illustrated portrait of American author Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

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Emily Toth (essay date spring 1988)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5693

SOURCE: Toth, Emily. “Kate Chopin's New Orleans Years.” New Orleans Review 15, no. 1 (spring 1988): 53-60.

[In the following essay, Toth explicates biographical aspects of Chopin's stories set in New Orleans.]

“N. Orleans I liked immensely; it is so clean—so white and green. Although in April, we had profusions of flowers—strawberries and even black berries,” Kate O'Flaherty of St. Louis wrote in her diary for May 8, 1869.1

She had just returned from a two-month trip with her mother, cousin and friends—her first long venture from home. Exactly thirteen months later, Kate O'Flaherty would be marrying Oscar Chopin of Louisiana and going to live in New Orleans. The Chopins would stay in New Orleans for the first nine years of their marriage—formative and inspiring years for the future writer.

Two decades later, Kate Chopin would begin publishing novels and short stories set in New Orleans and in the Cane River country of Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. By the mid-1890s, Chopin would win national acclaim as a Louisiana writer—but by then she had long since left the state.

Kate Chopin, a widow in St. Louis, wrote about Louisiana from memory, from emotion recollected in tranquility: she wrote about Louisiana as a way of meditating on her own past. During her years in New Orleans, 1870-1879, Chopin had given birth to all but one of her children, and it was in New Orleans that she herself came of age.

Kate O'Flaherty Chopin, born and raised in St. Louis, was a twenty-year-old bride when she came to live in New Orleans in 1870. She and her new husband, the cotton factor Oscar Chopin, had just returned from their European honeymoon, which Kate described with great glee in her diary. She and Oscar had visited museums, cathedrals and zoos, where they saw “any number of wild beasts that showed their teeth in the most wonderful manner.” Kate and Oscar had examined mummies (“ghastly old things”), climbed mountains and gambled at famous spas—and, at least once, they skipped Mass and refused to feel guilty (A Kate Chopin Miscellany 71, 72).

Although the new Mrs. Chopin dutifully collected linens for future housekeeping, she also smoked cigarettes in public and revelled in wandering around alone, drinking beer. But the young Chopins' time in Paris was cut short by the Franco-Prussian War: they witnessed the overthrow of the French Empire, and escaped the city just days ahead of the invading Germans.

By the time the Chopins arrived in New Orleans, Kate was pregnant with her first child.

In The Awakening, the novel she began writing twenty-seven years after her own arrival in New Orleans, Kate Chopin gave Edna Pontellier and her husband

a very charming house on Esplanade Street in New Orleans. It was a large, double cottage with a broad front verandah whose round fluted columns supported the sloping roof. The house was painted a dazzling white; the outside shutters, or jalousies, were green.2

According to Daniel Rankin, Chopin's first biographer, that description in The Awakening “is a picture of Kate Chopin's own home in New Orleans”—but Rankin was wrong.3 Only old-line Creole aristocrats still had homes on Esplanade Avenue in the French Quarter, and the young Chopins lived on a much more modest scale. Their first home, at 443 Magazine Street, was indeed a double cottage, like the Pontelliers', but the Chopins lived in only one side of the side-by-side duplex. Another family occupied 445 Magazine, and shared the balcony in front and the long gallery in back.4

The Chopins' block, between Terpsichore and Robin (now Euterpe) Street, was...

(This entire section contains 5693 words.)

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not in the Garden District, where the wealthy “Americans” lived. The Chopins' first home was ordinary, fairly new and pleasant enough: a two-story frame building, with the gallery in back forming part of a servants' wing. (Most middle-class white people kept servants, and the Chopins employed a cook and a laundress.)

Kate and Oscar had been in New Orleans for only a month when Oscar's father died in a French Quarter hotel (Oscar's mother had died the previous April). The rest of his relatives were in Natchitoches Parish, or St. Louis, or France—and Kate's were all in Natchitoches Parish or St. Louis.5

For the first time in her life, Kate Chopin was without a circle of friends and relatives, and she was able to create, out of her solitude, an inner world of her own.

Much of Kate Chopin's life during her New Orleans years is mysterious, unknown. There are no school records, no surviving diaries, no letters, and no church records. Kate Chopin led a quiet private life—although she did have her unusual side: she liked to do imitations of animals and birds and people, and Oscar used to egg her on (Rankin 89). She also spent months at a time in St. Louis, visiting her mother, a practice that may have been an attempt at birth control.

Virtually the only sign of Kate Chopin's presence in New Orleans between 1870 and 1879 is her name on three birth certificates:

Jean Baptiste, born May 22, 1871

Frederick, born January 26, 1876

Felix Andrew, born January 8, 1878

During that decade, Kate also gave birth to two other sons, both born in St. Louis:

Oscar Charles, September 24, 1873

George Francis, October 28, 1874

And on December 31, 1879, after the family had moved to Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish, Kate gave birth to her last child and only daughter, Lélia (baptized Marie Laiza).6

Kate Chopin spent the 1870s as a mother-woman, at least outwardly, and her only description of those years is her recollection of giving birth.

On her son Jean's twenty-third birthday, May 22, 1894, Kate Chopin described his birth in her diary:

I can remember yet that hot southern day on Magazine street in New Orleans. The noises of the street coming through the open windows; that heaviness with which I dragged myself about; my husband's and mother's solicitude; old Alexandrine the quadroon nurse with her high bandana tignon, her hoop-earrings and placid smile; old Dr. Faget; the smell of chloroform, and then waking at 6 in the evening from out of a stupor to see in my mothers arms a little piece of humanity all dressed in white which they told me was my little son! The sensation with which I touched my lips and my fingertips to his soft flesh only comes once to a mother. It must be the pure animal sensation: nothing spiritual could be so real—so poignant.

(A Kate Chopin Miscellany 93)

Few of Chopin's contemporaries recorded childbirth so directly in their diaries. Sometimes they wrote, with delicate reticence, that “a little stranger” had arrived; rarely did they talk about the sensuous, animal pleasure in touching a newborn baby. But by 1894, Chopin had had ten years of “my real growth,” as she said in the same diary entry, and she had overcome whatever reticence she once possessed.7

Kate Chopin also drew on her own memories of childbirth for The Awakening, in which Adèle Ratignolle, the traditional mother-woman, chooses to suffer a “scene of torture” in bringing children into the world. But Edna Pontellier, like Kate Chopin, had preferred chloroform for her own confinements, which seem to her “far away, unreal, and only half remembered”:

She recalled faintly an ecstasy of pain, the heavy odor of chloroform, a stupor which had deadened sensation, and an awakening to find a little new life to which she had given being, added to the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go.

(chap. 37)

Edna, a motherless child, takes no particular pleasure in the memory, and the following day she takes her life into her own hands for the final time.

But when Kate Chopin gave birth for the first time, she was in her mother's hands: Eliza O'Flaherty had come from St. Louis for the 1871 Mardi Gras, at which—for the first time—a Queen of Carnival was chosen. (King Rex made his first appearance in 1872.) By Mardi Gras time, Kate, six months pregnant, would not have been appearing regularly in public: like Madame Ratignolle in The Awakening, she would have been considered “unpresentable” (chap. 30).

By the 1870s most white middle-class women had doctors for their deliveries: midwives had been losing ground to male physicians for several generations. The presence of a physician—even one whose major interest was yellow fever, not babies—was supposed to lend prestige and extra skill to the occasion, although it was generally acknowledged that midwives had more practical knowledge.8

Dr. Charles Jean Faget, the eccentric French-born practitioner who attended Kate Chopin, had made significant medical discoveries: he was the first to define the differences between yellow fever and malaria. But among everyday New Orleanians, Dr. Faget was equally noted for something else: his “very striking appearance.”9

Dr. Faget was tall, thin, unbearded, with “a slightly hooked nose, a high receding forehead and long wavy black grizzly hair, brushed backward.” His clothes were deliberately unstylish: he wore a low crown silk hat, with the broad brim rolled up, and liked to imitate the apparel of European priests. In wintertime, he wrapped himself in a long black coat and fastened it with a silver chain and hook, just as priests did; in the summer he wore a black straw hat like the priests, and he cultivated the look and the soft, gentle voice of a priest.

Still, he was not a conservative man: he was one of the first physicians to provide chloroform for women in childbirth. Chloroform had come into regular use for childbirth only recently, after Queen Victoria took it in 1853 with the birth of her eighth child. Evidently Dr. Faget did not share the traditional physicians' belief that women would love their children more if they suffered more in bringing them into the world.

But chloroform also required that a woman trust her doctor: the drug made some women more tractable, but in others it induced unseemly displays of obscene language and sexual excitement. Medical literature stressed the need for doctors' discretion about whatever confessions they heard, and Dr. Faget's priestlike garb and his gentle, priestlike voice allayed women's fears.

Kate and Oscar Chopin named their little son after his late grandfather and registered his birth with the civil authorities. In August, Kate had him baptized in St. Louis.

She was now a mother, and entered a new phase of her life with the ecstasies, doubts, pleasures, and fears that she described much later in her fiction—from Athénaïse's delight in her pregnancy (“Athénaïse”), to Mrs. Mobry's terror of hereditary madness (“Mrs. Mobry's Reason”), to Edna Pontellier's sensing herself unfit as a mother-woman. In “Regret,” Chopin described once more the sheer animal pleasure of being close to a child's body: Mamzelle Aurélie, a single woman who has never before enjoyed the company of children, learns to “sleep comfortably with little Elodie's hot, plump body pressed close against her, and the little one's warm breath beating her cheek like the fanning of a bird's wing” (Complete Works [The Complete Works of Kate Chopin] 377).

But having a child meant that Kate Chopin herself was no longer a child, her time and creative energies all her own. For the rest of her life, she would do first what Edna Pontellier finally refuses to do: “Remember the children.”

Dr. Faget, Kate Chopin's first obstetrician, was an intensely religious man who evidently had little interest in material things. According to another physician of the time, Faget was “one of those intellectuals to whom the almighty dollar was of little concern. He at one time had a large practice, but he was a poor charger, a bad collector, no investor at all. He died poor” (Wilds 125).

But he had made a very strong impression on Kate Chopin. Two decades later, when she wrote her first short story about a doctor, she gave him Dr. Faget's compassion, generosity and discretion. She also celebrated Dr. Faget's medical honors: for his findings about yellow fever patients' temperature and pulse, Dr. Faget had been decorated as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor—and Kate named her hero Dr. Chevalier.

She made no great effort to conceal the real-life inspiration for her story. In “Dr. Chevalier's Lie,” Chopin's physician character lives in a poor part of town in a city not identified by name, but he can easily hear midnight rung in “the old cathedral tower,” as anyone could in the French Quarter of New Orleans (Complete Works 147-48).

In the story—based on the kind of event respectable ladies in New Orleans knew about, but weren't supposed to—Dr. Chevalier hears a sudden gunshot on an autumn night and is summoned to a house for a scene with “the ghastly sameness of detail that accompanied these oft-recurring events.”

Dr. Chevalier sees

the same scurrying; the same groups of tawdry, frightened women bending over banisters—hysterical, some of them; morbidly curious, others; and not a few shedding womanly tears; with a dead girl stretched somewhere, as this one was.


But “this one” turns out to be a young girl Dr. Chevalier knows. He had met her a year ago, at a homely cabin in Arkansas, with her proud, hard-working parents. The bright young girl, whom everyone agreed was “too clever to stay in an Arkansas cabin,” had resolved to seek her fortune in the big city.

“Dr. Chevalier's Lie” is only twelve paragraphs long, with a quick conclusion showing the doctor's generosity and discretion:

“The girl is dead,” said Doctor Chevalier. “I knew her well, and charge myself with her remains and decent burial.”

The following day he wrote a letter. One, doubtless, to carry sorrow, but no shame to the cabin down there in the forest.

It told that the girl had sickened and died. A lock of hair was sent and other trifles with it. Tender last words were even invented.

Of course it was noised about that Doctor Chevalier had cared for the remains of a woman of doubtful repute.

Shoulders were shrugged. Society thought of cutting him. Society did not, for some reason or other, so the affair blew over.


“Dr. Chevalier's Lie” was based on “an actual incident in the life of a physician of New Orleans,” his informants told Daniel Rankin. And when Kate Chopin wrote the story in St. Louis in 1891, twenty years after giving birth to her first child, the man she called “old Dr. Faget” was evidently still living in New Orleans (Rankin 134; Wilds 185).

“Dr. Chevalier's Lie” appeared in Vogue, a new literary periodical, in 1893. Chopin had six short stories in Vogue that year, marking her emergence as a national writer, and her literary ambitions may have impelled her to set “Dr. Chevalier's Lie” in an unnamed city, rather than New Orleans. But people in New Orleans would have recognized that she was drawing her character from life: praising the eccentric and compassionate Dr. Faget, and damning his critics.10

“Dr. Chevalier's Lie” was only the second story Kate Chopin wrote from New Orleans memories (the first was the romance called “A No-Account Creole”). Both drew on her first years in New Orleans, when she was listening and learning much more about the world than respectable ladies were supposed to hear or see.

Kate and Oscar Chopin never lived in the French Quarter.

After four years at 443 Magazine Street, they moved to the corner of Pitt and Constantinople—uptown—and then finally to 209 Louisiana Avenue, between Coliseum and Prytania. (The house—the only Chopin residence still in existence—is now numbered 1413 Louisiana.)

Kate and Oscar enjoyed entertaining friends at home, and a Mrs. L. Tyler, a frequent visitor, later described the Chopin ménage to Rankin:

Oscar, ever jovial and cheerful and funloving and really very stout, liked to romp with the children through the house and about the gardens. “I like disorder when it is clean” was his favorite saying.

As for Kate, she

enjoyed smoking cigarettes, but if friends who did not approve of smoking came to visit her, she would never offend them. She was individual in the style of her clothes as in everything else. She loved music and dancing, and the children were always allowed to enjoy themselves.

According to Mrs. Tyler, Kate was “devoted to Oscar and thought him perfect” (Rankin 89-90).

According to another informant, Mrs. John S. Tritle, “Kate was very much in love with her Oscar,” and though she was a social favorite, she and her husband always preferred each other's company to anyone else's.11

Years later, of course, Kate Chopin described the apparently-perfect married couple in The Awakening: the Ratignolles “understood each other perfectly. If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union” (chap. 18). Rankin believed that Kate was describing her married life with Oscar, but in fact, the Ratignolles fill Edna with depression and boredom and pity, for the “blind contentment” that strikes her as unthinking and even bovine (81).

Kate Chopin herself was never unthinking, and never totally conventional. Years later she more-than-hinted in her diary that Oscar's presence had inhibited her “real growth”—and her sharp insights into marriage and its discontents did not suddenly arise in the 1890s (A Kate Chopin Miscellany 92).

Evidently no one described any marital discord in the Chopin household, but, then, Southerners rarely reveal secrets of the human heart to outsiders. The sunny picture of Kate and Oscar's New Orleans years is not the whole story. Kate O'Flaherty Chopin, a spirited young woman who enjoyed solitude and reading and writing but found herself engulfed by the demands of children, was already gathering material for a very different kind of tale, and a different set of truths.

According to Daniel Rankin, Kate Chopin loved to explore New Orleans, taking solitary walks like Edna's in The Awakening. Chopin liked to take the mule car to the end of the line, where New Orleanians could explore City Park and the Metairie cemeteries, a favorite strolling place (Rankin 92-95).

She also kept a diary, now lost, in which she recorded realistic and minute details of everyday life. She was especially taken by the lavishly painted “mule cars” running on Canal Street (she described them in an 1894 story, “Cavanelle”); she frequently noted river front scenes in her diary; and she discovered out-of-the-way eating places like the one Edna finds in The Awakening—a place to read and eat and dream. As Edna says in The Awakening:

I don't mind walking. I always feel so sorry for women who don't like to walk; they miss so much—so many rare little glimpses of life; and we women learn so little of life on the whole.

(chap. 36)

But by the time Kate wrote The Awakening, she knew a great deal of life, and most of it, contrary to Rankin, she could not have learned during solitary walks in New Orleans.

Kate Chopin was pregnant for much of the time she lived in New Orleans: she was expecting her sixth child when the family left in the fall of 1879. Unless she committed extraordinary violations of propriety, she would have spent most of her time indoors—listening to the stories of other people.

