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George Sand, Kate Chopin, Margaret Atwood, and the

Redefinition of Self
Jeanee P. Sacken
Rochester Institute of Technology
On January 4, 1831, Aurore Dupin Dudevant--shortly to become
known to the world as George Sand--embarked on what she hoped would
be an independent life in Paris, leaving behind at her ancestral estate her
husband and two children. When Mme Dudevant returned to the provinces
after this venture away from her domestic roles as wife and mother, she
discovered the repressive atmosphere and her husband's ill-tempered,
drunken, womanizing behavior to be pretty much the same as before her
departure. Regaining Paris for a subsequent sojourn, Sand brought along
her children and the manuscript of her first novel, Indiana, a work that
still stands as a clarion call for women's rights in society and in marriage
and as a structural model for much of the woman's fiction that followed
in the ensuing century and a half, not only in Europe, but in North American
as well. 1
To summarize briefly Sand's novel of domestic repression: The young
Indiana suffers keenly her subjugation to her considerably older and
jealousy-ridden husband DeImare first at their isolated estate in the French
provinces; subsequently in Paris--where Indiana is seduced both by the enchanting glitter of society and by the appearance of liberation from her
husband promised by an affair with the dashing Raymon; and finally, on
1'ile Bourbon, the island of her childhood home off the East African coast.
In each of these locations, DeImare and Indiana are joined by Indiana's
long-suffering, devoted cousin, Sir Ralph, who, having cared for the
motherless child Indiana, now defends her against the violent cruelty of
her husband, rescues her from her attempt to drown herself, and, following the death of Delmare, persuades her to join him in domestic felicity
in the unexplored wilderness of upland ile Bourbon.
Although the story and characters of Indianadiffer significantly from
the author's own situation, the major structural elements of the novel do
bear a striking resemblance to Sand's stifling marriage, oppressive life at
home, and eventual liberation. The structural pattern of each narrative,
a model for numerous subsequent works of woman's fiction, is founded

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on a sequence of motifs: (I) repressive domestic life; (2) flight from subjugation and dependence to a new, liberating, and often previously unfamiliar, milieu; (3) transformation through discovery of one's own latent
strength and one's true self; and, fmally (4) the decision either to reaggreglrte
oneself into the prevailing (male-oriented) Social Structure or to remain
segregated from and thus independent of that society. Not a simple reworking of BUdungsromane in which male protagonists experience their social,
moral, political, and religious formation, such novels as Indiana, The
Awakening by the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century American writer
Kate Chopin, and Surfacing by the modem Canadian author Margaret Atwood present female protagonists who must undergo considerably more
complex transformations. Having mastered one set of socially sanctioned
roles, they struggle in essence to deconstruct those roles, rules, definitions,
and selves that have been so carefully constructed for them and learned
by them. The effort to transform first their own lives and then perhaps
the lives of those around them precipitates these heroines' flights from
domesticity.
A literary heroine's struggle toward a liberating transformation of self
frequently entails a journey--whether actual or metaphorical--beyond the
reaches of male-defmed society to the benign, egalitarian, regenerative,
matriarchal world of nature. Here, in what some feminist critics have termed
"women's space" and others the "wild zone," sequestered from the rigidly constraining hierarchy of male-focused Social Structures, female
characters can begin the process of self-redefmition.2 This motif pattern
of flight, self-discovery,and transformation, and particularly the "journey"
to anew, uncharted, unexplored space beyond the strictures of patriarchal
rule can be explicated more fully by reference to Victor Turner's elucidation of the concept of "liminality.'"
Central to the process of "rite of passage" as both a socialphenomenon
and a literary motif, the experience of liminality (or, marginality) occurs
following an individual's separation from the prevailing Social Structure
and prior to aggregation back into that Society. As such, liminality
represents the "midpoint of transition in a status-sequence between two
positions"; all indications of rank, power, role, or postition within Society
are stripped away-often symbolized by the removal of clothing-and liminal

beingsbecomesimplyanother part of the natural order.4 WhereasSocial


Structure draws sharp distinctions between individuals on the basis of
biological differences between the sexes, liminality with its spirit of communitas strives to diminsh those differences. This liberation of all that has
been bound by Social Structure culminates in a complete breakdown of
social and kinship relations, and hence a cessation of the relationship of
power wielded by the male sex over the female, by husbands over wives.

