Chopin and Schopenhauer: Similar Names, Similar Philosophies
“Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, and erring; and, as if through a troubled dream, it hurries back to the old unconsciousness. Yet till then its desires are unlimited, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives birth to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its craving, set a final goal to its demands, and fill the bottomless pit of its heart.”* -Arthur Schopenhauer 573
“In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul...But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such a beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!”* -Kate Chopin 31
No one ever said that philosophy had to be uplifting or answer life’s difficult questions with logical proofs of God’s existence to be interesting and valid. Schopenhauer speaks to the meaning of life in terms that are not agreeable, yet make a great deal of sense. Indeed literature has never felt compelled to confine itself only with life’s pleasantries. Schopenhauer believes that “every work of fiction is a peep-show in which we observe the spasms and convulsions of the agonized human heart” (Schopenhauer 576). Kate Chopin’s The Awakening concerns itself with the unsatisfied life of Edna Pontellier who seems to be an example of Schopenhauer’s philosophy incarnate. Chopin, a well-educated and well-read woman, wrote her novel in 1899 so it would not be unlikely to imagine that she might have read or been influenced by Schopenhauer’s works published decades before; however, Schopenhauer’s philosophy would be lent more credibility had Chopin created Edna without previous knowledge of his work because Edna could then stand as an example of how life really is and still fit perfectly with Schopenhauer’s descriptions.
The title of Chopin’s novel could refer to many things in the piece; however, the awakening that parallels Schopenhauer’s thinking is Edna’s slow realization of the futility of life. Schopenhauer summarizes his most basic concept of life by saying, “Life is then given out as a gift, whereas it is evident that anyone would have declined it with thanks, had he looked at it and tested it beforehand” (Sch. 579). Edna’s comprehension of this is easily traceable throughout the novel. Her husband’s criticism that she does not know how to look after the children sets the awakening in motion and “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish” (Chopin 25). Gradually this understanding pervades her life. She quits listening to her husband and abandons all of her social responsibilities.
Edna is described by the other characters as suddenly capricious and apt to act on fancy. She is prone to days of depression, “when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation” (Chopin 78). Schopenhauer’s belief that the only and ultimate goal of life is to die and end the striving and unfulfilled desires explains Edna’s attitude that life seemed to be “passing by, leaving its promise broken and unfulfilled” (Chopin 94). Schopenhauer believes that life, in total, “presents itself as a continual deception...If it has promised, it does not keep its word” (Sch. 573).
Schopenhauer also believes that the struggling individual has no initial intuition into itself. He explains that upon reflection into the self, two things become evident: existence as an empirical being and as an individual will. In Edna’s awakening, she becomes aware of these selves. She begins to
“realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (Chopin 31). Her new conceptions of life alter the person she knows as herself. She tries to understand what is now different about her, but she can only get as far as acknowledging that her present self is not the same as her other self. Edna now “was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment" (Chopin 59).
Within Schopenhauer’s criticism of life is the superficiality of life and society. He believes that human vanity tries to make the world rational and beautiful when it is not. Humans attempt reason and pretend purpose in life to keep up the whole of appearances. Schopenhauer believes that humans try to see root of the will, but disliking what they find, they turn to pretenses to cover it back up. Edna makes similar discoveries in her process. In her own life, she abandons all pretense when she begins “to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul” (Chopin 50). Edna’s husband wonders at her not being herself as of late; however, he is recognizing her shedding the skin of her old self and becoming her real self by “daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (Chopin 77).
Pretenses serve to create a layer of contentment; however, underneath, according to Schopenhauer, there is no real happiness. Happiness is not a positive that can be obtained. It is the absence of happiness that is felt. The organic will strives to exist and then strives to end its own striving. Happiness then is a purely subjective manner of choosing to negate a desire. Ultimate happiness can only be achieved through a complete self-negation. For Schopenhauer, “Everything in life proclaims that earthly happiness is destined to be frustrated, or recognized as an illusion” (Sch. 573). In Chopin’s novel, this becomes Edna’s greatest problem; “there was no one thing in the world that she desired” (Chopin 136). The things that are “supposed” to make her happy - motherhood, being a good wife, etc. - are not enough for her.