She was fascinated by New Orleans customs and people: the proud and beautiful Creoles of color, the gris gris and voodoo. New Orleans was the home of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen, famous for her magical powers, her love powders and her snake rituals. By 1873, when the Daily Picayune described her monster serpent, named Zombi, seventy-nine-year-old Marie Laveau was said to be the best-known of three hundred Voodoos in New Orleans, among whom were, “strange to relate, at least eight or ten white women who partake as the others in the hellish orgies.”12

Native New Orleanians also told Kate about the blacks and their famous dancing in Congo Square, at Orleans and Rampart Streets. Before the war, slaves used to dance on Sundays on the dirt ground on Congo Square, performing the Calinda and the Bamboula to the intricate African rhythms pounded out on drums. It was a release of tension, and a passionate sexual display.13

According to Rankin, Kate Chopin “never attempted to write or take notes” during her New Orleans years, but she was constantly storing up impressions. For Kate O'Flaherty of St. Louis, voodoo queens and Congo Square dancing were exotic but revealing glimpses of what she called, much later, “human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it” (Rankin 92; Complete Works 691).

Two decades later, Kate Chopin did write about the dancing in Congo Square, but not—as her contemporary George W. Cable did—just for local color. Instead, in “La Belle Zoraïde,” Chopin created a light-skinned slave who is supposed to marry a man of her own caste. But Zoraïde falls desperately in love with “le beau Mézor,” because of his tenderness and the black beauty of his body—like a column of ebony—when he dances the Bamboula in Congo Square: “That was a sight to hold one rooted to the ground.” But the white world—represented by Zoraïde's mistress—refuses to understand that people of color love and hate and feel just as white people do (Complete Works 304).

Instead of making the world of Congo Square picturesque, charming and distant, Chopin made “La Belle Zoraïde,” in 1893, a universal tragedy: the story of a passionate woman deprived of her lover and her child (304).

During the social season—October to May, roughly—the Chopins lived in New Orleans, but according to her friend Mrs. Tyler, Kate's “long summer vacation times were spent with the children at Grand Isle” (Rankin 90).14

In the city, the Chopins evidently associated mainly with English speakers and Anglo-Saxons: Mrs. Tyler and Mrs. Tritle attended parties at the Chopin home, and Oscar's political allies included the Irish-born poet and lawyer Frank McGloin and the English-born dentist John Angell. But at Grand Isle, most people were Creoles, and Kate—like Edna in The Awakening—was a foreigner.

Whether Kate was astonished, like Edna, to read racy books that were passed around and discussed freely, and whether she blushed when childbirth was described in harrowing detail, and whether Creole gentlemen stopped telling risqué stories because she was present, cannot be known. But Kate, though she spoke French and was a Catholic, was not a Creole descended from generations of New Orleans Creoles. She was a Northerner, an outsider (étrangère) and an oddity (Awakening chap. 4).

Grand Isle had become the quintessential Creole resort after the Civil War, when middle-class people began to patronize “home resorts,” where they could live in cottages, like the ones in The Awakening. Men came to Grand Isle on the weekends, but mostly it was a world of gossip and swimming and amusements for women and children.

The approach to Grand Isle was romantic, through mazes of swamp forest, and on Grand Isle itself, the birds were everywhere, as in The Awakening: mockingbirds, and gulls with broken wings, and at midnight the only sound was “the hooting of an old owl in the top of a water-oak,” with its eternal accompaniment, “the everlasting voice of the sea, that was not uplifted at that soft hour. It broke like a mournful lullaby upon the night” (chap. 3).

For Kate Chopin, and any other young mother, Grand Isle was a wholesome escape from a city that was mercilessly humid, with swarming mosquitoes, festering open canals and sewers, marauding street gangs, and annual epidemics of yellow fever. On Grand Isle, children could romp everywhere, and guests had no need to lock their rooms. (In The Awakening, Edna brings down her key only “through force of habit” [chap. 7].)15

Especially to someone like Kate Chopin, who had spent summers among the baking red brick streets of St. Louis, Grand Isle was a tropical paradise of palm trees and vines, orange and lemon trees, acres of yellow camomile, and no streets—only grassy green or sandy paths. And everywhere there were the “strange, rare odors” Edna Pontellier notices: the smell of damp, new-plowed earth, the “heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms,” and always “the seductive odor of the sea” (Awakening chap. 5).

When Kate Chopin described Grand Isle, she concentrated on its irresistible emotional resonance, on Edna's susceptible soul:

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

(chap. 6)

Possibly Kate Chopin had also celebrated the seductions of the sea in her 1889 novella, Unfinished Story—Grand Isle—30,000 words. Possibly she included the soft, baby-sounding Creole patois, which she used several years later in “La Belle Zoraïde.” But she destroyed the unfinished novella, and by the time she wrote for publication about the Grand Isle she remembered, it was gone.

On October 1, 1893, the hurricane of Chênière Caminada devastated the lower coast, killing 2,000 people and destroying the resort cabins. John Krantz, owner of the Grand Isle Hotel (Klein's in The Awakening), barely escaped alive.

In St. Louis, three weeks later, Kate Chopin wrote “At Chênière Caminada,” about the kind of romance that was gossiped about at Grand Isle: the passion of a poor, illiterate fisherman for a young society woman from New Orleans.

Chopin described going to church on the Chênière—on a midsummer day, “with a lazy, scorching breeze blowing from the Gulf straight into the church windows,” while (she noted wryly) “A few mosquitoes, floating through the blistering air, with their nipping and humming fretted the people to a certain degree of attention and consequent devotion” (Complete Works 309).

“At Chênière Caminada” was a preliminary sketch for The Awakening, with many of the same local characters, and much of the sensuous atmosphere: the sea and the sky, the power of love and the power of music, birds and water, love and death, and the magical atmosphere of the island.

And even The Awakening itself, Rankin reported, was based on a story Kate Chopin heard at Grand Isle. According to Chopin's brother-in-law, Phanor Breazeale of Natchitoches, the main theme and the ending were from the real life of a woman well known to the Creoles of the French Quarter (Rankin 92). Just after she read the proofs for The Awakening, Chopin wrote a short poem which seems to be about that woman:

Of course, 'twas an excellent story to tell

Of a fair, frail, passionate woman who fell …

But when you were gone and the lights were low

And the breeze came in with the moon's pale glow,

The far, faint voice of a woman, I heard. …

(Complete Works 733-34)

By then Grand Isle as a resort had died, and so had the happy moments of Kate's married life in the 1870s. The Awakening, like “At Chênière Caminada,” was an elegy to a lost way of life—and to memories of youth.

The Louisiana cotton crops in 1878 and 1879 were poor, and Oscar Chopin's business failed. And so, in the fall of 1879, the Chopins left New Orleans for Oscar's remaining properties in Natchitoches Parish, in northwest Louisiana. Kate and Oscar and their five sons left the busy, crowded, raffish city for a tiny French village just one street long: Cloutierville in the Cane River country, where their daughter was born.

In Cloutierville Kate and Oscar rejoined the world of kinship and family, tradition and religion. Lélia was baptized much more promptly than her brothers had been, and most of the relatives from Kate's mother's side disapproved of “Madame” Chopin's Cuban cigarettes, flamboyant fashions and flirtatious ways with other women's husbands.16

It was also in Cloutierville that Kate lost her own husband. Oscar Chopin died of malaria in December 1882, just two weeks before Christmas.

Two years later, Kate Chopin moved back to St. Louis, and five years after that, she began publishing short stories, poems, essays, and novels. She wrote frequently about New Orleans, and published eight short stories in the New Orleans Times-Democrat, including one about hereditary syphilis (“Mrs. Mobry's Reason”). She also frequently visited Natchitoches Parish, but rarely returned to New Orleans: only one visit—in December 1898—can be documented.17

And with The Awakening, which appeared in 1899, exactly twenty years after she left New Orleans, Kate Chopin produced a masterpiece that was damned by male reviewers and critics. Women readers praised The Awakening for its daring portrait of an artistic soul—but men condemned it, and Chopin's literary career was destroyed. She died five years later.18

At least in the beginning, New Orleans for Kate Chopin was associated with a profound solitude, a separation from a houseful of female relatives, the women's world in which she had spent all her life. The New Orleans years were also her immersion in motherhood, and she had many questions about the role of mother-woman.

But after Kate and Oscar Chopin left New Orleans in 1879, evidently Kate considered that part of her life and her literary growth to be over. When she wrote The Awakening, originally titling it “A Solitary Soul,” Kate Chopin was revisiting New Orleans, but by her favorite method: her imagination.


  1. Kate O'Flaherty's diary is reprinted in A Kate Chopin Miscellany, eds. Per Seyersted and Emily Toth (Natchitoches, La.: Northwestern State Univ. Press, 1979) 47-88. A more fully annotated edition of the diary and Kate Chopin's other personal papers will appear in Kate Chopin's Private Papers, eds. Emily Toth and Per Seyersted.

  2. Kate Chopin, The Awakening in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969) 931.

  3. Daniel Rankin, Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1932) 79.

  4. The house was renumbered 1431 Magazine Street in 1894, and the site is now the paved playground for Jackson School. Information about the Chopins' first house appears in Insurance Map of New Orleans, LA. (New York: Sanford Publ. Ltd., 1876) 1: n.p. Volume 4 shows that the house was still standing in 1964. Photographs of surviving houses in the Chopins' block, together with architectural descriptions, appear in Mary Louise Christovich, Roulhac Toledano and Betsy Swanson, eds., The Lower Garden District, vol. 1 of New Orleans Architecture (Gretna, La.: Friends of the Cabildo and Pelican Publishing Company, 1971) 135-36. I am indebted to Geoffrey Kimball for assistance with these materials.

  5. Rankin claims that Dr. J.B. Chopin, Oscar's father, was at first hostile to his new daughter-in-law, but that Kate's charm, perfect French accent and piano playing won him over (84). But the two actually knew each other for only a month before the Doctor died, probably of yellow fever, in Nov. 1870. As my forthcoming biography of Kate Chopin will show, many of Rankin's generalizations are not supported by historical facts.

  6. Kate and Oscar's first three sons—Jean, Oscar and George—were baptized at Holy Guardian Angels Church in St. Louis. According to diocesan archives in St. Louis and New Orleans, no baptismal records have been found for the fourth and fifth sons, Frederick and Felix.

  7. For an example of a reticent diarist, see Arvazine Cooper's journal in Growing Up Female in America: Ten Lives, ed. Eve Merriam (New York: Dell, 1971) 148-49.

  8. The displacement of midwives by male doctors is discussed in Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women (Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979); Ehrenreich and English, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses (Oyster Bay, New York: Glass Mountain Pamphlets, n.d.) 15-32; and Mary Poovey, “‘Scenes of an Indelicate Character’: The Medical ‘Treatment’ of Victorian Women,” forthcoming in Representations. I am indebted to Mary Poovey for sharing with me an earlier draft of her essay.

  9. John Wilds, Crises, Clashes and Cures: A Century of Medicine in New Orleans (New Orleans: Orleans Parish Medical Society, 1978) 125, gives information about Dr. Faget, whose name is sometimes listed as Jean Charles rather than Charles Jean. Faget's famous medical papers include “Type and Specific Character of True Yellow Fever” (New Orleans: Jas. A. Gresham, 1873) and “The Type and Specificity of Yellow Fever” (Paris: J.B. Balliere, 1875).

  10. Kate Chopin's manuscript account book, now at the Missouri Historical Society, will be published in Kate Chopin's Private Papers. See n. 1.

  11. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: a Critical Biography (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1969) 38.

  12. Raymond J. Martinez, Marie Laveau (Jefferson, La.: Hope Publications, 1956) 13-14. Marie Laveau is also a character in many historical novels, among them my own Daughters of New Orleans (New York: Bantam, 1983).

  13. Grace King, New Orleans, the Place and the People (New York: Macmillan, 1911) 340. See also George W. Cable, The Dance in Place Congo and Creole Slave Songs, originally in the Century Magazine Feb.-April 1886, reprinted New Orleans: Faruk von Turk, 1974. Congo Square, later renamed Beauregard Square, is now Louis Armstrong Park.

  14. Mrs. Tyler's statement is the only evidence that Kate Chopin and her children spent summers at Grand Isle. In fact, Kate Chopin spent at least two and possibly three summers in St. Louis (1871, 1873 and 1874).

  15. For history and descriptions of Grand Isle, see Sally Kittredge Evans, Frederick Stielow and Betsy Swanson, Grand Isle on the Gulf: An Early History (New Orleans: Jefferson Parish Historical Commission, 1979). Pp. 249-56 are particularly relevant to The Awakening. Literary portrayals of Grand Isle are discussed in Frederick Stielow, “Grand Isle, Louisiana, and the ‘New’ Leisure, 1866-1893,” Louisiana History 23.3 (Summer 1982): 239-57.

  16. Kate Chopin's flirtations—at least one of which was not at all innocent—will be discussed fully in my Chopin biography.

  17. According to the Natchitoches Enterprise 22 Dec. 1898: “Mrs. Kate Chopin left for New Orleans on Friday night where after a short visit she will return to her home in St. Louis.” I am indebted to Evelyn Stallings and Carol Wells of the archives at the Northwestern State Univ. Library (Natchitoches, La.) for discovering this clipping.

  18. Only two women reviewed The Awakening, and both praised its artistry. The women readers of St. Louis applauded the book, wrote Chopin admiring letters, and invited her to give a reading for St. Louis's most prestigious intellectual group, the Wednesday Club. But the male editors and reviewers, some of whom were Chopin's friends, condemned the book and its author.


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Kate Chopin 1851–-1904

(Born Katherine O'Flaherty) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, diarist, and memoirist.

The following entry presents criticism on Chopin's short fiction from 1988 through 2002. For criticism of Chopin's short fiction published prior to 1988, see SSC, Vol. 8.

A popular local colorist during her lifetime, Chopin is best known today for her psychological novel The Awakening (1899) and for such often-anthologized short stories as “Désirée's Baby” and “The Story of an Hour.” In these, as in many of her best works, she transcended simple regionalism and portrayed women who seek spiritual and sexual freedom amid the restrictive mores of nineteenth-century Southern society. Chopin is today recognized for her pioneering examination of sexuality, individual freedom, and the consequences of action—themes and concerns important to many contemporary writers.

Biographical Information

Chopin was born to a prominent St. Louis family. Her father died in a train accident when Chopin was four years old, and her childhood was profoundly influenced by her mother and great-grandmother, who descended from French-Creole pioneers. Chopin also spent much time with her family's Creole and mulatto slaves, becoming familiar with their unique dialects. After her graduation from a convent school at the age of seventeen, she spent two years as a belle of fashionable St. Louis society. In 1870 she married Oscar Chopin, a wealthy Creole cotton factor, and moved with him to New Orleans. For the next decade, Chopin pursued the demanding social and domestic schedule of a Southern aristocrat, her recollections of which would later serve as material for her short stories. In 1880, financial difficulties forced Chopin's growing family to move to her father-in-law's home in Cloutierville, a small town in Natchitoches Parish located in Louisiana's Red River bayou region. There, Chopin's husband oversaw and subsequently inherited his father's plantations. Upon his death in 1883, Chopin insisted upon assuming his managerial responsibilities, which brought her into contact with almost every segment of the community, including the French-Acadian, Creole, and mulatto sharecroppers who worked the plantations. The impressions she gathered of these people and Natchitoches Parish life later influenced her fiction.

In the mid-1880s Chopin sold most of her property and left Louisiana to live with her mother in St. Louis. Family friends who found her letters entertaining encouraged Chopin to write professionally, and she began composing short stories. After an apprenticeship marked by routine rejections, Chopin began having her stories published in the most popular American periodicals, including America, Vogue, and the Atlantic. Between 1894 and 1897 she published the collections Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, the success of which solidified her growing reputation as an important local colorist. Publishers later rejected a novel and short story collection, A Vocation and a Voice (finally published in 1991), on moral grounds, citing what they considered their unseemly promotion of female self-assertion and sexual liberation. Moreover, the hostile critical and public reaction to her later novel The Awakening largely halted Chopin's career; she had difficulty finding publishers for later works and was ousted from local literary groups. Demoralized, she wrote little during her last years. A cerebral hemorrhage abruptly ended her life at the age of fifty-three.