In opposition to the patriarchally-defmed Social Structure, what Turner


calls "liminality" and what severalfeminist criticscall the "wild zone" tends
to be matriarchal. And, in contrast to the well-defmedboundaries that mark
off patriarchal Society, this liminalIfemale space occupies no charted place;
indeed, it may be likened to the wilderness, to invisibility, darkness, bisexuality, to death, to being in the womb, to all that is indeterminate. Passage
through liminality works both to liberate the individual from previous confining definitions and to empower her with new, deep, gnostic-like
knowledge of her own reality.
To symbolize the collapse of Social Structure and to emphasize the
human being's merging into nature, the literary portrayal of liminal experience often abounds with references to the natural world. In woman's
fiction generallyand in Indiaoa, The Awakening, and Surfacing particularly,
the somewhat ambiguous image of the bird-caged, hunted, and in flight-figures prominently, suggesting at once the protagonists' social subjugation and their liberating self-discovery, their domestic repression and their
soaring flight of escape.' The journey from spouse and home enables these
heroines to chip away at their socialized, passive veneer to discover their
strong and independent, true selves.
Throughout Sand's novel, Indiana's lack of freedom and ultimately
her liberation are suggested by the image of the bird. The initial description of M. Delmare as a jealous and suspicious husband is amplified by
his depiction as a "bird of prey": "11est certain que l'argus conjugal fatigua

son oeilde vautour sans surprendreun regard."6 A violentconfrontation


between Delmare and Indiana gives evidence of his potential cruelty and
demonstrates that Indiana is a virtual prisoner, a caged bird, within her
marriage: "11etait tente de l'etrangler, de la trainer par les cheveux, de la
fouler aux pieds pour la forcer de crier merci, d'implorer sa gr~ce: mais
elle etait si jolie, si mignonne et si blanche, qui'il se prenait avoir pitie
d'elle comme un enfant s'attendrit a regarder l'oiseau qui'il voulait tuer"
(p. 2(0). Delmare's cruelty toward his wife is further emphasized by the
reader's realization that he does, in fact, hunt birds for amusement (p. 105).
These images and Delmare's behavior presage the eventual outburst of his
violence against Indiana: "Sans pouvoir articuler une parole, ilIa saisait
par les cheveux, la renversa, et la frappa au front du talon de sa botte"
(p. 269). Once in residence on l'ile Bourbon, Indiana spends her days observing the flight of birds to one of the neighboring islands. The image of the
bird in flight suggests to her the means of escape from the emotional and
social shackles imposed on her by her marriage. Her daydreams, generated
by the sight of this daily, unimpeded exodus, inspire her to picture herself
in a small hut on the neighboring, uninhabited island, living freely amidst
the natural world, in complete isolation from society, and completely self-

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reliant. Eventually though, her plan is transformed into a flight from the
domestic oppression and unfeeling cruelty of her husband to what she
believes is liberation, but what is, she learns, merely another form of emotional, financial, and social enslavement--her role as Raymon's mistress.
Returning a fmal time to the isolated wildernessofl'Ue Bourbon, sequestered
from all manner of social interaction and oppression, Indiana is fmally free
to assume control of her life and to enjoy a non-exploitive relationship with
Ralph, a "marriage" lacking all form of legal, religious, and social sanction and subjugation.
Unlike their literary antecedent whose heroine survives because of her
dependence on her male cousin (maternal kinship line), however androgenous his characterization may be, Chopin and Atwood portray
heroines, who, having become overly dependent on the men in their lives,
seek to escape the oppressiveconfmes of their stereotypical1ydomestic roles
in order to discover the power and vitality of the real self that has long
lain dormant within. As Edna PonteUier in The Awakening gradually
becomes aware of the oppressiveness of her roles as wife and mother, she
is at first unable to pinpoint with any precision the source of her feelings
or to correct the effects. Unjustly reproached by her husband as being an
inattentive mother, Edna has recourse only to her tears in an attempt to
cope with such overwhelming frustration. Mr. Pontellier's own dissatisfaction and frustration with Edna is equally difficult to defme. When he married the considerably younger Edna, he believed he was gaining a beautiful
and perfect wife and mother for the children they would have--in short,
an ideal "true woman. ' , Yet, it becomes increasinglyclear during their summer vacation spent on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, that Edna does
not and cannot fulfill the idealized feminine roles that he had so deliciously anticipated when he selected her to be his wife.
Mrs. PonteUier was not a mother-woman. The
mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand
Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were
women who idolized their children, worshipped their
husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface
themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering

angels.7
The relationship between the Pontelliers, with all of its frustrations,
unfulfilled expectations, and mechanical existence is poignantly captured
by the image of the caged green and yellow parrot. The bird annoys Mr.
Pontellier by his constant repetition of the phrase: ". Allez-vous-enl Allez-

