In a hearing I observed once, the husband testified that he had tried to have his wife served with his petition for divorce in the Costco parking lot. The wife went running across the parking lot to avoid service, and her eight- and ten-year-old kids ran after her, dodging traffic and jumping into the wife’s car as it screeched out of the parking spot. The husband filmed them on his iPhone, shouting, “You’ve been served! You’ve been served!”
The judge commented that it was troubling to watch a video of the kids running through a dangerous parking lot and asked the woman why she ran. The woman replied, “I don’t believe in divorce, your honor.”
The judge said, “Well, ma’am, it’s not like the Easter Bunny: it exists.”
There is that point in a woman’s life when she wakes up suspecting that the fairy tales she grew up with were not telling the whole story, that there is life beyond the sunset at the end of the movie and that life is not easier than life before the sunset. And, there are any number of stories in which that anvil falls on a character’s head. Tolstoy writes the cautionary morality-tale version in [b:Anna Karenina|15823480|Anna Karenina|Leo Tolstoy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1352422904s/15823480.jpg|2507928], Flaubert writes the pastoral tragedy version in [b:Madame Bovary|2175|Madame Bovary|Gustave Flaubert|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1335676143s/2175.jpg|2766347], and Elizabeth Gilbert writes the self-involved douche version in [b:Eat Pray Love|19501|Eat, Pray, Love|Elizabeth Gilbert|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1294023455s/19501.jpg|3352398], to name a few. But, then, The Awakening
. This one is my favorite. This is the beautiful one.
For example, there is this:"Do you know Mademoiselle Reisz?" she asked irrelevantly.
"The pianist? I know her by sight. I've heard her play."
"She says queer things sometimes in a bantering way that you don't notice at the time and you find yourself thinking about afterward."
"Well, for instance, when I left her to-day, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. `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.'”
All the women in this book are birds: clucking hens, sheltering their brood; decorative birds in cages; and Edna growing wings and trying to fly away. I love the image of women as birds because I think it is so vivid in showing a woman’s disconnect with society. Just the image of a bird in a cage is something out of place, confined where it should be free. It is unwelcome and unnatural out of the cage, but unable to leave. The movie Moulin Rouge
uses the image, too. Where Ewan McGreggor’s character is the traditional Orpheus, whose gift is his song, Nicole Kidman’s is the woman as a bird. “Oh, we will,” she says to her own pet bird, “We will fly, fly away from here!” I don’t know where this metaphor originated (sirens?) or how it became what it is in these stories, but I think it is poignant.
And it is poignant that, clearly, the only end for a bird escaped from the cage is death. A woman defying tradition and prejudice, as Mademoiselle Riesz says, is unwelcome and must have particularly strong wings to fly away. But, all of these stories that imagine something beyond tradition have Thelma and Louise
endings. Women who wake up and realize that they are unwelcome in society as they are, who realize they can’t pretend to be what society wants anymore, can only conceive of suicide as the alternative. And, in The Awakening
, at least, Edna’s death is not cautionary or punishment. It is just the only conceivable alternative in a society that offers nothing for women but marriage. Interestingly, [b:Eat Pray Love|19501|Eat, Pray, Love|Elizabeth Gilbert|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1294023455s/19501.jpg|3352398] is the only story I can think of on this topic that doesn’t end in the woman’s death, so that is perversely hopeful.
I care about people’s relationships a lot. Probably too much at times. Relationships seem like these delicate, mysterious aliens to me, and we should whisper around them so we don’t scare them away. That is one of the main reasons I hate weddings – because so often you have this new, fragile relationship, and what do people decide to do to it? Smash it with the sledgehammer of planning a giant event that symbolizes the most bitter and painful emotional vulnerabilities of everyone in the general vicinity. The relationship might be beautiful and strong going into a wedding, but after getting piled with the emotional baggage of the families and friends involved, it is something else entirely. It is just off the rack, but threadbare already from wear and strain.
And a marriage, a wedding, is not a relationship. A marriage is a contract. A wedding is an event. A divorce is a dissolution of a contract. A relationship is something else. A relationship exists or doesn’t exist outside of any events or licensing. Sometimes a wedding is too heavy for a relationship to bear, and sometimes a marriage is too heavy for it. It often looks to me, when people get engaged, like they are trying to subscribe to a certain type of relationship and the engagement is the subscription form. But, as far as I can tell, relationships are wild and can’t be subscribed. And, nobody knows how strong they are but the people in the relationship, and sometimes not even them.
But, also, if you are Edna, if you are living your life, going along, and then you suddenly realize that you are not
living your life, but that you are in some kind of costume and acting in a play: devastation. None of your relationships exist, but the people around you have relationships with the character you played. And there is no going back. You've already betrayed them, and you didn't even know it, and they've already betrayed you by not realizing you weren't you. When you start realizing who you are, there is too much momentum to turn around. You are already out of the cage and flying away, whether your wings are strong or weak, whether the wind is for you or against you.
In Kate Chopin’s world, I think, divorce was
like the Easter Bunny, like the sunset that a woman could swim towards but not see beyond. The end of this story, to me, is a rejection of that world, which held nothing for Edna. It is a demand for something else. It is sad, yes, because it is appalling that there was nothing for her, but it is not wrong or unfair, I think. While I do not think the story is cautionary to women, I do think it is cautionary to the world. It says, what you hold for us, with your rigid, gendered propriety and your cages, is not enough. We are more, so the world needs to be more.
And I think it has become more. I think, as a woman, that while I was funneled toward Edna’s sad, empty life, I have been able to reject it, strong wings or not, and decide to be a real girl with real relationships, not just the meaningless façade of engagement and marriage and divorce. There are other options now because of books like this. It is not easy or perfect, but it is something real, something that exists.