Major Works of Short Fiction

The stories of Bayou Folk, Chopin's first collection, largely reflect her skills as a local colorist and often center on the passionate loves of the Creoles and Acadians in her adopted Natchitoches Parish. For example, “A Lady of Bayou St. John” portrays a young widow who escapes the sexual demands of a suitor by immersing herself in memories of her dead husband, while “La Belle Zoraïde” chronicles a mulatto slave's descent into madness after her mistress sells her lover and deprives her of their child. In A Night in Acadie Chopin continued to utilize the Louisiana settings that figured in Bayou Folk. However, the romanticism of the earlier collection is replaced by a greater moral ambivalence concerning such issues as female sexuality, personal freedom, and social propriety. In “A Respectable Woman” a happily married woman becomes sexually attracted to Gouvernail, a family friend invited by her husband to visit their home for a week. Disturbed by her feelings, she is relieved when Gouvernail leaves, but as the following summer approaches, she encourages her husband to invite him to visit again. Chopin later expanded upon this essentially amoral perception of adultery in “The Storm,” a story written near the end of her career, which portrays a woman's extramarital affair as a natural impulse devoid of moral significance.

Early reviewers of A Night in Acadie objected to the volume's sensuous themes. Similar concerns were later raised by publishers who rejected Chopin's next volume, A Vocation and a Voice. In these stories Chopin largely abandons local setting to focus upon the psychological complexity of her characters. Tales such as “Two Portraits,” “Lilacs,” and “A Vocation and a Voice” examine contrary states of innocence and experience and ways that society divides rather than unites the two. In “The Story of an Hour,” the best-known work in the collection, Chopin returns to the issue of marriage and selfhood in her portrayal of Mrs. Mallard, a woman who learns that her husband has died in a train accident. Initially overcome by grief, she gradually realizes that his “powerful will” no longer restricts her and that she may live as she wishes. While she joyfully anticipates her newfound freedom, however, her husband returns, the report of his death a mistake, and Mrs. Mallard collapses and dies of heart failure.

Critical Reception

Although reviewers and readers throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries condemned Chopin's frank treatment of such then-taboo subjects as female sexuality, adultery, and miscegenation, since the 1950s serious critical attention has been focused on her pioneering use of psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and sensual themes. While their psychological examinations of female protagonists have made Chopin's short stories formative works in the historical development of feminist literature, they also provide a broad discussion of a society that denied the value of sensuality and female independence. Once considered merely an author of local color fiction, critics contend that she explored universal thematic concerns in her novels, short stories, and essays. Commentators have noted her influence on later feminist writing and consider her a major American short story writer.

Roslyn Reso Foy (essay date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Foy, Roslyn Reso. “Chopin's ‘Désirée's Baby’.” The Explicator 49, no. 4 (summer 1991): 222-23.

[In the following essay, Foy asserts that “Désirée's Baby” is an exploration of the dark side of the protagonist's personality.]

In Kate Chopin's “Désirée's Baby,” Armand's ruthlessness is more psychologically complicated than it appears on first reading. His cruelty toward the slaves, and ultimately toward his wife and child, is not simply a product of nineteenth-century racism. The story transcends its social implications to explore the dark side of personality.

Armand is a man who must deal with a demanding social climate, uphold a position of noblesse oblige, and eventually come to terms with his own heritage. Early in the story, Chopin reveals that Armand was eight years old at the crucial turning point in his life when his mother died and he left Paris with his father. She states that Armand's mother had “loved her own land too well ever to leave it”1 but intimates that there was a reason why she never served as mistress of L'Abri.

Armand was certainly old enough to remember his mother, but circumstances have caused him to suppress the past. Although Chopin offers these clues to Armand's dark side and to his psychological confusion, she leaves it to the reader to decide whether Armand's cruelty springs from social forces and prejudice or whether it is in reality a distant memory of his mother—a repressed, unconscious remembrance of his own past.

Contrasting his father's easygoing and indulgent manner toward the negroes with the strict rule of Armand, Chopin warns of a tragic outcome but does not enlighten us until the very end. With racial prejudice and psychological confusion as the sources of his cruelty, Armand has no choice but to turn from Désirée and the baby. Acting out of his passion for her and the child, Armand experiences an ironic misunderstanding of his duty that takes him to almost tragic proportions. His hatred is the opposite extreme of love. By casting out the passion, he has in a way ended the cruelty and finally must come face to face with himself, the true source of his hatred, anger, and emotional distress. Armand hates the very thing that he is.

Although Armand is ruled by time and place, Chopin clearly indicates that there is much more disturbing this man that eventually permits him to harm his wife and his own flesh. In the brief but poignant story, Chopin delivers a flawed character whose dark side struggles to be set free. The birth of his child and the love of his wife soften him temporarily and perhaps offer him a psychological reprieve, but his actions clearly indicate that he is a man filled with torment and confusion. When Armand reads his mother's letter, he is finally purged of his painful past but is now left to face an uncertain and tragic future.

Kate Chopin stated that the only true subject for great fiction is “human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it.”2 Armand moves out of the conventions that have governed his life, and Chopin strips him of the veils that have hidden his real self. In “Désirée's Baby,” the complexity of human existence comes face to face with reality.


  1. Kate Chopin, “Désirée's Baby,” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, ed. R. V. Cassill (New York: Norton, 1986) 221.

  2. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, ed., Classic American Women Writers (New York: Harper, 1980) 2.

Principal Works

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Bayou Folk 1894

A Night in Acadie 1897

The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. 2 vols. (novels, short stories, poetry, and essays) 1969

Kate Chopin: The Awakening, and Other Stories (novel and short stories) 1970

The Storm, and Other Stories, with The Awakening (short stories and novel) 1974

The Awakening, and Selected Short Stories of Kate Chopin (novel and short stories) 1976

A Vocation and a Voice 1991

Matter of Prejudice & Other Stories 1992

A Pair of Silk Stockings and Other Stories 1996

At Fault (novel) 1890

The Awakening (novel) 1899

A Kate Chopin Miscellany (letters, essays, diary entries) 1979

Kate Chopin's Private Papers (memoirs) 1998

Anne M. Blythe (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Blythe, Anne M. “Kate Chopin's ‘Charlie’.” In Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, edited by Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis, pp. 207-15. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Blythe counters the prevailing Freudian interpretation of “Charlie” and asserts that it “be read as an exceptionally strong and forthright story of the growth into womanhood of a young girl of unusually fine qualities and potential.”]

Kate Chopin's story “Charlie”—written in 1900, the year following the publication of The Awakening, but not published until 1969—has been almost completely neglected by critics, and what attention it has received has done it little justice. The longest and one of the strongest and most moving of her stories, “Charlie” has with few exceptions been misread and misunderstood by literary critics since it was first made generally available in Per Seyersted's 1969 edition of Chopin's writings (CU, 638-70).

Seyersted began the critical misreading of the story when he dealt with it briefly in his 1969 biography of Chopin. Discussing it in light of Chopin's theme of “female self-assertion,” Seyersted says that the author “allows herself to disable a man … thus subtly hitting back at the males who labeled her a disgrace and silenced her literary gun because she had represented a woman taking liberties of a man” (CB, 183). He is referring to the critical reception of The Awakening and the episode in the story where Charlie, the tomboy heroine, practicing her target shooting in the woods with a pistol, accidentally wounds a male stranger in the arm. But the analogy is farfetched. The wound is not only unintentional; it is in his arm, and it is slight—and Charlie is deeply embarrassed. Seyersted unfortunately goes a step further in misreading the story when he suggests a tendency toward incestuous feelings between Charlie and her father. Although he somewhat downplays this accusation by enclosing it within parentheses, he nevertheless puts forth the unhappy idea that a “Freudian would call it [the relationship between Charlie and her father] a fixation and point to the secret outing of the two where they feel ‘like a couple of bees in clover’” (CB, 183).

This is nonsense. Her father loves Charlie and misses her when she is away. She loves him. There is no hint of anything abnormal or unhealthy in the feelings of either, no suggestion that this healthy father-daughter relationship is in any way delaying or hampering her maturing as a young woman or growing in need and ability to respond to other men.

The great injustice done by this reading lies in the fact that because Seyersted as editor and biographer was the most important Chopin scholar who had yet written about her and his critical judgments were usually carefully weighed and sensible, it was perhaps inevitable that later critics would use this original prurient reading of the text as a springboard for further, if brief, misconstructions and distortions of the story.

One critic, though she asserts that “Charlie” is “probably the only good piece [Chopin] wrote after The Awakening debacle,” joins Seyersted in his Freudian reading of the story and goes even further, saying that the story “shows a troubled imagination.” She believes that Charlie must “become ‘masculine’ and lose her sensual life, or become ‘feminine’ and lose her independence; [that] in fact, to have independence a woman must become ‘male.’” She sees the story as one with a “saddening conclusion.” Another critic dismisses it as sentimental and misreads the ending: “Not even Chopin's earliest stories surpass in sentimentality ‘Charlie.’ In it a girl grows up, falls in love, loses a man to her sister, and dedicates the rest of her life to helping her father.” Barbara H. Solomon, in her edition of Chopin, follows and slightly elaborates Seyersted's interpretation.1

Such distorted and inaccurate interpretations have succeeded in denying a proper place in American fiction to what may be Kate Chopin's finest characterization of a young woman and one of her finest short stories. I propose that “Charlie” be read as an exceptionally strong and forthright story of the growth into womanhood of a young girl of unusually fine qualities and potential. To read the story in any other light is to ignore too many aspects of it that the author stresses—for example, the happy ending. For at the conclusion, Charlie is preparing to marry a good man, a man who loves her, who is her match in both temperament and physicality. She will marry a man she knows and understands and has grown to love, a man her father knows and respects.

“Charlie” is the story of a seventeen-year-old tomboy, Charlotte Laborde, the second of seven daughters, who runs free and wild on the family's Louisiana plantation. Charlie (as nearly everyone calls her) is intelligent and imaginative, physical and courageous, loved but not always approved of by the people who live in that self-contained world. She is especially close to her father, a widower, and is worshiped by her younger sisters (her older sister, Julia, is too ladylike to approve of her entirely). She is constantly getting into and out of scrapes, and her father, her sisters, her aunts, and her teacher are all worried that this daring, imaginative, impetuous young girl is going to have a difficult time in the adult world unless her boundless energy can be channeled into activities more conventional than racing along the levee and around the plantation on horseback and on a bicycle—a nice combination that Chopin uses to show that Charlie can be equally at home in a changing modern world and an older traditional and rural one.

When we meet her first, she is hot, mad, and in trouble. Our first impression is the one shared by her sisters in the schoolroom. Distracted from their studies by a figure “galloping along the green levee summit on a big black horse, as if pursued by demons,” they then identify by “a clatter of hoofs upon the ground below” and a voice “pitched rather high” berating a boy for not currying Tim, her horse, their tardy and wayward sister's approach (The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 639). When she finally enters the classroom, she is the picture of vigor and health, “robust and pretty well grown for her age” (CW [The Complete Works of Kate Chopin], 639), but at this moment red-faced and perspiring. Chopin's precise phrase, “pretty well grown for her age,” is aptly descriptive of her not-quite womanhood. Charlie is dressed in a costume of her own devising, a sort of “divided skirt,” a practical but not unfeminine garment she has shaped to suit the life of an active and energetic tomboy whose physical development is just beginning to belie her boyish ways.

Although Charlie hates the cramped artificiality of the plantation schoolroom and the rigid controls imposed upon her freedom by Miss Melvern, the governess, she is instinctively drawn to certain of the arts as well as the natural world outdoors. Chopin tells us that “Charlie had a way, when strongly moved, of expressing herself in verse” (CW, 641). Banished from the schoolroom, she sits on the porch at the back of the house writing a poem about Miss Melvern but letting herself be distracted by all the activity of the plantation yard. The fat Negro cook affectionately abuses her son who is sharpening the ax, and one of the little “Cadian” girls from down the lane comes up with chickens to sell. Charlie at first watches the life around her, still writing the poem, then, because it is impossible not to, lays it aside and joins them. Her poetic impulse is genuine but untrained, undisciplined. Along with her natural exuberance, there are traces of irresponsibility. Charlie is honest, headstrong, and brave, but still capable of being thoughtless.

Her poems are not the only sign of her creative imagination. She next pays a visit to the Bichou family's cabin where she spins a fantastic impromptu tale about tigers and bears and her magic ring. The Bichou children are spellbound. “They had a way of believing everything she said—which was a powerful temptation that many a sterner spirit would have found difficult to resist” (CW, 645-46). When she starts back home through the woods, Ma'am Bichou, worried about “that Charlie,” sends her young son Xenophore with her to see that she makes it home safely. The two sit down to rest beside a fallen tree, and Charlie confides in her young friend: “‘I tell you what it is, Xenophore, usually, when I come in the woods, after slaying a panther or so, I sit down and write a poem or two. … There are lots of things troubling me, and nothing comforts me like that’” (CW, 646-47). Charlie is acknowledging the changes that are beginning to stir within her, mysteriously to her mind, even before her encounter with Firman Walton.

This meeting takes place after she has revealed her deepest secret to the little boy, her possession of a pistol. “‘I think I'll practice my shooting; I'm getting a little rusty; only hit nine alligators out of ten last week’” (CW, 647). A stray shot hits Walton, who is taking a short cut through the woods on the way to pay a business call upon Charlie's father. Mistaking her for a boy at first, he speaks angrily to her: “‘You young scamp! I'll thrash the life out of you.’” But on discovering that she is a girl, he is apologetic.

Walton is encouraged to remain a few days with the family to recover from his wound, and he does so quite cheerfully. Indeed he feels that he has suddenly found himself in heaven among seven beautiful maidens. One evening when all her sisters have gone off for their dancing lessons, Charlie (who has stayed at home because she doesn't like dancing lessons) is brooding on the porch steps when Walton joins her. Sitting down beside her, he earnestly begins to say again how sorry he is about the accident. Knowing perfectly well that the shooting was her fault, not his, genuinely puzzled and piqued by his insistence, she speaks somewhat condescendingly to him and brushes him off. At that moment, young Xenophore slips quietly up the steps and within Walton's hearing delivers a message to Charlie from Gus Bradley, her longtime companion around the plantation.

Although she does not articulate her feelings, a pleasurable confusion about them is obviously stirring within her. The two men paying their respects could not be more different: Firman Walton is a slick city sophisticate Charlie knows she does not understand; Gus Bradley is a man she understands perfectly. Walton is described as “good looking, intelligent looking” (CW, 650). In contrast, Bradley is described as a shy man with a smooth face that “looked as if it belonged to a far earlier period of society and had no connection with the fevered and modern present day” (CW, 654). He is described in terms of Charlie's familiar world, for he is a big man and “in the saddle or out in the road or the fields he had a fine, free carriage” (CW, 654). With new awarenesses beginning to form in her mind, Charlie lingers on the porch with Walton until dusk when “the moon was already shining in the river and breaking with a pale glow through the magnolia leaves” (CW, 654). When her sisters return from their dancing lessons, Charlie slips upstairs with them, “bent upon making a bit of toilet for the evening” (CW, 652).

The accidental shooting of Walton has convinced everyone, including Charlie, that it is time to send her to boarding school in New Orleans. This idea, which has always been abhorrent to her, she is “exceedingly astonished” to discover is now “not at all distasteful”; she finds herself marveling at the mystery (CW, 654). This significant change in her character, we come to see, is probably due to her feeling attracted to Walton, apparently the first time she had felt such an emotion. She is also “secretly in hopes” (CW, 652) that her sister Amanda will lend her a dress to wear that first evening when her father orders her out of her “trouserlets.” When Gus is surprised and flustered at seeing her in a dress with “frills and furbelows,” Charlie replies impatiently: “‘Oh, well, I have to begin some time’” (CW, 655). Secretly she would like this big change, from divided skirt to feminine dress, to pass by unnoticed. However, once committed to a course of action, her instinct is to plunge forward headlong and unhesitating. And she handles this stepping into the feminine world of lace, ruffles, sailor hats, and baubles characteristically—with unbridled enthusiasm.

