusion. Edna is going out of her husband’s house to a place around the corner, but is she really building a new life of any kind?  What is this about?   Edna describes it to Madame Reisz, this way,  “I know I shall like it, like the feeling of freedom and independence.”   

But is the feeling of freedom and independence the same as actually having freedom and independence? 

Well, obviously not.  They are worlds apart.  But Edna lives in feelings.  She works when she feels like it.  She plays with her children when she feels like it, and now she admits to Madame Reisz that she’s in love with Robert LeBrun, who by the way is coming back.  And when she finds that out she feels, and I quote “glad and happy to be alive.”  And what does she do after that, she stops at a candy store, buys a box to send to her children who are with their grandparents in the country and she writes a charming letter to her husband.  Her letter was brilliant and brimming with cheerfulness.  I’m sorry, but Edna frustrates the feminist in me.   

Well, Edna is struggling for sure.  She can’t connect with people.  She can’t identify a dream worth pursuing.  She can’t write her own story.  There is no doubt that a lot of this has to so with cultural and social forces at work in her world.   These are powerful forces.  However,  it is not the outside forces of her world that will do her in.  Edna is smart.  She’s beautiful.  She’s charming.  She actually has a lot going for her, especially for a woman during this time period.  If Chopin had wanted to write a story where a woman breaks free and soars, she has a protagonist who is positioned to do that very thing.   

But she’s in a mess.  And maybe that’s why she’s so relatable.  Many of us have made messes of our lives.  We have an incredible ability to screw up, but  humans are also incredibly resilient.  Look at Chopin’s own life as an example.  In some ways, she’s both Adele Ragntingole and Madame Reiz, at different points in her life she’d been both.  She may even have been Mrs. James Highcamp to a lesser degree. Why is Edna struggling here? 

Well, humans are incredibly resilient, but you know what else we are- we are social beings.  Let’s revisit that original book title, “One Solitary Soul”- it’s my experience that no one gets out alone- not even the rich, the beautiful or the smart.  No one gets out alone.   

Ah, Edna is strong enough to confront the forces without, but who will help her confront the forces within? 

And so next episode, we will see her confront those internal forces.  There are no more female characters to meet; no more male characters either for that matter.  We will see Edna confront Edna alone, and we will see what happens.  Thank you for listening.  If you enjoy our podcast, please share it with a friend, a relative, your classmates, your students.  We only grow when you share.  Also, come visit with us via our social media how to love lit podcast- on Instagram, facebook and our website.  Feel free to ask questions, give us your thoughts, recommend books.  These are all things we love.  Thanks for being with us today. 

Peace out. 

 

 

 

 

Podbean App

Play this podcast on Podbean App