“Dead End.” Street sign seen through my window during Nor’easter # 2 (of 3, so far.) March 8, 2018
New England weather such as it right now, I’m reading more. Needing to replenish my books-to-read queue, between storms I stopped by The Book Rack, a funky, used-bookstore in Arlington, MA. Perusing its chock-a-block “Classics” section, I spotted a paperback edition of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and, vaguely remembering something about its feminist pedigree, gladly paid a whopping $3.00 for Chopin’s “masterpiece”—as declared by its faded, blue, time-worn cover.
The Awakening was first published in 1899, shocking Victorian readers with its frank acknowledgement of female sexuality. So there’s that. Kate Chopin, born in 1851, is a stunningly beautiful writer. So there’s that. The Awakening details how wealthy, New Orleans-based Creole families vacation pre-air conditioning. So there’s that.
There this, too:
Madame Lebrun was busily engaged at the sewing machine. A little black girl sat on the floor, and with her hands worked the treadle of the machine. [Madame Lebrun] does not take any chances which may be avoided of imperiling her health . . . The sewing machine made a resounding clatter in the room; it was a ponderous, bygone make. In the lulls, Robert and his mother exchanged bits of desultory conversation. (p. 38, AVON BOOKS, 1972.)
What are we to make of this? Is that sarcastic remark regarding Madame Lebrun’s delicate health meant to elicit sympathy for the little black girl producing such resounding clatter? Maybe. A child performing a function most contemporaries of Madame Lebrun—who owns the resort where these Creole families vacation—would have performed themselves? Perhaps. So is Chapin slyly asking us to consider that child?
I wish I knew. Definitively. Because I so long to believe that this ground-breaking novelist saw her sewing room scene with woke eyes. But that Chopin supplies that little, black girl with the plainest of adjectives—I mean, c’mon! The sewing machine got fancier labels—but no name tells us something, I think. And that one family’s nanny is simply the quadroon says the same thing, too, I’m afraid.
But here’s the thing. Once I understood that a (probably very hot and thirsty and exhausted) little girl was in that sewing room, too, she participated in every paragraph I read. That nameless child started when, suddenly, Robert, a young man in his twenties, loudly whistled out the opened window to his brother, three stories below. Silently she took in Robert’s and his mother’s conversation—and, perhaps, gauged whatever they discussed in terms of more hardship for herself? She may have even noticed what Robert’s mother did not: that at the mention of Mrs. Pontellier—whose sexual awakening is what this book’s all about—the besotted young man blushed, maybe. Got flustered, maybe. (Chopin merely had him suddenly leave.)
I see you, little black girl. I see you, quadroon.