July 19, 2016
Melville House Intern Book Club: The Awakening by Kate Chopin and David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
by Melville House Interns
At our last book club we made a shocking confession: we, the Melville interns, haven’t yet read every title published through Melville House. And now, more than halfway through the summer… that’s still true. We are, however, addressing the problem through the regular meetings of the Melville House Intern Book Club. This week, we checked out titles from two Melville House series: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening from the Art of the Novella series, and David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations from the Last Interview series.
The Awakening, which has been discussed at MobyLives before, is the story of wife and mother Edna Pontellier’s, well, awakening to the restrictions those roles place on her. Upon its publication in 1899, the novella was condemned as “sordid” and “immoral.” It also [SPOILER ALERT] ends in its protagonist’s suicide after her family and culture fail to accept her transformation. We last see her swimming out to sea, about to lose strength and presumably drown.
David Foster Wallace was known for his broad, heavily footnoted erudition. A.O. Scott of the New York Times hailed him as the novelist who “more than anyone else… exemplified and articulated the defining anxieties and attitudes of his generation,” and the interviews in this book cover everything from media culture to writing practices, American politics to mental illness, calculus to the Pre-Socratics.
The following covers our thoughts on the books, the off-topic things they made us think about, and more book recommendations to each other than we can probably keep up with.
Hannah: I guess the first thing I wanted to ask about, focusing on The Awakening, is a sense I have that this book’s “awakening” is a woman realizing she values herself for reasons outside her relationships to other people, and that realization is immensely threatening to everyone around her — and maybe to readers of the book, too. In my American lit class a lot of people condemned her for being a “bad mother.”
Carly: I feel awakened by having read this novella. I think that in our society it’s really easy for women to feel devalued, and for me this book was very empowering. I choose to read the ending as a triumphant swim.
Jessica: Well, I think she does value herself in relation to others. I don’t think she becomes an overly simplistic or inhuman representation of feminism (unlike what much contemporary criticism of the novella argues). I like that it’s inconsistent—she can feel really relieved her husband is gone in one scene, and cry in the next. The whole point I think is more that she breaks the mold of how we consistently expect women to relate to other people.
Hannah: I definitely agree—she loves and misses her children, but she realizes they can’t be all she lives for.
Sidenote, but… do men get ambiguous suicide endings? Women get so many of those. To be fair I love this one though (I also read her as being very triumphant there).
Jessica: Oooh, interesting. I can’t think of many.
Carly: Yeah, that totally is a female trend. Very interesting.
Jessica: And it’s particularly women dying in water, like some kind of passed-down image of Ophelia.
Carly: Was just about to say that.
Bailey: Ooh, true.
Hannah: Oh yes. Completely.
Bailey: There’s something about that that really bugs me—like the only ending for a complex character once she reaches a point beyond the easily contained box of her person is a watery death.
Jessica: Yeah, Bailey! I totally agree with you. I especially have troubles with the Ophelia allusion, since there’s so much hinting at what the men in the novella consider Edna’s mental illness. That’s why I like how in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, the man drowns.
Hannah: Need to read that, then. Ophelia is so fitting: death/madness via loss of paternal direction. That’s probably what the men in The Awakening perceive as happening. But obviously this is taking that and reclaiming it, empowering the female character.
Bailey: I do think it’s interesting and even understandable though. In the times in which a lot of these titles we’re discussing were published, it was revolutionary enough to depict a revolt of the feminine, let alone what comes after. I’m sure it was hard to imagine what to write next.
Hannah: Endings are inherently conservative! (Usually.)
Jessica: And I also think it’s a harsh criticism of the world she was living in.
Carly: Same. What were your favorite parts?
Jessica: Wow, that’s hard.
Hannah: Everything with Reisz, the pianist who sort of coaches Edna towards independence. I like their bond of understanding each other while still not quite liking each other.
Jessica: Yes, I totally agree! I wanted to be friends with Reisz. But for favorite parts, I don’t know… I was SO taken aback by how provocative this whole novella was.
Hannah: Yes, definitely. Edna is very sexual and is so very attracted to her (female) friend Ratignolle.
Bailey: Yes, all the tension between her and Ratignolle is A++.
Jessica: Yeah! Like seriously, only twenty years earlier we have Trollope writing about women having to choose between marriage and death. And then we have this, which feels almost like soft erotica (is that too far?). I read a lot of nineteenth century novels this past semester and when I was reading Oliver Twist, my professor was like: seeing Nancy with a) her hair down and b) with a naked back is SO risque for the time. And because by that point I’d gotten so used to Victorian literature, I was like… oh yeah, totally. And now in comparison Nancy looks like a joke.
