Understanding Wolff’s Analysis of Chopin’s The Awakening
“Un-Utterable Longing” analyzes The Awakening from the diverse, yet overlapping perspectives of deconstruction, feminist/gender theory, new historicism, and psychoanalytic criticism. Much like Yaeger and Treichler, Wolff attributes Edna’s struggle and eventual demise to her failed search for a language that voices her (un)womanly desires. Wolff first adopts the new historicist viewpoint to situate Edna as a 19th-century southern woman, presenting a very real conflict between: the dominating values of her time and place; and her own innermost passions and needs. Wolff additionally deconstructs traditional ideals of sexuality, adultery, and gender roles while acknowledging the psychological turmoil and deterioration Edna experiences throughout the novel. Wolff’s essay, despite its faults, “combines perspectives” to provide a fuller representation, understanding, and appreciation of Chopin’s character and her story.
Wolff begins by providing The Awakening’s historical background and the cultural obstructions hindering Edna’s sexual expression. Puritan conservatism had given way to Calvinist repression and it was believed as irrefutable fact that women only experienced the sexual impulse through their innate desire to procreate. Therefore, Wolff is able to claim that, “… it is not enough to say that The Awakening is a novel about repression” (381). But rather it is, “… about a woman whose shaping culture has, in general, refused her the right to speak out freely” (381). Here Wolff’s new historicist concerns provide not only an accurate backdrop, but a greater thematic interest. The novel is not just about Edna’s repression of her sexual feelings, but also about her society’s refutation of a discourse to express her natural sexual desire. Edna’s situation is particularly precarious, having been raised in one repressive culture (that of the Kentucky Presbyterians) while inhabiting an equally repressive, yet more expressive, enticing one (that of the Creoles). Edna becomes dangerously aroused by the Creoles’ open sensuality, but possesses no language by which to communicate and therefore understand it.
Wolff’s essay progresses from the new historicist position to a more linguistic and psychological concern for Edna: her fundamental need for expression. She maintains that, “A ‘self’ can mature only if one strives to articulate emotions” (387). Yet this requires a greater act of creativity than Edna is capable of. Edna’s rather average abilities do not provide her with the tools and imagination to invent a new language (écriture feminine?). Wolff adds, “She must discover not merely a new...