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Reflections On Outlander Series One, In Context

A photograph of Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser/Randall in Starz' Outlander; here she is running along a road bordered by wildflowers

Photograph/screen shot from Outlander, copyright © 2014 Neil Davidson/Sony Pictures TV.

Following up the book with the TV show or film, with less than a day in between, tends to have drawbacks; the screen might not live up to the book, and with everything clear in your mind, it’s very easy to notice changes.

For me, Outlander didn’t follow that trend. I’d read the book when I did because I’d discovered the show on Amazon, and found the adaptation to be incredibly well done. It’s most often faithful to the book, but the times it’s not are handled with aplomb. By episode four, I knew I’d have to write about it, and this was an idea I enjoyed more than the idea of writing about the 1991 publication.

The show is not as long-winded as the book. It couldn’t be, of course. There is less time in which to tell the tale, and the audience – naturally including far more people than the original readers – wouldn’t be as patient, especially nowadays. (It makes a difference that the series arrived over 20 years after the first book was published.) The show is slicker for it. On her website (n.d.), Gabaldon says the series started by accident in the late 1980s when she decided to write a novel for “practice”, and that one of her goals was to learn what it took to write one. She continues:

In essence, these novels are Big, Fat, Historical Fiction, á la James Clavell and James Michener. However, owing to the fact that I wrote the first book for practice, didn’t intend to show it to anyone, and therefore saw no reason to limit myself, they include…

She lists a plethora of plot elements and genres. The statements match the content: lengthy, and sort of introspective and indulgent at times, considering Gabaldon was writing for herself. The show does away with a lot of the length and indulgence1.

Something lacking from the book that can be pinned on the fact that it is about Claire and Jamie’s relationship, is Frank. Claire doesn’t think of him all that much, but having him drop from the narrative completely means the time travel factor is somewhat lost. The show includes a few scenes of Frank looking for Claire. While totally made up for the show and quite possibly not on the timeline Gabaldon envisaged, these few scenes rectify the time travel problem. Frank’s inclusion enables the production crew to take the story further, showing how just the shortest nod to Frank – in his own right, rather than as a memory for Claire to discuss – changes the narrative for the better. It’s likely true we’re not meant to feel much for Frank, but having him off the page seemed a bit too easy.

The show doesn’t tend to specify dates, leaning more on seasons of the year. The book mentions specific days. (Whilst the section in the prison is horrific, I found literary happiness when I read that ‘tomorrow’ was 22nd December, and I was at that moment sat beside my Christmas tree on 21st.) The show simply moves the action at the beginning to a different season. This, whether planned with it in mind or not, neatly gets around the problem in the book wherein the days of Christmas come and go, at a monastery no less, without a mention. Christmas in the show is moved forward, and though not actively celebrated (likely a diversion too far) the rooms at Castle Leoch are decorated. The winter season is introduced with its own camera shot, snow falling in the Highlands.

I was impressed by the handling of the sex scenes, balanced between fidelity to the source and what would work on television; no less explicit but fewer in number; a couple of fade to blacks. Of that scene where Jamie punishes Claire and then may or may not have coerced her into sex depending on your interpretation, it seemed the crew had taken reader comments and criticisms on board, both those related to the action itself and those who were discussing the historical context. The historical context had been very brief in the book. After the initial argument between the couple, which was well done, I was actually surprised the next part of the story was included; the acting by Sam Heughan brought a lot more of the historical context into it, and the scene was scripted and filmed so that it goes straight to the fact of the matter and is careful in its visuals.

It’s great to hear from Jamie’s perspective; though only used in the ninth episode, The Reckoning, it was good to get out of Claire’s head and be able to see Jamie for himself. A reason for the change may well have been so that the crew could develop better a storyline Claire only heard about, but whatever the reason, it produced better content and a more rounded, historical, narrative. It also allowed for more historical and character context in the scene of resolution, post punishment.

Changes/elements I don’t think worked so well in general included the ending, which shortens a section considerably and changes the location of the monastery so that the sailing to France is the cliff hanger of series one rather than the conclusion of the section in Wentworth Prison. However, context matters here: it works as a ‘teaser’ for series two, it’s simply that the book ends in a way that’s both a minor cliff hanger and a fully-fledged ending.

