Cursed Waters and Enchanted Isles: The Baratarian Archipelago and the Specter of Imperial Transgression in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Abbe, Emelia, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Brickhouse, Anna, Department of English, University of Virginia

Within the mythical world of Grand Isle and the Cheniere Caminada in The Awakening, Kate Chopin creates a protagonist who seems bound to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the islands of the Barataria Bay. When Edna Pontellier manifests many of the traditional tropes of victims of magic and enchantment, we are confronted with the possibility that Chopin’s Baratarian islands are intertwined with supra-normal qualities. Following her first moment of magical encounter in the waters of the Gulf, Edna exhibits the hallmarks of spellbinding by some external force. We are asked to believe that the waters and islands of the Baratarian archipelago are sites of encounter with a lingering magic and a dark, cultural mythos. This magic solidifies as Edna perceives disruptions in the orientation of her own existence within the fixed time and space of the novella’s reality—so that she occupies a liminal space which is neither firmly set in the world of the novel or in the other-world of the enchantment.

But this phenomenon of enchanted liminality points us to a subversive awareness—whether conscious or unconscious—of the complex dynamics surrounding American imperialism in the global South. Beneath the surface plot of the novella is a running narrative of the Baratarian archipelago as a space disrupted by its fraught past of piratical enterprise amid encroaching national boundaries. Edna’s “awakening” following her encounter with the “spirit of the Gulf,” reinforced by legends of Jean Laffite and the Baratarian pirates, reflects anxieties of identity that exist under conditions of cultural encounter and conflict. Edna’s enchanted liminality, taken in conjunction with considerations of the archipelago as a historically transnational space, raises the specter of American imperial transgressive violence, and simultaneously marks that transgression as unresolved and self-perpetuating.

MA (Master of Arts)
American Southern Literature, Transnationalism, Enchantment
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