Now, thrust brand-new and untried into rich city life, Charlie stuns everyone in charge of her with a “violent” acceptance of her change in lifestyle. She also surprises with her extravagance. The only examples of womanhood she has had in her family are sorely lacking in both passion and creativity; in other words, she has no idea what it means to be a grown-up woman except what she has seen in her older sister, whatever she recalls of her mother (who died when she was eleven) and her aunts. She is doggedly determined to become “a fascinating young lady” (CW, 657), but she knows instinctively that she is out of place in this artificial world. She senses more and more intensely her awkwardnesses and tries with the aid of creams and curling irons and hat pins to conform to that world's standard of beauty. It is worth noting at this point too that during those two weeks of preschool “preparation” and initiation, Charlie finds herself frequently in the company of Firman Walton, who, although he distinctly prefers the company of the more beautiful and polished Julia, does not mind toying with the wild heart of her younger sister.

An episode that takes place soon after she enters the school and that warrants close and careful examination is the greatly misunderstood scene of Mr. Laborde's visit. The decision to send her to the boarding school was not an easy one for her father. All his daughters are described as individuals—each has been encouraged to grow according to her natural bent—but Charlie has a more restless spirit than the others. We must remember too that of all the daughters, Charlie is the one who knows best the working world of her father's plantation. That Mr. Laborde loves this wayward daughter is obvious. That he enjoys her company especially because she can ride, shoot, and fish better than the other girls is also apparent. And that he misses her sorely when she must be sent off to school cannot be doubted. But he believes that Charlie must be tamed, that she must learn for the sake of her own happiness to conform to the polite ways of the civilized world.

When he comes to visit her, he rejoices in seeing her, and she in him; he delights in discovering how well she has made the adjustment. He encourages what he assumes is her natural (but hitherto dormant) feminine frivolity, and they have a fine afternoon together. To play the role of a stern disciplinarian is not something that comes easily to Mr. Laborde, and now that he can enjoy his daughter's company without constant worry, he does so “like a school boy on a holiday” (CW, 661).

But to read this scene as incestuous is absurd. It is quite likely that if Mr. Laborde was separated for several months from his six-year-old twins, with whom he is equally affectionate—they count the gray hairs on his temples “perched on either arm of his chair” (CW, 644)—he would be “hungry” for them too. But the key to their relationship in this scene is the conversation between Charlie and her father at the lake café where they enjoy their second breakfast of the day, blissfully unaware of the rest of the world. Charlie proudly holds out her hand (newly creamed) for him to inspect. “‘What do you think of that, dad?’” she asks him. He looks carefully, examining the ring she always wears, then says, “‘No stones missing, are there?’” How well he knows his daughter! When she tells him with some exasperation to inspect the whiteness of her hand, and to compare it with her sister Julia's, he immediately understands the importance of her question. She is asking him for a confirmation of her femininity. Having long been aware (and disdainful of the fact) that Julia's hands were soft and white whereas hers were tanned and strong, she now feels pride that she has accomplished so successfully one of the more considered requisites of feminine appearance. Mr. Laborde takes her question seriously and gives a good father's careful answer. “‘I don't want to be hasty,’” he tells her. “‘I'm not too sure that I remember, and I shouldn't like to do Julia's hand an injustice, but my opinion is that yours is whiter’” (CW, 662).

This episode carries all the tenderness, gentle humor, and trust that can be asked of a father and a seventeen-year-old daughter, and Chopin accomplishes this with a fleeting moment's conversation. To read this scene as corrupt is an ultimate in critical misreading and falsification, and to use such a misreading to show Chopin as warped and embittered (by her critics!) at this period in her career is to be as false to the writer as to her work.

As Charlie continues to strive to adjust to the new environment of school, friends, dress, habits, and conventions, there is one carryover from the old familiar world. That is her poetry, which continues to be her confidante. It becomes more and more the vehicle for trying to understand her new and confusing emotions.

All of her schoolmates like Charlie enormously, although they don't understand her and are privately shocked at her lack of refinement in certain ways. But they recognize and respond to her generous heart and offer to help her learn the conventional graces. When it comes to light that Charlie is a poet, and a good poet at that, she is universally acclaimed and made to share with her friends the lines she has been writing. She shares her artistry shyly, trying hard “to look indifferent” (CW, 659). She shares all of her poems but one. This she had written immediately following the two-week preparation for school, and it is different from the rest of her poetry. It is written “in the smallest possible cramped hand … folded over and over and over” (CW, 658) until it is tiny enough to fit underneath a picture in her cherished locket. She keeps her love poem to herself.

Charlie is smitten by Firman Walton. And she suffers her first heartache because of his casual, meaningless flirtations. But this experience becomes a vital part of Charlie's realization that she does not belong in Walton's (and her sister Julia's) world of fashioned manners and sophisticated affectations. Indeed her heart recovers much as Walton's arm recovers from the flesh wound. Both wounds are inflicted primarily by accident (although Walton should have been more aware of his effect upon her), and both wounds seem at first to be far more serious than they are.

Then comes the terrible news of her father's near-fatal accident at the plantation. Charlie returns home and remains to help nurse him. While there, she receives the news of Julia's engagement to Walton.

In a period of a few months, Charlie has suffered the disgrace of being banished from the plantation to boarding school, the shock of her father's near-fatal accident, and the humiliation of rejection by a man she believed genuine in his attentions. When she learns of her sister's engagement, she responds with violent passion. In “a voice hideous with anger” she denounces her sister in front of the younger sisters, resumes her trouserlets, mounts her horse, and takes off blindly and furiously on a “mad ride” (CW, 666-67). We know, as Charlie knows, that she is purging her mind, her body, and her heart of what is not good and natural for her. And in that ride she throws off “the savage impulse” that caused her outburst against Julia. “Shame and regret had followed and now she was steeped in humiliation such as she had never felt before.” She apologizes to her sisters for her words and behavior. The result of this sequence of emotions—rejection, bitterness, and rage, ending in humiliation and purgation—is that the “girlish infatuation which had blinded her was swept away in the torrents of a deeper emotion,” leaving her now “a woman” (CW, 667).

Charlie, then, does not return to and remain on her father's plantation as a defeated girl (or woman). She does not have to shed her femininity and “become ‘masculine’ and lose her sensual life” to maintain her independence. On the contrary, she achieves a clearly defined sense of purpose and makes a deep and lasting commitment to a life of usefulness and hard work, a life rich in potential for creativity and emotional growth. As her father slowly recovers, she and Gus naturally begin working together, restoring the plantation gradually to its condition before the accident. They are both physical people, unafraid and unashamed of the dirt, sweat, elements, and creatures of their world, and their work together brings them steadily closer. Gradually they also learn to communicate their feelings and emotions. The conversation between them at the end of the story is full of shyly revealed emotions as they both come to realize how their relationship has changed and grown deeper. She tells him, “‘It seems to me I've always liked you better than any one, and that I'll keep on liking you more and more.’” She then tells him good night and runs “lightly” into the house, leaving him “in an ecstasy in the moonlight” (CW, 669).

Why did Chopin not publish so fine a story? The most reasonable answer is that it is a very long story and she may have sent it out to one or more magazines only to have it rejected because of its length. Another possibility is that Chopin had indeed “withdrawn,” not from her continuing creative strength as an artist but from the public eye after the critical rejection of The Awakening. Perhaps she wrote “Charlie” much as she did “The Storm,” which because of its direct sexuality could not have been published in her lifetime, wrote it to complete something for herself alone, for her own satisfaction as a writer.

I believe that Kate Chopin put a great deal of herself into her tomboy creation. But what she did not put into the story is fear of failure. No fear or resentment of outside opinion informs this work.

“Charlie” is a rich and rewarding story with an unforgettable heroine. It deserves a high place in American short fiction before World War I.


  1. Anne Goodwyn Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day (Baton Rouge, 1981), 139, 144; Peggy Skaggs, Kate Chopin (Boston, 1985), 63-64; Barbara H. Solomon, The Awakening and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin (New York, 1976).

Nancy S. Ellis (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5560

SOURCE: Ellis, Nancy S. “Insistent Refrains and Self-Discovery: Accompanied Awakenings in Three Stories by Kate Chopin.” In Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, edited by Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis, pp. 216-29. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1992.

[In the following essay, Ellis delineates the role of music in “After the Winter,” “At Cheniere Caminada,” and “A Vocation and a Voice.”]

In The Awakening, Mlle. Reisz's piano music triggers Edna Pontellier's first emotional arousing: “The very first chords … sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier's spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an empress of the abiding truth. … The very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her” (Kate Chopin's Awakening, 27). Throughout the novel, Edna continues to be awakened in various ways, one of which is Mlle. Reisz's music. Another is the consciousness of physical touch, which Chopin expresses frequently with hand imagery.

But Edna is not the first of Chopin's characters to be stirred to an emotional awakening by music. In an early story, “With the Violin,” she uses the “pleading, chiding, singing” tones of the instrument to rescue a despondent man from suicide. His experience is dramatic, but so are others in the early fiction. The character development on which the author focuses in “After the Winter” and “At Cheniere Caminada” grows from an awakening born of a single distinct musical experience. In both stories the notes of a church organ stimulate in the lives of two men profound emotional changes that most likely would not have occurred otherwise.

The 1896 novel by Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware, also describes the passionate power of music. Frederic's descriptions are as moving and intense as Chopin's:

There fell upon this silence—softness so delicate that it came almost like a progression in the hush—the sound of sweet music. … Then it rose as by a sweeping curve of beauty, into a firm, calm, severe melody, delicious to the ear, but as cold in the mind's vision as moonlit sculpture. It went on upward with stately collectedness of power, till the atmosphere seemed all alive with the trembling consciousness of the presence of lofty souls, sternly pure and pitilessly great.

Theron found himself moved as he had never been before. He almost resented the discovery, when it was presented to him by the prosaic, mechanical side of his brain, that he was listening to organ-music, and that it came through the open window from the church close by: He would fain have reclined in his chair and closed his eyes, and saturated himself with the uttermost fulness of the sensation.1

Reminiscent of Edna's sessions with Mlle. Reisz, Chapter XIX of The Damnation (197-209) is filled with passages descriptive of music, specifically by Frederic Chopin, including the “Berceuse” that Kate Chopin used in “Wiser than a God.”

Yet another awakening associated with music dominates Chopin's “A Vocation and a Voice.” But this awakening seems to prefigure Edna Pontellier's. Rather than the experience of one moment, music becomes a refrain that continues to stir the boy to an awareness of himself and his world.

“After the Winter,” written on December 31, 1891, and published in the New Orleans Times-Democrat on April 5, 1896, is such a simple story that the reader can hardly miss Chopin's thematic symbols (Collected Works of Kate Chopin [The Complete Works of Kate Chopin], 1011). Chopin's M. Michel experiences an awakening, a rebirth, on an Easter Sunday and thus right “after the winter.” M. Michel has lived a misanthrope's life for the past twenty-five years after returning home from the Civil War and finding his child dead and his wife gone wanton. His bitter withdrawal from society has naturally inspired intriguing, murderous stories about him that fascinate the local children.

Trezinie, the blacksmith's daughter, longs to have wonderful flowers to add to the altar decorations of Easter morning, and her sense of pride compels her to try to outdo the others who have already taken flowers to the church. Chopin creates a vivid awareness of the young girl's spirit and environment by pointing out that the child has tried unsuccessfully to make her charred yard beautiful with colorful flowers. But the resourceful youth is inspired by the idea of gathering wildflowers fresh on Easter morn. Her resourcefulness and determination to work with what she has is reminiscent of Fifine in Chopin's “A Very Fine Fiddle.” She, Cami (the cobbler's son), and La Fringante (a little Negress) go into the forest early Easter morning to gather fresh wildflowers. When they come upon Michel's crude empty cabin, they examine it with childlike curiosity before they strip the hillside of its flowers.

M. Michel, returning to his cabin, finds that “his woods had been despoiled.” He grows angry not because he cares about the flowers but because someone has invaded his privacy: “Why had these people, with whom he had nothing in common, intruded upon his privacy and violated it? What would they not rob him of next?” Because he has recently been to town, he knows that it is Easter and that the flowers are being used “to add to the mummery of the day.” In his anger he determines to “go down among those people all gathered together, blacks and whites, and face them for once and for all. He did not know what he would say to them, but it would be defiance—something to voice the hate that oppressed him” (CW [The Complete Works of Kate Chopin], 185).

After entering the church and removing his hat as a mulatto tells him to do, he finds that being surrounded by people after so many years of being alone “affected him strangely.” Still he resolves to speak out, “just as soon as that clamor overhead” stops. But this clamor, the music of the organ “filling the small edifice with volumes of sound” and the “voices of men and women mingling in the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo,’” confuses and stirs him. Chopin describes the intensity of his experience:

The words bore no meaning for him apart from the old familiar strain which he had known as a child and chanted himself in that same organ-loft years ago. How it went on and on! Would it never cease! It was like a menace; like a voice reaching out from the dead past to taunt him. “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” over and over! How the deep basso rolled it out! How the tenor and alto caught it up and passed it on to be lifted by the high, flutelike ring of the soprano, till all mingled again in the wild paean, “Gloria in excelsis!”

How insistent was the refrain! and where, what, was that mysterious hidden quality in it; the power which was overcoming M'sieur Michel, stirring within him a turmoil that bewildered him?

(CW, 185-86)

Compelled to flee the church filled with music and people, Michel is followed by the sounds of “Bonae voluntatis” and the refrain “‘Pax! pax! pax!’—fretting him like a lash.”

The description of Michel's experience recalls an 1867 diary entry, a composition on Christian art that Chopin wrote as a seventeen-year-old.

There remains yet to be considered the influence of Christianity upon music, that art so powerful as an agent in awakening the slumbering passions in the heart of man. From the time that David tuned his harp in Salem, and Jeremiah with prophetic voice sang forth his “Lamentations,” music has continued to gain in perfection of expression and harmony without entirely abandoning the mutation of the voices of nature. It arose to the dignity of an art, only when Christianity ennobled the muses, by accepting their services to add to the splendor of her ceremonial; then was heard for the first time beneath the Gothic arches of the Cathedral of Milan the exultant strains of the “Te Deum” which have lost none of their original power after sixteen centuries—then was heard amid the pillard isles of the Cistine Chapel the harmony of that wondrous “Miserera,” now, now stealing forth from the darkness like the first wail of a broken heart, growing fainter and fainter while it dies away in silence as if the grief were too great for the strain; then leaping forth, not like the voice of song, but on agony—floating and swelling with irresistible power till it sinks again into the low broken tunes of intense anguish.

(KCM, 54)

Chopin continues to emphasize the emotional power of the music. Even when Michel is back in his hut, the music of the organ and choir echoes within him and causes “restlessness” and “a driving want for human sympathy and companionship … [to reawaken] in his soul.” His reawakened desire for human companionship will be echoed in Mme. Martel's experience that is “born” on a Christmas Eve (“Madame Martel's Christmas Eve”). Both of these characters, wedded to the past with worship or hatred, enter scenes filled with music and create a small stir. Michel responds to this need by retracing a path he has not taken in years. He returns to his former homesite, expecting it to be grown over totally. Instead, under the beautiful moonlight, he finds his house and fields waiting for him. His old friend and neighbor Joe Duplan, magically appearing and explaining that he has been taking care of the place, offers this advice: “‘Let the past all go, Michel. Begin your new life as if the twenty-five years that are gone had been a long night, from which you have only awakened.’”

Chopin uses the music of the organ and the choir as the experience that awakens Michel and the refrain “Pax!” that accompanies his flight from the church as the song of his rebirth that returns him to his place among men.

Antoine (Tonie) Bocase, an innocent fisherman, is another Chopin character awakened by the power of music. Unexpected music from the usually silent church organ stirs Tonie, initiating him into his first experience with love in “At Cheniere Caminada.”2 Shy and clumsy, the simple fisherman, who still lives with his mother, has “no desire to inflame the hearts of any of the island maidens.” However, the unexpected music at mass one morning changes Tonie.

