Suicide and Insanity in Su Tong’s Raise the Red Lantern and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening


Feminist Criticism often views insanity and/or suicide as positions from which women can contest patriarchy because they exist outside its boundaries.  These positions become representative of a feminine discourse, a discourse that in turn becomes marginalized because it fails to conform to the frames of normality within patriarchal cultures (Weeden 70).  Two writers separated by time, place and gender tackle these positions in their novels.  One is a nineteenth century American woman and the other is a twentieth century Chinese man.  Kate Chopin’s Awakening and Su Tong’s Raise the Red Lantern join the plethora of literary texts that attempt to study the effects of certain restrictions posed on their protagonists.  Suicide and insanity become ways of escape for these characters when they fail to conform to the only other options available for them: in this case, that of the mother and that of the artist.  Underneath these obvious affinities the two novels differ in terms of why each character chooses either of these positions.  This paper studies these aspects of similarity between the novels and then attempts to discuss where they differ, mainly in the freedom, or the lack of it, to choose these positions.

The Awakening tells the story of a wife and mother who suddenly becomes aware, awakened, to the fact that her life as wife and mother does not satisfy her.  The society around her offers a woman two choices: either be a mother-woman, or be an artist.  Of course the mother-woman is much more esteemed but the position of an artist is also available.  When Edna, our protagonist, realizes she fails in both roles, she goes to the sea and drowns herself.

In Su Tong’s Raise the Red Lantern we have the life of past concubines in a Chinese household.  When a new concubine joins the household, she, like Edna in The Awakening, sees two models in front of her.  There’s Cloud the motherly woman, the one who seems to conform best to her role, and there’s Coral, the previous opera singer who is a little short of a rebel in the household as she keeps a lover.  When Lotus fails to become pregnant, she sees her other option is becoming like Coral, an artist of sorts.  But Coral is exposed and killed.  And this drives Lotus to the edges of insanity when the rest of the household refuses to see this as a murder.

There is no doubt that to the reader of both works, the limitations on Chopin’s Edna seem much milder that those forced on Su’s women.  Yet it is not the ferocity of these limitations, as much as it is their effect on the person, that gives them their significance.  That Edna chooses death proves that her choices are as restrictive to her as they are for Su’s women.  In both novels the women struggle for a life that is unattainable and in the process they are cut from this life rather than consent to it. 

As outlined previously, the main protagonist in the two works is surrounded by two types of women from whom she has to choose her role in life; the mother and the artist.  And in both works the protagonist refuses or fails to conform to either role and is pronounced insane in one work, while choosing death in the other.  Isn’t it interesting that across nations and centuries these are the only two options available? 

When Edna begins her “awakening” she is drawn to Adéle, “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm” (Chopin 26).  We see in Adéle a picture of the ‘perfect’ Creole woman, what Chopin terms “the mother-woman,” caring for husband and children above all else.  Adéle’s influence on Edna is very significant.  Her initial reserves begin to loosen under Adéle’s influence.  But Edna soon realizes that domesticity does not interest her.  Adéle’s way of life moved Edna to feelings of pity “for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment,” (78).  Though she has husband and children, Edna begins to reject her role as a mother-woman, a role that she accepted earlier.

In the early parts of the novel Edna caves in to her expected role of mother and wife.  She does not mind playing along with her husband’s expectations of her.  At one point in the novel we are introduced to her earlier position as the lady of the house, devoting the Tuesdays for friends’ visits.  Along with her role as wife is one in which she accepts her position as her husband’s property, as a commodity to be inspected.  Léonce, her husband, appraises her with his looks and she accepts her role “silently” (Linkin 132).  But she gradually begins to reject this role and rejects along with it the whole enterprise of marriage (Chopin, 88).  In the end Edna refuses to follow in Adéle’s path, preferring “to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life” (ibid. 136).

In Raise the Red the Lantern Lotus is also initially drawn to Cloud who, regardless of her scheming against Coral and Lotus, comes out similar to Chopin’s “mother-woman” when compared to Coral.  Cloud is proud to announce to Lotus that her own two daughters are quite well-behaved compared to Feilan, Coral’s son, “the Little Master from next door.  He’s just like a fog, biting and spitting on anyone he runs into” (24).  Cloud also comes out as a picture of the good hostess when she generously, or so we believe, welcomes Lotus in her rooms while Coral insists on remaining aloof.  As for her role as wife, we know that when impotency hits Chen it is Cloud in whose room he spends the night while his three other wives seem to fail him.