However, these socially constructed, conventional roles are a perfect fit for her friend, Madame Ratignolle. Edna is transfixed by this and “liked to sit and gaze at her fair companion as she might look upon a faultless Madonna” (Chopin 29). Edna studies her friend’s ways which are so different from her own, constantly admiring her. After one evening in the Ratignolle home, Edna comes away with uneasy feelings about the family’s “domestic harmony.” She does not covet the life that her friend leads because it would never satisfy Edna. Instead she feels,
a pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life’s delirium (Chopin 76).
Yet, it is undeniable that Edna, while she does not envy her friend’s ennui, she does envy her apparent and simple happiness, however unenlightened it may be. Schopenhauer explains the envy people feel for each other’s happiness by pointing to the positive, continual state of desire in which the will exists; “because people feel unhappy, they cannot bear the sight of one who is supposed to be happy” (Sch. 578).
Because happiness is not a positive, achievable object, Schopenhauer points out that something pleasant is most keenly noticed when it is removed. Humans become adjusted to levels of happiness and then yearn for something new; however, when the level is taken away, there is instantaneous grief for it. This can lead to feelings of boredom which indicate a lack of fulfilled desires and indeed a lack of immediate desires altogether. Time passes quickly when engaged in the fulfillment of a desire; however, when bored, time passes very slowly. Schopenhauer believes that boredom allows humans an awareness of their existence in time, something which they would normally avoid through pretense. When people are bored, there is nothing else to occupy their mind and no escape into pretense which is why people feel the need to fill every moment full to combat boredom. Edna, forced into a stagnant lifestyle, struggles against this. As a wife that is well “taken-care-of,” she has no pressing matters on her mind and must fill her days on her own. Edna recognizes the weariness of her friend’s life and gradually comes to see it in her own life as well.
In order to break the monotony of her life, Edna turns to the arts which is the only thing Schopenhauer lists as above the cycle of desire. Art and music alieve the pain of life and remove the personal pain from the senses. There is no personal interest in art and music and so there can be no grappling with desire over it. The arts provide an unbiased vehicle for the senses. The arts answer in some sense the question which humans do not allow themselves to look at directly, “What is life?” As a human, it is natural to seek truth;
“For in every mind that which once gives itself up to the purely objective contemplation of the world, a desire has been awakened, however concealed and unconscious, to comprehend the true nature of things, of life, and of existence...the result of every purely objective, and so of every artistic, apprehension of things is an expression more of the true nature of life and of existence” (Sch. 406).
This is the truth that Edna finds herself seeking in Madame Reisz musical talent. Moved to tears and agitation the first time she hears Reisz play the piano, Edna is taken in a way that she has never experienced before. Edna has always been fond of music and allowed it to create images in her mind; however, Reisz’s playing invokes no images, only pure emotion. The difference is that it is “the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth” (Chopin 44). Afterwards, Edna remains moved by the evening and questions the intensity of what she felt. She tells her companion that a thousand emotions have swept over her and she does not understand even half of them. The thought that she shall never be stirred again the way she was by the truth of Reisz’s music disturbs Edna. She has finally found some reprieve for her struggling soul.
Edna need not worry, however, for she seeks out the woman’s piano-playing on a number of occasions; each time she is moved as she was the first. When Edna is in a mood that life is not worth living, she ventures to Reisz’s home where “new voices awoke in her” during Reisz’s playing (Chopin 84). She then becomes a regular visitor. Each time “the music penetrated her whole being like an effulgence, warming and brightening the dark places of her soul” (Chopin 101). Edna clearly finds solace in the music much the way Schopenhauer suggests.
Music, however is not the only art form with which Edna is involved, though it is the strongest, unadulterated form of truth. Edna also draws comfort from her own drawing and painting. In fact, Edna eventually abandons everything else in order to keep up her painting. Edna feels in her sketching “a satisfaction of a kind which no other employment afforded her” (Chopin 30). She begins by tracing her friend, Madame Ratignolle; however, she finds her work imperfect and destroys it. Everyone else thought it a fine piece of work coming “from a natural aptitude” (Chopin 30). In the midst of her awakening, she returns to her artwork and goes over her old sketches; “she could see their shortcomings and defects, which were glaring in her eyes” (Chopin 73). This amount of reflection upon one’s own work is a mistake according to Schopenhauer. The truest pieces of art are those created out of “the pure work of the rapture of the moment, of the inspiration, of the free impulse of the genius, without any admixture of deliberation and reflection” (Sch. 409).
