The first time I ever read Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” was during my senior year of high school, in the second half of a year-long Advanced Placement English course.
The second time I read the book was in my sophomore year of college, when the school I’d transferred to (Coastal Carolina University) didn’t see fit to give me credit for English 101 and 102 despite my high score on the AP English exam. My previous college, the somewhat more reputable College of Charleston had waived both classes based on my AP exam score of a 4 out of a possible 5 points. But I guess CCU wanted to play hard-to-get, so there I was, rereading the same book. Again.
The third time I read the book was at the beginning of my senior year of college, maybe just a week or two before I’d met my husband in another English course. Upon my third reading (okay…perhaps it was really just a “skimming”) of the text, I truly began to appreciate it. I still couldn’t stand Edna from the standpoint of breaking up her own family and just generally acting like a doofus. But at the same time, I knew that the prevailing attitudes during the time period in which the book was set were the kind that I couldn’t really relate to, and therefore, would be remiss to judge. But more than I couldn’t stand Edna, I really detested the character of Adele. Ugh…tedious. Floppy. Vacant. And because I couldn’t find relevance for myself in either extreme, I wasn’t sure where I identified with the text, if not a little bit on both sides.
And that was around the time I met the Anti-Angel.
My Southern Women Writers professor at the time, Dr. Jill Sessoms, was a ball-buster. She was the biggest, most certified bad-ass this side of Linda Hamilton, but with the kind of brains that could go toe-to-toe with some of the most intelligent and arrogant men I’ve ever come across in my life. She had kicked cancer’s butt once before, most likely in one of her many fabulous pairs of Converse sneakers – she had an expansive collection of them. And to add to her “allure,” Dr. Sessoms was hated – deeply, thoroughly detested – by almost every non-English-major who unsuspectingly happened into one of her courses. This really only cemented for me that she was a force to be reckoned with and that I had better straighten up and listen to what this woman had to say. I was perhaps more than a little terrified of her, as well. I don’t remember who my adviser was at the time, but I quickly switched to her, because I knew she’d be straight with me about which classes to take that final year.
In our discussions of several books, including “The Awakening,” Dr. Sessoms (or simply, “Sessoms,” as the English major brigade came to know her) kept the figure of the Angel in the House prominent in our coursework.
The Angel in the House is a poem by Coventry Patmore, a 19th century English poet, dealing with the then-timely concept of what amounted to a happy and fulfilling marriage (for the dude, anyway).
The Angel in the House
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers;
Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she’s still his wife,
Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone.
(Somewhere, the one misogynist that stumbled across this blog just grunted.)
And that was when I got engaged – not engaged in the class (though I was that, too). Engaged to a guy. Dr. Sessoms knew Jonathan from other courses he’d had with her, and I think deep down she liked him and knew he was a good guy. But imagine: there I was, studying these incredible pieces, engaging thrice weekly in empowering discussion with other intelligent women, and saying to myself “Hell no, we won’t go!” And I went and got engaged. The nerve, right?
Dr. Sessoms gave me a little friendly ribbing, mostly in the form of bewildered head shaking at the idea that I was going to go and tie myself down at the tender age of 21. But I think we both knew between the two of us that it wasn’t that bad of a decision. Just a risky one. Even then, I knew the survival rate of a marriage tends to get lower and lower the younger you jump into it. I was as committed as I could have ever been to this man, but I knew what some people were going to think of my choice. And for reasons unknown to me then, I was 10 times more nervous about telling Dr. Sessoms that I was getting married than I was about breaking the news to my dad (who knew he really didn’t have a say anyway).
Imagine my surprise when shortly before my wedding, Dr. Sessoms later gifted me with a food processor to haul with me as I set off to start my new married life – my new Angel in the House existence – in front of the entire class. It was the next semester, in our Women in Literature course (Sessoms was bonafide “girl power”). Jonathan was one of the two males that took the plunge and signed up for the course (he needed one more elective). I later told Jonathan, shaken, “I’m not sure what to think of this.”
