Kate Chopin’s novel begins with a stifled married woman, Edna, who, over the course of the novel, comes to embrace her sexual desires for sexy men (rather than her stodgy husband) and to demand the legitimacy of her female voice. In the closing pages of the novel she says to her would-be lover “I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly, but I have got into a habit of expressing myself. It doesn’t matter to me, and you may think me unwomanly if you like” (175-76). These demands to do and say what she feels and wants divorce Edna from her contemporaries, as her female peers advise her that she’ll be mistaken (!) for a hussy, and male companions either cannot fathom the change (her husband), seek to manipulate her autonomy for their advantage (the creepy Arobin) or cannot stomach a woman who knows what she wants (her ‘soul mate’ Robert). A crushing portrait then of a woman awakening not only, or even principally (though it is for this reason that the book was banned), to her sexual desires, but more to the realization that she can have wants independent of her husband, she can have a voice that says what she thinks. Crushing because no one in her life accepts or even entertains the change in her, she is alternately thought of as deranged or sadistic.
Or at least, this is temporarily the case.
SPOILER: Crushing too because the book ends with a catty female friend telling her – on the catty friend’s deathbed no less! – to “think of her children.” As if in this remonstrance she might succeed in dulling and silencing the Edna’s increasingly authoritative voice and self-confidence. Well in this case this “as if” is accurate. With the recollection of her children, and the abandonment of her feeble lover, Robert, who cannot abide a woman who takes sexual initiative, she drowns herself. And what could be a more appropriate, more poignant ending, then this symbolic drowning out of a lone voice, the crushing of a nascent independence.
I didn’t realize until writing this entry that the book was written in 1899. The tone and diction – “countenance” makes a frequent appearance – suggested this period, but I would have willingly entertained a publication date of 1973 or 2011, such are the resonances with the continued effort on the part of marginalized voices to have their desires heard. I’d not go so far as to suggest (at all) that all women continue to eke out a voice or a self-determine sexuality, rather, I appreciate the model of a character who recognizes her/his desire and also recognizes an insurmountable distance between that desire and the mores of his/her time and place.
All this comes with the inherent assumption (and what an assumption) that individual desires and voices are worth airing and are, irreproachably, paramount. That I grieve the death of Edna testifies to my bias in favour of individualism and my distrust of discourses that regulate the body and the voice, but all the same, at some point, doesn’t someone have to think of the children?