Any woman who’s ever felt pressured into her prescribed role, pressed under the value-laden wifely and motherly duties, will be able to relate to Edna, even though her obliviousness to the privileges she enjoys as a rich white lady with a staff of servants on her beck and call were pretty grating at times. Still, when she slowly awakens, I identified with her confusion and rage, and I understood her impulse towards defiance and rebellion, even her drive to break things. The description of her inner state while she slowly becomes aware of her senses, feelings and thoughts, independently from her persona that she wears „like a robe“ in public, rings very true to me.
This could actually be a tale of finding one’s inner footing and casting off social layers in general, not only in the specific context of feminism. However, the fact that it still sounds relevant in the context of 21st century gender issues is depressing. The essence of women’s oppression hasn’t really changed and neither have the justifications. The danger of ruined reputations, what people would say and the greatest threat of all, being labeled a bad mother – and therefore unfit to exist – are still used as potent tools to keep women in the position of constant pleasers with no time – or license, really – to think of themselves.
I found it very believable that Edna awakens to her position by paying attention to her physical senses – first in the caress of the sea, later under the influence of sexual attraction. Drifting from her socially engineered self, she allows herself to sit back and feel, and accept her body’s reactions, succumbing to Nature, which she feels is a more honest expression of how she is, or who she identifies as, than the roles she has „naturally“ grown into in her community – wife, mother, socialite. Curiously (and surprisingly for a book dealing with an openly feminist issue from out modern POV with regard to feminism), conscious choice hardly ever comes into it. She says she won’t be forced into doing things, and she does decide to move out of her house (and thus, her former life), but it’s presented more as a consequence of her letting Nature take the reigns and follow her uninhibited wishes, than making her choices based on a conscious decision for emancipation. Which lends the narrative psychological depth and saves it from reading like a doctrine.
The symbolism is conventional for the theme – the book starts with an agitated caged bird and ends with a free flying bird with a broken wind; the aviary theme is upheld throughout the novel. Sensuality is expressed through music and flowers, the infinite sea, mirrored by the endless bluegrass meadow from Edna’s memories, is the embodiment of freedom, both irresistible and illusory.
I think this could have been a longer novel with more in-depth examinations of the characters and a more detailed account of Edna’s process of awakening. It read slightly rushed to me, especially the way the core conflict is handled at places – Enda’s indecision about her duty to her children, for example, remains unresolved and very briefly addressed.
(Painting by Robert Henri