Unlike Edna who refuses to play the role of mother-woman she sees in Adéle, Lotus wants this role from which she is sadly deprived as she fails to bear a child for her husband.  Lotus tries to become pregnant because she believes that in becoming a mother she will have some of the power that the other wives seem to acquire with their own motherhood.  But we know that this power is an illusion in itself.  In a skillful Freudian plot we see that to get power these women have to posses the phallus, but to do so they have to be rendered powerless (Silverthorne 88).  Lotus’s pregnancy, if it had happened, would not bring her the power she believes it will, as it failed to bring Coral any power.  But she seeks this illusion to power as it is her only hope, and fails to find it.  While Edna intentionally refuses the mother-woman role, Lotus is deprived of it by her fate.

When the mother-woman fails to work for Edna and Lotus, they seek the artist-woman as another possibility.  But this artist-woman is not very applauded by the society in either novel.  Arobin, one character in The Awakening, presents society’s definition of Mademoiselle Reisz, the artist, as “demented, . . . extremely disagreeable and unpleasant” (106).  And Coral doesn’t fare any better in the judgement of her own society.  Not only is she criticized by Cloud, but even by the husband Chen who allows her to continue her Mahjong games because they make her “a little more normal” (32).

When Edna is first introduced to Reisz’s music all her passions “were aroused within her soul,” passions that were for a long time hidden from Edna (43).  But she was ready this time because she is gradually waking from the dream in which she functions as a placid and dutiful wife.  It is after hearing this music that Edna overcomes her fear of swimming and desires “to swim far out, where no woman had swum before” (47).

And initially Edna succeeds in this role as she makes a living off her paintings.  But while Reisz is free to assume the role of an artist, Edna had some restraints that prevent her from enjoying the role.  She is a mother and a wife.  As a mother, her maternal feelings prevent her from enjoying her seclusion, and as a wife, her position prevents her from coloring her seclusion occasionally with the company of male friends.  Edna cannot be an artist because she has already selected another kind of life and rather than succumb to this life which she can no longer live, she chooses to drown herself.

Lotus is also drawn to the artist, opera-singer, Coral as soon as she hears her sing (30).  And drawn to this singing, Lotus asks Coral to teach her to sing.  But Coral’s singing is dangerous.  She asks Lotus “You want to commit suicide, too?  Whenever you decide to commit suicide, I’ll teach you” (73).  Unlike Coral and Edna, Lotus fears death as she begins to have nightmares of the drowned concubines asking her to join them (84).

To adopt Coral’s role, Lotus has to follow in her lead not only in accepting death as Coral does, but also in choosing to perform an act which she knows will result in her death as it did for the previous concubines, and as it does for Coral: adultery.  This argument will be revisited later in this paper.  But for now suffice it to say that while Edna succeeds temporarily in her role as artist, Lotus fails to even begin in the acquisition of that role.

While for Edna, the two choices of mother or artist are open and available for her choosing, they are not so for Lotus.  Edna can play the mother role if she chooses because we have seen images of her conforming to this role.  She can also be the artist as we see in her success in selling her art.  Lotus, however, lacks both possibilities.  She fails to become a mother and realizes the futility of her ever becoming one when she realizes Chen’s impotency.  Neither is the other option open for her.  To be an artist her music teacher tells her she has to have sorrow and happiness.  But Lotus only has sorrow.  For her to have the happiness that insinuates Coral’s singing she has to find a lover as Coral did.  Lotus tries, but fails to do so as her fear intensifies about the fate of an adulteress. 

While Edna chooses willingly not to conform to her expected role, Lotus fails to do so no matter how hard she tries.  And she tries hard to have the child that will guarantee her place in the Chen family.  And she also tries to win Chen’s affection in little acts of love that she pretends.  But she fails in both cases and the only choice open to her becomes that of insanity when she becomes aware that she cannot accept her role any longer.

But what happens while these women are walking the way of their death or insanity?  Before the realization that their life is inevitably futile, Edna and Lotus have short outbursts of attempts to fill the emptiness of their lives with a lover.