Emphasizing the importance of music's role in Tonie's awakening, Chopin describes what happens while the priest chants the mass in “measured tones” that rise and fall “like a song”:

Some one was playing upon the organ whose notes no one on the whole island was able to awaken; whose tones had not been heard during the many months. … A long, sweet strain of music floated down from the loft and filled the church. …

It seemed to Tonie … that some heavenly being must have descended upon the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes and chosen this celestial way of communication with its people. But it was no creature from a different sphere; it was only a young lady from Grand Isle. A rather pretty young person with blue eyes and nut-brown hair.

(CW, 309-10)

From this moment on, Tonie is in love. Catching a glimpse of his celestial organist after church, Tonie wanders aimlessly around the island. He is not alert to anything and cannot answer his mother's customary questions when he returns home. But she has some information for him; she gives him the name of the organist, Claire Duvigne. Simply knowing Claire's name captures Tonie even further.

From then on, nothing is normal for Tonie. He cannot even work. In his innocence and inexperience, he does not recognize “the powerful impulse that had, without warning, possessed itself of his entire being,” but instinctively he obeys the impulse “as he could have obeyed the dictates of hunger and thirst.” He is awakened to a part of his own nature he cannot identify. Claire's image, “connected with that celestial music which had thrilled him and was vibrating yet in his soul,” is stamped in his mind. He abandons the repair work on his lugger and sails to Grand Isle where he hires out his boat and runs errands. Rather than turning to society as Michel does, Tonie isolates himself by spending his summer days, one by one, watching Claire with the other young people. Only once does Claire hire his boat alone. While they are out on the water, she is able to sense his love for her and flippantly finds it amusing “to pose” for “even a rough fisherman—to whom she felt herself to be an object of silent and consuming devotion. She could think of nothing more interesting to do on shore.” The force and extent of Tonie's infatuation, which Chopin describes as a “savage instinct of his blood,” is beyond Claire's ability to understand. Finally the ringing of the angelus bell and Claire's “musical voice” telling him to return to shore startle Tonie out of his passionate reverie. As memories of the Sunday that he heard the organ return to him, Tonie once again sees Claire as “that celestial being whom our Lady of Lourdes had once offered to his immortal vision.”

Tonie's internal struggle between his passionate instinct and his spiritual vision continues when the insensitive young woman, maintaining her pose and playing romantic heroine, pays him with a silver chain from her wrist. The simple “touch of her hand fire[s] his blood.” Tonie presses the chain to his lips, watching her walk away. His thoughts, prompted by the passion that has been awakened, are surprising in their intensity:

“He was stirred by a terrible, an overmastering regret, that he had not clasped her in his arms when they were out there alone, and sprung with her into the sea. It was what he had vaguely meant to do when the sound of the Angelus bell weakened and palsied his resolution. … He resolved within himself that if ever again she were out there on the sea at his mercy, she would have to perish in his arms. He would go far, far out where the sound of no bell could reach him. There was some comfort for him in the thought.”

(CW, 315)

Following Tonie's dramatic confession, Chopin advances from the summer to the next January when Tonie is in New Orleans on business. By this time, he is a “wretched-hearted being” because he has not seen Claire. He has finally told his mother of his consuming love for the organist, and his mother fears that Tonie will not return, “for he had spoken wildly of the rest and peace that could come only to him with death.” In New Orleans, Tonie meets Mme. Lebrun and her mother from Grand Isle, who are in the city “to hear the opera as often as possible,” and from them Tonie learns that Claire Duvigne has died “simply from a cold caught by standing in thin slippers, waiting for her carriage after the opera.” Stunned by the news, Tonie gets drunk; however, “from that day he felt that he began to live again.” Her death releases him.

Later, talking to his mother, he explains that he had known he had no chance of winning Claire's love because he was only a rough fisherman and had no way to compete with the men who were always around her. He knew that one day she would marry, have children, and return with them to Grand Isle. Since Claire is now in heaven “where she belongs,” he feels he has a chance to win her love because at last “she will know who has loved her best.” Although Chopin does not express the idea directly, Tonie is obviously a man frightened by his intense feelings of love. He is more comfortable with his images of Claire as a “celestial organist” and an inhabitant of heaven than with the real woman.

Part of the importance of this story lies in its connections with The Awakening through shared characters and locations, and similar incidents. Tonie, his mother, and Mme. LeBrun reappear in the novel, which begins and ends on Grand Isle. Edna Pontellier and Robert Lebrun spend a day on Cheniere Caminada, Tonie's home. When Edna flees from mass at the church where Tonie hears Claire play the organ, she and Robert spend the afternoon at Mme. Antoine's. Tonie later takes the two back to Grand Isle in the same boat with the red lateen sail that he had once sailed for Claire. Chopin even mentions Claire by name as the “sunlight” in which Robert spent two previous summers. Claire died between the seasons spent at Grand Isle (KCA, 12). Chopin also uses hand imagery, the potential sensuousness of the simple touch, in both stories. Perhaps the most interesting connection between the novel and the story lies in Tonie's desire to perish in the sea with Claire because of his unattainable love, foreshadowing Edna's suicide in the same waters.

Regardless of the connections with The Awakening, “At Cheniere Caminada” needs to be considered on its own merit. While the organ music in “After the Winter” awakens Michel to a rebirth, the unexpected music from the organ awakens the unprepared Tonie to new emotions that nearly destroy him. The surging, assailing, instinctive passions that Tonie feels are also experienced by the boy in “A Vocation and a Voice.” These emotional awakenings illustrate that Chopin was not simply a feminist. She understood human nature in all its complexity, not just the woman's plight that many critics like to demonstrate through Edna Pontellier. As Arthur Hobson Quinn writes, “There is an unusual understanding of man's passion in ‘At Cheniere Caminada,’ in the depiction of Antoine Bocaze's relief when the summer visitor whom he has been hopelessly worshipping at a distance dies, and the torturing thought that some other man may possess her is over.”3

Joyce Coyne Dyer describes Tonie's first emotions as “marked by sentimentality and juvenile idealization” and later ones as “an issue of sexual need rather than childish infatuation.” She goes on to claim that “Chopin assures us symbolically … that there are natural forces within each man that he cannot resist”:

Not only Chopin's women slumber and awake. The recent popularity of The Awakening has given many the idea that Chopin is a woman who writes best about women and their nature. But a review of several of her best, though little-known, short stories indicates that she recognized and understood the passions and needs of men as well as women. Tonie and the boy of “A Vocation and a Voice” are sexually awakened and aroused by the soft skin, magical voices, or disturbing and mysterious personalities of women. … As these stories and others suggest, her true subject was both men and women. Her true subject was human nature.”

Chopin does write that Tonie follows his new instincts as he would those of “hunger and thirst” and that there is a “savage instinct in his blood.” Even though the angelus bell temporarily brings Tonie's imagination back to his first pictures of Claire, Dyer points out that “violent fantasies” quickly return and Tonie dreams of going beyond the reach of the bell.4

Tonie's desire to escape the reaches of his conscience suggests the strength of his physical feelings and indicates the struggle between his spiritual and physical natures. Chopin explores this conflict further in “A Vocation and a Voice.” And once again Chopin chooses to accompany an awakening with music. But this time, rather than a single musical experience, Chopin uses the musical sounds as an unworded vocal refrain heard at intervals throughout the story, even as the voice of the sea speaks to Edna in The Awakening. Peggy Skaggs also sees this relationship.5

The awakening in “A Vocation and a Voice” is a positive one, a joyous affirmation of life.6 The story tells of an unnamed fifteen-year-old boy who leaves his makeshift home to join a pair of vagabonds who travel the countryside telling fortunes and selling patent medicines. Chopin emphasizes the boy's innocence of spirit and experience in many ways. She includes bits of information about his background as an altar boy; he “belonged under God's sky in the free and open air.” Hungry for the outdoors, he thrives in the first weeks of roaming with the strange pair, Suzima and Gutro.

As the source for the recurring music, Chopin uses the beautiful singing voice of the “robust” and “comely” Suzima, a young woman of about twenty. At one time Suzima sang in the chorus of an opera company, and her youthful experience contrasts greatly with the boy's innocence. What is special about Suzima at first is her voice, although he does not yet know why the music moves him. When she “lifted her voice and sang,” he thinks he has “never heard anything more beautiful than the full, free notes that come from her throat, filling the vast, woody temple with melody.” Always she sings the same thing, a “stately refrain from some remembered opera.” There are times when the boy sings with Suzima as she plays her guitar, but the days of their pleasing duets are cut short because as he matures, his voice changes. The young woman's companion, the rough Gutro, is always associated with his prized pair of mules. Gutro takes better care of the mules than of people. Frequently drunk, he often abuses Suzima and becomes “the beast” in the boy's thinking. Chopin uses both of these characters to awaken the boy to a knowledge of different aspects of his own nature.

After a while, the odd threesome settle into an abandoned cabin for the winter. The lad has a chance to serve as an altar boy again and even works in the village to pay for new clothes required by his growth. Chopin gently lets the boy roam between the contrasting worlds of the little village and the independent vagabonds. Whenever his allegiance seems to lean toward the standards of the village and church, Chopin woos the lad through Suzima. An example of this occurs after the boy and Suzima have dinner with the village priest. The boy has been a little nervous about how Suzima will behave and is relieved when they head home. Feeling she has been “respectable” long enough, Suzima begins to sing the familiar “stately refrain.” In fact, Chopin notes, it is so familiar that he has begun to hear it “sometimes in his dreams.” Although Chopin describes the boy's next remark as delivered “impetuously,” it is still a significant statement: “‘I'd rather hear you sing that than anything in the world, Suzima.’” Another example of Suzima's wooing the lad away from the village occurs when she informs him that they are going to start traveling again. She sits and waits, “a shadowy form … lurking nearby,” while he takes leave of the villagers.

At this point the lad is more aware of being wooed by the woods and the seasons than by the young woman. The boy's thoughts and heart respond to the “breath of Spring abroad beating softly in his face, and the odors of Spring assailing his senses.”

Spring, the season of love, brings new awakenings to the youth. Physically growing and thriving, the lad starts to grow in other ways. Gutro's tales told by the campfire stir him, sometimes leaving him “not so tranquil.” Then Gutro, forced by pains in his leg, allows the boy to tend the prized mules, the most manly job Gutro knows. Taking the mules to the stream to water them, the boy sees Suzima sitting naked as she bathes. The change in him is instant. Her image burns into his brain and flesh “with the fixedness and intensity of white-hot iron” just as Claire's image was stamped on Tonie's mind. Quickly turning away and going on with watering the mules, the boy reacts later in rage: “For the first time in his life he uttered oaths and curses that would have made Suzima quail.” The awakening within him causes him to flee into the woods where he cries.

For a while, Suzima and the lad are irritable with each other. Then the moon comes out one night, and the vagabonds travel on, Gutro driving the wagon, the other two walking behind. Suzima sings her song that echoes “from a distant hillside” until she tires and climbs into the wagon to sleep. Her bare feet “peeped out, gleaming in the moonlight.” Finally, “in submission to a sudden determination moving him, seemingly, without his volition,” he springs into the wagon. Once again, Chopin's awareness of the powerful sensation of touch is important, but this time the touch is of bare feet, not hands. Soon Suzima is holding the lad “with her arms and with her lips.” (A similar scene, though totally coincidental, can be found in Faulkner's Light in August when Byron Bunch struggles with thoughts of climbing into the truck beside Lena Grove. Byron is not welcomed, as the boy is, and runs off into the woods, like the boy.)

The changes in the boy in the next few days are great. His sexual initiation makes him totally responsive to nature all about him and to Suzima, who becomes the “embodiment of desire and the fulfillment of life.” Her song is now clearly and symbolically powerful: “When she sang her voice penetrated his whole being and seemed to complete the new and bewildering existence that had overtaken him.” But Chopin prepares another profound awakening. The lad discovers evil in himself. Trying to protect Suzima from one of Gutro's beatings, the boy comes close to killing the crude man with a knife. His sudden self-knowledge is the crux of one of the main conflicts in the story. “He had always supposed that he could live in the world a blameless life. He took no merit for he could not recognize within himself a propensity toward evil. He had never dreamed of a devil luring unknown to him, in his blood. … He shrank from trusting himself with this being alone. His soul turned toward the refuge of spiritual help, and he prayed to God and the saints and the Virgin Mary to save him and to direct him” (CW, 542).

The lad retreats to a monastery the trio has passed recently and eventually becomes Brother Ludovic, “hero of the wood” to the other brothers and students. His interest in nature and his strength are outstanding; he exhausts himself daily as protection from “that hideous, evil spectre … lurking outside, ready at any moment to claim him, should he venture within its reach.” But Chopin understands the strength of human nature. There are still nights when he has “disturbing vision[s]” of “following, [but] never overtaking a woman—the one woman he had known—who lured him.” With the determination of “a fixed purpose in life,” Brother Ludovic undertakes to build a stone fence around the sacred grounds. It will be a solid stone wall, a “prison,” some of the brothers joke.

Then comes the final awakening for the boy-man, which Chopin chooses to describe in terms of instinct. With the “mute quivering attention of some animal in the forest, startled at the scent of approaching danger,” Brother Ludovic is flooded by vivid memories of Suzima—the day he saw her naked, the night he climbed into the wagon. His response becomes attentive rather than fearful when from a distance he recognizes the “voice of a woman singing the catchy refrain from an opera.” Brother Ludovic watches the paradelike movement of the lone woman in the road below. Physically and symbolically, he crosses the wall, “conscious of nothing in the world but the voice that was calling him and the cry of his own being that responded.” At last he follows the “voice of the woman.”

The words in the title of this story are clever choices. Vocation seems to refer to the priestly calling of the boy-man, but it also can refer to any “calling,” secular or religious. Voice seems to signify Suzima's song that casts its spell over the boy. But Chopin suggests another meaning for voice when she notes that Brother Ludovic is “hardly past the age when men are permitted to have a voice and a will in the direction of government.” Thus voice also becomes a reference to one's being old enough to make his own decisions. Perhaps what Chopin is saying is not the obvious “priest and song” that come so quickly to mind but that each man must find and respond to his own calling. That is the ultimate awakening and the ultimate fulfillment.

The other awakening in “A Vocation and a Voice” stems from two levels of conflict that Chopin explores. Bert Bender sees the “opposed forces in this story” as “work, conventionality, orthodox religion, and the will” versus “idleness, unconventionality, a kind of pantheistic religion, and impulsiveness.” He credits Suzima's voice that weaves in and out as the story's “lyric quality.” Peggy Skaggs sees the story in terms of basic human drives: “the drives for a sense of belonging, for love relationships with others, and for selfhood.”7 But examining these conflicts, the first is the simple physical development and sexual initiation (awakening) of the lad. The other is a spiritual one that rages on several levels.

Not only is the boy torn between worship as he knows it in a liturgical sense and experiences it instinctively in nature, but he also finally awakens to the struggle of good and evil, to a knowledge of sin within himself. (This struggle between the secular and the sacred is also evident in Chopin's “Lilacs” through the pull that Adrienne Farival experiences.) This knowledge does not come through physical awakening or sexuality but through Gutro, who is constantly associated with beasts.

At one point, Chopin seems to mock the boy's religious devotion through Suzima's fascination with seeing him serve mass. Elmo Howell comments that Chopin treats the church with respect and that “in describing the sensual, she never denies the validity of the spiritual.”8 The beautiful robes and mysterious language seem to be props not unlike those she and Gutro use to fool the people in the villages. Although the church is a refuge for the boy, his instinctive love of nature is also expressed romantically in terms of worship and religion. As the story opens, he is sitting in the park, speculating that heaven is “like this” rather than a “celestial city paved with gold.” The first time he hears Suzima's voice, it fills “the vast, woody temple.” When the boy wanders in the woods at night, he walks fearlessly, “holding communion with something mysterious, greater than himself, … something he called God.” It is as if he were in Eden before the Fall. Just as Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and hid themselves, after seeing Suzima naked, the lad runs into the woods, hiding himself for a time. But early on, Chopin tells her readers: “He belonged under God's sky in the free and open air.” The vocation this boy-man has is the one he must follow. His manhood cannot be found behind some solid stone fence. He must follow Suzima's song, long in his dreams.

