What If She’s Gay?

What If She’s Gay?


Metaphorical Lesbians in The Awakening and The Odd Women

Classical literature is a playground of synthesis. Though all literature provides an opportunity for analysis, there continue to be more and more ways to unpack symbolism, character analyses, and to discover new themes and larger meanings in classical literature with our more modern eyes. In this way, reading classical literature through different lenses also leads to a variety of interpretations. One that has become increasingly popular is reading through a queer lens. Elizabeth LeBlanc, in her piece, “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening,” unpacks the idea of the metaphorical lesbian and applies it to Kate Chopin’s protagonist Edna Pontellier. It is not necessarily the case that a character must be proven as queer to possess lesbian traits and echo the queer experience. The character doesn’t have to be explicitly queer in the text to be read or interpreted as such. Edna Pontellier is a character rife with lesbian motifs, some of which even LeBlanc doesn’t have the space to cover in her piece. There is another character in The Awakening that also can be read through this queer and metaphorical lesbian lens, Mademoiselle Reisz. In many ways, Mme. Reisz acts as the more “out” lesbian character, while Edna serves as the more closeted one. But it is not only The Awakening that explores the metaphorical lesbian. 

No, George Gissing’s The Odd Women is also rife with queer subtext. The character of Rhoda Nunn, in particular, is one of the most evident manifestations of the metaphorical lesbian, and it is possible to read a lesbian couple in her relationship with her employer and close friend Mary Barfoot. The characters of Edna, Mme. Reisz, and Rhoda all can be read through a queer lens, giving credence to the idea of the metaphorical lesbian. The rhetoric surrounding queerness often claims that queer people did not exist in our distant pasts. But these characters and interpretations provide an interesting level of historical queer representation on a larger scale, whether or not they are actually queer.  

Both of these novels were written in the 1890s, with Chopin hailing from the United States and Gissing from the United Kingdom. These novels, though set in different geographical locations and in different social contexts, both explore this concept of the metaphorical lesbian. It is not exclusive to one area or another. Though the novels each explore the larger and more overt themes of marriage, morality, the role of women in society, and feminism, in the shadows lies a fascinating path for exploration.

We begin our journey looking into the metaphorical lesbian where LeBlanc left off, with Edna Pontellier. One of the most profound statements LeBlanc makes in her piece is that, “Edna’s haunting yet vague sense of ‘the limitless’ resounds with new echoes and possibilities.”1 This is a small detail that LeBlanc doesn’t delve much further into. She instead focuses on the main goal of her argument and provides examples to Edna’s metaphorical lesbianism, namely her marriage to Léonce and her relationship with Adèle. But the idea of this haunting limitlessness interests me. Throughout the novel, Edna yearns for something more than what she has, more than her stereotypical and constraining heterosexual life. Her awakening is then initiated by Adèle, first in her initial physical attraction to Adèle and later by their physical closeness. Edna’s fascination with Adèle is twofold. On the surface, Adèle represents everything that Edna seems not to be, an idealized mother-woman, the very idea of which goes against Edna’s discomfort with motherhood and with filling the stereotypical wife role. But, if one looks underneath this layer, there is something erotic about Edna’s interest in Adèle. This is highlighted through Chopin’s masterful descriptions of Adèle. Chopin writes, “the excessive physical charm of the Creole had first attracted her, for Edna had a sensuous susceptibility to beauty.”2 Edna is drawn to Adèle much like how a heterosexual man might be. She is aware of Adèle’s sensuality and is intrigued by it. 

This could have been written off, if not for one of the most pivotal moments in this metaphorical lesbian’s journey: her awakening. It’s Adèle that first awakens Edna, not a man or some divine intervention. No, indeed it is the love and closeness of another woman. At the beach, Adèle caresses Edna’s hand. Chopin writes, “[Adèle] laid her hand over that of Mrs. Pontellier…seeing that the hand was not withdrawn, she clasped it firmly and warmly. She even stroked it a little, fondly, with the other hand, murmuring in an undertone, ‘Pauvre chérie.’ The action was at first a little confusing to Edna, but she soon lent herself readily to the Creole’s gentle caress.”3 It’s in Chopin’s writing that we can really understand the queer aspects of this scene. The use of negation, being demonstrated in this quote with, “the hand was not withdrawn,” works almost to quiet the possible erotic and romantic quality of the gesture, to throw a typical reader off its scent. 

