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.