Dyer takes the view that the boy is innocent about the nature of nature. He mistakenly thinks “nature is gentle” and thus remains “oblivious to its driving insistence.” Seeing nature as “semi-divine,” the boy's response is like a child's. Dyer interprets Suzima as representing “sexual desire”; Gutro, “violent tendencies.” And by association the boy uncovers both within himself. Dyer notes that the boy tries to control his own nature and to recover his innocent belief in nature at the monastery, but Suzima's voice reawakens needs of his flesh that “are more imperative than those of this spirit.” Dyer concludes that “Chopin was fascinated by the basic, primitive desires of both men and women … who are complex creatures who have no choice but to discover their passion, in spite of risks, confusion, and guilt.”9

Each of the major characters in these three stories experiences a significant self-discovery that the author deliberately initiates through musical experience. The awakenings of these men are as deeply passionate as the initial awakening of Edna Pontellier that Chopin also signals through music.

Music, as ordinary and extraordinary experience in secular and sacred situations, becomes a thematic and symbolic expression in the lives of her characters. Whether male or female, conventional or defiant, the people of Kate Chopin's stories are influenced and changed by the power of music.


  1. Harold Frederick, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896; rpr. Cambridge, Mass., 1960), 79-80.

  2. Written in October, 1893, and published in December, 1894, in the New Orleans Times-Democrat. See CW, II, 1016.

  3. Arthur Hobson Quinn, American Fiction: A Historical Survey (New York, 1936), 356.

  4. Joyce Coyne Dyer, “Kate Chopin's Sleeping Bruties,” Markham Review, X (1980-81), 11, 12.

  5. Peggy Skaggs, “The Boy's Quest in Kate Chopin's ‘A Vocation and a Voice,’” American Literature, LI (1979), 270-76.

  6. Written in November, 1896, not published until March, 1902, when it appeared in the St. Louis Mirror. See CW, 1027.

  7. Bert Bender, “Kate Chopin's Lyrical Short Stories,” Studies in Short Fiction, XI (1974), 257-66; Skaggs, “Boy's Quest,” 271.

  8. Elmo Howell, “Kate Chopin and the Pull of Faith: A Note on ‘Lilacs,’” Southern Studies, XVIII (1979), 104, 108.

  9. Dyer, “Sleeping Bruties,” 13-15.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431


Beer, Janet. “‘Dah you Is, Settin' Down, Lookin' Jis' Like W'ite Folks!’: Ethnicity Enacted in Kate Chopin's Short Fiction.” In Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 24-39. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997.

Attempts to demonstrate that “Chopin's Louisiana is a post-colonial rather than an American post-bellum society. …”

Boren, Lynda S. and Sara deSaussure Davis, eds. Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992, 248 p.

Collection of essays on Chopin's novels and short stories.

Branscomb, Jack. “Chopin's ‘Ripe Figs.’” The Explicator 52, no. 3 (spring 1994): 165-66.

Discusses the importance of time in “Ripe Figs.”

Foster, Derek W. and Kris LeJeune. “‘Stand by Your Man …’: Desirée Valmonde and Feminist Standpoint Theory in Kate Chopin's ‘Desirée's Baby’.” Southern Studies VIII, no. nos. 1-2 (winter-spring 1997): 91-7.

Contends that the character of Desirée in “Desirée's Baby” “is an example of someone who practices standpoint theory.”

Llewellyn, Dara. “Reader Activation of Boundaries in Kate Chopin's ‘Beyond the Bayou’.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 225-62.

Analyzes various boundaries in “Beyond the Bayou.”

Morgan-Proux, Catherine. “Athena of Goose? Kate Chopin's Ironical Treatment of Motherhood in ‘Athénaïse.’” Southern Studies 4, no. 4 (winter 1993): 625-40.

Argues that Chopin's apparent glorification of childbirth and motherhood in the story “Athénaïse” is ironic.

Peel, Ellen. “Semiotic Subversion in ‘Désirée's Baby.’” American Literature 62, no. 2 (June 1990): 223-37.

Provides a semiotic and political interpretation of “Désirée's Baby.”

Petry, Alice Hall, ed. Critical Essays on Kate Chopin (1996): 257 p.

Compilation of critical essays.

Seay, Geraldine H. “Kate Chopin's Source for ‘At the 'Cadian Ball’.” Southern Studies VIII, no. nos. 1-2 (winter-spring 1997): 37-42.

Identifies several sources for “At the 'Cadian Ball.”

Steiling, David. “Multi-Cultural Aesthetic in Kate Chopin's ‘A Gentleman of Bayou Teche.’” The Mississippi Quarterly 47, no. 2 (spring 1994): 197-101.

Discusses Chopin's use of irony to address regional and ethnic stereotypes in “A Gentleman of Bayou Teche.”

Additional coverage of Chopin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 33; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 11, 15; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 78; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 3; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 17; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 8; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 127; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Shurbutt, Sylvia Bailey. “The Can River Characters and Revisionist Mythmaking in the Work of Kate Chopin.” The Southern Literary Journal 25, no. 2 (spring 1993): 14-23.

[In the following essay, Shurbutt maintains that in her fiction Chopin “revises accepted myths about duty, marriage, and sexuality in order to achieve a more realistic understanding of the human condition.”]

One of the threads weaving its way through the writing of women from Amelia Lanier to Virginia Woolf is the attempt to recast into a more palatable form traditional Western myth with its patriarchial point of view—a point of view which molds our realities, fixes our values, and limits the vision of individual possibilities. A sizable portion of feminist literary criticism in recent years has been devoted to discovering and decoding those female retellings of archetypal human experience and to explaining how the process of revisionist mythmaking works as women from the past have tried to “rewrite” their stories.

In “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and the Revisionist Mythmaking,” Alicia Ostriker explains the process of revisionist mythmaking: “Whenever a poet employs a figure or story previously accepted and defined by a culture, the poet is using myth, and the potential is always present that the use will be revisionist: that is, the figure or tale will be appropriated for altered ends, the old vessel filled with new wine, initially satisfying the thirst of the individual poet but ultimately making cultural change possible” (317). Ostriker details how “old stories are changed … by female experience, so that they can no longer stand as foundations of collective male fantasy. Instead … they are corrections; they are representations of what women find divine and demonic in themselves; they are retrieved images of what women have collectively and historically suffered; in some cases they are instructions for survival” (316).

There are few better examples of the revisionist process at work than in the regional stories and tales of Kate O'Flaherty Chopin. The Creole characters in such collections as Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie become the perfect vehicle for Chopin's revisionist writing: her Natchitoches folk, with their “directness and lack of sophistication,” their “more genuine and spontaneous, more natural and wholesome” zest for “a hedonist enjoyment of the present” (Seyersted 96), are set apart from the traditional types more susceptible to the patriarchal colorings employed to construct myths about marriage and female sexuality current in Chopin's gilded America of the 1880s and 1890s. In stories like “Charlie” and “The Storm” Chopin presents revised portraits of women achieving fulfillment in roles other than marriage and of women evincing a passionate nature considered inappropriate by conventional, patriarchal standards of “Victorian” America.

Chopin had little patience with the saccharin myths that molded the lives of men and women in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Indeed, as Emily Toth points out in her recent biography, Chopin, as the unconventional wife of a Creole planter, did her best to flaunt the feminine standards of provincial Cloutierville in her own life—galloping through the cane fields astride her stallion, managing the plantation store and her amiable husband, Oscar Chopin, and perhaps even carrying on a torrid affair with friend and neighbor Albert Sampite. Later, in an 1894 published review of the Hoosier poets, Chopin indirectly suggests her own realistic aesthetic, one wonderfully infected with the clear-sighted attempt to revise the limiting images offered by a patriarchal society: “[in their] garden of Eden,” she says of this particular group of Midwestern local colorists, “the disturbing fruit of the tree of knowledge still hangs unplucked.” The real world, as Chopin knew it, was one far removed from the philosophic pablum offered America by this collection of poets; indeed, it was one where, as she wrote, “human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning” is “stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it” (Works [The Complete Works of Kate Chopin] 691-92). Chopin has many of her Creole characters purposefully pluck “the tree” in order to discover their own awakenings; in so doing she revises accepted myths about duty, marriage, and sexuality in order to achieve a more realistic understanding of the human condition. In this article I wish to examine some of those accepted myths of the patriarchy that Chopin attempts to reinterpret or rewrite in her regional fiction.

Pearl K. Bell has written that Chopin was an artist who “dissented from the cultural shibboleths and popular taste” of her time (238). And Barbara Ewell has developed this idea even further as she discusses Chopin's major themes: “the unresolved tensions between a developing self and a rigid social code, the consequences of sexual awareness and its repressions, the nature and cost of self assertion, the role of perception in human behavior” (88). These motifs, which mark “a recurring cadence” in her fiction, however, are female defiance of social convention (Ewell 57) and an affirmation of female selfhood independent of the masculine shadow which generally limits the lives of many Chopin characters.

Helen Taylor finds that in Chopin's canon the Creole characters play a significant role in developing these themes. Of the regional stories, Taylor writes, “Her ironic and resonant use of historical, topographical, and mythical Louisiana materials … functions to interrogate both the southern ideology of womanhood and contradictory constructions of southern femininity in the 1890's” (165). Indeed, Taylor believes that the Louisiana characters offered Chopin a unique opportunity to focus on “issues of gender and sexual definition.” As Chopin's “fiction increasingly exploded taboos around female sexuality and desire,” Taylor continues, “it is perhaps not surprising that she turned to unfamiliar and exotic locations and subjects for fiction. The rural Cane River community of northwest Louisiana … [operates] as symbolic [site] of that elemental sensuality and erotic bliss” that were inappropriate for a woman writer to speak of in her contemporary St. Louis (165). This fact, coupled with the ready market for local color stories during the period, made the Cane River locale particularly suitable for Chopin's revisionist purposes.

The myth most often promulgated by the patriarchy for the purpose of keeping female passions under rein, and the one Chopin finds immense pleasure in revising, is that Victorian notion of woman's somewhat anemic sexuality. The Cane River locale offers a number of particularly successful characters who have no intention of subverting their sexuality merely to conform with patriarchal standards of behavior. Perhaps the vampish Calixta of Chopin's “At the 'Cadian Ball” and the companion story “The Storm” is the best known example of a woman bent on fulfilling her complete sexual potential. However, Gaston Baroda's wife in “A Respectable Woman” is one of the most intriguing examples. When her husband's friend Gouvernail is up from New Orleans “to spend a week or two on the plantation,” she is at first unhappy with his intrusion on her family and home (Awakening and Selected Stories [The Awakening, and Selected Short Stories of Kate Chopin] 194). As she spends time with the gentle, quiet-voiced Gouvernail, so unlike her husband's other men friends, she begin to warm to him, though “why she liked him she could not explain satisfactorily to herself” (194). The attraction she feels for Gouvernail grows, and one evening she experiences the impulse to “draw close to him and whisper against his cheek—she did not care what—as she might have done if she had not been a respectable woman” (197). Some months later as Gaston prepares to invite Gouvernail again to the plantation, he tells his wife, “I am glad, chère amie, to know that you have finally overcome your dislike for him; truly he did not deserve it.” His wife presses a “long, tender kiss on his lips” and replies with curious and playful ambiguity which, however perplexing to her husband, is understood by the reader for its sexual implication: “Oh … I have overcome everything! You will see. This time I shall be very nice to him” (197).

Perhaps the most complex revisionist mythmaking on Chopin's part occurs as she portrays the variety of marital relationships in her fiction. Chopin's own attitude toward marriage was extremely complex. Although Seyersted insists that she was a most contented wife and had extraordinary affection for her Creole husband, Oscar Chopin, enjoyed family life and the presence of her affectionate brood of children around her, her diary records ten years after Oscar's death what she calls “the past ten years of my growth—my real growth.” She goes on to note, however, that were “her mother and husband to return to earth, she would willingly give up everything she had become since their deaths, so the sense of freedom,” as Helen Taylor suggests, “is by no means unequivocal” (141-42). Chopin's personal writing and the reminiscences of her children indicate she did indeed adore her family, the close and loving physical relationship with her husband, and the extraordinary sensations accompanying motherhood; however, much of the fiction suggests that she believed the demands of family and marriage to be diametrically opposed to a woman's achieving her own personal selfhood. Edna Pontellier is perhaps Chopin's best known character to have grappled with the complexities and limitations of marriage; however, the Cane River stories offer Chopin an opportunity to portray the full range and variety of her ideas about marriage and to revise many of the myths associated with women and marriage in the 1890s.

Elizabeth McMahan has written that “Chopin's young women appear to marry because society offers them no other options” (32). Certainly, this is the case with Athénaïse, who marries “because she supposed it was customary for girls to marry when the right opportunity came” (Sel. Stories [The Awakening, and Selected Short Stories of Kate Chopin] 212). Athénaïse is a rebellious, headstrong young woman, whose family had felt that “marriage” would provide for her, as tradition had always mandated it would for a woman, “a wonderful and powerful agent in the development and formation of [her] … character” (216). Her husband Cazeau would provide “a master hand, a strong will that [would compel] obedience” (216), surely what every young wife needed! This attitude of Athénaïse's family was typical for the day and was representative of a patriarchal myth Chopin found particularly offensive. Emily Toth's newly published study of Chopin's life makes it abundantly clear that the principle reason Kate and Oscar Chopin got along so well after marriage was that Kate had free rein to express herself in any way she wished, and Oscar received particular pleasure from seeing her flaunt the expected wifely rules and exert her independence.

As Cazeau slips comfortably into the dominant role society has provided him, so does Athénaïse come to despise their relationship—not the least disappointing aspect of which, to the sheltered, convent-reared Creole, is the sexual part of their life. Athénaïse, who has spent her short life in virtual ignorance of the sexual side of marriage, confides to her brother Montéclin her thinly disguised distaste for her physical relationship with Cazeau:

It's jus' being married that I detes' an' despise, I hate being Mrs. Cazeau, an' would want to be Athénaïse Miché again. I can't stan' to live with a man; to have him always there; his coats an' pantaloons hanging in my room; his ugly bare feet—washing them in my tub, befo' my very eyes, ugh!


When she runs away from Cazeau and returns to her family, he comes to fetch her home as a master would a run-away slave. Chopin's parallel between marriage and slavery—one given double potency in the tragic tale of Zoraïde, who is both a female and a slave forced into an unwanted marriage (“La Belle Zoraïde”)—is made unmistakably clear as Cazeau passes the “great solitary oak” where Black Gabe, his father's own runaway slave, had been recaptured: Cazeau thinks of his wife as he had thought of Black Gabe when he was a boy, and “the whole impression was … hideous” to him (215).

However, whereas Zoraïde, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's famous character in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” escapes in madness, Athénaïse merely attempts to escape the situation. When she runs away a second time, to New Orleans, Cazeau does not follow her, reconciling himself to the irrevocable mistake of their union. He writes to her a touching letter relinquishing her: “the loss of self-respect seemed to him too dear a price to pay for a wife” (221). He does not realize at the time that in setting her free, he will eventually win her back. With the help of her brother, Athénaïse establishes herself in a little apartment in New Orleans, there to become acquainted with Gouvernail, a character that we have previously met in “A Respectable Woman.” Despite the fact that he “suspected that she adored Cazeau,” Gouvernail forms a friendship with Athénaïse that for him melts into a deeper affection.

Barbara Ewell has written of this complex Chopin story that “Athénaïse's problem is that she has not recognized her own sensuality, the agreeable passion that would ameliorate the normal disillusionments of marriage” (110). Certainly, Chopin makes no mistake about exploding the myth that marriage is a woman's raison d'être and an institution which she ought lovingly to give up her identity for. But, at the same time, Chopin reveals the complex nature of female sexuality, tied as it generally was in the nineteenth century to monogamous relationships.

When Athénaïse discovers that she is pregnant, her attitude toward Cazeau and toward their relationship changes: “Her whole being was steeped in a wave of ecstasy. When she … looked at herself in the mirror, a face met hers which she seemed to see for the first time … [and when she thought of Cazeau] the first purely sensuous tremor of her life swept over her” (235). Her pregnancy makes Athénaïse, as Barbara Ewell says, “not only receptive to sexuality but offer[s] her a new power that she did not, and could not, have as a maiden … the possession of her body in its full potential.” Ewell adds that though Chopin was “demonstrably aware of the limitations of marriage,” she was “equally sensitive to the deeply satisfying pleasures of motherhood and the rich sensuality of reproduction. … That she could combine both awarenesses in a single story attests to the complexity of her insight and the maturity of her skills” (111).