vous-enl Sapristil" The parrot's mindless repetition parallels Edna's own


unthinking, rote behavior that has marked her life since marriage. They
both perform what they have been trained to do. Because he is caged, the
parrot is unable to fly: like the contented, bird-like, mother-women whom
Edna observes on the beach, the parrot is confined to scurrying around
his cage with an occasional flap of the wings and a periodic flutter of
feathers. The parrot is, however, able to suggest to Edna a way out, a way
to get off the ground as he screeches: "Get outl Get outl damn itl" But
because of the constant repetition, no one really listens p~t the annoying
noise; no one really hears what the bird is saying until Edna manages to
break out of her automaton, "true woman" existence.Like the parrot whose
function is that of family pet, Edna has until her 28th summer existed as
one more valuable and pretty piece of her husband's property, on display
in her husband's home. Like the parrot who is being kept from flying, Edna has been isolated from living in her own space. Unlike the parrot,
however, Edna recognizes the confining nature of her caged existence. She
begins to discover her true self, to feel her inner strength and vitality;
metaphorically, she learn to fly when she fmally learns to swim. Other vacationers tried all summer, but in vain, to teach her to swim, but one night
as Edna enters the water alone, she is able to accomplish that goal:
A feelingof exultation overtook her, as if some power
of significant import had been given her to control the
working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and
reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim
far out, where no woman had swum before. (p. 47)
Like Edna, the unnamed narrator-heroine of Surfacing-identified only
as "I"--has felt oppressed by the expectations and demands placed on her
by the men and women in her life. Following the death of her mother and
the subsequent disappearance of her father from their island summer home
in Northern Canada, the heroine, her lover Joe, and another couple spend
a weeksearching for him in the isolated northern reaches. As she reexamines
the home of her past, she lets us glimpse snippets of her childhood and
adult indoctrination into socially acceptable feminine roles and behavior.
In a sense, the heroine must return to her past to be able, in turn, to unshackle herself from her destructive present. We are let into that past through
the pictures that decorate the walls of her childhood bedroom:
Ladies in exotic costume, sausage rolls of hair across their
foreheads, with puffed red mouths and eyelashes like
toothbrush bristles: when I was ten I believed in glamour,
it was a kind of religion and these were my icons.'

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The heroine's past sense of self reverberates again when she leafs through
her scrapbooks:
I searched through it carefully, looking for something I
could recognize as myself, where I had come from or gone
wrong: but there were no drawings at all, just illustrations
cut from magazines and pasted in. They were ladies, all
kinds: holding up cans of cleanser, knitting, smiling,
modeling toeless high heels and nylons with dark seams
and pillbox hats and veils: A lady was what you dressed
up as on Halloween when you couldn't think of anything
else and didn't want to be a ghost; or it was what you said
at school when they asked you what you were going to be
when you grew up, you said "a lady" or "a mother,"
either one was safe; and it wasn't a lie, I did want to be
those things. On some of the pages were women's dresses
clipped from mail-order catalogues, no bodies in them. (p.
109)
In this return to childhood, the heroine begins to realize the sources of her
present feelings of objectification and fragmentation. The glossy, smiling
ladies who paraded through her youth, molding her present self, reveal the
very lack of self that she dreads. The devastating final mention of bodyless
dresses confirms the heroine's fears; like Indiana, like Edna, she has been
trained not to find herself, but to bide her real self. These images ring
ominously true when the heroine discovers her friend Anna in the freezing
cold of early morning rushing to make-up her face before her husband wakes
up and sees what she really looks like:
I realize I've never seen her without it before; shorn
of the pink cheeks and heightened eyesher face is curiously
battered, a worn doll's, her artificial face is the natural
one. The backs of her arms have goose pimples.
"You don't need that here," I say, "there's no one
to look at you." My mother's phrase, used to me once
when I was fourteen; she was watching, dismayed, as I
covered my mouth with Tango Tangerine. I told her I was
just practicing.
Anna says in low voice, "He doesn't like to see me
without it," and then, contradicting herself, "He doesn't
know I wear it." (pp. 150-51)
The heroine ultimately succeeds in breaking out of the pictures glued
to bedroom walls and scrapbook pages. During one sojourn in search of

