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The American Heroine

Bette Howland


But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!

A summer resort at Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico. Moonlight and sea and the handsome son of the proprietor paying habitual court to the guests. But Edna Pontellier, though married into Creole society, does not understand its conventions. She falls in love. The gallant Robert goes off to Mexico to seek his fortune; Edna goes back to New Orleans. His image remains: “a sense of the unattainable.” With her husband away on a long business trip and her children visiting their grandmother, Edna behaves unpredictably. She applies herself to her painting, makes some money of her own, moves into a little house all her own. (“The pigeon house” she calls it; you might say the dollhouse.) And— casually, for the heroine of a nineteenth-century novel—an American heroine—she takes a lover. Robert comes home, ready to return Edna’s sentiment but not her new freedom and passion. Unable to resume her old life, unable to imagine one new, pursued by thoughts of her children, she drowns herself in the sea at Grand Isle, where only the summer before she had barely learned to swim.

“The voice of the sea is seductive,” Chopin had warned. “The touch of the sea is sensuous.” And the symbol of the sea is ambiguous. So much for Edna’s beginning.

The Awakening was the end of Kate Chopin’s career. “Morbid.” “Vulgar.” “Gilded dirt.” “Sad and mad and bad.” “A Creole Bovary.” Her mastery of style added fuel to the fire. Swift, sure, vivid, precise, it shimmers with highlights like an impressionist painting. There was nothing like it in American letters at the time, and there never has been since. And her Flaubertian impartiality—with malice toward none, with irony toward all—and most of all, toward Edna—must have seemed downright un-American. Not to say unwomanly.

Edna is no American Bovary. She is American—period. The American heroine on her quest for experience, in all her problematic American innocence and ignorance.

I wished to beg you to cease your relations with Miss Miller—not to flirt with her… let her alone… —HENRY JAMES, DAISY MILLER, 1879

Do me a favor, Robert… Let Mrs. Pontellier alone… She is not one of us. —THE AWAKENING

Daisy Miller in the American colony in Rome; Edna Pontellier in the Creole colony in New Orleans; Lily Bart in the New York high society (that House of Mirth); Carrie Meeber (yes, Sister Carrie) in her climb from shopgirl to Broadway—the American heroine is always an outsider. Her status is always in question. She doesn’t know the customs, she breaks the rules. She is not one of us.

The metaphor of the time was “spiritual awakening.”

Traditionally, in novels, it is Woman who encourages, who inspires; who represents “the sense of the unattainable.” In these novels, it is Man. The resemblance is generic. Lawrence Selden of House of Mirth is James’s Winterbourne grown older and warier (as Lily is a cultivated Daisy). Robert Ames in Sister Carrie sounds “the old call of the ideal.” Robert is a more relaxed Creole version, but—like all the rest—he shares Selden’s “spiritual fastidiousness.” Not Winterbourne but “the beautiful Giovanelli” takes Daisy to view the Colosseum by moonlight. Not Robert but Arobin inflames Edna, holds “this cup of life to her lips.” Just as Selden makes Lily believe she “was worthy of better things,” Ames (aims) wants to “stir up” Carrie, get her to try more serious dramatic roles. Still, at the last, Carrie sits alone in her rocking chair—of all things—dreaming like any virtuous heroine of “such happiness as [she] may never feel.” And Selden kneels at Lily’s bedside—her bier—bending over the sleeping mask of her face.

It’s the end of “Sleeping Beauty”—without the kiss.

But we are still to believe in its powers. (Aren’t we?) The awakening remains metaphorical. The formula remains romantic.

You can see where Chopin broke all the rules. She was the first to use the legend outright—and she used it ironically. Edna doesn’t wait for the prince’s kiss, which is bad enough; even worse, she perceives he is powerless. Worst of all, her suicide is problematic, too. It should have been acceptable enough, a conventionally reassuring ending. And readers liked their novels to have endings; they liked to know where they stood. But there seemed something wrong with this ending. Not repentant. Not romantic. Not even—somehow—the end.

And it wasn’t.

Sue Miller’s The Good Mother also opens at a summer resort—for no particular reason, except the only one that matters: it reminds Anna Dunlap of her childhood on her grandparents’ island on a lake in Maine. (The island’s as primitive as Grand Isle, too. No electricity or plumbing: the reverse snobbery of old money.) The novel is set in contemporary Cambridge, Massachusetts, but this island is its true center. Like Edna recalling “the green meadow” of her childhood, Anna returns to it again and again.