One is reminded of this same ambivalence and complexity in the work of contemporary British writer Margaret Drabble, especially in such novels as The Millstone and The Waterfall. In the latter work, the sexuality of the central character, Jane Gray, is greatly enhanced after the birth of her child. Writing of her own experience with childbirth some twenty-three years after the fact, Kate Chopin suggests that particular degree of sensuality many women experience after giving birth: “The sensation with which I touched my lips and my fingertips to his soft flesh only comes once to a mother. It must be the pure animal sensation: nothing spiritual could be so real—so poignant” (Toth 128).

Other Cane River characters help Chopin to revise accepted myths about marriage as well. Mamzelle Aurélle in “Regret” rejects a proposal of marriage to find contentment without love or husband, though she discovers later an emptiness that comes without the presence of children in her life. Madame Delisle in “A Lady of Bayou St. John” had almost given in to the temptation to run away with the sympathetic Sépincourt, who declares his love while her husband is away at war; but when news of her husband's death reaches her, she commits herself to his memory and the loyal veneration of the conventional ideal of marriage. Of course, since the stifling reality of marriage is now quite out of the question for the widowed Madame Delisle, commitment to the ideal presents no special difficulty. Chopin teasingly adds in a postscript to the story that Madame fared very well in her old age and was a “very pretty old lady,” the memory of her husband still filling and satisfying “her days” (187)—thus suggesting not only that the ideal of conventional marriage is completely palatable, in the purest sense, only when the spouse is out of the picture but also that the cares and duties of marriage and motherhood are likely to take their toll on the physical and emotional vitality of a woman.

Certainly, Chopin offers an array of married women whose lives are brought low and vitality sapped by the demands of husbands and children—witness, for example, the faded beauty of Mentine of “A Visit to Avoyelles.” Mentine happily traded her carefree youthful days for marriage to Jules Trodon, and now some seven years and four children later she is visited by an old suitor, Doudouce, who describes his former love with wistful sadness:

[Mentine] had kept the baby in her lap. Doudouce was wondering miserably if he would have known her outside her home. He would have known her sweet, cheerful brown eyes, that were not changed; but her figure, that had looked so trim in the wedding gown, was sadly misshapen. She was brown, with skin like parchment, and piteously thin. There were lines, some deep as if old age had cut them, about the eyes and mouth … [and her voice] had grown shrill from screaming at children and dogs.

(Bayou Folk 226)

“A Visit to Avoyelles,” with its fading heroine and her chivalrous beau from the past, presents another intriguing possibility for revisionist myth-making in the Cane River stories of Chopin—that of revising the myth of the helpless female who must be saved from her wretched condition by the rescuing masculine hero. Mentine has no desire to be saved; indeed, she made her choice seven years ago, and it was not Doudouce whom she chose. Despite his condescending wish to “save” her, she is obviously content with her choice. Her lost beauty, such a tragedy to Doudouce, doesn't appear an issue or a concern to Mentine.

Such chivalrous rescuers as Doudouce fill the work of Chopin. In “Azelie” young Polyte longs “to rescue” the wayward, ragged Azelie from the poverty of her home situation. Much of the appeal that Azelie holds for the industrious, hardworking Polyte is in the Pygmalian reshaping that he might undertake of her character, were he to get her away from what he considered “the demoralizing influences of her family” and make her his own, his wife: “Polyte believed he would be able to awaken Azelie to finer, better impulses when he should have her apart to himself.” When he proposes to Azelie, she looks “at him in amazement,” neither seeing the need nor desiring to be rescued: “Ah, b'en, no. I ain't goin' to stay here wid you, Mr. 'Polyte; I'm goin' yonda on Li'le river wid my popa” (A Night in Acadie 245).

Another potential knightly rescuer is found in the character of lawyer Paxton in “Madame Celestin's Divorce.” The young wife of the selfish, shiftless Celestin has been virtually abandoned, left without any support from her husband. Paxton offers Madame advice and friendship, attempting to convince her of the necessity to file for divorce; all the while the vision of his “rescue” of the wife of Celestin fires a passion that develops into love. While Madame has some difficulty making up her mind (and coming to terms with the priest and her family on the issue of divorce), Chopin leaves little doubt with the reader about the appeal Celestin holds for his wife, an explicit sexual appeal. On the morning that Paxton comes to propose to her himself, she is “plying her broom” as usual, a fresh bloom in her cheeks. As she informs him that she has decided not to seek a divorce (indeed, that Celestin “came home las' night”), she pointedly fondles the phallic broomhandle—“making deep rings in the palm of her gloved hand with the end of the broomhandle” (Sel. Stories 182). Like Azelie, Madame Celestin has little desire to be rescued and less desire to leave a situation which, though it presents many obvious inconveniences, still answers to the sexual needs of her life, needs which neither Père Duchéron nor lawyer Paxton would willingly admit.

A thoroughly delightful Cane River character whom Chopin uses to revise nineteenth-century notions about femininity and marriage is Charlotte Laborde, “Charlie” to her friends and family. Charlie is in some part a revision of everything a little girl should be: she loves riding and shooting, dons a nifty pair of bloomers she calls “trouserlets,” and refuses to fit into the mold of the obedient and demure Southern daughter. Nonetheless, she claims a special place in her father's heart, and when he is injured in an accident, Charlie comes home from the New Orleans finishing school charged with rounding off the rough edges to become mistress of the plantation. In the process, she chooses to delay and possibly even to reject marriage altogether in order to assume the role of leadership in the family, though Chopin intriguingly leaves the door open to the question of marriage at the end of the story. Certainly, if Charlie marries young Mr. Gus, theirs will not be a conventional marriage, but rather one similar to that of Charles Faraday and Eleanor Gail in “A Point at Issue,” who attempt to revise the conventional spousal institution along the lines of the Wollstonecraft and Godwin relationship—two independent, self-fulfilled individuals who offer each other both friendship and passion.

Chopin goes on in her Cane River tales to shatter other patriarchal myths: the self-sacrificing mother/woman in “A Pair of Silk Stockings”; the fulfillment a wife will find who relinquishes her selfhood and her identity into that of her husband (“Desiree's Baby”); the battered woman who must grit her teeth and bear her ill fortune (“In Sabine”); the wisdom of the Church in determining what is moral and right in a woman's life (“A Sentimental Soul”). Certainly, Chopin wrote some stories which confess to the accepted patriarchal party lines of the nineteenth century; she was above all interested in being published, and often stories had to be rewritten to satisfy male editors and a reading public used to less provocative, less threatening images of women. She has a few self-sacrificing wives and mothers, a young head-strong woman tamed by a strong silent male (Zaida Trodon in “A Night in Acadie”), even a Cajun jeune fille eager to be rescued by a competent young knight (Lalie in “Love on the Bon-Dieu”). However, the vast majority of the Cane River stories overtly question accepted myths and attitudes and are obviously revisionist efforts. These tales were likely the ones that interested her most (though some like “The Storm” she would not even attempt to have published), and increasingly they challenged her creative talents, all pointing in the direction of her finest story, The Awakening.

Chopin was well aware of the power of myth in our lives and specifically the power of literature to create myth, to create a reality more potent than real life. In her first attempt at novel writing, Chopin portrays the unfortunate and ill-fated Fanny Hosmer as a woman who succumbs both to cheap wine and cheap novels—the novels being those “unwholesome intellectual sweets so tirelessly, to be devoured by the girls and women of the age” (At Fault 97). Carolyn Heilbrun writes of this power of literature to produce the myth that shapes the lives of women, women who “can only retell and live by the stories … [they] have read or heard.” “We live our lives through texts,” Heilbrun remarks, “They may be read or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all” (37). Feminist critics are discovering that a sizable portion of nineteenth-century literature by women was created as a response to patriarchal myths—whether the response was direct and overt as in the work of Chopin or indirect and masked as in the work of Christina Rossetti or George Eliot. Heilbrun concludes by saying that there can be true narratives of female lives “only when women no longer live their lives isolated in the houses and the stories of men” (47). Katherine O'Flaherty Chopin for a brief space at the end of the nineteenth century had the courage to write her own story; in doing so, she has helped women today to write theirs.

Works Cited

Bell, Pearl, K. “Kate Chopin and Sarah Orne Jewett.” Partisan Review 55 (1988): 238-53.

Chopin, Kate. At Fault. Cambridge, MA: The Green Street Press, 1986.

———. The Awakening and Selected Stories. New York: New American Library, 1976.

———. Bayou Folk. New York: Garrett Press, 1970.

———. Complete Works. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.

———. A Night in Acadie. New York: Garrett Press, 1968.

Ewell, Barbara C. Kate Chopin. New York: Ungar, 1986.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing A Woman's Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

McMahan, Elizabeth. “‘Nature's Decoy’: Kate Chopin's Presentation of Women and Marriage in her Short Fiction.” Turn-of-the-Century Women 2 (Winter 1985): 32-35.

Ostriker, Alicia. “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking.” Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980.

Taylor, Helen. Gender, Race, and Region in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart and Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1990.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Martha J. Cutter (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Cutter, Martha J. “Losing the Battle but Winning the War: Resistance to Patriarchal Discourse in Kate Chopin's Short Fiction.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 11, no. 1 (1994): 17-36.

[In the following essay, Cutter traces the development of Chopin's resistance to patriarchal authority as evinced in her short fiction.]

In “‘A Language Which Nobody Understood’: Emancipatory Strategies in The Awakening,” Patricia S. Yaeger argues that The Awakening describes “a frightening antagonism between a feminine subject and the objectifying world of discourse she inhabits” (211).1 This antagonistic relationship also is present in Chopin's short fiction, which depicts women's inability to voice their own experiences. And yet, although Chopin continually demonstrates the way patriarchal forces exclude women from discourse, a comparison of Chopin's early and later short works shows her moving towards a clearer understanding of how women most effectively can resist patriarchal suppression. In her earlier works, Chopin frequently depicts both silent, passive women—women who seem incapable of expressing themselves or their desires—and women who overtly attempt to enunciate their desires and experiences only to have their voices labelled meaningless or “insane.” Early works such as “At the ‘Cadian Ball,” “Wiser than A God,” and particularly “Mrs. Mobry's Reason,” depict a voice of pure resistance which attempts to locate itself outside of patriarchal discourse; however, these resistant voices are quickly erased, negated, or labelled “insane” by patriarchal structures.

In some of Chopin's later works, however—particularly those written during or after 1894—she moves towards depicting women who are more active and more vocal. Moreover, these stories' strategies of resistance often entail what I call a “voice couvert”: a voice which attempts to undermine patriarchal discourse through mimicry and through hollowing out the patriarchy from within its own structures. These covert female voices attempt to force patriarchal discourse into a subversive dialogue, a dialogue which shows patriarchal categories to be non-absolute.2 Works such as “An Egyptian Cigarette,” “Her Letters,” “Elizabeth Stock's One Story,” and “Charlie” depict a discourse of insubordination which attempts to bridge the gap between women who speak “a language which nobody understood” and women who are silenced by prior social inscriptions.3 Chopin realizes that, as Jane Gallop explains, “Infidelity … is a feminist practice of undermining the Name-of-the-Father. … [However] Infidelity is not outside the system of marriage, the symbolic, patriarchy, but hollows it out, ruins it, from within” (48). These later works therefore reject a resisting voice that operates outside of patriarchal discourse, finding instead a voice that disrupts and mimics patriarchy from within its own discursive parameters.

Although Chopin is concerned with women's relationship to discourse throughout her career, I do not mean to suggest that in her short fiction we can discern a linear movement from silence to voice.4 Rather, as her career progressed Chopin continued to test the ways women could—and could not—achieve articulation, finding eventually a “voice couvert” which (at its most effective) undermined the patriarchy from within its own paradigms. Given her own experiences as a writer, Chopin's development of a covert voice seems logical. Early in her career, when she wrote charming Creole stories with happy endings, she had little difficulty finding publishers. Moreover, when she depicted women who were silent and submissive, the reading public readily accepted her works. As Chopin developed as a writer, however, she found herself testing the limits of her publishers and her audience. As Emily Toth has shown, after 1894 Chopin attempted to be more daring in her fiction; concurrently she had more difficulty finding publishers for her short stories.5 Moreover, her most subversive works—works which often involved heroines with strong desires and voices—were repeatedly refused by publishers and, of course, the public and literary critics alike condemned Chopin's portrayal of the unconventional Edna Pontellier. Toward the end of the short decade during which Chopin wrote, she did not even attempt to publish works such as “The Storm” which posited a direct challenge to the literary and moral standards of her time. Yet she did not give up entirely on challenging these standards; rather, her challenge went “underground”—it became less open and direct, more covert and inscribed. These covert strategies of resistance were Chopin's most effective weapon, because they allowed her to slip subversive messages past the censoring dictates of her own society. In the end, then, Chopin did find a voice of resistance which was an effective strategy for undermining patriarchal repression of female voice.

Early in her career, Chopin is concerned with the repression of female voice, yet her concern takes the form of depicting women who are silent, women who seek but do not find a voice, or women who find a voice only to have it misunderstood, labelled insane or meaningless. In an early story like “A No-Account Creole” (1888; 1891),6 for example, Euphrasie becomes engaged to Placide Santien simply because “she saw no reason why she should not be his wife when he asked her to” (86). When Euphrasie realizes she loves another man, Wallace Offdean, she takes no steps to end her engagement; in fact, even when Offdean declares his love for Euphrasie, she still cannot enunciate her desire: “She could not speak. She only looked at him with frightened eyes” (98). Throughout the story Euphrasie remains incapable of expressing her marital preferences and embarrassed about her sexual attraction to Offdean.7 Similarly, in another early story, “Love on the Bon-Dieu” (1891), Lalie's silence causes her great harm: “Because she had been silent—had not lifted her voice in complaint—[the village people] believed she suffered no more than she could bear” (162). For Lalie, speech is a great effort: “Lalie had spoken low and in jerks, as if every word gave her pain” (160). And like Euphrasie, Lalie seems incapable of enunciating her desire; she almost dies with her secret—her love for Azenor—completely unspoken.

These female characters are relatively passive, so perhaps it is no surprise that their voices seem ineffective or inarticulate. Yet even more aggressive women—such as Calixta and Clarisse of “At the ‘Cadian Ball” (1892)—have difficulty enunciating their sexual desires. In this story, Calixta exhibits verbal dexterity, swearing “roundly in fine ‘Cadian French and with true Spanish spirit” (219) and wittily chiding Bobinôt for standing “planté là like ole Ma'ame Tina's cow in the bog” (224). Yet Calixta's society dislikes her linguistic proficiency, as the crowd's reaction to this sally demonstrates: “Madame Suzonne, sitting in a corner, whispered to her neighbor that if Ozéina were to conduct herself in a like manner, she should immediately be taken out the mule-cart and driven home. The women did not always approve of Calixta” (224). Apart from her linguistic forwardness, Calixta also behaves aggressively, slapping her friend Fronie's face when insulted, and eventually forcing Bobinôt to marry her.

Clarisse, too, is aggressive; she rides out alone in the middle of the night to “rescue” Alcée from Calixta, and forces him away from her rival. Yet while Calixta is linguistically aggressive, Clarisse plays the role of the soft-spoken, respectable woman; she speaks in a restrained and maidenly way, trying to console Alcée with “soft, purring words of condolence” (221). Of course, she is shocked by the “hot, blistering love-words” Alcée pants into her face one day, and responds with a minimal emotional and verbal response: “‘Monsieur! … Par Exemple!’ she muttered disdainfully, as she turned from him, deftly adjusting the careful toilet that he had so brutally disarranged” (220-21). Even when Clarisse does feel an emotional response for Alcée (or at least a desire to keep him away from Calixta), she invents pretexts to get him away from the dance, only obtusely hinting at her jealousy: “I thought, Alcée—maybe you were going to—to Assumption. I got wild. An' then I knew if you did n't come back, now, tonight, I could n't stan' it,—again” (227). Eventually, Clarisse admits she loves Alcée, but Chopin switches to indirect discourse and narrates this moment through the eyes of Alcée: “He began to wonder if this meant love. But she had to tell him so, before he believed it. And when she told him, he thought the face of the Universe was changed. … The one, only, great reality in the world was Clarisse standing before him, telling him that she loved him” (227). For the delicate Clarisse to enunciate her desire for Alcée would break the narrative parameters established for her character—as well as for the series of women Chopin portrays in these early works. And as we know from “The Storm” (1989) (the sequel to “At the 'Cadian Ball”), more linguistic aggressively women such as Calixta end up with boring men like Bobinôt, and have to wait five years for the consummation of their desires.