As series one continues, the crew take more liberties. The Watch was unnecessary, an extra few characters for not much gain. But whilst lengthy, I liked Claire’s dinner with the British officers and her following dealings with Randall. It gave a fuller picture of him and succeeded in being suspenseful in its own right.

Where fidelity to the source is concerned and, I’d argue, good planning when changes are made, Outlander has to be one of the best adaptations I’ve seen. The acting is excellent, and the boldness in choosing what to keep, and, at times, what to expand upon when it comes to the explicit, is striking.

Footnotes

1 It’s interesting to note Gabaldon’s role in all this. The author is heavily involved in the production; credited as Consultant, she reviews all the scripts and watches the first cuts, checking for historical accuracy and anything that’s been changed from the book that could conflict with the storyline later on (Napoli, 2018). One such change for accuracy involved the scene wherein Claire joins a group of village women to dye wool; a fictional addition in terms of the book, the production crew had written a scene in which Claire walked down a cobbled street and joined a woman for tea and Bridge – Gabaldon scrapped the idea as it wasn’t representative of the era, describing instead a workaround which became the wool scene (Gabaldon, 2016).

About the differences in medium, the author said (ibid.):

I also know the constraints they were dealing with, which is that they have a limited number of 55-minute blocks, and within that block, you have to have a little dramatic arc.

Online References

Gabaldon, Diana (n.d.) The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon’s website, accessed 10th January 2019

Gabaldon, Diana (2015) Interview: Diana Gabaldon on Sam Heughan – ‘I was sitting there typing, “this man is grotesque, what are you thinking?”‘, The List, accessed 11th January 2019

Gabaldon, Diana (2016) ‘Outlander’: How author Diana Gabaldon really feels about Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe, Entertainment Weekly, accessed 11th January 2019

Gabaldon, Diana (2018) So… four years!, Diana Gabaldon’s Facebook page, accessed 16th January 2019

Napoli, Jessica (2018) ‘Outlander’: Author Diana Gabaldon reveals which line Sam Heughan didn’t want to say and more, TV Insider, accessed 11th January 2019

 
Alice In Wonderland: What Is The Appropriate Age?

One of the original illustrations for Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, showing Alice and the mouse swimming in the pool of tears

In a previous post on this book, I made a brief reference to having given a copy of Carroll’s book to my nephew. The decision over just when I should have presented the novel to him was fairly long in the making – not nearly as long as the waiting period for the time when he would be old enough for Narnia (I made that all by myself by having a copy ready when he was only one year old, and finally gave it to him aged eight) but enough that I spent a number of hours on it all told.

It was this decision and the contents of the book in general – obviously related – that made me question at what age it would be appropriate to give a child, any child, this book. And this is because I think it should be a little later than the age it might have been given in years gone by, namely the Victorian period during which it was written.

Whilst Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, the first of the two about Wonderland, does not state Alice’s age – though we can make an informed estimate due to John Tenniel’s illustrations – the sequel, Through The Looking-Glass, gives Alice’s age as 7. That book takes place in November, and the first takes place in May, which means we can say for certain that Alice is 6 and a half to 7 years of age over all.

The two books were published in 1865 and 1871, and a lot has changed since then. The literary context and wider culture was different enough that a book that sports quite a bit of violence was okay then but not now – in fact I think it’s interesting that the word that comes to mind now is indeed ‘violence’, as it’s obviously a strong word, and there has likely been a change over the years where that word would not have been used to describe the book1. The violence in the book, such as the well known ‘off with her head!’ which Disney managed to rework into something a lot more palatable despite not altering the phrase at all, or the chapter featuring the baby and ‘highly strung’ guardians, isn’t really the sort of thing we tend to present to children. As Gardner says in his lauded annotation of the novel:

The fact is that Carroll’s nonsense is not nearly as random and pointless as it seems to a modern American child [Gardner was writing with his compatriots in mind] who tries to read the Alice books. One says “tries” because the time is past when a child under fifteen, even in England, can read Alice with the same delight as gained from, say, The Wind in the Willows or The Wizard of Oz. Children today are bewildered and sometimes frightened by the nightmarish atmosphere of Alice’s dreams. (p. XIV)

And that was said in 1960.