There are other parallels. I’m not talking about imitation; this is a tale we have always had with us, and these are the elements that belong to the myth. So like Edna, Anna’s status is iffy: she’s divorced. (We still say fiancé and fiancée, but only women are divorcées.) Like Edna, she is a mother—of three-year-old Molly. Edna takes an “unaccountable satisfaction” in the fact that she feels “no trace of passion” for her husband. Anna is just as complacent: “I was tired of passion, of certitude, I thought, not realizing I’d never really felt either.” She means to go on: her part-time job, her piano students (like Edna, she insists she’s no artist), her lonely new apartment—and Molly.

“Until I met Leo, and my world ripped apart.”

The cataclysm, of course, is sex: “This whole world that Leo had opened up to me.” Leo, the proverbial struggling artist, is an outsider by choice; but money is the measure of coming of age in America, and he’s penniless and vulnerable. He doesn’t know the rules either. As the result of an innocent remark of Molly’s about an innocent incident, Anna’s ex-husband—the odiously honorable Brian—brings a custody suit. The allegation is child abuse. But the real issue, Anna knows, is her own sexuality. Is she innocent? That’s always the question with the American heroine—and as always, she’s lost from the start: “I blame myself, too… It’s as though I was dreaming and now I’m awake. This is real. Brian’s real. He’s really Molly’s father.”

It’s a reversal of “Sleeping Beauty.” Anna renounces her new world, denies her own awakening.

An island is at the center of John Dollar as well; a perverse sort of Paradise. Eight little British schoolgirls are stranded on it with almost nothing to eat—and lots of things that devour. Ants. Quicksand. Cannibals. A search party turns up, in the custody—alas—of “tiny naked people,” small as children, who proceed to cook them. All this delightfully described, by the way, in Marianne Wiggins’s sun-stoned prose. Her novel is supposedly an allegory of imperialism, a sort of female remake of Lord of the Flies. But though the characters and setting are not American, the author is, and this rather bogus myth comes framed in one far more authentic—and American. It’s The Awakening presented as fantasy.

Widowed in the Great War, Charlotte Lewes posts as a schoolmarm to the small British colony in Rangoon. She’s “been unsexed.” She accepts “the status of social invisibility.” She’s overcome with “lassitude,” which is a “waking from insentience.” Seduced by the sea, she spends a lot of time swimming in it. John Dollar, the sunburned sailor, comes out of the sea.

One other thing I should tell you about Charlotte. She has a “claim to the exceptional”: her eyes are two different colors. These eyes, her leitmotif, are the symbol of her “two natures.”

This time the world “rips apart” for real. Earthquake. Tidal wave. Most of the colonists are on a sailing expedition, and at first the little girls seem the only survivors. Then they find Charlotte’s lover, John Dollar. Paralyzed, he becomes their protector. They make of him an idol—rituals of adorning, grooming. And at last—it has happened to gods before—strip by strip, from his numbed legs, they eat him.

The novel begins with Charlotte’s death. She has lived out her long life as a madwoman.

But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing

In the legend of Sleeping Beauty, as everyone knows, the awakening comes at the end. It’s a rite of initiation. The prince bestows the kiss, the princess awakens to her role as a woman. What more is there to say?

“There are no words to describe her save the old ones,” Chopin writes of Adele Ratignolle, comparing the perfect beauty of this perfect wife and mother to “the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams.” In other words, she’s an anachronism. She might as well be the princess in Grimms’. Adele belongs to a stable traditional inherited culture—Creole society being European, something not now available (if it ever was) to the American heroine. Edna can no more become a “mother-woman” like Adele than she can become a true artist like Mademoiselle Reisz. She can’t define herself in this way; it’s not what she is. And when Robert returns, he too has no words “save the old ones”: a “wild dream” of Edna’s “becoming my wife,” of husbands who “had set their wives free.” “Your wife!” Edna exclaims. And then:

“I should laugh at you both!”

His face grew a little white. “What do you mean?”

There’s nothing wrong with roles; it’s just that there aren’t any. That’s Edna’s situation, and the situation of all these American heroines. That’s why they seem so willful, self-destructive, forever spoiling their chances and breaking the rules. And that’s why all the princes seem powerless.

“You’re too stiff,” Daisy keeps telling Winterbourne. If only he had tendered his “esteem”! If only Selden had come in time to Lily’s rescue! And Ames may yet end his travels (the princes are always traveling) and realize that Carrie is waiting. (She has never been awakened.)

They hold out the promise of something else, something more—“better things,” “more dramatic roles,” being “set free.” But all the princes can really offer is a role. Only a role. The kiss must be withheld.

