This week I tried a whole new way of reading. I used the free application Spreeder for my first read of The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Spreeder is an online speed reading application that flashes text at a central focal point. Its default is one word at a time at 300 words per minute (wpm), but the settings can be changed to increase the number of words and the speed.
I copied one chapter at a time from Kindle and pasted it into the text pane. After pressing the green Spreed! button, the first word of text appears in the reading pane. Under the reading pane is a play button, a pause button, a new button and settings.
I’ll admit, it was a very strange reading experience. It felt especially surreal to read one word at a time. I think I liked chunks of three words at a time. I didn’t think I was comprehending at all, but when I went back to the text to make notes and figure out what to talk about in this text, I recognized foreshadowing and knew the characters and events.
I don’t think I would read a novel only once with Spreeder, but as a tool to speed up a first read, it was an interesting experience.
Things I Learned
First, a little overview:
The Awakening was published in 1899. It was the first novel written by a woman that had passion as the plot. It is considered a precursor of American modernist literature, and is a landmark work of early feminism. It’s set in New Orleans and the Louisiana Gulf Coast and was the precursor to the Southern novel style. The story has similarities to Madame Bovary in that a romantic woman becomes unhappy with her life and believes she will find happiness through romantic trysts. Unlike Madame Bovary, The Awakening focuses on Mrs. Pontellier’s emotional journey.
Change and the Emotional Journey:
This novel fits perfectly with what I read in The Emotional Craft of Fiction yesterday.
The sense of movement in a story comes mostly from inside. It’s a tidal pull, an emotional tug. It says not just that things are going to change but that people are going to change. It’s ongoing. In life, change isn’t annual. It’s daily. We change constantly, maybe every hour. We are forever evolving in our understanding of self, others, and the world. We are awake, alert, and alive. We ponder. We learn. Life is what we do, certainly, but even more it’s what we take away from it. . . .
As in our real lives, the raw material of the inner journey is ever present. You only need recognize it, make space for it on the page, and treat it like it matters.
To fasten the inner and outer journey, you only need to start with one element: either a plot event or a step in the inner journey. In the first case, go inside your protagonist to pinpoint what an outer event means. In the second case, stop at any inner moment and make something outward happen, something that symbolizes what’s going on inside. Outer events lead inward. Inward struggles turn outward.Donald Maass
Let’s take a look at how Kate Chopin fastens the inner and outer journey of Edna Pontellier.
Main Character Introduction:
The novel doesn’t start with the main character, but with her husband. At the beginning of the story Edna is Mrs. Pontellier. Her existence is defined by others: she is a wife and mother. The first mention of her is:
“The sunshade continued to approach slowly. Beneath its pink-lined shelter were his wife, Mrs. Pontellier, and young Robert Lebrun. When they reached the cottage, the two seated themselves with some appearance of fatigue upon the upper step of the porch, facing each other, each leaning against a supporting post.”
Her husband admonishes her and then sees her as his damaged object:
“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.
The first thing the reader knows about Mrs. Pontellier is that she has strong, shapely hands. Here is the first description of her:
“Mrs. Pontellier’s eyes were quick and bright; they were a yellowish brown, about the color of her hair. She had a way of turning them swiftly upon an object and holding them there as if lost in some inward maze of contemplation or thought.”
It starts with the basic, cliché eyes and hair, but adds something about what she does with those eyes that tie in with her inner journey.
How Others See the Main Character:
Mrs. Pontellier’s next interaction with her husband, he admonishes her again:
“He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?”
Mr. Pontellier admonish his wife for her poor mothering, but it goes deeper than that:
“It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define to his own satisfaction or any one else’s wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. It was something which he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without subsequent regret and ample atonement. If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother’s arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up, wipe the water out of his eyes and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing. . . . In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman.”
Mrs. Pontellier is then the opposite of “the mother-woman”:
“The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels. Many of them were delicious in the role; one of them was the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm. If her husband did not adore her, he was a brute, deserving of death by slow torture.”
Her favorite “mother-woman,” Adèle Ratignolle, calls her “Pauvre chérie.” And when warning Robert to leave Mrs. Pontellier alone she says “She is not one of us; she is not like us. In response Robert says, “You made one mistake, Adèle,” he said, with a light smile; “there is no earthly possibility of Mrs. Pontellier ever taking me seriously.”