We could also bring in the ‘madness’ (“We’re all mad here,” the Cheshire Cat says), which is sometimes seen along with the violence, but I’d say it’s fair to assume that aspect is part of the bizarre wonderland, and due to the way children tend to interpret things in similar terms, isn’t anywhere near as problematic2.

As Alice is seven years old in the book we can assume that this is roughly the age Carroll imagined his readers to be. Seven could perhaps be the ‘right’ age for a modern reader, but I think we can say that nowadays it would depend on the reader’s personality and upbringing a lot more than it would have in Victorian times given societal and cultural changes. In a world where capital punishment was still acceptable and known about by all, for example, a queen running about shouting for people’s heads to be removed wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. On the first book’s release, reviewers disliked it, but the first book sold quickly and has never been out of print (Wikipedia, n.d.). It’s also remained with the same publishing house, Macmillan. In 1991, Donald Rackin said of the novel:

Victorian readers generally enjoyed the Alice books as light-hearted entertainment that omitted the stiff morals which other books for children frequently included. (p. 20)

As we know, books in the centuries prior had been mostly about religion and instruction, and although ‘fun’ books had been conceptualised by John Locke in the 1600s, it wasn’t until the mid 1700s that what we would now call children’s books were published3. By this measure, Carroll’s work would have been something to celebrate over and above the simple fact of the fantasy it offered.

But there is of course a whole world in between strict Victorian morals for children and the education we provide today. Alice doesn’t take away from Wonderland any lasting knowledge, meaning that her brief stays are purely adventures and she remains the mischievous – or, ‘bother’, as I said for lack of a better word a couple of years ago – which, in the context of Victorian opinion and years that are not so far in the past, isn’t as much as a selling point as it might have been years ago. There are lessons for the reader to learn, namely, in my opinion, that of being considerate, but they are for the reader, and affect Alice only for that moment. (See the chapters wherein Alice offends a mouse by talking about the loveliness of her cat.) These lessons are easy to understand and well-constructed, but the onus is entirely on the reader to see where Alice is wrong, and there is no provision of reward for the reader in terms of acknowledgement by Alice apart from that momentary self-awareness in one scene.

It’s interesting to note that the recent live-action adaptation, partly produced by Disney, sticks to the original idea of bizarre to the effect that it’s fairly scary. This is solidified by the UK rating of Parental Guidance (‘should not unsettle a child aged around eight or older’), a marked difference to the 1950s cartoon version which is a U (‘should be suitable for audiences aged four years and over’).

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that, in conjunction with the second novel, seven is a fair age, but there is enough to consider to make eight, or even nine, perhaps, a good option. Six and a half, whilst only months away from seven, might be pushing it.

What’s your opinion on the reading age, and have you had to decide about what age to read/give a child a book that due to its era poses potential questions?

Footnotes

1 In 1936, one Paul Schilder wrote an entire essay in the context of psychoanalyse and the potential detrimental affect on young readers. The essay is unfortunately behind a paywall so I couldn’t cite it here, but if you have a subscription to the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, you’ll find it here.
2 This said, there are comments that can be made in regards to eating disorders, mental illnesses, and Carroll’s life and intentions that Molly Stroud (2018) has summed up well in her essay, Mental Illness in Alice in Wonderland.
3 I wrote about western children’s literature here.

References

Online

Wikipedia (n.d.) Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Wikipedia, accessed 12th December 2018

Books

Gardner, Martin (ed.) The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition by Lewis Carroll (1999), W W Norton & Company, New York.
Rackin, Donald (1991) Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland And Through The Looking-Glass, Twayne Publishers, New York.

 
Elizabeth Is Missing: Who Killed Sukey?

Book cover

This post has lingered in my mind for a few years; it seems somewhat old now to discuss the question but I know that if I don’t, I’ll just keep thinking about it.

Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing is a novel with a varied sort of storytelling. Told in the first person by Maud, the main aspect of it is Maud’s present life, her deterioration through dementia. The other part of it covers Maud’s childhood, which she is looking back on. The variety comes from the dementia; due to Maud’s fading memory, the two narratives aren’t always linear, sections often cover the same details as before, and those that are repeated are subject to changed details due to the dementia. Just in terms of its structure it’s a fantastic book.

The core question of the book, if viewed in its entity, is how much really concerns Maud’s worries about Elizabeth, and how much is actually Maud’s worries about Sukey mixed up with the ‘idea’ of Elizabeth (not that Elizabeth isn’t a real person). It’s this that fascinated me most during my re-read for this post, the way the narratives are both separate and the same, and the way it comes together at the end to be the same but separate.

In working out what happened to Sukey, it’s a good idea to ignore the majority of the present-day sections at least until a fair way through the book – skimming the present-day sections for references to Sukey, Douglas, Frank, and Maud’s parents is important, but generally only paramount towards the end.

Considering Maud’s dementia, however, everything has to be read with a thought to the idea of a pinch of salt – not everything is likely true but at the same time nothing should be disregarded, even past the last page. We have to be the detective Maud can only wish to be.

The story of Sukey’s disappearance just after World War II is given piece meal, but here’s an attempt to put the potential facts in order:

  • Sukey met Douglas at work; she liked him; she arranged for him to be her family’s lodger.
  • Douglas’ house had been bombed and he had nowhere to live.
  • Douglas’ mother wouldn’t leave her house and he had a difficult time getting her to leave. She was severely effected by the bombing.
  • Sukey met Frank and later marries him; Frank had inherited a removal’s business and has connections to the black market where he gets extra food for Sukey’s family, food they are not entitled to in this time of rationing.
  • Sukey and Frank’s house is full of old furniture because Frank thinks they might sell it.
  • Sukey still sees Douglas – Douglas lies about going to the cinema and on one occasion when Sukey was over, he left a little after her.
  • Sukey knows about Douglas’ mother; Douglas says she cared about her, but we readers know that she didn’t.
  • The smashed gramophone records in the garden turned out to be the result of a row between Douglas and Sukey.
  • When Sukey disappeared, it seemed she’d last been seen at a hotel, only the receptionist later told Maud that Frank had signed Sukey in and Sukey hadn’t been seen by anyone. Frank had left that night.
  • Neighbours reported shouting in the street, and one said Sukey had always had men over (Douglas it seems).
  • Douglas kept going ‘to the cinema’ but in reality he was going to the pavilion where he had met up with Sukey, thinking she might turn up there.
  • While all this was going on, Douglas had been feeding the ‘mad woman’, his mother, who is later run over by a car.

This is not everything, but it’s the basics. The rest concerns the family search and Maud’s interactions with Frank, which show to the reader a potentially violent man, confirming others’ descriptions of him as often drunk. As Healey writes everything from Maud’s perspective, which has the added ‘hindrance’ of a child’s mind together with the older woman’s forgetfulness, the details arrive slowly and without the benefit of real understanding. When Frank pushes Maud against the banister, she glimpses the possibility of him wanting to throw her down the stairs but instead takes in his talk about trying to stop her falling. She tells him all she knows about Sukey when he tells her he misses her – when, whilst the full reason isn’t revealed to the reader, we can see manipulation and Frank wanting to make sure he’s covered all the bases. We can also see a potential feeling of guilt, which is at once also shot through with violence.

It’s very possible to say Frank killed Sukey and that he was jealous – Healey pitches Douglas as a red herring but tells the reader straight at the end when he’s named as the prime suspect. Frank had access to the new housing estate, and designed the planting areas, which would have given him the ability to make sure they were away from where he had buried Sukey. The house appears to have been sold to Elizabeth who at some point in time became Maud’s friend. We do not know where Elizabeth’s arrival comes into play, but if Frank planted marrows in the garden(s) he ‘designed’, then Maud unconsciously put two and two together.

At the same time, that Douglas seemed to know a lot…

It would seem possible that Sukey never made it to the car that was supposedly outside the hotel; she may well have been killed in her house. If so, it is slightly possible that Douglas’ mother, the mad woman who Sukey doesn’t like, killed her. If Maud is to believed, there were birds found in the burial place, and this brings Healey’s use of birds through the book to a close; birds certainly seem to be symbols, for one thing they are a theme in terms of Douglas’ mother.

