Choosing Isolation: Edna Pontillier and Lewis Lambert Strether

fear intimacy

At first consideration, Lewis Lambert Strether of Henry James’s The Ambassadors and Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier of The Awakening could hardly appear more dissimilar: Strether is a timid older bachelor of modest means whose every decision is tempered by social mores; Mrs. Pontellier is a bold, young married woman in a financially comfortable position who is invulnerable to societal constraints. But they both ultimately choose to turn their backs on life. Pontellier’s suicide is only slightly more drastic than Strether’s decision to flee a woman who loves him in order to return to a world where nothing awaits him. They are both running away from human contact.

Kris Kristofferson’s observation that, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” is an accurate description of the prospects facing Strether and Edna Pontellier at the conclusion of their respective novels. Edna Pontellier decides to end her life whereas Strether eschews the possibility of love in order to return to Boston where his social and professional prospects are nil. Their respective choices demonstrate that Edna Pontellier and Strether do not need anyone but themselves. Some reviewers have praised the existential courage which allows Edna to shun all human connections in her pursuit of freedom; Strether’s return to Boston has been cast by critics in a similar, heroic light. However, it is a fear of intimacy rather than a quest for freedom which epitomizes their decisions.

Edna Pontellier has no empathy. She is not concerned with how her actions will affect others. She is consumed with her appetites to the extent that she views personal and filial relations merely as barrier to her sexual liberation. She will infuriate her father and sister, disgrace her husband, break Robert’s heart, and abandon her children in pursuit of sexual gratification without a hint of regret. Edna Pontellier does not comprehend the forces which will eventually lead her to forsake earthly existence, but her inexplicable depression makes her life unbearable:

An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with anguish (574).

Edna Pontellier yearns for a type of fulfillment which was largely unachievable for a married woman of her day, and the fact that many of her contemporaries might have found her situation enviable is of no comfort to her.

Edna Pontellier’s inability to find contentment living comfortably with her beautiful children and perfect husband (“all declared that Léonce Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs. Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew none better”) is the result of a spiritual malaise which leads her to seek her salvation via sexual expression (574). (In this respect, Edna Pontellier is a forerunner of Erica Jong’s Isadora Wing who unabashedly promotes female liberation by means of the so-called “zipless fuck.”) Edna Pontellier does not comprehend the nature of her longings, but she never doubts that their fulfillment is the preeminent purpose of her existence. Despite the mysterious origin of her malady, Edna Pontellier is convinced that the pursuit of sexual freedom is her highest calling, of much greater importance than any relationship with another human being:

She had all her life been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles. They belonged to her and were her own, and she entertained the conviction that she had a right to them and they concerned no one but herself. Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one (605-606).

When Strether Lambert decides to return to Boston, he is motivated by a fear of intimacy no less profound than the inability to make meaningful human contact which afflicts Edna Pontellier. The difference between the two characters is that while Edna Pontellier evades meaningful contact by immersing herself in loveless sexual liaisons, Stretcher avoids both emotional and physical intimacy. Despite his extreme immediate attraction to Maria Gostrey, Strether never seriously considers pursuing a relationship with her, even after Mrs. Newsome breaks off their potential engagement.

Strether is able to acknowledge to Miss Gostrey that he is utterly smitten by her upon their first meeting, but he is constitutionally incapable of achieving a physical relationship with her. He is, however, able to admit how this attraction both frightens and astounds him. When Maria asks Strether if he trusts her, he responds:

I think I do!–but that’s exactly what I’m afraid of. I shouldn’t mind if I didn’t. It’s falling thus, in twenty minutes, so utterly into your hands. I daresay, Strether continued, it’s a sort of thing you’re thoroughly familiar with; but nothing more extraordinary has ever happened to me (14).

And later in the novel we see the intensity of his attraction to her:

He was extraordinarily glad to see her….She was the blessing that had now become his need, and what could prove it better than without her he had lost himself? (74-75)

In his fifty-five years on Earth, Strether has never known an attraction to another human being comparable to what he feels for Miss Gostrey. Yet he is unable to act upon it. His inexplicable declaration that he is returning to Boston “To be right” is perplexing even when we take his overdeveloped sense of propriety into account (375). What could possibly be right about a man leaving a city and a woman he loves in order to return to a world where no one and nothing awaits him?

Edna Pontellier and Strether Lambert both lack whatever it is which allows human beings to attempt to reach across the divide which separates us. And although their depravity manifests itself in contrasting manners—she submerges herself in loveless affairs while he shuns intimacy entirely—they are more alike than different. Ultimately, they both choose isolation over love.

Richard W. Bray

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