This tender moment then leads into Edna’s remembrance of her “accidental” marriage to Léonce, and her general disinterest in men. After this comes the most pivotal moment of the scene, where Chopin writes, “She [Edna] had put her head down on Madame Ratignolle’s shoulder. She was flushed and felt intoxicated with the sound of her own voice and unaccustomed taste of candor. It muddled her like wine, or like the first breath of freedom.”4 The word “freedom” here is of utmost importance. We see in this scene that Edna has been awakened, and she has Adèle to thank for this. 

The word “awakening” can take many forms, and often does for Edna. There is her sexual awakening, her awakening to wanting a life different from the one she’s in, and her artistic awakening. The word “awakening,” particularly in our modern time, has also been attributed to queerness, ie. the “gay awakening.” Could this moment for Edna serve as a gay awakening? It certainly is possible given Chopin’s writing of the scene. The physical closeness, the comfort between the two women that Edna has not often felt with others, the word choices of “stroked,” “intoxicated,” and “flushed,” all lend themselves to the idea of Edna as the metaphorical lesbian. It is what LeBlanc works through in her essay, taking the idea all the way through to the end of the novel. 

Mademoiselle Reisz can also be read as queer, perhaps even more overtly than Edna can. LeBlanc touches on Mme. Reisz in her essay, but solely in relation to Edna’s queer awakening. Mme. Reisz stands on her own as an interesting character to be read through a queer lens. When we first meet her, she is described as, “a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost every one, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others.”5 And yet, Mme. Reisz takes an immediate interest in Edna, and not only plays the piano for her, but delights in asking Edna for song requests. It is clear that Mme. Reisz is ostracized from the community. People view her as homely, and would perhaps pity her solitude if she didn’t have such a temper. Her alienation is in line with the way queer people, especially during this time period, are treated by the larger society. Chopin’s description of her as being more cold and assertive could be genuine, or it could simply be the description of how others perceive her rather than how she actually is. Or, if she truly is cold, an explanation for that would be that she has learned to be cold in order to protect herself from further exclusion from the in-group. 

Despite her temperamental nature, she makes an instant connection with Edna over their love of music, which could perhaps be a metaphor for their shared queerness. The first time Mme. Reisz plays for her, Edna is taken by it, and, “the very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column.”6 Though others seem to casually take note of Mme. Reisz’s musical prowess, only Edna seems to be moved beyond words by it. After this, Mme. Reisz says, “‘You are the only one worth playing for. Those others? Bah!’”7 Mme. Reisz seems to be hinting at a shared connection between herself and Edna, one that the others cannot and will not understand. 

Mme. Reisz’s queerness becomes even more pronounced throughout the novel, especially as her relationship with Edna develops. Mme. Reisz becomes worried when Edna does not come to see her right away, the way one would become if their lover or crush hadn’t called them in a few days. When Edna does come, Mme. Reisz remarks, “So you remembered me at last…I had said to myself, ‘Ah, bah! She will never come.’”8 Mme. Reisz clearly cares about Edna enough to worry when she doesn’t come around, and her slight attitude evokes that of an upset lover. In the same scene, Mme. Reisz goes on to refer to Edna as, “la belle dame” and takes, “Edna’s hand between her strong wiry fingers, holding it loosely without warmth, and executing a sort of double theme upon the back and palm.”9 There is a lot of hand imagery in this novel, particularly in terms of physical affection between two female characters. Hand imagery is particularly notable in queer literature and media. Oftentimes in queer literature and media, hand imagery alludes to a quiet acceptance and visibility, that is, these two characters see one another for who they are and are comfortable enough to share that with one another privately. Mme. Reisz grabbing Edna’s hand signals, to the reader and to Edna alike, that Mme. Reisz feels a deep and intimate connection to her, a detail that could easily be missed by a typical reader. 

The final and perhaps most defining example of Mme. Reisz as read through a queer lens is in her being the middle-man between Edna and Robert. There is a sort of protectiveness that Mme. Reisz has over Edna, which prolongs her giving Edna the letters Robert wrote her. I’ll play devil’s advocate for a moment: Mme. Reisz’ protectiveness could be simply that she is looking out for her friend, or that she doesn’t want to involve herself in the drama. Sure, but then why tell Edna that Robert wrote about her at all? Mme. Reisz cares enough about Edna to tell her about Robert’s letters, but loves her too much to want to give them to her. It’s possible that Mme. Reisz wants to keep the letters from Edna because she is jealous of the relationship that Edna and Robert are able to have with one another. She truly drags out giving the letters to Edna, an exchange that goes on for two whole pages. This scene comes just after Mme. Reisz has been affectionate toward Edna, which only fuels the idea that Mme. Reisz is not only queer but interested in Edna. She isn’t a villain, for a villain would conceal the letters for her own benefit. Instead, she begrudgingly hands them over, and becomes the middle-man between Edna and Robert. She loves Edna enough to help her, despite it causing her emotional pain. To me, this serves as the cornerstone of the argument that Mme. Reisz is queer, for her coldness disappears around Edna, someone she loves and is comfortable with, and she is willing to make personal sacrifices to make Edna happy. 

