Thoughts on chapter XXX of The Awakening

EDNA! Oh, Christ!

Students have been discussing the religious symbolism of the party scene in chapter XXX of Chopin’s Awakening. One line of thought has been the establishment of a new Theocracy, headed by Edna and suited to her new society.
If we accept that from the point that Reisz calls her “ma Reine” in XXVI, Edna is heading for some form of revelation as Venus or whatever we wish to call this love goddess, then there are numerous pointers in this direction. As in the first half of the novel, the symbolism of religion and fairy tale is mixed. Now we have Reisz (ever the catalyst/fairy godmother/Wicked Witch) and the by play by the stove mixed with the image of ma Reine, the physical development of Edna (including her incipient double chin) which reflects the image of Venus found throughout Renaissance Art and the use of quasi Christian symbols at key moments of the text.
One of these worthy of discussion is the “cup of life” which she has received from Arobin between XXVII and XXVIII. Surely this must reflect the Grail – the unattainable, life-giving sacred vessel of legend. Leaving the irony that this is usually only attainable by the “pure at heart”, Edna seems to have received something extraordinary. This Is not the realisation that Love is all, indeed she explicitly realises that it was not the “kiss of love which had inflamed her”. This leaves the inescapable idea that it is the physical love making which is referred to. The fact that Edna realises that the act of sex can be separated from the idea of love frees her to operate beyond societal control in a way that she is scarcely prepared for.
Having established the Grail symbol, Chopin prepares for the Last Supper. On the way, she places Arobin in a Gethsemane moment as he has to await Edna’s invitation and is not allowed to spend time with her at the end of XXIX. At the party the symbols erupt. In a display of utter sybaritic licentiousness, Edna throws out society and returns to the decadence associated with the Roman Empire and its attendant excess. Guests are chosen to suit this occasion due to their morals, not their intellect. The luxury is highlighted in the colour schemes and once again the grail returns in the form of the “tiny glass that…sparkled like a tiny gem”. That the garnet represents the Edna life blood/communion wine in colour terms is clear.
If this is a Last Supper, there must be a Christ figure – Edna. The male society has been overturned; the eternal feminine is triumphant and appears swathed in shimmering gold as an Aphrodite figure heading the new Pantheon. This symbolism also allows the reader to foreshadow Edna’s ultimate demise as surely as Reisz’s playing of the Tristan Liebestod has done. Christ will die to rise again. So will Edna. In doing so she will assert the feminine in the new order and free women from the slavery imposed by a patriarchal society.
Edna has risen far above Reisz by now – as indicated by Reisz’z almost comic participation – poised Yoda-like on her sea of cushions – and discovers the old “ennui”. In her moment of triumph she has a realisation which will be reinforced as she watches Madame Ratignolle in labour, that however liberated she feels, she is still trapped within a society that will bring her down. The lack of intellect and imagination of her guests and the stark reminder provided by Victor, of Robert’s absence help to prick her balloon. She has still a distance to travel.
In the end this great party ends with a whimper as guests leave in groups and disturb the “quiet harmony” of the night. A jarring of the music of the spheres. In this party, the last of a series of parties which start with the first Lebrun soiree, music has been absent. The whirring of the mandolins in the next room can not compete with the explosions of Romanticism provided in earlier chapters. Indeed the mandolin seems apt for such a self-indulgent party – an outmoded, outdated instrument of the middle ages for suited to Don Giovanni wooing a lover than to the triumphant unveiling of a Goddess.
No wonder Edna feels the ant-climax!

Read it – no need to agree with it, but think about it!.

Jonathan Peel, SGS 03/03/2011