“It Is Important to Know the Names of Things”

“It Is Important to Know the Names of Things”


Language in The Awakening and Dept. of Speculation

Despite being written over a century apart, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation raise similar questions about the role language plays in developing a personal identity, specifically in the lives of women. The protagonist of The Awakening, Edna Pontellier, appears to have too little language to use in interpreting her experiences; when the narration delves into her mind, it reveals that she often thinks in pictures, and otherwise has trouble understanding and labeling moments of large emotional importance. On the other hand, the narrator and protagonist of Dept. of Speculation seems to have too much language, constantly citing other philosophers and writers in order to help her categorize her emotional experiences. What is the role that language plays in these characters’ understanding of their circumstances, lives, and emotional experiences? Is language helpful or harmful in trying to understand instances of great emotional fervor? The contrast between Dept. of Speculation’s narrator’s intense linguistic focus and Edna Pontellier’s inability to express herself through her own language reveals the vital need for a language that allows for self-expression, as well as the tragic consequences of being forced into a language that works against one’s sense of self.

The Awakening calls attention to Edna’s relationship to language from the very beginning, opening with a scene of unintelligible expression:

 A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over:

“Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!”

He could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence.1

A close analysis of this scene reveals a few key details as to the importance of language within the novel. First, that the opening image is a parrot suggests the significance of the limited way a parrot expresses language: A parrot can only repeat that which it has heard, which makes awkward and interesting the statement that the parrot spoke “a language which nobody understood.” For, if the parrot were speaking a human language, how could no one understand it, given that the parrot must be repeating someone? Therefore, it would most likely be appropriate to read this “language” as a chirping sound, the bird’s own sound, which nobody understands. The first scene of the novel emphasizes this repeated and intelligible language, which serves to make this language a distinctly feminine one in two ways: It places the parrot in opposition with Mr. Pontellier, Edna’s husband, and the words the parrot quotes, as revealed later in the novel, are from Madame Ratignolle, a friend of Edna’s.

To the first point, the parrot’s chirping forces Mr. Pontellier out of his chair “with an expression and exclamation of disgust”; it is clear that this voice does not have favor with Mr. Pontellier, and so reading the parrot as representing the voice of Mr. Pontellier would be difficult and innacurate.2  That being said, Mr. Pontellier responding to the parrot by agreeing to its wishes (the parrot’s commands of “Allez vous-en!” (Go away!) being followed quickly) may foreshadow his same adherence to Edna’s wishes later in the novel, when she requests to move to her own “pigeon house,” and he reluctantly concedes.3 This, and the moniker “pigeon house” for the home that Edna moves into, not only suggest that the parrot’s voice is a feminine one, but that the parrot’s voice may represent the voice of Edna herself. Thus, it would be appropriate to examine the implications of the parrot’s language for Edna throughout the novel: Does Edna repeat the language of others and does she appear to have her own unintelligible discourse?

In examining Edna’s language to find an answer, it is fitting to look at the moments in which she is greatly emotionally affected, to see what function her language plays in expressing herself; for this reason, an examination of her first experience of swimming is especially pertinent, as it is a moment of great emotional affectation, and could be considered the beginning of Edna’s titular “awakening.” As she learns to swim and swims for the first time, the narration states, “A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul.”4 This portion of narration is curious on a few counts, the first being the style of metaphor, which is a reason to suggest that this narration has fallen into free indirect style. The metaphor reveals nothing new, there is no image that it evokes; rather, the metaphor uses vague descriptions of “some power” and “significant import” to determine the extent to which the experience has influenced Edna. This would be a poor metaphor, and might even be better characterized as simply a description, but in reading these words as Edna’s, one could interpret this faltering metaphor as a revelation of the extent of Edna’s lack of language: The metaphor reaches for comparisons it cannot find, and thus Edna cannot fully express or encapsulate the experience she is having, even to herself. The second reason this sentence is so important is in its placement of Edna as the object of each verb, rather than the subject. The feeling “overtook her,” and the power “had been given her,” both of which suggest that this moment of independence and titular “awakening,” are not fully hers: The structure of the sentence removes Edna’s autonomy in experiencing the events in her life, and, if this truly is in free indirect style, reveals Edna’s internalization of a problematic language structure, one that seeks to deprive her of said autonomy. Thus, in this pivotal moment for Edna, her language is actively working against her both in her lack of being able to adequately describe the experience to herself and in her attempts to explain it, she removes any victory for herself, and gives it to anyone or anything else; her language does not allow her to take responsibility for her own actions, even her achievements.

