How our perspectives may change on returning to a book
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I recently wrote a piece discussing the connections (as I saw them) between Emma Cline’s newest bestseller The Guest and Kate Chopin’s feminist 1899 classic The Awakening.
Having stated that I read The Awakening as an undergraduate lit student and loved its perspective on central character Edna Pontellier’s sexual awakening and throwing off of expected female roles, I can also see from the perspective of a mother that it throws up some questionable perspectives.
Engaging in the comments section with another writer friend who said they found that the meaning for them had changed over the years, particularly since becoming a mother, it reminded me that this is something I have found before with books.
The first one that comes to mind is Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Written in 1847, this novel remains one of my favourites of all time, and the best of the Brontë sisters’ novels’ (in my opinion). However, I do remember that on my first encounter with it as a headstrong teenager, I was totally absorbed by the unfairness of life for central characters Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff.
Like many readers of this book, I think the Hollywood versions pitching it as a ‘romance’ novel (particularly the 1939 Hollywood version starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, above) had led me to believe that Catherine and Heathcliff were just two thwarted lovers, who would remain constant even after death.
When I returned to the novel somewhat eagerly as a mature lit student later in life, however, I received an ‘awakening’ moment of my own.
Wuthering Heights is not a romance novel. Far from it. Catherine and Heathcliff have what would today be termed a ‘toxic relationship’ of obsession and ruthless behaviour against each other and anyone who gets in their way.
I think as a teenager, I sided with Catherine as the rebellious heroine and felt sorry for the abandoned Heathcliff and the cruelty of his adopted brother Hindley. However, as the story develops, he becomes a bully and a cruel husband to Isabella Linton, Edgar’s sister, whom he marries out of revenge against Catherine. His obsession with tearing down Catherine and husband Edgar Linton’s life escalates, and life is nothing short of a Gothic horror story.
Catherine, for her part, is far from an innocent party in this. She, too, whilst professing to love Heathcliff and wanting to help him, marries Edgar against housemaid Nelly Dean’s advice, not really seeing how badly this will affect the object of her true desires, Heathcliff.
Another book which affected me similarly was Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Again, another of my favourite novels. On first reading at around the age of twenty-one, I completely sided with the second Mrs de Winter, a shy and gauche young woman who feels totally overwhelmed by the ghost of her predecessor.
After returning to the novel again during my studies, however, I came to see that there was more than meets the eye to du Maurier’s deft plotting and insertion of the narrator’s nemesis.
It has been suggested by critical theorists that du Maurier utilised the two sides of herself to create her two female characters within the novel. On the one hand, she claimed to situate herself more with the second Mrs de Winter in that she was an often shy, gauche character herself. More at home romping the coastal paths with a dog by her side than as an attractive hostess throwing a ball for the gentry.
She did, however, posit the idea that some elements of herself came out in the character of the dead Rebecca, and critical research looking at the way this character was much maligned within the book and film retelling as a cruel female character have been questioned. The way in which the dead Rebecca is murdered by Max de Winter (and perhaps even more so, the way in which he got away with it, with the second Mrs de Winter an implicated ally) shows a deeper reflection of ideas around the punishment of the female.
For many feminist critics, the character of the dead Rebecca represents the sexual desire often repressed by women of the time, who, like Edna in The Awakening, ends up being punished for her subversion.
With hindsight of course it is easy to see that returning to a novel as a student of literature and reading it alongside critical theory has the advantage of opening up the ideas within it. It no longer becomes a work of fiction simply to be enjoyed as such. It becomes a study of a text; the author’s intentions in creating it; the time and society it was written in; and the application of different critical theories onto it.
The disparity between reading The Awakening as a mature student and now (albeit I was still a younger mother at first reading) is similarly noticeable.
Although I still feel strongly that Chopin’s book gives an important overview of the true desires of a woman trapped in her situation and the ways in which these were subverted by the acceptable norms of polite society, I think her portrayal of Edna Pontellier as a woman who would walk away from her two sons and begin her own life apart from them is a little problematic.
As any parent knows, life just isn’t that simple. Whilst mothers (and fathers) still have other desires, and the idea of living and working on their art in their own space, away from any other demands, may be something they (secretly) fantasise about on occasion, I think it’s fair to say that most would not act on these desires.
Of course, these are just fictional characters in a fictional world created by the author. They are not meant to be taken as morally complete stories of what is or is not morally ‘acceptable’ in terms of walking away from one’s children in order to pursue romantic liaisons or artistic pursuits.
However, I think it is worth considering our responses to such ideas we encounter in books and other pieces of art, and whether these change over time.
I had a recent discussion around the problematic reading of old books by authors who had questionable ideas or beliefs. Specifically, we were discussing the new book by British historian Lucy Worsley, which looks at the life of Agatha Christie.
Christie, a favourite writer of many people and a powerhouse in terms of output and longevity, had, according to Worsley, some questionable ideas on race, which as she points out, was fairly typical of her class during that period.
The idea of the problematic artist is one discussed in Claire Dederer’s newest book Art Monsters, which I have touched on before, and which considers the idea of whether an author or artist can still be enjoyed, even when we discover issues around them which we find disturbing or unacceptable. Dederer has spoken in the past about artists such as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, and whether we can still enjoy their past films, even when we abhor their behaviour.
I don’t think that there is an easy answer to any of this, although I delve deeper into Dederer’s sage advice in this article.
But it did make me wonder how this issue can be tackled in our reading lives, and even the ways in which writers like myself, who research the ideas and work of women writers of the past, investigate and report on their genius whilst accepting their flaws.
And perhaps that is where the essential criteria lies: the flawed lives of us all can perhaps help us to begin to consider these ideas.
I often think that a novel or story which contains a protagonist who does not have flaws is, in itself, a flawed novel. Although we may enjoy escaping into the world of fiction, we still want our fictional characters to feel well-rounded and believable. A character who does not have any flaws within their personality will appear wooden and staid, and we will struggle to connect with them. Conversely, one who deviates too far from the path we find ‘acceptable’ may equally put us off reading.
Another consideration, of course, is the time period of when the novel was written or when it is set. I wonder, for example, if we can still enjoy a novel whilst accepting that the author may have held views or opinions that we no longer find acceptable. Similarly, if we can get on board with characters that we feel speak or act in a way that we realise are morally questionable.
I think that taking the example of The Awakening, Chopin likely wished to express the stifling conditions for a woman living a life she did not want, but which society dictated she should live. Within those confines, she wished to portray a woman who defied her expectations, reacting against what she saw as the confinement of her desires and her artistic ambitions. In this situation, Chopin perhaps felt, the only way to break out of this situation for a woman in Edna Pontellier’s position would be to walk away from her life.
In our modern day lives, the idea of having an artistic career and freedom as a woman whilst also remaining a loving mother, whilst arguably more difficult, would not be totally out of reach.
The life of the author is another interesting consideration. Chopin married at a young age, she gave birth to six children, and was widowed at thirty years old. She then continued to run her husband’s business for a year, whilst caring for her six children. She also then attempted to earn a living for herself and her family from her writing, which was then, as now, no easy feat.
So perhaps for Kate Chopin, her character of Edna Pontellier was her attempt at showing the possibilities for a woman artist who decided to go her own way, unencumbered by her family, in a way that Chopin herself could not – and quite probably would not – choose to do.
This is the beauty of fiction, is it not? It allows us (whether as writers, or more commonly, as readers) to throw off the mantle of labels such as ‘conformity’ and ‘acceptable’, and let us try on the possibility of the subversive alternative.
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