swimming toward the unknown

I’m working on my paper on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Crux (1911), and just wondered if the climactic swimming scene at the end could be fruitfully compared to the climactic swimming (and probably drowning?) scene at the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899).  In The Crux, Vivian Lane’s swim I think is a sign of social, psychological, and even spiritual resurrection (though Deborah Evans sees it as Gilman re-writing a similar scene in Owen Wister’s The Virginian). In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier’s swim is a sign of awakening, obviously. But it’s much more interpretively* slippery than Vivian’s.  On the surface level, though, in both cases, the swim is the climax of the novel, both women are naked, and both laugh (well, Vivian actually laughs; Edna figuratively laughs (see quote below)).  So for my paper there’s at least a footnote’s worth of connection between these two scenes.  [*new adverb!]

Meanwhile, I wanted to post this quote from this article. I’m really drawn to this interpretation, or to this realization that when we try to interpret what happens at death (or to decide whether it is death), we are grasping at the ungraspable (and, I think, we had better not think ourselves that powerful).

Does Edna commit suicide? […] The whole novel was written for this moment and writing at this point staggers toward nakedness too. Edna is now ready to confront death, to face death. Such is the nature of her awakening: it is an awakening-unto-death. We do not know if she dies, we only know she is ready to die. Or that she is ready to live as if dead. This is the limit of knowing. From now on, there are “no plot alternatives,” because there can be no “plot” at this point. Death is the absolute unknowable. Edna enters an other space—the sea. And, as opposed to the striated space of known, sedentary trajectories (and plots) that she is leaving behind, the sea is a smooth space characterized by a “polyvocality of directions.” At this point Edna cannot be narrativized anymore, she has gone vagabonding on an unknown and unknowable terrain. The novel ends. But this ending/no ending is a way of saying no to the possibility of there being at this point a story of Edna.  She has become slippery, ungraspable. (486)

A reading that looks for narrative closure is always performed in a mode of “recuperation”: it resuscitates Edna, it “saves” her from the unknown toward which she is moving. It is the symptom of the Oedipal desire to know and to know to the end, to unveil the truth and through the unveiling of the truth to cover Edna’s indecent nakedness. But Edna’s invitation at the end of the novel is to resist the temptation of resuscitation and to welcome the unknown of death, of the smooth sea. In this sense, the text has predicted its own destiny, its early feminist recuperation, through the episode of the first swim; but it has also offered, through its ending, the strategy of resisting such recuperation. Through a reading in the recuperation mode, the illusion of knowing is recuperated at the level of reading. Edna is tamed, her desire is understood, “the world” goes on without having heard the message. But Edna is laughing, indeed, has the last laugh, and we can push our ears to hear this laughter. (487)

— from Anca Parvulescu’s “To Die Laughing and to Laugh at Dying: Revisiting The Awakening.” New Literary History 36 (2005): 477-495.

Hmm, reminds me of Pierce Pettis’ song “Swimming” (1989)

There’s a man saying words over a body
And the words that he says are not his own
And his candle is so small
And the darkness is a liquid that surrounds us all
The man, who is old, has never married
And the man has no children of his own
But strangers call him father
And they speak to him of darkness in their souls

Swimming toward the light
High above I see it from the corner of my eye
Pulling toward the light
Trapped inside this cavern, swimming hard with all my might
Holding my breath just as long as I can
Till I get there, till I get there
Holding my breath just as long as I can
Till I get there and the light is everywhere

Downtown there is a loud commotion
And a crowd is waving flags along the street
The bubble car glides by
And the man who sits inside is so alone
His faith is real, his name is borrowed
And it is borrowed time he’s living on
And he’s feeling pretty tired
And a little uninspired if the truth be known
Swimming toward the light
In the distance he can see it from the corner of his eye
Pulling toward the light

Trapped here underwater, swimming hard with all his might
Holding his breath just as long as he can
Till he gets there, till he gets there
Holding his breath just as long as he can
Till he gets there and the light is everywhere

There’s a house in the city no one stays in
Though visitors always come and go
And they say that God lives there
But God lives everywhere
This I know
And candlelight is spreading like a wildfire
Suddenly we’re caught up in its glow
There’s one they say who came
All the way from outer space to lead us home

Swimming toward the light
Leading us to safety like a beacon in the night
Pulling toward the light
Deep down in this darkness we are fighting for our lives
Hold on just as long as you can
Till you get there, till you get there
Holding on just as long as you can
Till you get there and the light is everywhere


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