This passivity in language becomes more problematic when she discusses her experience with Robert, a friend of Edna’s who later becomes a romantic interest, and Robert offers a long explanation about mystic spirits that might have been the cause of her experience while swimming, where the narration in free indirect style from Robert’s viewpoint, states, “he had penetrated her mood and understood.”5 This sentence, as opposed to Edna’s in the previous paragraph, has an active, almost aggressively sexual verbiage to it. Instead of passivity and unknowability of her experience, there is active penetration and understanding by someone who has not even had the experience, and here lies the difference between Edna’s language and Robert’s, or the feminine language and the masculine language in the text. This dynamic between Robert and Edna’s use in language, specifically how one affects the other, is examined further in Patricia S. Yaeger’s essay, “A Language Which Nobody Understood,” where she states, “While Robert Lebrun may have ‘penetrated her mood,’ he has also begun to alter its meaning.”6 In later instances in the novel, Edna thinks of the experience in Robert’s terms; when she crosses the bay with him, she remembers “the mystic spirit” that was abroad, and the novel notes immediately afterward, “Robert spoke to her incessantly,” as if a reminder were needed that these words were Robert’s and not her own.”7 Yaeger continues to examine this relationship, and states, “since Edna lacks an alternative register of language to describe her own tumultuous feelings, Robert’s conceit soon becomes her own; his language comes to stand for the nameless feelings she has just begun to experience.”8 The language Edna once had, however lacking, has become a repetition of Robert’s language; she has effectively become trapped in the same position as the parrot: Either use the language other people have given her, or use her own language, a language nobody understands.

With this consideration in mind, it is pertinent to examine Edna’s final line in the novel. As she walks out to the sea to drown herself, she states, “Good-by—because I love you.”9 This is the exact language Robert expresses to her in giving reason for why he leaves her, and can be read as her motivation for dying. That is, Edna uses the language Robert supplies her as justification for ending her own life; she has learned through Robert’s language that it is necessary to leave from someone you love because of that very love. Whether this final scene can be read as her leaving Robert forever because she loves him, or leaving herself (more bluntly, killing herself) out of love for herself is hard to determine. Yaegar argues that Edna, in drowning herself, is trying to embrace the “voice” of the sea, “some other register of language, for a mode of speech that will express her unspoken, but not unspeakable needs.”10 In this light, her return to the sea is not simply a scene for death, but an attempt to connect to this large, unknown body of language, one that might finally help her to express herself truly, rather than parroting the words of others. That being said, it is important to keep in mind that, even while in the sea, Edna recounted her experience passively, as though she herself had not fully embraced her own power. In this reading, the ocean may simply represent her lack of language; rather than attempting to find a voice by returning to the ocean, it may be more metaphorical, as she may simply have been overcome by her own lack of language, her lack of ability to express and understand herself.

The use of language in Jenny Offill’s novel Dept. of Speculation, written over a century later, also features a female protagonist with an interesting relationship to language, one that hinges on borrowing and quoting language from others, rather than composing her thoughts using her own language. Throughout the novel, the narrator quotes a series of famous writers and philosophers throughout history, and these writers and philosophers are predominantly male, and these quotations permeate and reflect her thoughts in any given moment of the text. For example, when the narrator’s daughter breaks her wrists, the narrator’s thoughts are summarized by a Wittgenstein quotation: “What you say, you say in a body; you can say nothing outside of this body.”11 This reveals a detachment from the outside world in the narrator’s thought processes. She does not reflect on her worry or her love for her daughter in this moment, but rather she takes a philosophical position from someone she’s read. While this allows for interesting reflection of the experience in greater context, the experience loses the intimacy and emotional impact it could have had, had the narrator used her own words. This may reveal the same trend that Edna’s language exposed: the co-opting of the language of others rather than expressing a language of the self. In Dept. of Speculation, however, this reads a bit differently; rather than the narrator not having her own language, she appears to be hiding behind the language of others at certain times, rather than recounting her own worries, fears, or concerns.

With this in mind, it is pertinent to examine the narrator’s most emotionally significant moment in Dept. of Speculation, and how the narrator’s use of language plays into the description of her experiences. At the beginning of chapter 22, the question is asked: “How are you?” To which the narrator responds “soscaredsoscared . . .” for the entire page.12 The reader learns later that the narrator’s reaction is in response to learning that her husband has had an affair. The entire page of “soscared” plays against the initial reading of the narrator hiding behind language: The moment is honest and vulnerable, in its form and syntax, the words running together as though they themselves were running in fear. However, immediately after this intensely vulnerable moment, the narrator appears to dissociate fully from her own narrative, replacing her first person narration with a third person stand-in “the wife.”13 The switch from first to third person can be read as an intentional use of language to separate her person from her story, perhaps because the fear or emotion has become too much for the narrator to express in the first person. It is also a switch from how the narrator views herself, to how she views herself being perceived.

“The wife” is an archetypal figure in stories of adulterous men and mistresses, and is often seen as a negative figure; the narration’s adoption of this archetypal title at this pivotal moment suggests further a dismissal of her individual identity, instead opting to view herself as she imagines other people would. This, too, can be read as an adoption of others’ language in an attempt to better understand her place in her own story, to understand her own fear, and to comprehend the events through which she is living. The narrator of Dept. of Speculation here is also reclaiming her narrative by taking the title “the wife.” Each time she employs it, it is an affirmation of her identity as a wife even if they were not originally the words she would have used, in claiming them, she has made them her own, and has taken on a means of expressing her identity. In this way, the narrator, by making use of a language and story structure that she is aware of, distinguishes herself from Edna, who does not have the same gift of language; the narrator of Dept. of Speculation here is using language to examine herself, and is able to survive the circumstances of her husband’s affair, whereas Edna, without a language to fall back on, does not survive her own.

An emphasis on the importance language is explicitly stated in the text as well, with the narrator insisting on the importance of knowing the names of things, which creates tension within the novel as well as the principles of language and expression being examined. While living in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter, the narrator of Dept. of Speculation begins to examine birds. She notes that, “She wants to know the name of the black bird with the red wings. She looks it up. It is a red-winged blackbird.”14 A page later, in a letter to her philosopher friend, “She tells him about the red-winged blackbird because it is important to know the names of things.”15 This reads as an implementation of irony: the insistence on names (a facet of language) appears comedic as the name of the red-winged blackbird is useless in giving any more information about the bird than would be provided by looking at it. In other moments of the text, language is viewed similarly comedically, as when the narrator’s daughter is excited about learning the new word “autumn,” but her mother doesn’t notice, which prompts her to say, “Mommy! You are not noticing. I am using a new word. I say autumn now instead of fall.”16 The new word is a synonym, which raises the question of whether or not the learning of this new word truly adds to one’s understanding of the world, but in these repeated looks at the employment and classification of language, one could almost see an argument against the usefulness of these words for classification and understanding, a comment that the nature of language itself is sloppy, repetitive, and difficult to employ.