Frank’s going to London ensured the idea of her having gone with him would take hold, and Maud’s worry about the idea that Sukey may have left Frank in the same way lots of people left their spouses after the war, didn’t have anything to do with it. Frank may have made the trip to London as a cover up or because he knew he’d be blamed (in the case that he didn’t do it).

At some point Maud’s story of Sukey gets blended with Elizabeth’s – it may be that Sukey’s house was not cluttered with furniture and that Maud was thinking of the time Elizabeth’s house was sold. Sukey’s clothes may or may not have been in the suitcase. Maud and Sukey may or may not have had a nice time on the beach as children.

What exactly happened to Sukey we don’t know, we just know the aftermath: the skeleton in the garden with a fracture in its head.

One thing to think about, though – what was all that about Sukey being buried by Maud in the sand, but then Sukey having buried Maud first and Maud not having liked it? And the sea shells which later became fingernails… perhaps, with this, the parting vignette of the book, Healey is suggesting another culprit entirely, one who did at points seem jealous of Sukey’s relationship with Frank…

This, and the remaining possible killers, certainly align with the memory loss narrative. I kind of want to end this post on a note of touché, Ms Healey…

 
The Female Quixote On Historical Epic Romances, And The Value Of Reading In The 1700s

A drawing of Charlotte Lennox

As I have been compiling the notes for my future review of The Female Quixote, I came to the several highlights made of the dialogue that forms Arabella’s long-expected ‘cure’ from her romantic notions; these highlights will not be making it into my review so I thought I would collect them here; they are quite fascinating and make for a small exploration of the thoughts of 1700s people – or, at least, 1700s writers – on fiction, in particular romantic fiction (as swooning epics of the past were referred to).

Something I will likely add to my review is this statement; it’s also very relevant here:

Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote (1752) seems to join a persuasive eighteenth-century effort to dispel as “unreal” and dangerous the romance tradition that English readers had valued for two hundred years (Gordon, 1998).

Book cover

The same source goes on to say that the book ‘avoids endorsing this demolition of romance… The precise relationship The Female Quixote establishes between madness and romance needs careful articulation’. And later, ‘This critical narrative commands respect for exposing how eighteenth-century culture controlled female power and, equally importantly, how such control could be contested.’ (ibid.)

I do not know enough about the period’s literary culture to comment on it in general, but certainly Lennox’s novel suggests a background of ridicule; whilst we can’t say for certain that Lennox herself disliked epic romances, particularly given our contemporary thoughts as to viewing author and text as separate entities, the possibility is certainly there and even if not from Lennox’s own heart, it exists as someone’s opinion… quite possibly, given that Lennox was of his circle and looked up to him, Samuel Richardson.

Without further ado, then, let’s look at these extracts from the second to last chapter of the novel – which in itself is a subject of debate as some believe it to be the work of Samuel Johnson (both Samuels were in Lennox’s circle). The discourse between the Doctor and Arabella concerning the knowledge she has gained from books which she thinks contain facts (please note, quotation marks are not used in the original text):

To the names of many of these illustrious sufferers I am an absolute stranger, replied the doctor. The rest I faintly remember some mention of in those contemptible volumes with which children are sometimes injudiciously suffered to amuse their imaginations; but which I little expected to hear quoted by your ladyship in a serious discourse. And though I am very far from catching occasions of resentment, yet I think myself at liberty to observe, that if I merited your censure for one indelicate epithet, we have engaged on very unequal terms, if I may not likewise complain of such contemptuous ridicule as you are pleased to exercise upon my opinions by opposing them with the authority of scribblers, not only of fictions, but of senseless fictions; which at once vitiate the mind and pervert the understanding; and which if they are at any time read with safety, owe their innocence only to their absurdity.

