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Art Essay Humanities Nonfiction Theory

“Si tu savais”: The Gay/Transgendered Sensibility of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

By Kate Biggs, 2004

Robert Lebrun, a young and handsome but girlfriendless courtier of (usually) married women, who spends every summer vacation with his mother, and Mademoiselle Reisz, a celibate, misanthropic pianist, who refers to The Awakening’s attractive Edna Pontellier as “beautiful woman” and “my queen,” especially admiring her appearance in a bathing suit, cry out almost audibly for the critic’s interrogation of their sexuality. Encountering Robert and Reisz as real people in daily life, many of us would have little question about their sexuality. It is not a wholly original point, but has not usually been so baldly asserted, has not been supported with as much detailed evidence as Chopin actually provides, and has not been placed within the context of a fuller gendered analysis. Yet holding these two characters up to the sexual orientation spotlight only begins to illuminate Chopin’s radical, gendered social critique. I will examine her complex variations on traditional assumptions about gender and especially about sexuality, focusing on Edna, Robert, and Reisz, and mentioning also some minor characters usually overlooked by critics: Madame Lebrun, Tonie, and the Farival twins.

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