The ending of the novel complicates matters even more, with the final scene, where the narrator returns to using first person, seemingly reconciled with her husband, watches their daughter run happily along, and states, “No one young knows the name of anything.”17 One could read this statement as a commentary on the restrictive nature of language, that learning words narrows the experiences of life, confines it, necessarily complicates it. In fact, the vagueness of these lines could be a testament to that sentiment: There are no names here, no specific nouns, no specific denomination of anything at all, to the extent that it almost echoes Edna’s metaphor, except this time with an explicit intentionality. In the lines preceding this final line, the narrator’s daughter hands her a mess of paper and string. The narrator comments, “It is art, she thinks. Science maybe,” and here too is this confusion of words, this casual breaking down of classification.18 The novel’s final scene provides a release from the restrictive confines of language, as it does not utilize quotations from any other sources, nor any cutaways or explanations, all of which are major aspects of the novel leading up to this moment. In this reading, one could view all of these rhetorical modes as mechanisms the narrator uses to cope with the struggles in her life, such as the affair and her emotional vulnerability; intentionally stripping away these uses of language at the end shows that the narrator has overcome the instances of her life where she has needed to rely on borrowed language. By placing the emphasis on the young, the narrator also implicitly suggests that language complicates youth, that in growing one learns the names of things, and that, perhaps, learning the names of things is akin to growing.

When put in conversation with Edna’s lack of language in The Awakening, the Dept. of Speculation’s views on language become more intriguing. If “no one young knows the name of anything,” and Edna’s problem is her inability to express and identify her emotional experiences, one could argue that Edna’s lack of language is infantilizing, which would not be out of place considering the zeitgeist surrounding women in the nineteenth century. Edna, unlike the narrator of Dept. of Speculation, did not have the linguistic tools to fall back on to help her out of her suffering; more so, there is no mention of a language of recovery in The Awakening, and the focus of characters Edna interacts with do not seem interested in helping her get through bad times, but only how to how to behave. Thus, Edna was unable to see any means of feeling better, or of recovering from her grief, she has only the language of departure, the language given to her by Robert: “Good-by—because I love you.”

The use of language in The Awakening and Dept. of Speculation reveals the importance of language as it relates to self-expression and maturity, and shows how vitally important it can be in understanding oneself and one’s experiences. Additionally, the parroting of language in both texts shows the necessity of developing one’s own understanding of language, so that one is able to understand their experiences without other voices interfering. Both texts also seem to understand within their own texts this importance of language. Doctor Mendelet in The Awakening, in his concern for Edna and trying to save her, invites her to his office, stating to her, “We will talk of things you never have dreamt of talking about before.”19 In his desire to speak to Edna, the doctor, and by extension Kate Chopin, shows an understanding of the importance of language in the examination of oneself, and suggests that this conversation might have saved Edna’s life, had it ever come to pass. Even in considering Dept. of Speculation’s sardonic comment about the importance of names, one can see a kernel of truth: Even if the names are not useful, or are synonyms for other simpler words, it is this learning of language that allows people to mature and understand themselves, their experiences, the world around them, and each other.

  1. Kate Chopin, The Awakening, Edited by Nancy A. Walker (New York: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2000), 22.
  2. Chopin, The Awakening, 22.
  3. Chopin, The Awakening, 116-117.
  4. Chopin, The Awakening, 49.
  5. Chopin, The Awakening, 51.
  6. Patricia Yaeger, “‘A Language which Nobody Understood’: Emancipatory Strategies in The Awakening,” The Awakening by Kate Chopin, edited by Nancy A. Walker (New York: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2000), 320.
  7. Chopin, The Awakening, 56.
  8. Yaeger, “‘A Language which Nobody Understood,’” 320.
  9. Chopin, The Awakening, 139.
  10. Yaegar, “‘A Language which Nobody Understood,’” 336.
  11. Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 78.
  12. Offill, Dept. of Speculation, 94.
  13. Offil, Dept. of Speculation, 95.
  14. Offill, Dept. of Speculation, 173.
  15. Offill, Dept. of Speculation,174.
  16. Offil, Dept. of Speculation, 50.
  17. Offill, Dept. of Speculation, 177.
  18. Offill, Dept. of Speculation, 177.
  19. Chopin, The Awakening, 135.
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