Whether the above was written by or with a mind to Samuel Johnson, or whether it’s entirely the product of Lennox’s thoughts, there is a strong dislike of ‘senseless fictions’; the ‘not only of fictions’ could be taken to mean that the writer dislikes fiction in general, however, given Lennox’s interests in novels I think we can say that’s not the case. We have ‘read with safety, owe their innocence only to their absurdity’ which could be applied to Lennox’s work itself, an absurd book that readers would know without doubt is fiction and thus it is ‘safe’ to read.

There is also this, Arabella’s opinion of her past occupations once reality is pointed out to her:

What examples can be afforded by the patience of those who never suffered, or the chastity of those who were never solicited? The great end of history is to show how much human nature can endure or perform. When we hear a story in common life that raises our wonder or compassion, the first confutation stills our emotions; and however we were touched before, we then chase it from the memory with contempt as a trifle, or with indignation as an imposture. Prove, therefore, that the books which I have hitherto read as copies of life, and models of conduct, are empty fictions, and from this hour I deliver them to moths and mould; and from this time consider their authors as wretches who cheated me of those hours I ought to have dedicated to application and improvement, and betrayed me to a waste of those years in which I might have laid up knowledge for my future life.

Whilst this begins well and says good things, unfortunately, given that a long time prior to this, Arabella’s cousin and ‘lover’, Glanville, had been on the cusp of directing the servants to burn the collection, it’s likely that Lennox had in mind a mass burning of books when she wrote The End, or Finis.

On the (more) positive side to this post, on the value of reading in general and the value of novels in the 1700s specifically, Lennox includes these fragments:

…and the great use of books, is that of participating without labour or hazard, the experience of others.

Particularly, we could say, when those fictions concern killing one’s rivals in love, being taken by ravishers, and dying for the extreme amount of love one has for someone unobtainable.

Truth is not always injured by fiction. […] Books ought to supply an antidote to example.

To use words Arabella might appreciate, oh blessed relief!

The only excellence of falsehood, answered he, is its resemblance to truth; as therefore any narrative is more liable to be confuted by its inconsistency with known facts, it is at a greater distance from the perfection of fiction; for there can be no difficulty in framing a tale, if we are left at liberty to invert all history and nature for our own convenience. When a crime is to be concealed, it is easy to cover it with an imaginary wood. When virtue is to be rewarded, a nation with a new name may, without any expense of invention, raise her to the throne. When Ariosto was told of the magnificence of his palaces, he answered, that the cost of poetical architecture was very little; and still less is the cost of building without art, than without materials.

Ladies are most problematic:

Then let me again observe, resumed he, that these books soften the heart to love, and harden it to murder. That they teach women to exact vengeance, and men to execute it; teach women to expect not only worship, but the dreadful worship of human sacrifices. Every page of these volumes is filled with such extravagance of praise, and expressions of obedience, as one human being ought not to hear from another; or with accounts of battles, in which thousands are slaughtered for no other purpose than to gain a smile from the haughty beauty, who sits a calm spectatress [sic] of the ruin and desolation, bloodshed and misery, incited by herself.

It is impossible to read these tales without lessening part of that humility, which by preserving in us a sense of our alliance with all human nature, keeps us awake to tenderness and sympathy, or without impairing that compassion which is implanted in us as an incentive to acts of kindness. If there be any preserved by natural softness, or early education, from learning pride and cruelty, they are yet in danger of being betrayed to the vanity of beauty, and taught the arts of intrigue.

Given that the penultimate chapter (the one these extracts are taken from) is so different than the others, bordering on philosophical, it may indeed be the case that as some suspect, Samuel Johnson had a big role to play in its creation, though if he did, it would have been quite against his own literary tastes, as ‘Johnson had, if not a taste, at least an appetite, for the old-fashioned romances which Mrs. Lenox [sic] satirised’ (Dobson, 1892). Certainly, if not for that, there seems a sudden effort to bring in the thoughts of an intellectual in the field in ways there hadn’t been before; there is a difference between the Doctor’s dialogue and that of the Countess a few chapters before who, due to authorial devices, was unable to complete the slow suggestions she had begun to bring about to Arabella that what she had read does not reflect reality. And there is a difference between the Doctor and the historian Mr Selvin who for reasons likely, again, to do with devices and keeping the story going, did not last long in the text and indeed took the view that the lady who knew all these accounts he had never heard of, was more well-read than himself.