her father, the four of them happen upon a heron, needlessly slaughtered
and mutilated. Like the parrot in The Awakening and the caged, hunted,
and soaring birds in Indiana, the image of the dead bird resonates
thematically throughout the novel. Left hanging upside down in a tree, its
deteriorating carcass echoes the emptiness and confining restrictions experienced by the women in the novel. Its lost ability to fly conjures up the
heroine's memories of her mother, who had told the story of herself as a
young girl breaking both legs as she tried to soar in flight off the top of
a barn. Ultimately, the image and her memories of other birds, fed and
tended when she was a child, help drive the heroine on to her own flight,
her self-discovery.
Both Edna and the unnamed heroine begin their liminal experience,
and hence find the entrance to themselves, in water, symbolically the
matriarchal element. Like air, water defies the manmade boundaries that
segment the earth. The sea and the women's weightless plunge into that
element allow them to abandon the social codes and expectations and the
sexualhierarchy that govern their lives.The expansivenessof the sea, marked
only by an endless horizon of more sea and sky and a fathomless depth,
creates a space that is open and free of strictures. Swimming and diving
become for these two women achievements born of their own desires, actions that connect them to nature and to themselves, creating an inner and
outer harmony with the natural universe, if not with civilized man. Edna's
midnight swim and the unnamed heroine's penetrating plunge into the cold
depths of the Canadian lake function metaphorically as descents into and
discoveries of themselves. The saline quality of the sea, suggestive of amniotic fluid, allows Edna, who has given birth to others, to birth herself.
The unnamed heroine's dive beyond the surface layers of water into the
dark, seemingly bottomless lake affords her a vision from her past that,
in turn, enables her to see herself and her future:
It was below me, drifting towards me from the furthest
level where there was no life, a dark oval trailing limbs.
It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was
something I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead...I knew
when it was, it was in a bottle curled up, staring out at
me like a cat pickled; it had huge jelly eyes and fins instead of hands, fish gills, I couldn't let it out, it was dead
already, it had drowned in air. It was there when I woke
up, suspended in the air above me like a chalice, an evil
grail and I thought, whatever it is, part of myself or a
separate creature, I killed it. It wasn't a child but it could
have been one, I didn't allow it. (pp. 167-68)

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This image of an aborted fetus, preserved in formaldehyde and suspended


above her head much like the mutilated heron, recalls to the heroine her
recent past and reinforceS"her growing awareness that she has lacked control over her biological destiny and her mental health. Pregnant, she had
been coerced into an abortion by her previous, already married lover. And
sensing the incomprehensible mutilation of her self, she has created a different version of the events that have constituted her life, and thus, the
story that she narrates. Her story, then, like her memories, has been faked
until her diving retreat into her past allowsher to strip away the fraudulence,
and enables her real self to surface within. The heroine feels the emptiness
within herself-caused by the abortion and by the sudden exposure of her
true, untested being-, but she also recognizes the power that she possesses
as a woman, the power to generate life, both her own and others'.
To appease her sense of having mutilated and of having been mutilated
in turn, she calls--like a cat in heat--to Joe to make love. Already having
begun to merge with the natural world as a result of her dive in the lake,
she recognizesthe redundancy of pleasure that humans take in the sexualact:
...the animals don't have pleasure. I guide him into me,
it's the right season, I hurry.
He trembles and then I can feel my lost child surfacing within me, forgiving me, rising from the lake where
it has been prisoned for so long, its eyes and teeth
phosphorescent This time I will do it by myself, squatting, on old newspapers in a corner alone; or on leaves,
dry leaves, a heap of them, that's cleaner. The baby will
slip out easily as an egg, a kitten, and I'll lick it off and
bite the cord, the blood returning to the ground where it
belongs; the moon will be full, pulling. (p. 191)
Following her self-revelatory immersion, each woman tries to destroy
the physical reminders of her previous social status and sexuality, her past
entrapment. Edna shatters a vase against the hearth and wrenches her wedding ring from her finger, grinding it into the floor. The heroine of
Surfacing slashes her clothes and rips and burns the pictures that have long
generated fragmented and distorted imagesof women. The unnamed heroine
then completes her merging with nature. By abandoning her male-defined
self, by crossing over the border out of humanity and into the natural world,
she is able to transform herself in female space, in the hu-man-ly unapproachable "wild zone." Nameless, this universal woman describes her
evolution back through time from human being to animal to vegetation:
"When nothing is left intact and the fire is only smoldering I leave, carrying one of the wQWldedblankets with me, I will need it until the fur grows"

