Jessies Ceremony of Self-Commitment
It seems that most significant commitments in our lives are marked and strengthened by the power of a ceremony. Weddings, christenings, baptisms, bar mitzahs, Hippocratic oaths, pledges of allegiance– think of all the rituals in which we pledge ourselves in some way to spouses, children, God, religion, professions, and country. It is not often, though, that you hear about a ceremony of commitment to oneself.
I have to tell you this little story. Long ago when I was in high school, and then again when I was in college, I read a novel– The Awakening by Kate Chopin– which must have been present somewhere in the back of my mind as I wrote The Mermaid Chair, though I dont recall thinking about it at all on a conscious level. The first time I read the book, I was wrenched by the nineteenth- century story of Edna Pontellier. Her passionate struggle for something beyond social obligation and domestic duty– her extraordinary yearning for herself– affected me deeply. Im imagining now that she had come upon that buried and misunderstood threshold in the feminine life that beckoned her toward her own true, autonomous ground. I recall how unbearable the ending of the novel was for me: Edna walks into the sea and drowns herself. It wasnt until months after Id finished writing The Mermaid Chair that I suddenly realized that my character, Jessie, who is motivated by a similar yearning for herself, does almost a complete reversal of that. She walks into the sea and performs a ceremony of commitment to herself. Lately, I have secretly wondered (I guess not so secretly now) whether I was trying, in part, to re-vision Chopins ending.
The point is that Jessies deepest resolution comes as she stands in the waves, with everything stripped away but her own self, and vows to love, honor and cherish herself. I wanted those moments to have the weight and feel of an actual ritual of marriage, a marriage to herself.
And then of course, the paradoxical happened. By belonging authentically to herself, she was able, maybe for the first time, to belong to Hugh.