Make no mistake: They are no relation, Kate and Frederic, yet they are inextricably linked in my mind. Although we were three obstreperous boys, my two brothers and I would calm down like Pavlovian dogs whenever my mother listened to Chopin on the stereo, which was often in my memory. Much older now, I, too, have fallen in love with his nocturnes and sonatas, calming meditations through music. I now associate Chopin with the brilliant performance of Albert Wang.
In college, however, I read The Awakening, and when I came across this scene where Edna listens to Mademoiselle Reisz play Chopin, I think of listening to Chopin, the composer, as a boy.
Kate Chopin writes:
Edna was what she herself called very fond of music. Musical strains, well rendered, had a way of evoking pictures in her mind. She sometimes liked to sit in the room of mornings when Madame Ratignolle played or practiced. One piece which that lady played Edna had entitled "Solitude." It was a short, plaintive, minor strain. The name of the piece was something else, but she called it "Solitude." When she heard it there came before her imagination the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him. Another piece called to her mind a dainty young woman clad in an Empire gown, taking mincing dancing steps as she came down a long avenue between tall hedges. Again, another reminded her of children at play, and still another of nothing on earth but a demure lady stroking a cat. The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier's spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth. She waited for the material pictures which she thought would gather and blaze before her imagination. She waited in vain. She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her. Mademoiselle had finished. She arose, and bowing her stiff, lofty bow, she went away, stopping for neither, thanks nor applause. As she passed along the gallery she patted Edna upon the shoulder. "Well, how did you like my music?" she asked. The young woman was unable to answer; she pressed the hand of the pianist convulsively. Mademoiselle Reisz perceived her agitation and even her tears. She patted her again upon the shoulder as she said: "You are the only one worth playing for. Those others? Bah!" and she went shuffling and sidling on down the gallery toward her room. But she was mistaken about "those others." Her playing had aroused a fever of enthusiasm. "What passion!" "What an artist!" "I have always said no one could play Chopin like Mademoiselle Reisz!" "That last prelude! Bon Dieu! It shakes a man!" It was growing late, and there was a general disposition to disband. But some one, perhaps it was Robert, thought of a bath at that mystic hour and under that mystic moon. (72)
When Edna is "unable to answer," she enters the liminal en route to her awakening. Without words, the music has not conjured her imagination, thoughts in her mind, but something more powerful than intellect: "passions themselves were aroused within her soul." As an artist, Mademoiselle Reisz expresses herself through music, playing for herself, and Edna "the only one worth playing for."
Through art, whether it be music or Edna's painting, creative expression resonates with each of us as human beings. As unruly boys, we connected with Chopin. As a young man in college, I connected with Edna's plight as she searched for her voice. As I write this, and teach The Awakening again, I find new meaning through writing.
Thank you for reading.