My Moment with Chopin

I got hooked on reading because Kate Chopin turned me on in a way that I’m still not sure I can talk about in public, not without my cheeks going red.  Keep in mind, Chopin, having been born in 1850, is about 110 years older than me, but she still knows how to press my buttons.

Stories have always been seductive to me.  I hate giving up on a story for fear that I will miss the opportunity for it to redeem itself in the last chapter, leaving me smiling, triumphant and looking for more.  This has of course led me to enjoy some rather questionable stories, graphic novels and TV series, as well as to feel abysmal for sticking to the end of some stories.  But the sinister moment that I knew I was forever fixed on stories—and books in particular—came at the end of Chapter 9 in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.”

I was reading the book because someone recommended I incorporate it into my American Literature course.  Now, at face value (actually on pretty much every level), it would seem unlikely for me to fully appreciate it or to have such a deep intimate moment. The book is written by a woman over a hundred years ago about a class of people that are well-enough distant from my own experiences.  Chopin wasn’t writing for me or maybe, if she was, it was to say, “stupid privileged man; this is what your presumptions about the opposite sex lead to.”

It’s hard to say or fully know.  But needless to say, the idea that I would be moved so deeply by a passage from a text about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage seemed unlikely.  Going into it, I figured this was the 19th century’s “chicklit” and I would appreciate it for its relevance to women’s literature, but not actually be moved by the story.  That dirty woman proved me wrong.

Struck by the Sound and the Fury

I didn’t see it coming, but by the end of Chapter 9, Kate Chopin would forever go down in my personal history as the woman who deflowered me in a literary sense.  In the scene, the main character, Edna, has been asked by the talented but clearly disliked Ms. Reisz to name a song for Reisz to play.  When Reisz takes to the piano, Edna is seized by the overwhelming and emotional power of the music (channeled by Reisz).  With imagery and titillating hints, Chopin builds and builds upon the scene, creating a strong and powerful tension that is tangible, “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.”

The scene is orgasmic; and while I did grow up in the Internet age, where pornography was a few clicks of a mouse away, I still get hot and bothered every time I re-read this scene.  Like the book’s title, “The Awakening,” I witnessed my own awakening upon reading this passage, and realized the power of words and subtext.  Stories are wonderful things, but what goes on below the surface (think Jaws) can be even more full of impact.

The impression didn’t end there; or rather, Chopin’s ability to open that door within me opened others.  The specific scene was my lightning rod for understanding how deeply and on what levels written works can operate.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be an ignition point for others.  The how and why I was triggered by Chopin’s musical orgy is still not clear to me, but I believe it’s a moment that so many of us can experience when we open ourselves to the words and moments writers try to capture.

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