After Edna’s night swim people notice her romantic nature:
“Sometimes I am tempted to think that Mrs. Pontellier is capricious,” said Madame Lebrun, who was amusing herself immensely and feared that Edna’s abrupt departure might put an end to the pleasure.
“I know she is,” assented Mr. Pontellier; “sometimes, not often.”
I really like how her husband recognizes this part of her personality, a contained fancifulness.
After Edna returns to the city, her friends notice she has changed:
“How handsome Mrs. Pontellier looked!” said Madame Lebrun to her son.
“Ravishing!” he admitted. “The city atmosphere has improved her. Some way she doesn’t seem like the same woman.”
Having other characters talk about the main character is a technique for both showing and telling at the same time. Other characters are more likely to notice changes in the main character before she recognizes them herself.
At Grand Isle she’s an outsider:
“Mrs. Pontellier, though she had married a Creole, was not thoroughly at home in the society of Creoles; never before had she been thrown so intimately among them. There were only Creoles that summer at Lebrun’s. They all knew each other, and felt like one large family, among whom existed the most amicable relations. A characteristic which distinguished them and which impressed Mrs. Pontellier most forcibly was their entire absence of prudery. Their freedom of expression was at first incomprehensible to her, though she had no difficulty in reconciling it with a lofty chastity which in the Creole woman seems to be inborn and unmistakable.”
This presents an interesting conflict in Creole women, both an absence of prudery and a lofty chastity. I’m not sure how that works.
“Mrs. Pontellier gave over being astonished, and concluded that wonders would never cease.”
Setting as a Catalyst for Change:
Chopin uses her two settings, the sea and the city to influence her character’s emotional change. At the beginning, the sea seduces:
“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”
She also combined the influence of the setting and the people in it as catalysts of change:
“That summer at Grand Isle she began to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her. There may have been— there must have been— influences, both subtle and apparent, working in their several ways to induce her to do this; but the most obvious was the influence of Adèle Ratignolle. The excessive physical charm of the Creole had first attracted her, for Edna had a sensuous susceptibility to beauty. Then the candor of the woman’s whole existence, which every one might read, and which formed so striking a contrast to her own habitual reserve— this might have furnished a link. Who can tell what metals the gods use in forging the subtle bond which we call sympathy, which we might as well call love.”
In one talk on the beach with Mrs. Ratignolle, Mrs.Pontellier reveals her back and forth relationship with religion, her relationships with her family and childhood friends, and her romanticism about love.
“At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life— that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
When talking about her love interests before her husband, she had an infatuation with a tragedian:
“a marriage with the tragedian, was not for her in this world. As the devoted wife of a man who worshiped her, she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams.”
This comparison reveals her romanticism, and its conflict with reality. It is also in conflict with how her husband treats her now, showing a conflict with what she believes is reality and what her reality really is.
After teasing Robert about his attentions, Mrs. Ratignolle takes him aside to warn him to stay away from Mrs. Pontellier:
“Do me a favor, Robert,” spoke the pretty woman at his side, almost as soon as she and Robert had started their slow, homeward way. She looked up in his face, leaning on his arm beneath the encircling shadow of the umbrella which he had lifted.
“Granted; as many as you like,” he returned, glancing down into her eyes that were full of thoughtfulness and some speculation.
“I only ask for one; let Mrs. Pontellier alone.”
“Tiens!” he exclaimed, with a sudden, boyish laugh. “Voilà que Madame Ratignolle est jalouse!”
“Nonsense! I’m in earnest; I mean what I say. Let Mrs. Pontellier alone.”
“Why?” he asked; himself growing serious at his companion’s solicitation.
“She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously.”
His face flushed with annoyance, and taking off his soft hat he began to beat it impatiently against his leg as he walked. “Why shouldn’t she take me seriously?” he demanded sharply. “Am I a comedian, a clown, a jack-in-the-box? Why shouldn’t she? You Creoles! I have no patience with you! Am I always to be regarded as a feature of an amusing programme? I hope Mrs. Pontellier does take me seriously. I hope she has discernment enough to find in me something besides the blagueur. If I thought there was any doubt—”
“Oh, enough, Robert!” she broke into his heated outburst. “You are not thinking of what you are saying. You speak with about as little reflection as we might expect from one of those children down there playing in the sand. If your attentions to any married women here were ever offered with any intention of being convincing, you would not be the gentleman we all know you to be, and you would be unfit to associate with the wives and daughters of the people who trust you.”
