Lamplight: Author's Commentary
Part of a continuing series wherein I make commentary on my stories from a craft, narrative theory, and general writing perspective. If you haven't read the story, I recommend heading to my fiction page and reading it first. All the stories discussed here are available there—most for free.
The Author’s Take: (definite massive spoilers with no craft wonkery whatsoever)
Fan fiction? For real, Rowe? It honestly felt like it when I was writing this story. I’d never written anything in another writer’s storyworld before, and I can’t say that I’m inclined to do it again any time soon. But Kate Chopin’s novel was certainly a rich touchstone and I really didn’t want to write another MA seminar paper, so I offered up this little number instead. (Thanks, Dr. T!)
But why this character in this way? If you haven’t read The Awakening, I’m afraid this may not make a whole lot of sense, but I’ll do my best to express the need for some of the choices I made.
The first thing a curious party should know is that Edna Pontillier hovers over this story pervasively—haunts it, one might say. And it’s hard not to think that she’d have wanted nothing more. Like all characters (I suppose), there are widely diverging potential readings on her.
Edna can be read charitably, as most readers do, as an iconic feminist heroine rejecting the roles society has forced her to play and re-writing those rules to suit her deepest desires despite the consequences—the original feminist Jesus figure of sorts. It’s not a bad reading, given the time period, the author’s body of work, and the proclivity of most readers to view a protagonist favorably simply because, well, she’s the protagonist.
There’s also an uncharitable reading of Edna, and it may be that the gulf between the charitable reading and the uncharitable reading is as vast as I’ve ever encountered for any character. For those fans of Edna who may someday be reading this, perhaps the best way to understand the uncharitable perspective would be through the following thought experiment:
Imagine, if you will, that you are in your late twenties and you’ve been happily married to your spouse for say, six or seven years. Picture that spouse smiling at you adoringly. You could be the wife or the husband in this experiment; it doesn’t really matter. You have two beautiful children together, a girl and a boy, say 3 and 5 years old.
Think of how amazing those miraculous little humans are and the awesome responsibility you two have for raising them into the wonderful human beings you both know they can be. You’re doing well enough financially, and by all accounts, including your spouse’s, you’re both relatively content with the way things are going. What a life!
Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, your spouse begins to change their behavior. They’re no longer interested in the kids, not in the least. You’re rightly concerned, and when you try to ask about it, your spouse objects, nay—strenuously objects to any conversation regarding the change in their behavior.
And it gets worse. Your spouse ceases to be the person you thought you knew. They begin to spend your collective wealth on expensive things without any consultation or apology. They begin to indulge in vain and/or fruitless pursuits (like being an author, for instance : ) instead of spending time with the family.
They begin to show outward signs of infidelity—up to and including spending your collective wealth on an apartment right around the corner from your home where they entertain multiple members of the opposite sex, in plain view of all your shared friends.
They cheat on you with multiple partners unapologetically. And then suddenly, without a conversation, mind you, your spouse decides to leave you while you’re out of town on business, and he/she decides to throw a lavish party celebrating said decision, inviting all of your friends as guests, and funding said party with your money, all the while joking about it. That, my dear friends, is the uncharitable reading of Edna Pontillier.
Oh, and (major spoiler alert), if that’s not enough, when it doesn’t work out to her liking, she up and kills herself without a thought for the consequences to Leonce or their children.
So there’s a massive gulf between the charitably read tragi-heroic feminist artist icon and the uncharitably read super-narcissist, who quite frankly (to me anyway) reads like a neurology patient with a lesion in her prefrontal cortex—seriously, this happens, and her behavior is a case-study.
I was far more interested in this area of criticism, though: Sarah Forest George’s article in Ethos: “A Vanishing Act: The Invisible Quadroons of Chopin’s The Awakening.” It wasn’t just the obsolete (and offensive-in-the-modern-day) racialized terminology that piqued my interest in the relationship Edna had with her children’s caregiver, it was the fact that this unnamed “quadroon” nursemaid was so flat and unimportant a character as to remain nameless.
It’s hard to imagine leaving your children almost entirely in someone else’s hands if that person is so inconsequential that they hardly bear mentioning. True, this is Edna’s story. Still, Celestine and others are named. Not the caregiver, though.
Perhaps it was the writer in me, for whom it is almost a compulsion to imagine the perspectives, needs, and desires of the peripheral characters, or perhaps it was just the part of me who’s encountered enough suicide in my life to know the havoc it wreaks on those left behind. But I thought of this nameless nursemaid and how she might be out of a job because of Edna’s death, and how that might affect her own children, whom she presumably had to leave each day to care for Edna’s. I thought it would be fitting to write that story as best I could, and out came “Lamplight.”
Now, based on the analysis above, you might think you could guess which camp I come down in vis-à-vis the charitable/uncharitable reading regarding Edna, and I’ll be charitable to you and say that you’re probably right. But I didn’t want either reading to color “Lamplight” with a critical taint one way or the other. I don’t think that would’ve made for even remotely bearable fiction.
One of the things fiction is good for, if it’s good for anything, is for exploring the depths and dimensions of people that aren’t readily apparent in real-life situations. I like that Edna hangs over this story so pervasively in a manner that doesn’t take a stance.
It's easy to forget as readers, especially when we take sides for or against a character/author/book/narrative device/etc., is that if we’re really taking the exercise as seriously as possible—i.e. granting these characters status as fully realized human agents—they’re a lot like us when the shit hits the fan.
They have primary, secondary, and tertiary needs. They have obligations, desires and fears. But most of all, they have massive gaps in their knowledge about the world they inhabit, just as we do. We don’t have any idea what most people are thinking most of the time, and we have only the slightest hint of an idea of the ripple-effects our actions have on the people sharing space with us on this crazy mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
I think that’s why I find the idea of Lenore’s naivete so true. She’s too focused on Coira and paying the rent to ponder Edna’s motives. She’s also far too charitable to assume the worst, as Madame Dornier does. She gets on, and she does it as gracefully as she can manage, snapping up a good deal on a chicken along the way if such an opportunity presents itself. After all, that’s what most people do.
A serious rendering of most characters is warranted if you’re writing characters worth reading. I suspect that’s what makes Edna Pontillier an enduring character—that she’s just that complex. She’s as confounding as she is believable.
I may not think Lenore Etive is nearly quite so complex, but I can see her there in that world struggling in the aftermath, cooking chicken on a wood stove, delicately brushing her daughter’s hair, and listening in the darkness to drunken Bach. Can’t you?