But however the chapter was created, it is a mini treasure trove of a few subjects – fairly generalised, but with some interesting insights into the 1700s’ reader’s mind and a few phrases about books that are quite wonderful.

References

Books

Dobson, Austin (1892), Eighteenth Century Vignettes, Thomas Nelson & Sons, London

Articles

Gordon, Scott Paul (1998), The Space of Romance in Lennox’s Female Quixote, Vol. 38, Issue 3, pp.499-516

 
Could There Have Been An Alternative Ending For The Awakening?

Book cover

The Awakening alternative ending.’

It came as quite a shock to me to see this phrase in the list of search queries that had led visitors to my site; I think anyone who has read the book can emphasise – the ending is a crucial element to the impact of the text. Nevertheless, I’d like to explore this possibility of a difference, and to do that I believe it’s worth first considering the intent and purpose behind such a query.

The situation that first comes to mind is that of a student, perhaps a school student rather than university where, I presume, studies of the book would be less general and more about the female agency; in a general study, such a query or consideration would be possible. Either someone wants another’s opinion, or they are looking for inspiration with which to write an ending themselves.

This brings us to possibility number two – a search for a fabled ending. Alternate endings are hardly unheard of, consider Dickens’ original ending of Great Expectations and the recommendation that he change it to something more positive… and arguably more romantic!

Perhaps however, it’s more simple: a person, very affected by Chopin’s ending, who is looking for a different one. Such intent would be categorised as personal research and furthering one’s reading. Continued interest, albeit for a reason Chopin may have not agreed with.

So to the possibility of another ending, could there be one in terms of viability? Edna could always have chosen to turn back before she became too tired but in the context of her time, arguably also Chopin’s, it would have achieved these two things:

  1. It would have made people, both fictional and factual (think of the angry reviewers of the time) think things, life, were fine as they were. Chopin would have been commended for going along with the status quo and putting the woman with the bizarre thoughts – near hysteria! – back in her place. (In this vein it’s worth considering also the effect Edna’s choice would have had on Léonce and the children.)
  2. The novel would not have achieved its full purpose and, indeed, the good work done by Chopin in the lead up to the ending would have been obliterated.

So there could have been a second ending, sure, but we would not likely still be reading the book as much as we are; it would be but a similar story to many other books. We might be looking at Anna Karenina for everything else which of course does not have the same message, albeit that there’s a similarity between the texts.

Might Edna have been okay with going back, whether literally turning around and swimming home or never going to the sea in the first place, that final time? I think we can say that she would possibly have been content but not happy. Her children would have kept her at home perhaps – or might she have left them and Léonce for good, just moving on? – but there is too much about her that doesn’t fit the socially prescribed mold. Unfortunately in this situation her children would, as much as they might also please her, remind her of her restricted life. An Edna today might have travelled the world, solo. The independence she wanted was impossible in her society.

Could Edna have had a better relationship than the one she had with Léonce, one with more freedom? Probably. Something that has always interested me is the blend in Léonce of some less restrictive elements with the then-standard socially acceptable limits he placed on Edna. He was far from the worst but still strict. Chopin surely also felt the need for her ending to support her own views and life choices, and in both of these she is more independently minded than many. She started writing after the death of her husband and her marriage was not a bad one.

If the ending were different, it would have been better at the time, the critical reviews a lot more positive, likely completely different. We know that Chopin didn’t write any more novels precisely because of the reception of The Awakening. But to have written novels that were well received may have been to compromise her values. We might remember her differently.

Chopin’s famous short story, Désirée’s Baby, sported a very similar ending, with Désirée walking into the water – she ‘disappeared among the reeds and willows’, after her husband disowns her for giving birth to a child of mixed heritage. It’s obviously a type of ending that Chopin saw good symbolism in, a firm way to get her point across. (The short story was published 6 years prior to the novel.)

To sum, I don’t think we can really contemplate another ending. The ending is there for good reason. It may have been poorly received then, but it’s considered a triumph today. Edna chose the only freedom available to her. She was stuck in ways her fictional descendents wouldn’t be now.

Your thoughts?

 

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