Carly: I love how she takes control of her sexuality without depending on Arobin (the man she ends up sleeping with).
Bailey: On the reverse romance angle, I really liked the lines that she and Robert, the man she falls in love with, exchange when he returns and they catch up and both describe their time apart by just saying, “There was nothing interesting.” It makes the story of Edna that much more complex when we get to see such a wide variety of so-called “romantic” relationships: a dispassionate husband, a playboy, and a man she has this anguished crush on.
Jessica: Have you guys ever read The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg? It’s a story collection, and in one there’s a newlywed couple whose honeymoon isn’t going so well. Every morning the wife wakes up and sees another honeymooning wife—seemingly perfect and happy—swimming by herself. There are so many contemporary ties to the image of The Awakening, the secret and private lives of women.
Hannah: That sounds great. I’ll add Michael Cunningham’s The Hours to the private-lives-of-women list. Okay, now: David Foster Wallace. The one thing I kept coming back to in his interviews is his complete unwillingness to be pinned down. He has such circuitous, anxious loops of thought. I thought it was appropriate that he just flat-out refused to answer some questions because he’d take too long.
Jessica: Yeah, he was very careful and exact in the way he wanted to be portrayed—unwilling to be stereotyped. It was so interesting to see him constantly editing himself and reclarifying.
Hannah: Yeah! Which struck me kinda hard because nevertheless he’s been remembered as an example of the “tormented genius” archetype, which he actually actively dismisses in one of these interviews.
Bailey: Yeah, honestly even knowing his typical tone I was somehow still surprised by how difficult he was to some of the interviewers.
Jessica: But you can totally see the nervous energy, the self-consciousness.
Carly: The evasion of answers scares me a bit but I admire his inability to be molded into one shape.
Bailey: To be fair, I genuinely don’t think he was trying to be evasive or difficult. I think he just could not fathom answering these questions with the usual interviewee decorum. And I’m glad for it, because it was a really great read.
Hannah: Yeah. With most people I feel like I would get fed up with that quickly (as in, how hard is it really to relate to an average person?) but the length and the intelligence and the specificity of Wallace’s answers come off like he’s genuinely trying to explain something. I loved it. Even when I couldn’t understand what he’s going for (see: me trying to read Infinite Jest in tenth grade), I connected with his voice and felt like I was in conversation with him and the text, which I think is really hard to pull off.
Jessica: But he also wasn’t as sweet, down to earth as I think a lot of people try to play him (like Jason Segel in The End of the Tour — which some people were mad at). I buckled over laughing when he described a woman on a cruise ship as “Jackie Gleason in drag.”
Carly: You’ve all listened to his commencement address, right?
Jessica: Yes! This Is Water? So good.
Hannah: I put a quote from it in my incoming freshman profile because I was being pretentious, the part about changing how you experience a crowded grocery store and making it sacred because learning means you get to decide what has meaning. I love that so much, how he believes in the value of understanding. Which I guess is why he can’t give short answers.
Jessica: I think about it every time I’m in the grocery store and I’m angrily staring at someone to try and make them go faster.
Hannah: Ha. I wish I could say I did that.
Bailey: I feel like that really captures what makes him so easy to connect with and feel for even when he’s being a difficult jackass—he’s just so frank and not ever apologetic, but also not pompous. He just kind of shoves things at you like, here it is, do with it what you may.
Hannah: Yes, exactly, yeah. Like it’s how his brain works, he’s not trying for it (or at least, not more than anyone is when writing or thinking).
Jessica: And also so embarrassed about seeming pompous, and so aware of it, but then sometimes it slips through anyway. Haha, like all the times he mentions films or philosophers and he asks the interviewers if they’re familiar with them. “No.”
Carly: He’s so painfully human it’s beautiful.
Hannah: Like, yes, of course I’m versed in the philosophy of the Pre-Socratics. That’s exactly what I studied in preparation for this interview.
Jessica: Shall we end on our favorite lines like last time? But I guess from either book now.
Carly: Back to The Awakening for me. “The years that are gone seem like dreams—if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! well! Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”
Hannah: Me too. “I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”
Jessica: I like the part where DFW talks about political writing. It’s actually what jumped out to me most: it spoke to my fear of how the political conversation has been going lately: “There’s no more complex, messy, community-wise argument (or ‘dialogue’); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid, but stupefying….[W]ell over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course is a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in a conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.”
Bailey: From the Wallace interviews, in reference to the dilemma between being ironic and being earnest: “…If there’s suffering involved in art, or however you want to say it, right now this is the form of the suffering: is to be the battleground for the war between those two kinds of impulses.”
Hannah: That’s wonderful.
If you want to read along with us—and you should—next up is Frank Bures’s intriguingly titled The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes. (#penisthieves)