Madame Ratignolle had spoken what she believed to be the law and the gospel. The young man shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
“Oh! well! That isn’t it,” slamming his hat down vehemently upon his head. “You ought to feel that such things are not flattering to say to a fellow.”
“Should our whole intercourse consist of an exchange of compliments? Ma foi!”
“It isn’t pleasant to have a woman tell you—” he went on, unheedingly, but breaking off suddenly: “Now if I were like Arobin— you remember Alcée Arobin and that story of the consul’s wife at Biloxi?” And he related the story of Alcée Arobin and the consul’s wife; and another about the tenor of the French Opera, who received letters which should never have been written;”
Within this exchange of warning which is itself foreshadowing of the problems to come, Robert says he’s not as bad as Arobin which is another foreshadowing of other problems to come. I like how she slipped foreshadowing inside foreshadowing inside an argument.
Chopin foreshadows the ending in connecting Edna’s passion with not being able to swim. After listening to Mademoiselle Reisz play Chopin on the piano which aroused “the very passions themselves . . .within her soul” a group went down to the ocean to bathe in the moonlight :
“Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily; and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water, unless there was a hand near by that might reach out and reassure her.
But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water. A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before. . . .
A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land. She made no mention of her encounter with death and her flash of terror, except to say to her husband, “I thought I should have perished out there alone.”
“You were not so very far, my dear; I was watching you,” he told her.
Again, like the mosquitoes, her mood is challenged and dissipates. And yet, things have changed. This passage does double duty of foreshadowing and connecting inner change to an outer event.
Inner Change and Outer Event:
When Mr. Pontellier reproaches his wife with neglecting her children it leads to the first mention that she is changing:
” She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life. They seemed never before to have weighed much against the abundance of her husband’s kindness and a uniform devotion which had come to be tacit and self-understood. . . .
It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood. She did not sit there inwardly upbraiding her husband, lamenting at Fate, which had directed her footsteps to the path which they had taken. She was just having a good cry all to herself. The mosquitoes made merry over her, biting her firm, round arms and nipping at her bare insteps.
The little stinging, buzzing imps succeeded in dispelling a mood which might have held her there in the darkness half a night longer.”
Her inner change starts with a change in their marriage. Her husband’s cruelty is now outweighing his kindness. The outer event is admonishment, the inner event is a dark mood and turning to herself for solace. However, this first mood is interrupted by mosquitos so it is only fleeting.
However, this change has primed her for experiencing the passion of music:
“The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth.
She waited for the material pictures which she thought would gather and blaze before her imagination. She waited in vain. She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her.”
And that experience led her to face her fears and swim. After her swim, she doesn’t want the night to end, but reality eventually overcomes her fantasy, that duality within herself is always struggling:
“Edna began to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul.”
Edna is aware that she’s changing and the author makes the changes clear to the reader through Edna’s thoughts and yet, even in contemplating how she has changed, there is some foreshadowing that she has changed more than she realizes:
“She let her mind wander back over her stay at Grand Isle; and she tried to discover wherein this summer had been different from any and every other summer of her life. She could only realize that she herself— her present self— was in some way different from the other self. That she was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment, she did not yet suspect.”
It takes Robert leaving for Mexico for Edna to face what’s really happening:
“Edna bit her handkerchief convulsively, striving to hold back and to hide, even from herself as she would have hidden from another, the emotion which was troubling— tearing— her. Her eyes were brimming with tears. For the first time she recognized the symptoms of infatuation which she had felt incipiently as a child, as a girl in her earliest teens, and later as a young woman. The recognition did not lessen the reality, the poignancy of the revelation by any suggestion or promise of instability. The past was nothing to her; offered no lesson which she was willing to heed. The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate. The present alone was significant; was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded.”
This realization then changed her perception of her surroundings and her behavior:
“Robert’s going had some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything. The conditions of her life were in no way changed, but her whole existence was dulled, like a faded garment which seems to be no longer worth wearing. She sought him everywhere— in others whom she induced to talk about him. She went up in the mornings to Madame Lebrun’s room, braving the clatter of the old sewing-machine. She sat there and chatted at intervals as Robert had done. She gazed around the room at the pictures and photographs hanging upon the wall, and discovered in some corner an old family album, which she examined with the keenest interest, appealing to Madame Lebrun for enlightenment concerning the many figures and faces which she discovered between its pages.”
When Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier returned to their house in New Orleans, Mrs. Pontellier didn’t return to her regular routine. This upset her husband, so he went out to eat at his club. She remembers how she used to react inwardly, then reacts outwardly:
“. . . and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet.
In a sweeping passion she seized a glass vase from the table and flung it upon the tiles of the hearth. She wanted to destroy something. The crash and clatter were what she wanted to hear.”
After visiting her friend Mrs. Ratignolle in the city, she feels depressed but not because she won’t have domestic bliss but because she feels sorry for her friend having it:
“Edna felt depressed rather than soothed after leaving them. The little glimpse of domestic harmony which had been offered her, gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui. She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle,— a pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life’s delirium. Edna vaguely wondered what she meant by “life’s delirium.” It had crossed her thought like some unsought, extraneous impression.”
Her husband begins to worry about her mental state. And her own thoughts betray unexplainable mood swings:
“There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.
There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why,— when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day, nor weave fancies to stir her pulses and warm her blood.”
Since Robert is gone to Mexico, he has replaced her husband in her mind as her idea of love:
“She felt somewhat like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour. The thought was passing vaguely through her mind, “What would he think?”
She did not mean her husband; she was thinking of Robert Lebrun. Her husband seemed to her now like a person whom she had married without love as an excuse.”
Once she has inwardly made this separation from her husband, she then moves from their house because she sees everything in their house as his, and wants a space of her own:
“Neither was it quite clear to Edna herself; but it unfolded itself as she sat for a while in silence. Instinct had prompted her to put away her husband’s bounty in
casting off her allegiance. She did not know how it would be when he returned. There would have to be an understanding, an explanation. Conditions would some way adjust themselves, she felt; but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.”
And in this way, her inner journey from ,”beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” to becoming her own woman, an individual in the world is complete. She can then admit that she loves Robert, but that admission then leads to facing the truth of its impossibility.
As you can see, Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening is a study in connecting the inner journey and the outer journey.
Applying What I Learned
Anchoring Inner Change to Outer Events:
Following Kate Chopin’s example, to connect my main character’s inner journey and outer journey, I want to tie her introduction description to her inner journey.
I want to use what other character’s say about her to show change:
Example: In the draft, the first time people are talking about Verity, I wrote, “Verity heard two pops. Her hand went to her hip, disappointed to feel the awkward handle of her taser.The new cashier appeared from storage with her palms held out at her chest. “Sorry. Sorry,” she said , “stepped on some bubble wrap. No need to take me down.”Verity relaxed her arms. She didn’t mind her reputation as an excitable hard-ass, if it meant everyone was on their toes.”
I like this, but it doesn’t show that it affects her. What if I add a comparison to a time when people talking about her did affect her:
“She didn’t mind her reputation as an excitable hard-ass, if it meant everyone was on their toes. And it was better than the whispers that she was having a break-down when she was let go from the department.”
I want to use setting as a catalyst for change:
Example: In The Awakening the voice of the ocean is seductive. What about Verity’s setting is deceptive? When she goes on her daily run, she avoids her neighbors and their dogs. When Memphis goes on a walk with her, she greets the neighbors and pets the dogs, but this doesn’t change Verity’s feelings about her neighbors and their pets, she believes she knows the truth, that Memphis is being fooled by their pleasant facades.
I want to use backstory to show her dual nature. I want to use foreshadowing to hint at what will cause change. I want to put foreshadowing inside foreshadowing inside an argument. And I want to anchor each of my plot points to steps in Verity’s inner emotional journey.
I’m really glad I chose The Awakening by Kate Chopin this week. It is a great example for learning about character arc and emotional journey.