When Edna does finally turn to her painting and abandon all else, she sets at it with a fever and a decisiveness that Schopenhauer would frown upon. Although she does gain a certain amount of respect for inspiration and explains her behavior to her husband by saying, “I feel like painting...Perhaps I shan’t always feel like it,” she remains caught up in her capricious search for happiness (Chopin 77). Edna tells her musical friend, Madame Reisz, “I am becoming an artist” to which Reisz laughs and replies that “...the artist must possess the courageous soul...The soul that dares and defies” (Chopin 83). Schopenhauer would surely agree as he feels that “an arbitrary playing with the means of art without proper knowledge of the end is in every art the fundamental characteristic of bungling” (Sch. 408). Perhaps this is the reason that Edna can only derive so much comfort from her art, yet it is still not enough.
Edna was observed to have a talent for art; however, it is in genius and not talent that truth is found. Edna tried hard to extract the succor and truth from her artwork, but there were always too many imperfections distracting her. Schopenhauer makes the distinction between talent and genius by saying,
Talent is a merit to be found in the greater versatility and acuteness of discursive rather than of intuitive knowledge. The person endowed with talent thinks more rapidly and accurately than do the rest; on the other hand, the genius perceives a world different from them all, though only by looking more deeply into the world that lies before them also, since it presents itself in his mind more objectively, consequently more purely and distinctly (Sch. 376).
Because Edna possessed talent and not genius, she could never be satisfied or find the whole truth in her art. As it is art only provides a fleeting moment of truth and never the whole picture. Madame Reisz’s music could possibly have been the work of genius, or at least more than talent as it moved so many people; however, even her art provided only a short-lived comfort.
Edna then still sees her life as the never-ending chain of desires that Schopenhauer describes despite the brief reprieves art offers. According to Schopenhauer, happiness is like an illusion matched with distance. Things look brighter with promise and hope and are remembered more fondly with the passing of time; “consequently, the present is always inadequate, but the future is uncertain, and the past irrecoverable” (Sch. 573). Edna matches this pattern by recalling her cycle of infatuations as times of happiness that are impossible to bring back. Edna also refers to a memory of running through tall grass several times, remembering it with the fondness reserved for happiness past. Edna counts on happiness in her future too, by constantly daydreaming and creating visions of alternative realities in her mind that will never come true. As soon as her love affairs with Arobin and Robert come close to becoming realities, Edna realizes that they do not being the happiness she thinks they will.
Edna does not really fall in love with anyone and in the end she realizes that she never will. Edna, miserable with her awakening, repeats to her self, “To-day it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else” (Chopin 136). Schopenhauer believes that all love is sexual love. There is yet another desire, this time for another person, that cries to be fulfilled. Edna’s entire relationship with Arobin is physical and even the relationship she creates in her mind with Robert is based on desire. When Edna first begins to realize her feelings for Robert, the moment was described as “pregnant with the first-felt throbbings of desire” (Chopin 49). After Arobin and Edna become physically-involved, she feels regret “because it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her, because it was not love which had held this cup of life to her lips” (Chopin 104). Edna knows that there is no emotion beyond lust and yet another desire behind her affairs. It is the promise of happiness by which Edna is deceived.
The love that Schopenhauer describes as truest comes from a mutual recognition of each other’s plight as humans. There is a certain perceived unity in the melding of two wills through love. This is the sort of love that Madame and Mr. Ratignolle share, a part of the happiness that Edna envies. It is said of the Ratignolles that “if ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union” (Chopin 75). Schopenhauer believes it is also through the creation of children that two people in love can physically see their two wills melded into one. Madame Ratignolle loves her children with all of heart and includes them in the domestic happiness she feels. Edna, though the mother of two children, relates to them oddly. Edna would “sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them” (Chopin 37).
Due to Edna’s increasingly bizarre habits, her husband begins to wonder at her sanity. Schopenhauer defines madness as an abnormality of the memory. People become muddled with recollection, unsure of whether the things in their memory actually occurred. Edna dwells in her memories and at times is confused by what she recounts. At one point, she tells her company a story with an air of fact; however, every word is fictitious. Though it could have been a dream Edna once had and now related, the champagne’s “subtle fumes played fantastic tricks with Edna’s memory that night” and “every glowing word seemed real to those who listened” (Chopin 91).