While The Awakening is certainly rife with queer subtext, George Gissing’s The Odd Woman is just as fruitful in this regard. There are many similarities between Rhoda Nunn and both Edna Pontellier and Mme. Reisz that give credence to the idea of her as a metaphorical lesbian. Like both characters, Rhoda is almost entirely disinterested in men and romance, even more so than Edna and Mme. Reisz. Rhoda is the extreme of both characters, and she’s allowed to be. While Edna does eventually show some interest in men and romance (if only to find what she is limitlessly yearning for) She is already ostracized by society for being an odd woman, which allows her the freedom to show her blatant distaste for men more overtly than either woman from The Awakening could. This freedom allows for a more interesting unfurling of her character as queer. 

One of the defining characteristics of Rhoda is her hatred for men, and her promise to herself and to others that she never marry. Yes, it’s true that Rhoda is what we may think of as a rebel for her time, and sometimes rebels like to take things to the extremes even when they do not truly feel that way. But Rhoda’s wish to be unmarried comes from a very interesting place. Not only does she wish to be unmarried because of the harsh standards that married women are expected to live up to in society, but she also has a strong desire for independence. Much like Edna, she yearns for personal and intellectual freedom. Is it possible that she can love and have love while also being free? Certainly. And she does, with her closest friend Mary Barfoot.

Rhoda also has a complicated relationship with sex. True, she has thwarted off men, but she still experiences feelings of loneliness about the experience of sex. Gissing writes,, “secretly she deemed it a hard thing never to have known that common triumph of her sex…it took away from the merit of her position as a leader and encourager of women living independently.”10 While this could simply be an explanation of her wish to prioritize her cause over her own wants, it could also be read through a queer lens, in that Rhoda feels she will never be able to truly consummate her love for Mary, or her love for women more generally. This passage exemplifies the relationship that queer people often deal with, the one between repression and sex. 

Before we dive into the wonderfully beautiful relationship between Rhoda and Mary, I feel it is important to discuss the Everard of it all. We initially see Rhoda and Everard as two intellectuals who are able to debate one another rather calmly. Rhoda seems to appreciate Everard for being a man she can actually have a genuine and thoughtful conversation with. But, from Everard’s perspective, he has created this notion in his mind that Rhoda is deeply in love with him. Even from their first meeting, it is clear Everard is physically attracted to her. Gissing writes, “A motion of his [Everard] lips indicated amused approval…his eyes often skimmed her face; when she spoke, which was very seldom, he gazed at her with close attention.”11 So, where Rhoda seems to be pleased that she can actually have a real conversation with a man, Everard believes she is absolutely head over heels for him. The inclusion of the “romance” between Rhoda and Everard is a forced one, perhaps created in order to send a certain message to men and women alike that even the most independent of women will want romantic love. 

Based on the evidence the novel provides, it seems Rhoda confused gratitude with love. She appreciated the ways in which Everard allowed her to have intellectual conversations outside of her sex, which in some ways broke down the barrier she has around hating men altogether. This does not, however, mean that she actually had true romantic feelings for him. The rush of emotions, seemingly read as sexual, that she has toward Everard are more of excitement upon realizing that not all men are completely useless. Even during their “romantic” scenes, Rhoda does not act affectionately toward Everard. She says things like, “‘what is your love worth?’” and “‘convince me of that.’”12 This is perhaps an example of compulsory heterosexuality, wherein queer women are so conditioned by society to seek male validation that they exhibit this behavior even if they are not attracted to men. Once Everard gives Rhoda any reason to doubt him, for instance, when she hears that he used to pursue Monica, whether or not it’s the truth, she takes the out right away and shuts down. 

This could even be read through a queer lens, wherein she almost felt compelled to marry him because that is what’s expected of the time, and, though she does genuinely care for him in a platonic way, she does not wish to have a romantic relationship with him. Perhaps, even despite her moral value to be against marriage, she would’ve forced herself into it if she had more persuasion. But Everard’s rumored affair with Monica is enough for Rhoda to cut him off completely, saving herself the trouble of being in a fake relationship. Even the way she turns him down seems rather queer coded. She prioritizes the idea of them remaining friendly, and shows little emotion in regard to her statement about not loving him any longer. Rhoda even says to Mary, in a scene that I also felt was queer coded, that she, “‘never felt entire confidence in him.’” Gissing then writes, “Mary smiled, and sighed.”13 Mary, too, is happy that Rhoda isn’t going to leave her, despite her earnestness in the moments leading up to this when she makes sure Rhoda is confident in her decision. It seems then, that the romantic love Rhoda has is not between her and Everard, but her and Mary.