“Why? It’s just a food processor, Beck.”
“Yeah, but it’s like…it’s a symbolism, you know? Everything contains symbolism, that’s what Dr. Sessoms says to us when we read about these ‘wifely’ types,” I said.
“It’s a food processor.”
“No, it’s a symbol of subservience. Just like church steeples are phallic symbols and drowning yourself is release – didn’t you read ‘The Awakening?’ Geesh!!”
“Well yeah, but that was back in high school.”
That class was one I may never forget. Did we have any guys in there? I can’t remember and I feel terrible, because if we did then how remarkable, right? But I don’t remember the guys. I remember the girls, and how we were all coming from some different place in life, but bonded over these themes and ideas in the texts we were reading. It was sort of like the dichotomy seen in the movie “Mona Lisa Smile,” except if Julia Roberts’ character was 20-30 years older, and without the witchy Kirsten Dunst character.
Thanks to the advent of silly ridiculous platforms like Facebook (which I use way too much), I’m able to keep up with many of the girls from that class. We’ve been through the ringer. We run the gamut from blonde to purple (yes, purple) hair. From willowy-thin to pleasantly plump. From single to happily married to divorced. From straight to bi to gay. Through engagements, break-ups, weddings, pregnancies, miscarriages, births, we occasionally get the chance to say “Hey – I remember you. And I hope you’re okay.” Or some similar but less profound pleasantry.
And while we’re not all transformed into that “Angel,” I think I’ve become engulfed in the Angel idea these past few years. She floats back to me like a phantom when I’m doing laundry. She’s a perfume of cooking smells that wafts by when I shake out my apron. She beckons me to come write about her, write to her, dissect her the way we used to in class. Back when I felt like I was doing something of real intellectual value. Sessoms never said this to me outright, but I think she knew it would happen. We weren’t even really developing as readers, writers, understudies. It’s hard to take on the life of a wife and mother when you’re a writer and still keep that part of you sacred, reserved for yourself. The writer in me has suffered, and I’ve said this before, but I’ve lost a lot of my focus. Maybe even all of it. And I want that focus back.
Not to take one single thing away from the value of the life I’ve been blessed with. I’d give up pen and paper (err…keyboard and…finger?) entirely for my little boy. I love him that much – but I do love to write. It’s hard to write, to really get into a topic, when you’re trying to prevent a toddler from covering himself and your entire house in bits of graham cracker and other unidentifiable sludge (mostly boogers).
Over the past few months/years, I’ve started to feel that much more driven to try to rediscover whatever it is that once inspired me. Or whatever is supposed to inspire me now. And I think my interest is definitively centered on issues (political or otherwise) within the home and family, within the female psyche, and with regards especially to my spirituality and how that is developing.
This page started as a pregnancy blog, back when I had uterine tunnel vision and any topic other than babies and pregnancy couldn’t hold my focus (embarrassing but true). Then it transformed into an “everything” blog – entitled “A Compilation Piece” mostly because I was sleep deprived, and I had no clue what to call it, and that was my mom’s favorite poem that I wrote back in college. When I don’t have an inkling one way or another of what to do with something, I’ll almost always do what my mother likes. It wasn’t always that way, it’s just that around age 23 or so, I realized she’s actually right about some things.
And while I remain a crazy-quilt of different things, much like any woman you can find, I think this suits the direction of my life and all the chaos in my head. I’m the Angel in the House. Only a little bit crooked…a little bit odd.
Virginia Woolf once said that “killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” Well, I don’t think I make enough money on my writing to warrant literary matricide. And I don’t think I’m going to go that morbid of a route. I think I’m just going to study this Angel. These days of my life are brief, and all too soon, my children will all be born, grown, and doing this same thing. Figuring life out one load of laundry at a time. One broken plate at a time. With sore neck and aching shoulders.
Question by question.