Another symptom Schopenhauer ascribes to madness is obsessive longing to which Edna surely is a party. This “casting out of the mind” occurs when “a person keeps constantly present to his mind, and cannot get rid of, the cause of his insanity...in the case of many who have gone mad from love...where the cause is constantly longed for” (Sch. 401). Edna, all the while that Robert is gone, cannot keep him from her mind. Although she later realizes that she does not really love Robert, she believes she does at the time and becomes obsessed with it. Edna obsessively longs for the happiness that continually eludes her as well. Being in a state of boredom quite often, Edna has much time to ponder the things that trouble her. The lack of genuine love in Edna’s life contributes to her uncertain madness. Schopenhauer believes that longing for love can reach such an intensity that nothing in the world or even life itself matters next to that desire. The intensity of this desire and constant longing for love can “make a person ready for any sacrifice, and, if its fulfillment remains for ever denied, can lead to madness or suicide” - which in Edna’s case is exactly where it leads (Sch. 549).
Schopenhauer suggests that when a human is in a state of extreme physical pain, nothing else matters except alleviation of the pain - even if that means death. He goes on to cite spiritual pain in the same manner. In cases of great spiritual pain, in fact, physical pain is even a temporary, welcome distraction. Would suicide not then be the ultimate distraction? Edna pieces together the connection between physical pain and the interval in her spiritual suffering. When Edna first begins to feel an oppression, it is the stinging of the mosquitoes that offers her temporary asylum. Edna has her first brush with death when she learns to swim after hearing Madame Reisz’s piano for the first time. She is bolded by her emotions and swims out beyond the point where she is physically able to return. Though, she does make it back to shore, her impression of death remains with her.
It could even be argued that sexual love is a physicality strong enough to provide a distraction from spiritual suffering. In this case, Edna tries to distract herself through her myriad affairs, fictional and real. The longing that Edna feels for the many men she has been infatuated with is a longing to gain a reprieve from her mental anguish through sex. Edna attempts all of this so that she might be able to bear living; afterall, “we ourselves are the will-to-live; hence we must live, well or badly” (Sch. 240).
And though it could be argued that in her final moments, Edna was mad due to her distorted memories, she does eventually seek the ultimate reprieve. Because the only way to obtain happiness is through complete self-negation, suicide seems the perfect solution. Schopenhauer argues that “it will generally be found that where the terrors of life come to outweigh the terrors of death a man will put an end to his life” (Sch., Essays 78). He thinks it absurd that suicide be considered a crime, either legally, religiously, or morally, as there is no secular way in which to punish those who commit the crime, and if they only attempt suicide, it would be the inaptitude that was being punished. Suicide is the final relinquishment of appearances and obligatory optimism which threatens those who subscribe to pretense; therefore, they are frightened by it. Edna no longer hides behind a fictional facade, so that this fear of suicide is stripped away.
In some sense, however, people admire those who commit suicide because “everyone would like to rest” (Sch. 359). The reason that everyone does not take his own life is, according to Schopenhauer, that it is not entirely a negation, or a cessation of existence. It is also a positive destruction of the body, “the phenomenal form of the will to live” (Sch., Essays 79). In Edna’s case, her spiritual anguish was so great that her physical self lost all importance “for the physical pain associated with [suicide] loses all significance in the eyes of one afflicted by excessive spiritual suffering” (Sch., Essays 79). Edna swims back out into the ocean, naked and thinking of nothing except a mess of jumbled memories, until she passes the point of return, and thus her awakening is complete.
Edna understood the futility of her life as far as Schopenhauer described it; however, she did take a shortcut by taking her own life. Schopenhauer’s only argument against suicide is that “it substitutes for a true redemption from this world of misery a merely apparent one” (Sch., Essays 78). So that it is more honorable and dignified to stick it out in this life, no matter how miserable it may be. Given the life that humans are given, the best that one can do is seek the truth without pretense and face it until the end. Edna tried to satisfy her desire and longing in many ways, yet in the company of her realizations, she could not endure. Kate Chopin infused her character with a believability that makes her life tragic and honest. Depressing and enlightening at the same time, Chopin and Schopenhauer seem to subscribe to the same definition of life. Whether intentionally or not, their art - drama and philosophy - is moving in common ways and seeks out a similar truth.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Bedford Books, 1993.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essays and Aphorisms. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1958.
Similar Names, Similar Philosophies: A Comparison of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening