Lee on Literature: The Awakening

Awakening to genuine moments of clarity, seeing the world clearly, seeing self clearly and recognizing a relationship to the world is the process of becoming "human." ---The Catholic Church took a step toward "humanity" in late March 2013, a week before Easter, by electing Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to fill the Papacy vacated by Pope Benedict XVI.

Replacing a traditionalist, new Pope Francis I was issued the challenge of reforming a male-dominated church establishment that recently reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an umbrella group representing approximately 80 percent of American nuns. Edna Pontellier, the central character of Kate Chopin's 1899 literary classic The Awakening, faced a similar institutionalized sexism, an environment that continues in America to this day.

From the onset, Pope Francis I established a tone of humility to his papacy, in direct contrast to the ceremonial pomp and elitism of his predecessor. Francis I received the cardinals' pledge of obedience, a traditional component of the ordination, at the same level as his colleagues, not from a chair raised above them. He abandoned the ornate red slippers and cape, the most ostentatious liturgical vestments, to deliver off-the-cuff sermons about service and humility.

Pope Francis initiated physical contact and accessibility with followers, walking out into crowds to directly bless worshipers, discarding personal security concerns for more powerful benedictions. The most humble gesture to date occurred at Casal del Marmo, an Italian juvenile detention facility where the Pope, on his knees, washed and then kissed the feet of 12 inmates, including females and non-Catholics. He prayed for "friendship with Muslim brothers and sisters."

Yet less than a month later, Pope Francis I would not show similar compassion to the sisterhood of the LCWR. Francis I upheld the Vatican's reprimand of the nuns who challenged church positions on homosexuality, ordination policy, health care, economic injustice, same-sex marriage and abortion.

Edna, wife of New Orleans high-society financier John Pontellier, engaged a series of similar rebellions against 19th-century sexism in The Awakening. After marrying young, Edna realizes that she was not one of the "women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels."

Edna loves her children, yet cannot excessively dote over their needs. Mr. Pontellier adores Edna, yet often asserts a grand sense of her ownership: "He greatly valued his possessions, chiefly because they were his, and derived genuine pleasure from contemplating a painting, a statuette, a rare lace curtain—no matter what—after he had bought and placed it among his household goods." Edna slowly recognizes her oppression and misery, pulling away from it through a series of romantic affairs and artistic endeavors, while literally learning to swim on her own.

Nearly all of the secondary characters in The Awakening try to rein Edna back into her prescribed role. Edna's private confidante, Madam Ratignolle, begs her to "Think of the children!"; the doctor reminds her that "youth is given up to illusions"; and her lover Robert, fearful of public reproach, abandons Edna with a note, "Good bye, because I love you." The artist Mademoiselle Reisz checks Edna's shoulder blades to make sure her "wings" are strong, noting that "the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth."

The Awakening ends with Edna returning to her Grand Island summer beach home and swimming alone far out into the Gulf of Mexico, a climax that scholars (frequently male) have historically interpreted as a suicide. Yet could not Edna's swim also be interpreted as her complete and successful personal escape from the social forces that dominate her life? In triumph, Edna was "casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world."

Does Pope Francis wear a fictitious garment of humility, equality and humanity? Will his wings soar above tradition of prejudice with regard to the LCWR? Might he be a pragmatist with a strategy, working from the level plain of the Earth? Or maybe he is the latest disappointment of the Catholic church?

Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of a traditional Hindu mother, Mrs. Sona Choudhury, raising her family amidst the rapid transformation of 20th Century India.

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