I had a discussion with someone, not so long ago, about The Awakening. I said that I couldn’t bring myself to engage with it, because it fit into a pattern that I had noticed in certain nineteenth-century novels – woman has sexual awakening, cheats on husband, dies – and that struck me as the manifestation of a conservative impulse to contain or negate female sexuality which is not inextricably bound to one man, which must spring on some level from paternity anxiety. (I am fun at parties.) He said that the death was earned by the internal logic of the story, and by the characterization of the woman in question. I said something like, “that’s very nice, but also: woman has sexual awakening, cheats on husband, dies.” Then I realized that I was being obnoxious.
But I didn’t let that stop me! Here is a brief survey, composed entirely of books that I can name off the top of my head.
Survey #1: Books Which Center On Female Protagonist’s Sexual Awakening & Consequent Adultery – Does She Die?*
Madam Bovary (1856)- She dies.
Anna Karenina (1877?) - She dies.
The Awakening (1899) - She dies.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) - She does not die! She learns the joy of submitting to an outdoorsman! Welcome to the twentieth century.
Then I read Revolutionary Road. While we are on the subject of paternal anxieties and gory lady deaths: oh, my sweet Jesus, this book has them. If I had to compose a one-act play about Revolutionary Road, which completely oversimplified its plot, it would go as follows:
FRANK: We live in the 1950s! We are under great pressure to conform.
APRIL: Bad news: I want an abortion.
FRANK: No, you totally can’t have one, because it’s my child too!
APRIL: I guess I won’t do it, then.
FRANK: Wait – I forgot that I hate you!
APRIL: Truly, our marriage is a sham. Life in the suburbs has killed our spirits! I’m going to abort myself now.
THE NEIGHBORS: Isn’t it a shame that April Wheeler died?
The good news is that this play totally has a chance of being optioned for the screen now, because Hollywood is finally making Revolutionary Road: The Movie. Its casting – which I learned just last night – is so amazing that I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around it. Which leads us to Survey #2:
Survey #2: Movies In Which Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet Play a Couple Struggling With the Social Constraints of Their Time – Does One of Them Die? If Yes, How?
Titanic (1998) – Yes, there is a shipwreck.
Revolutionary Road (????) – Yes, their marriage is a loveless wreck to which death would be preferable, and also Kate Winslet bleeds out through her crotch.
*Any additions to this list are welcome. I’ve ruled out Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Tess is raped, and later becomes a kept woman to survive – she’s never after her own pleasure, although she does in fact die), and Wuthering Heights (spiritual infidelity, but no sex, although she is quite vocally dead throughout most of the book).