Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chopin and the Awakening of Responsibility

In the first half of Chopin's The Awakening, Edna begins to discover her personal thoughts and desires through an inappropriate relationship with her friend, Robert. Robert, upon realizing the inappropriate intimacy, leaves, which further encourages Edna to seek herself in a rejection of her former pattern of existence. Although the end of the story may change the vector of Edna's course at the halfway point, a translation of her half-way trajectory into real life would result in disillusionment, sorrow, and ultimately despair. Edna's “awakening” comes too late; although her self-discovery is a necessary and good thing, her insistence to discover herself independently of her family relationships ensures sorrow and eventual loneliness.

Whatever the book, or the soap opera, or the television show promises, the Lord's statement in Isa. 50:11 stands supreme and unyielding above them all: “Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.” Edna does well in discovering how she truly feels; but inasmuch as she rejects her duties to God and man, she will eventually find that her new entertainments do not and cannot sustain her. The devil is the ultimate example of the path Edna has begun to follow; believing himself better than others, he rejected the counsel of God and the responsibilities of agency and mortality and instead followed his own path into damnation. Similarly, Edna will find no lasting salvation in painting, or in letting her household slip into ruin. Although she may find “joy in [her] works for a season, by and by the end cometh, and [she] is hewn down and cast into the fire from whence there is no return” (3 Ne. 27:11). Interestingly, Edna's rejection of duty eventually will lead her away from her full potential; lacking divine guidance or assistance, she will not and cannot reach her eternal capacity.

There exist at least two possible, acceptable alternatives to Edna's method of awakening. First, Edna could have involved her husband and family in her awakening. Far from being a “colorless existence” (Chopin 86), the interplay between her personal feelings or ambitions and her family responsibilities together produce a sublimity of existence unattainable by the one who acts selfishly. Edna's problem is not that she has a husband and children; her problem is that she does not love her husband or children, and sacrifices their well-being for her own. As she describes, she is not willing to give up anything essential about herself on their behalf; if what she sacrifices is no sacrifice, what has she truly given? Love is not characterized by such hollow performance. Love requires giving of oneself; by definition, she denies the possibility of loving her family. Interestingly, this also cheapens her relationship with Robert to mere infatuation – there is no sacrifice, for her, in giving up her husband and children for her romantic affair. Another possible and acceptable method for Edna to experience her awakening would have been to have sought it earlier, before she married. In the time when she did not have family responsibilities, she could have discovered herself, her wants, needs, and ambitions, and have incorporated them into her romantic pursuits. Though this would have affected her choice of partner and lifestyle, better to have effected a change prior to marriage than to inappropriately attempt to do so after.

In sum, following Edna's pattern and using self-discovery as an excuse to shirk personal and filial responsibility cannot be successful in reality.

As a personal post-script, I am grateful to the story for providing personal insight into something with which I have struggled. I have not yet married, though I have been home for a mission for two years. In many cultures, this would be considered normal and expected; in Mormon-BYU culture, this is a chafing-ly long time. However, in this time (and to large degree as a result of my search), I have come to learn many things about who I am, what I am called to do in life, and what my future life will probably entail. (Specifically, that I will travel a lot, and will live in many different places and at many different times.) As a result, unlike Edna, I have gained the luxury of being able to look for potential companions with whom I hope and believe I can be compatible. I consider this a great blessing, and one which I hope will allow me to avoid an “awakening” experience similar to the character of Edna in the first half of Chopin's story; instead, I intend to “awaken” continuously, daily, with the loving support of a family I am helping to “awaken” as well.

As the Proclaimers put it, more profoundly in context of the novel than I think they meant:
"When I wake up, well I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who wakes up next to you..."

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