Article Expert: “Language and Female Emancipation” by Patricia Yaeger

“Language and Female Emancipation” – Patricia S. Yaeger

Article Expert – Kara Falknor

Thesis: “Although Edna initially attempts to move into an arena in which she can begin to explore feelings which lie outside the prescribed social code, finally she can only think about herself within that code, can only act within some permutation of the subject-object relations her society has ordained for her” (285).

Main Ideas:

  • Edna lacks the language she needs to speak for herself.
  • Robert Lebrun speaks for her when he invents fairy tales to describe her feelings and Edna adopts his language as her own.
    • “How many years have I slept?” she inquired. […] “You have slept precisely one hundred years. I was left here to guard your slumbers; and for one hundred years I have been out under the shed reading a book. The only evil I couldn’t prevent was to keep a broiled fowl from drying up.” (286 in the article)
    • Through Robert’s “continuing story,” Edna is “freed from the repressive talk of her husband [but] chooses another mode of oppression” (287).
    • Robert “alter[s] [the] meaning” of Edna’s experience swimming for the first time.
    • “And since Edna lacks an alternative register of language to describe her tumultuous feelings, Robert’s conceit soon becomes her own; his language comes to stand for the nameless feelings she has just begun to experience” (288).
    • “[T]he pivotal event of Chopin’s novel is not Edna’s suicide, nor her break with her husband, but her openness to Robert Lebrun’s stories, her vulnerability to the romantic speech of the other which has, by the end of the novel, become her speech as well” (288).
  • Edna uses images at the beginning and end of the novel to express herself as she lacks the necessary language to do so in words.
    • “Edna’s own awakening begins with and returns at her death to the rich and painful lure of desires that are still outside speech and beyond the social order” (290).
    • “Edna’s language is inadequate to her vital needs […] it is singular when it should be plural, masculine when it should be feminine, phantasmic when it should be open and dialectical” (290).
    • “[W]e can locate the power of the novel’s final images in Edna’s desire ‘to give back a memory, hence a language,’ to that within her which remains nameless” (291)


While it is true that Robert frames Edna’s experiences within a fairy tale setting, it is she herself who begins this imaginative discourse. How can we say that she appropriates Robert’s ideas when she originated them?

  • After her first swim, before Robert begins his talk of spirits, Edna remarks, “I wonder if any night on earth will ever again be like this one. It is like a night in a dream. The people about me are like some uncanny, half-human beings. There must be spirits abroad to-night” (50).


1. Yaeger asks whether we can “define The Awakening as one of the grand subversive novels, as a novel belonging to a great tradition of emancipatory fiction” and asserts that we can do so “only if Chopin has been successful in inventing a novelistic structure in which the heroine’s very absence of speech works productively, in which Edna’s silence offers a new dialogic ground from which we can measure the systematic distortions of her old ground of being and begin to construct a new, utopian image of the emergence of women’s antithetical desires” (286). Do you agree with Yaeger that this requirement must be fulfilled in order for the novel to be viewed as subversive? Why or why not?

2. Yaeger uses as an example of Edna’s adopting Robert’s speech the final section of the novel where she tells him that she loves him, which suggests that Edna does not truly feel this way but is in fact only saying this because she has no other language. Does Edna truly love Robert?


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