Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” and shadow feminism

In this post I make an argument that Kate Chopin’s novella “The Awakening” is an example of the shadow or anti-social feminism that Halberstam explicates. The Awakening has long been a favorite novel of mine for reasons that I could only vaguely articulate before reading this chapter from The Queer Art of Failure. There are many narratives I am drawn to that seem to follow under this category of “shadow feminism” and they are always narratives that I feel fairly defensive of as they are often polarizing because they fail in interesting, or disappointing, depending on your views, ways. Briefly, “The Awakening” (published in 1899) is about a woman who leaves her husband and children to pursue an independent and reclusive life as a painter. While she is in transition a younger man whom she had a romantic affair with returns to ask her to marry him. She refuses marriage because of her ideals of independence and autonomy. After a night of existential anguish she realizes that her desire is doomed, her desire to be with Robert is overwhelming but at the same time being with him would mean losing her independence. In the morning she drowns herself in the sea in response to this irreconcilable dilemma.

Obviously, this ending is frustrating to any reader whether their bias is to be sympathetic toward a feminist character or not. Edna cruelly leaves her children motherless, and fails to create the alternative life she dreamed of. Instead, she gives up. There is probably no bigger indication of failure in our society than a selfishly motivated suicide. Edna’s suicide is an epitomization of the “complete dismantling of self” that Halberstam describes (124). Halberstam identifies shadow feminist texts as texts that “refuse to think back through the mother, they actively and passively lose the mother, abuse the mother, love, hate, and destroy the mother” to the end of dismantling the patriarchal systems of tradition and to unbecome woman (125). The Awakening breaks the mother connection in two ways connected to her final act, by first having Edna, as a mother herself, permanently annihilate the bond with her children (whom she describes as “antagonists” that “sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days” (212)) and secondly by disappointing the traditional, hoped-for outcome that Edna would successfully follow in the footsteps of Mademoiselle Reisz, a spinster and talented musician who serves as Edna’s originally inspiration and guide and symbolic mother.

Halberstam refers to the “fantasy of an active, autonomous, self-activating individualism” that motivates the forms of prescriptive feminism we are familiar with that they view as inevitably playing into patriarchy and colonialism (130). Edna perverts this ideal of agency and individuality by using her will to self annihilate and unbecome woman. She realizes that as a woman in her particular social context, there is no choice that she could make that would result in fulfillment. If she chooses love, she chooses to submit to the patriarchal form of love as Robert and her society have defined it and lose her independence. If she chooses to follow in her mother-figure’s footsteps and lead a life of reclusion, disdained and isolated by others, she gives up on love. She can see no way out: either way she would be led into a role created for her by patriarchy, as either a married woman or a lonely spinster. The only agency Edna can enact is to refuse to choose one or the other and refuse to participate altogether.

This novel also carries with it implications of aesthetic failure and personal failure. The ending disappoints the sympathetic reader’s expectations and hopes for Edna and comes as a cruel shock. One could even read the ending as anti-feminist, presenting a woman attempting to live life on her own terms as a doomed project. But I think this reading is to assume that all feminist narratives have to propose a hopeful alternative even if it is a fantasy. Kate Chopin’s personal and professional reputation were ruined for writing the book; she was prevented from publishing again and died five years later in relative obscurity.

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Unbeing as Power

Halberstam poses the question, “Can we find feminist frameworks capable of recognizing the political project articulated in the form of refusal?” (126). While refusal as it relates to feminism and femininity can manifest in numerous ways, Halberstam is interested in exploring what they call shadow feminisms. These are the feminisms that are not rooted in the political action or the celebration of womanhood as many mainstream feminisms are, but instead in radical refusal and passivity. It is important to distinguish the radical passivity of Halberstam, categorized by a refusal to be, as different from the passivity accepting societal norms and expectations

One shadow feminism that Halberstam explores is that of antisocial feminism, or feminism preoccupied with negativity and negation (130). In their low theoretical example of antisocial feminism, Halberstam discusses the movie Chicken Run, and one of the chickens refusal to actively resist her exploitation, yet she does not want to die at the hands of pie bakers. Antisocial feminism operates under the understanding that there are, “…other ways of thinking about political action that don’t involve doing or dying,” (130). Through antisocial feminism, one can simply be, without label, category, or expectation, and through this refusal to be, there is power.

This idea of being through antisocial feminism is similar to the last chapter of Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which is Not One, entitled “When Our Lips Speak Together.” Irigaray explores the power that lies in simply existing and being, without action required. This existence itself is what challenges dominant discourses, as dominance would like to irradiate different and diverse existences. Existing in the margins of dominance is a failure to that dominance, and the simple non-action of being is what is so powerful. Halberstam’s antisocial feminism is a framework that acknowledges the power that exists in the margins, where neither action or dying are required, as existing in this space is what is actually the most powerful. While Halberstam uses the term “unbeing” has perhaps a hint more force in its refusal of action, this feels much closer to the tender existence that Irigaray explores than complete irradiation of the self.

Both Halberstam and Irigaray also challenge what it means to fail. In both instances of being, or unbeing, failure is also what creates the unbeing itself. These existences of radical passivity are those that are forced into the spaces in which this is a necessary and ideal mode of being. Those that are radically passive are those that exist only in the margins, and have failed, in some societal way, to be participate in the “queer art of failure.” While there are certainly disadvantages to existing outside of dominance, it is far more preferable. There is a certain happiness and ease that those with privilege experience, but this is not real and deep happiness, it is happiness brought on by capitalism all the things and roles that those who exist within dominance. Instead of true happiness, it is satiation. Halbestam’s failure and unbecoming are essentially required for true happiness, that operates outside of understandings of being. To fail in the form of radical passivity is to create true fulfillment and happiness, outside of pre-existing and narrow ideas of these concepts.