Rhoda’s relationship with Mary is without a doubt the most explicit-unexplicit example of a lesbian couple in classical literature that I have read. Their relationship tows the line of being overt in such a fascinating way. Gissing gives the reader just enough to understand what their relationship could truly be, while placing obstacles in their way to offset their very queer relationship—the obstacle being Everard, of course. Rhoda and Mary live together, work together, and are constantly having philosophical and respectful debates with one another. But there are countless scenes in the novel that give credence to the idea that the true romantic love was between Mary and Rhoda all along. Not only do they have a very strong and healthy friendship, wherein they respect one another and communicate well, but they also have deep love for one another. 

There is a scene in which Rhoda and Mary argue over their mutual friend Bella’s suicide, and, though Mary is clearly frustrated with the cold way Rhoda has acted toward both her and the entire situation, she does not treat Rhoda with any disrespect. Instead, both Mary and Rhoda spoke calmly with each other, and did not jump the gun in terms of Rhoda’s moving out. Mary even says, “Let us do nothing hastily…we have more to think about than our own feelings.”14 They are wonderful at conflict resolution. Rhoda is then able to realize how she has hurt Mary’s feelings, and, in a most touching scene, they are able to make up. Following Mary’s speech, which Mary says to Rhoda, “was addressed to you,” Rhoda apologizes and says, “I ought to ask your pardon. Right or wrong, I behaved in an unmannerly way.”15 Mary ends the scene so simply and beautifully saying, “And there’s the last of it…let us kiss and be friends.”16 Their relationship, and the treatment of this conflict in particular, completely dismantle the stereotype that women are overly emotional and are not able to think logically. It also highlights their deep love and respect for one another, that seems to go beyond simply friendship. 

Gissing’s narration of Mary also furthers the theory of Rhoda as a metaphorical lesbian, and Mary, too, for that matter. When speaking with Everard just before Rhoda’s refusal to marry him, Mary’s demeanor points us to something interesting. Everard says, “‘Cousin Mary,’—he looked at her and laughed—‘I think you will be very glad if she does refuse.’”17 It is possible that this moment could read this as Everard making a subtle hint to that one line pages and pages ago about Mary being in love with him. However since we never hear about her interest in Everard again after that line, and we do witness several moments of deep intimacy between Mary and Rhoda, it is much more plausible that Everard is referring to Mary’s love for Rhoda, and her potential relief when Rhoda does not agree to marry Everard and move out. At the end of the novel, Rhoda and Mary are still living together. Though Gissing was unable to make their romantic love explicit (if that was his intention), he does allow both characters to survive the events of the novel and maintain a healthy and happy relationship. For this time period, that is an immense feat for two queer characters, one that I do not take lightly. 

Each of these characters, Rhoda, Mary, Mme Reisz, and Edna may very well not be queer. It could be by pure coincidence that they possess a great deal of queer traits and tropes. But does intention truly matter? It is more than enough to have the opportunity to read these characters and their novels through the lens of the metaphorical lesbian at all. It helps combat the idea that queer characters and people have not existed historically until recently. And the chance to interpret any novel through any lens is one that allows novels to keep their potency, to be constantly reimagined and re-understood. The idea of the metaphorical lesbian is just one of these lenses through which classic novels can be read, and, without LeBlanc’s work, perhaps one would not even think to look below the surface. Characters can be read as queer without them having to be explicitly queer, and this lens is one that is beyond significant to understandings of queerness and representation in literature.

  1. Kate Chopin, The Awakening, ed. Nancy A. Walker (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 237.
  2. Ibid., 35.
  3. Ibid., 38.
  4. Ibid., 40.
  5. Ibid., 47.
  6. Ibid., 47.
  7. Ibid., 48.
  8. Ibid., 84.
  9. Ibid., 84.
  10. Gissing, The Odd Woman, ed. Arlene Young, (Broadview Press, 1998), 163.
  11. Ibid., 101.
  12. Ibid., 268-9.
  13. Ibid., 294.
  14. Ibid., 150.
  15. Ibid., 154.
  16. Ibid., 154.
  17. Ibid., 319.
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