(p. 208). Naked, this animal-woman washes away her humanness in the
lake while a loon calls out to her, accepting her as part of its world. She
hollows out a lair to hide from the people who return to the island to search
for her, knowing that if they fmd her, "they will shoot me or bludgeon
in my skull and hang me up by the feet from a tree" (p. 214). Recall the
slaughter and mutilation of the heron. Injured, the blood seeps out of her
wound like sap from a tree, and she merges further with the natural world.
In the space beyond reach of man, a space governed by matriarchal principle these three heroines discover themselves, experiencingtheir oneness with
the world. Because the heroine of Surfacing finds this space and thus her
strength, her own self, she is able to return, to try again to change the
"civilized" human world. It is significant that she decides to resume certain domestic roles as well. She returns to live with and perhaps marry Joe,
to bear their child, and to work from within the dominant, male-oriented
society by the way she raises her child to help create a more egalitarian,
human life.
, Edna, however, does not ever stumble upon this radically liberating
w04d. Free from the domestic confines of husband and children, Edna remai1\sdependent on men, fmancially and emotionally. The sea, then, with
its expansive solitude and sensuous, depthless embrace is the only way left
for Edna now to elude the men and the social roles that enslave her soul.
Standing naked on the beach, like the unnamed heroine on the shoreline
of the Canadian lake, and like the clothed Indiana on the banks of the Sein~
and at the Bernica waterfall, Edna perceives life around her for the first
time from her unencumbered stance. Edna, too, gives all of her body to
the surrounding nature--the sun, the wind, and the water. As if new-born,
she is fmally free to swim out toward the ever-extending horizon, this time
without looking back to see how far out she is from the shore, the manmarked boundary she has crossed.
Although all three protagonists cross beyond the partriarchal boundaries of Society into the natural world, the unnamed heroine of Surfacing
alone opts to return to male-defined Society, to reaggregate herself into
the Social Structure, hoping to use the strength gained during her liminal
experience to ameliorate Society's sexual stereotypes. By resolving to remain in nature, in liminality, through the help of her cousin, Indiana succeeds in separating herself from the cruelty and injustice of one of the institutions of Social Structure-marriage-and becomes capable of living. For
Edna, though, the discovery of her true self and the realization of her inability to live according to male-defined Society dictates lead her to choose
instead to remain in liminality, in the boundless reaches of female space,
in new-found life through death.

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See George Sand, Oeuvres Autoblograpblques, n, ed. Georges Lupin (Paris: Editions

Galllmard, 1970), p. 150; 35-174. Nina B'aym has documented the abundance of "woman's
fiction" that dominated the American literary scene for most of the nineteenth century in
Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women In America, 1810-1870 (Ithaca:
CorneU University Press, 1978).
'See, for example, Elaine Showalter, "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," Critical
Inquiry, 8 (Winter 1981), 179-205, and for a more complete presentation of Showalter's feminist
literary theory, consult A Literature 01 Tbelr Own: Britlsb Womea Nove11slllrom Broale
to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977). See also, Luce Irigaray, "When Our
Lips Speak Together,"
trans. Carolyn Burke, SIlas: A Journal 01 Womea 1a Culture aad
Society, (1980), 69-79; Annette Kolodny, "Some Notes on Defining a 'Feminist Literary
Criticism' ," Critical Inquiry, 2 (Autumn 1975), 75-93; and Elaine Marks and IsabeUe de Courtivan, eds., New Frencb Feminlsms (New York: Schocken Books, 1981).
'Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and ,Metapbon:
SymboUc Actioa 1a Human Society
(Ithaca: ComeU University Press, 1974), ch. 6. For further discussion, see Turner, The Ritual
Process: Structure and Antl-8tructure
(Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969).
'Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphon:
SymboUc Action In Human Society, 237.
'See Annette Kolodny for an examination of the bird Image in Susan GlaspcU's short
story, "A Jury of Her Peers," in "A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation
of Literary Texts," New Literary Hlstory,ll
(Spring 1980), 451-67. See also Nina Auerbach,
Woman and the Demon: The LIIe 01 a Victorian Myth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1982), particularly chapters 3 and 4, for an examination of bird and angel Images.
'George Sand, Indiana, ed. and introd. Pierre Salomon (paris: Garnier F~res, 1962),
p. 20. AU further references will be made to this edition and will be contained in the text.
'Kate Chopin, The Awakening (1899; rpt. New York: Avon Books [A Bard Book), 1972),
p. 16. AU further references will be made to this edition and will be contained in the text.
'Margaret Atwood, Surfaclal (New York: Fawcett Popular Library, 1972), p. 49. AU
further references will be made to this edition and will be contained in the text.