“Good-by—” Robert writes “—because I love you.”

In these recent versions, nothing is withheld. And page after graphic page to prove it. (Anna is oh-so-conscientious.) No wonder Leo seems to offer a “life without limits”! And John Dollar is all fantasy; even paralyzed, he ejaculates “omnipotently.” An artist, a sailor—the most conventional images of the romantic, unconventional, sexual male. And it makes no difference. They give their all, and they end as scapegoats—sacrifices.

The fact is, the prince can’t come to the rescue. The American heroine’s quest for experience is the quest for identity. If, in earlier versions, “spiritual awakening” was the metaphor for sexual love, in these contemporary versions—as in Chopin’s—sexual love is the metaphor for spiritual awakening. It’s an initiation, too. But it’s only the beginning.

How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!

All versions belong to the myth; all reflect and shine on one another. Much has changed, and not that much. Poor Daisy Miller pays dearly for her brief exposure to sensuality, her glimpse of the Colosseum by moonlight. The price of experience—the world—still comes very high. And in these most recent versions, as in all of them, as at the very heart of the legend itself: the prince wanders; the princess waits. He is still the one out hacking down the thornbushes. For better or worse, her explorations remain inner.

And here there will always be dragons.

Edna’s drowning, Charlotte’s madness, Anna stripped of her title (The Good Mother): each of these novels begins with sexual awakening and ends in a loss of identity. And in each, children have something to do with it. They become all-powerful.

The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered her and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. —THE AWAKENING

I saw her, too, as the enemy. Molly, the very impediment to getting Molly back…. In that moment of hatred for my own sleeping child, I realized that she had real power over me.—THE GOOD MOTHER

Edna’s two little boys—very sturdy, very real little boys—driving her down to the sea at Grand Isle. Anna’s “own sleeping child”—a threat, a fatal witness against her. Suddenly they are the little girls on the island. —Not Charlotte’s children, but the next thing, her charges. And surely her “antagonists,” “the enemy,” agents of destruction. The expedition starts off (for no particular reason, except, of course, the only one) with a lengthy business about “snake” and “snakebite.” One of Charlotte’s pupils is menstruating for the first time. She is not allowed to go. The island and its rites belong to children. And to savages. Who come to be the same thing. The children are our original savage selves, the punitive child in all of us.

They are—what else?—the other side of Charlotte’s “two natures.”

It’s the old duality: beginnings and endings, love and death. (I keep saying: these are very American novels.) It’s what Chopin intended with her symbol of the sea. But there’s more to it. Who can help feeling that the voice of the sea—“whispering, clamoring, murmuring”—is the voice of the author? And that her irony, her challenge is directed—finally—at us?

Chopin’s was the first contemporary version of the myth; and the one we have been telling ever since. Almost a century. And still we seem to be at the beginning.

How many souls perish in its tumult!

Anna’s part-time job is running rats in mazes. An obvious symbol, yes, for her predicament. But Miller is solid and specific and circumstantial enough to make them real rats in real mazes. Anyway, the point about the rats is—they run and run until they get it right. We don’t have such chances.

Maybe that’s why the tale must be told again and again.

The subject can be discussed historically, sociologically, psychologically (and what fun a witch doctor could have with that cannibal island). But the work of the self remains the work of the imagination. That is the nature of the quest.

In the final scene, when she has lost everything, Anna gets to visit her daughter. Molly lives now in one of these labyrinthine modern apartment buildings, all wings and corridors and alphabets and arrows. In other words, the maze. This time, Anna gets it right. Molly rewards her with prim pursed little kisses. Is this the child-self releasing her, giving her permission to go on?

Ah yes,” I remember thinking, as though hearing a kind of music in my head. “This is how it begins.”

Even Sleeping Beauty wakes up after one hundred years.

In this portfolio:

Lady Antaeus

W-3 | From Bette Howland's memoir: death knocks

A Life in Letters | A son remembers his mother

A Visit | "What did I tell you? Just like I said: There was Good
News and Bad News."

Ever Your Friend | Letters from Saul Bellow, 1961–1990

Blue in Chicago | Tenderness and malignancy in Hyde Park, from Bette Howland's 1978 collection


About the author

Bette Howland is the author of three books, W-3 (Viking), Blue in Chicago (Harper & Row), and Things to Come and Go (Knopf). Her work has also appeared in such magazines as Commentary, First Things, the Noble Savage, and Triquarterly. Born in Chicago, she lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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