Edna’s relation with Robert begins as an innocent friendship on the beach.  But as her awareness develops so does her attachment to Robert.  These feelings only become apparent to her when Robert leaves to Mexico and she begins to realize the emptiness inside her that results from his being away from her.  She confesses to Reisz that she is in love with Robert.  But when they finally meet again Robert seems to be uncertain about having this relation with Edna and she is left again with her emptiness.

Lotus begins to wish for a relationship with Feipu, Chen’s son, when she fails to find satisfaction in her life with Chen.  She hears Feipu playing the flute and is immediately drawn to him as he reminds her of a student at college (38).  When he returns from his trip to Yannan and visits her in her room she begins to fantasize a relationship with him similar to the one she found between Coral and her doctor.  So she begins this affair the only way she leaned how: by sliding her legs to his own under the table as she saw Coral does with her doctor lover.  Feibu, however, seems to awaken from his stupor “in an instant.  Then Feipu pulled his knees back, . . . , and said in a hoarse voice,  ‘This is no good’” (89).  Lotus does not find any encouragement from Feipu to pursue this relation and this hope dies.

When Edna and Lotus become unsuccessful in filling the voids of their lives with love, life becomes meaningless and they set to denounce it.  Edna through suicide, and Lotus through insanity.

A nineteenth century American woman and a 20th century Chinese man amazingly portray the same idea: a woman tries to choose a way of life with the help of two other women, an artist and a mother, but fails in this prospect.  But with this parallel there are differences.  Chopin’s artist and mother fare well in their lives, the choices open to Edna are possible choices that are able to lead her to a good life should she follow them.  Those open for Lotus are, however, both problematic, the artist is killed, and although Cloud seems to live a peaceful enough life, Lotus can’t follow her lead as she fails to bring her own children to the world.

Edna refuses to follow either possible choice and prefers to die when the only two roles open for her do not meet her requirement.  Lotus, however, struggles to fill either role but fails miserably, she fails to follow Cloud because she can’ t have children, and she fails to follow Coral as she sees it results in that woman’s death.  So she chooses insanity as she realizes how restrictive her life is becoming.

Insanity has often been looked at by feminists such as Phyllis Chesler as “the acting out of the devalued female role or the total or partial rejection of one’s sex-role stereotype” (qtd. in Felman 8).  When Lotus finds she cannot accept her sex-role stereotype insanity becomes the only option allowed her. It is not an option she chooses but rather one assigned to her by her husband when he realizes she refuses to follow her role.  Similarly Edna’s husband wonders if his wife is not also “growing a little unbalanced mentally” (79). 

Lotus resolves finally to accept insanity as her way of life while Edna chooses to end her life as she refuses to live it like the caged birds we see in the beginning of The Awakening.  What these two works share, then, regardless of their difference in time, place and gender of author, is a feminist discourse.  Su and Chopin both present insanity and death as women’s language; language in the sense of communication.  Edna communicates her misery through an act of suicide much in the same way that Coral and the previous concubines choose suicide willingly through the acts of adultery.  For Lotus, and maybe even mademoiselle Reisz, it is insanity that allows them to communicate with the world.  These are not free choices for any of the women, but they are ones taken with full awareness.  Insanity and suicide here are not the language of women because they fail to use another language but rather because they refuse to use this other language and prefer to isolate themselves from a life that puts them on the margin.

This study enables us to be aware of the role of choice in these positions: insanity and/or madness. Chopin’s women had relatively more freedom in their choices than did Su’s. But the question that remains to be asked is how is that significant for a better understanding of these positions. As feminist criticism debates whether to put any high value to woman’s insanity and/or suicide we should be aware that the two positions are not clear cut, neither are they stable, either/or positions. There is an element of choice within these positions, and maybe it is in this possibility of choice that feminist criticism can better articulate the meanings of women’s madness and suicide.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate.  The Awakening.  NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Felman, Shoshana.  “Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy.”  In Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism.  New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1997.  7-20.

Linkin, Harriet Kramer.  “ ‘Call the Roller of Big Cigars’:  Smoking Out the Patriarchy in The Awakening.”  Legacy. 1994, 11:2.  130-42.

Silverthorne, Jeanne.  “The Haunted Women.”  Artforum.  March 1992, 30. 85-8.

Su, Tong.  Raise the Red Lantern.  NY: Penguin, 1993.

Weedon, Chris.  Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.