In Chopin's earliest works, then, women are portrayed as repressing their desires, and women who speak out are often punished for their transgressions. Even as late as 1896, Chopin sometimes censored her linguistically aggressive female characters—mainly at the demands of her publishers. For example, “A Night in Acadie” depicts another woman who is much too unrestrained: Zaïda Trodon. Chopin's description emphasizes Zaïda's independence from feminine norms: “She carried herself boldly and stepped out freely and easily, like a negress. There was an absence of reserve in her manner; yet there was no lack of womanliness. She had the air of a young person accustomed to decide for herself and for those about her” (487). As in other places in her writings, Chopin here associates freedom from social norms with certain races; Zaïda's having the freedom of movement of a “negress” sets her apart from other white women bound by conventional stereotypes of femininity.8 Yet Zaïda's freedom is only momentary; after she realizes that her would-be fiancé is a drunkard, after she must be rescued by the stolid Telèsphore, she loses her self-control and even her voice: “Her will, which had been overmastering and aggressive, seemed to have grown numb under the disturbing spell of the past few hours. … The girl was quiet and silent” (498-99). The last phrase—that the girl is both “quiet and silent”—may seem repetitive for the usually concise Chopin, yet this phrase marks Chopin's double attempt to appease her editors, who had complained about the story's first ending, in which Zaïda forces Telèsphore to marry her. According to Toth, this ending offended Chopin's publishers, and Chopin bent to the literary tastes of her time.9 Even in her later works, then, Chopin sometimes was forced to censor her aggressive and vocal heroines.

The series of works I have discussed so far depict women whose aggressive voices are suppressed, but another series of Chopin's texts show women who find overtly resistant voices only to have these voices labelled “insane” or meaningless. In “Wiser than A God” (1889), Paula Von Stoltz's suitor, George Brainard, talks fluently, utilizing the language of romantic passion, while Paula is silent: “I have been mounting into higher and always higher circles of Paradise, under a blessed illusion that you—cared for me. … Say if you love me, Paula. I believe you do. … Why are you speechless? Why don't you say something to me!” (46). Paula does finally attempt to explain her emotions to George:

“What do you know of my life,” [Paula] exclaimed passionately. “What can you guess of it? Is music anything more to you than the pleasing distraction of an idle moment? Can't you feel that with me, it courses with the blood through my veins? That it's something dearer than life, than riches, even than love?” with a quiver of pain.


Paula's speech calls upon codes other than those of romantic love and articulates the view that to an artist—even a female artist—art is life. None of this is understood by George, who only exclaims: “Paula listen to me; don't speak like a mad woman” (46). Paula flees from George and pursues her art, eventually becoming a successful pianist. Perhaps in the end language is simply not important to Paula—she succeeds without it. But Paula continually finds that her attempts to explain her needs are not heard at all; even her mother tells her not to “chatter” (40).

Even later in her career, Chopin sometimes depicts the way patriarchal forces undercut female voices by labelling them “mad” or “meaningless.” Chopin wrote to support herself, and the need to be accepted by publishers and readers may at times have lead her to compromise her efforts to create a voice of resistance. “Athénaïse” (1895), for example, contains a potentially subversive equation of slavery and marriage, as well as a vocal heroine who repeatedly protests sexual and linguistic repression. Athénaïse repeatedly denounces the institution of marriage, which inscribes her under her husband's name: “It's jus' being married that I detes' an' despise. I hate being Mrs. Cazeau, an' would want to be Athénaïse Miché again” (431). Athénaïse has realized the oppressive social structure of marriage wherein, as Nelly Furman explains, “differences among individuals are seemingly dissolved under one name, the name of the father” (76). Athénaïse cannot escape the social and linguistic oppression marriage sustains, nor can she escape the sexual oppression marriage permits. She detests the physical side of her relationship to Cazeau, perhaps because it involves marital rape: her husband knows that he can “compel [Athénaïse's] cold and unwilling submission to his love and passionate transports” (438).

Athénaïse finds herself enmeshed in a patriarchal structure—marriage—which excludes her own sense of identity and permits her oppression, and she attempts to use language to protest this oppression. Yet these attempts go unheard: “Her friends laughed at her, and refused to take seriously the hints which she threw out,—feeling her way to discover if marriage were as distasteful to other women as to herself” (436). Moreover, her husband refuses to discuss their marriage, despite her many pleas. When Cazeau finally does speak to Athénaïse, the exchange is clearly based in his own discourse, for he uses the language of commerce: “I don' see anything to do but make the best of a bad bargain, an' shake han's over it” (435). Certainly, Athénaïse finds marriage to be more than “a bad bargain,” but no one hears or understands her protests. It is no wonder, then, that after a brief period of rebellion, Athénaïse miraculously becomes indoctrinated into the views of her society. Finding herself pregnant, she suddenly feels desire for her husband and forgets her dislike of the institution of marriage. She also forgets the resistant voice she has utilized up to this point: “She kept looking from the carriage window, silent, and embarrassed as Eve after losing her ignorance” (453). She opts instead for a discourse of domesticity and love, and Athénaïse's final words in the story concern the domestic realm: “Listen, Cazeau! How Juliette's baby is crying! Pauve ti chou, I wonder w'at is the matter with it?” (454). Chopin depicts a woman who indoctrinates herself into the “cult of domesticity,” foregoing her earlier attempts to use language as an instrument of resistance.

Yet while the plot concludes on a note of domestic and marital bliss, the imagery of the story undercuts this harmony. When Cazeau retrieves Athénaïse from her family, he recalls his father's recapturing of a runaway slave, Black Gabe; Chopin thus imagistically connects Athénaïse's return to her marriage with the institution of slavery.10 Even the story's conclusion enforces the connection between marriage and enslavement; a “little negro baby” is crying somewhere (454) and Athénaïse wonders what “is the matter” with the child. The story's imagery clearly suggests that something “is the matter” with this picture of domestic “bliss.” Yet the imagistic dissonance does not negate the inscription within a discourse of domesticity that the story's ending enforces. The story as a whole remains a tantalizingly suggestive but only partial critique of patriarchal repression of women's voice and agency.

Like “Wiser Than a God” and “Athénaïse,” “Mrs. Mobry's Reason” (1891) depicts women trapped between patriarchal silence and a discourse labelled meaningless or insane.11 Indeed, as the title indicates, the story focuses on sanity, on reason, but it also concerns a generational struggle for voice in which the mother, Editha Mobry, acquiesces and is silenced, while the daughter, Naomi, resists and becomes insane. Editha is reluctant to marry John Mobry, but he is “of that class of men who, when they want something, usually keep on wanting it and striving for it so long as there is possibility of attainment in view” (71). Editha cannot resist such a superior force of “wanting,” despite her own obvious lack of enthusiasm for the marriage: “Her tired face wore the look of the conquered who has made a brave fight and would rest. ‘Well, John, if you want it,’ she said, placing her hand in his” (71). Linguistically, Editha also succumbs to John's desire; she never explains her reason for being unwilling to marry, and she never voices any direct opposition to her husband's wishes.

Editha Mobry therefore enters the symbolic order of language only by internalizing male desire; she phrases her wishes in terms of the male's—“Well, John, if you want it”—even enclosing her body—her hand—within the masculine sphere of desire. Because Editha enters the symbolic through the masculine gaze she silences herself; as feminist critics of Lacanian theory have pointed out, “in a psycholinguistic world structured by father-son resemblance and rivalry and by the primacy of masculine logic, woman is a gap or a silence, the invisible and unheard sex” (Ann Rosalind Jones 83). Editha Mobry also tries to make her daughter part of this “invisible and unheard sex.” Mrs. Mobry is a firm believer in the late nineteenth-century view that women should not develop their intellect and minds; she believes that “ologies and isms and all that for women” (72) are useless and possibly injurious to women's mental stability, and she will not allow her daughter to engage in intellectual pursuits.

Mrs. Mobry, then, takes a passive stance towards language, and she bars her daughter from the portals of knowledge and education which might promote a mastery of language. However, Mrs. Mobry has a secret, unexpressed reason for her behavior. Her lineage contains a hereditary strain of insanity (possibly caused by venereal disease) and her reluctance to marry stems from a fear of passing on this taint to her children. She also tries to prevent the spread of insanity by keeping her daughter unmarried; as she tells Naomi's suitor, Sigmund: “it's our intention, and Naomi's, too, that she shall never marry” (74).

Mrs. Mobry attempts to shield her daughter from both sexual and intellectual knowledge, from learning and love. Yet her attempts are unsuccessful; Naomi falls in love with Sigmund, and caught between her desire for Sigmund and her desire for her mother's approbation, she loses her mind. Moreover, when Naomi loses mental self-possession, she begins to speak a language which is not grounded in any normative conception of meaning. She believes that she has mastered all discourse and even can understand what nature is saying: “I know everything now. I know what the birds are saying up in the trees … I can tell you everything that the fishes say in the water. They were talking under the boat when you called me—” (78). Naomi claims to know and understand everything: all of nature, all knowledge, all language. Naomi's unrepressed language also is tied to a sexual liberation: “‘Sigmund,’ she whispered, and drawing nearer to him twined her arms around his neck. ‘I want you to kiss me, Sigmund’” (78). But Naomi speaks “a language which nobody understood”—a language which is so contradictory and illogical that it can only be considered insane. Sigmund, for example, reads Naomi as a blank; looking into her eyes, he finds that “there was no more light in them” (78). Furthermore, by the end of the story Naomi has become silent: “Naomi sat upon a lounge. She was playing like a little child, with scraps of paper that she was tearing and placing in rows upon the cushion beside her” (79). Naomi finally can only escape from patriarchal dictates by regressing into the silent passivity of childhood.

The discourse Naomi achieves in “Mrs. Mobry's Reason” is thus a form of escape from patriarchal repression which renders the escapee insane and erases her personality. Between the “silent women” in the corridor (the mother) and the daughter's insane babble, there must be an alternative discourse. This is the discourse not of overt resistance, but of covert subversion depicted in several of Chopin's stories written during or after 1894. This “voice couvert” is a risky strategy, for it may be so hidden that its message goes unheard. Yet at its most successful, it creates a subversive dialogue which undermines patriarchal repression of women's voices. Chopin's female characters (and Chopin herself), then, may not escape patriarchal discourse, but they do succeed in calling it into question. In so doing, they give voice to a kind of feminist critique of language, for as Furman has explained, “Although it may be impossible, in the end, to escape the hegemony of patriarchal structures, none the less, by unveiling the prejudices at work in our cultural artefacts, we impugn the universality of the man-made models provided to us, and allow for the possibility of sidestepping and subverting their power” (76). The covert voices created in Chopin's later fiction give voice to women's Otherness and create the possibility of sidestepping or subverting patriarchal discourse.

Some of Chopin's covert voices specifically reject a discourse of insanity located outside the realm of actuality, opting instead for more traditional arenas of struggle. In “An Egyptian Cigarette” (1897), for example, a male friend gives the narrator (a woman) a small box of cigarettes; she escapes “the incessant chatter of the women” (571) by retreating to the smoking room. The narrator (who may be a writer) allies the box of cigarettes with language, or more specifically with letters and texts:

The box was covered with glazed, yellow paper, so skillfully gummed as to appear to be all one piece. It bore no label, no stamp—nothing to indicate its contents.

“How do you know they are cigarettes?” I asked, taking the box and turning it stupidly around as one turns a sealed letter and speculates before opening it.

“I only know what he told me,” replied the Architect, “but it is easy enough to determine the question of his integrity.” He handed me a sharp, pointed paper-cutter, and with it I opened the lid as carefully as possible.

The box contained six cigarettes, evidently hand-made. The wrappers were of pale-yellow paper, and the tobacco was almost the same color.

(570, my emphasis)

Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's yellow wallpaper, these yellow cigarettes, covered in a box with yellow paper and rolled in yellow wrappers, become an emblem for the woman writer's difficulties with patriarchal discourse and her attempts to find an alternative voice. When the narrator smokes one of these cigarettes she has an incredibly intense, hallucinogenic vision. In the fifteen minutes that pass while the narrator experiences the vision, she feels pain, hope, love, exaltation, degradation, and ecstasy. The cigarettes, then, seem to provide a way to escape the everyday world of “women's chatter” and find a transcendent experience of artistic inspiration.

Yet Chopin's text reveals the limitation of this supposedly “free” realm of transcendent discourse. In this other realm, a large part of the narrator's vision centers on the suffering of an Egyptian woman who has been abandoned by her lover. The narrator's escape into an illusionary, timeless world therefore is not an escape from women's suffering: the visionary world only reveals that women's suffering is eternal. Furthermore, the escape into a magical world is not an escape into a “free” language; silence is a part of the Egyptian woman's suffering—the silence of her lover who abandons her, as well as her own silence, which may emblematize the silent woman under patriarchy: “The sand has crept between my lips and teeth and under my parched tongue” (572). Nor does Chopin's narrator see this world as a possible avenue of artistic liberation, for she specifically rejects this escape into a timeless, non-linear space of extraordinary discourse. Chopin's character specifically rejects, in other words, the hyperlinguistic language of insanity chosen by Naomi Mobry. Although the cigarettes promise other visions, the narrator destroys them:

As I looked at the cigarettes in their pale wrappers, I wondered what other visions they might hold for me; what might I not find in their mystic fumes? Perhaps a vision of celestial peace; a dream of hopes fulfilled; a taste of rapture, such as had not entered into my mind to conceive.

I took the cigarettes and crumpled them between my hands. I walked to the window and spread my palms wide.


The narrator rejects the dream of a transcendent, visionary language that is not implicated in patriarchal discourse. Instead, linguistic struggles must be waged in the here-and-now, in the daily “chatter of women.” For as Dale Bauer explains, “The feminist struggle is not one between a conscious ‘awakened’ or natural voice and the voice of patriarchy ‘out there.’ Rather, precisely because we all internalize the authoritative voice of patriarchy, we must struggle to refashion inherited social discourses into words which rearticulate intentions (here feminist ones) other than normative or disciplinary ones” (2). The narrator opts instead to continue the struggle for voice through covert, dialogic methods—through refashioning of inherited discourses, rather than fabrication of an “alternative” language.

To understand what these covert dialogic methods might be, however, we must look more closely at two of Chopin's portrayals of women who write. “Her Letters” (1894), an early version of a “voice couvert,” tells of a dying woman unable to destroy her adulterous love letters. Upon her death, she compels her husband to destroy the letters unread. The husband does so, but then finds himself consumed by the mystery of their contents. Unable to pierce the mystery, he eventually follows the letters to their watery grave, drowning himself.

Clearly the unnamed woman's letters are subversive in the most literal sense: they drive a husband to question his own perception of his wife and kill himself. However, these letters are also subversive in a discursive sense, both for the woman and for her husband. This forbidden discourse—not her husband's presence or counsel—has sustained the woman for the last four years of her illness: “they had sustained her, she believed, and kept her spirit from perishing utterly” (398). Moreover, the letters—not her husband, or even her lover—provide the story's one moment of erotic pleasure:

But what if that other most precious and most imprudent one were missing! in which every word of untempered passion had long ago eaten its way into her brain; and which stirred her still to-day, as it had done a hundred times before when she thought of it. She crushed it between her palms when she found it. She kissed it again and again. With her sharp white teeth she tore the far corner from the letter, where the name was written; she bit the torn scrap and tasted it between her lips and upon her tongue like some god-given morsel.


In this subversive revision of the Eucharist, the word becomes wholly sensual, yet wholly disembodied. It is not her lover's presence which the woman relishes, but the tokens of their mutual esteem, the words which made up their dialogic intercourse. For the woman, discourse has become a subversive replacement for the bodies of men.

For the husband, the letters function differently, forcing him into a subversive dialogue which completely undermines his sense of knowledge and subjectivity. His wife's secret letters irrevocably change his world, for he realizes their probable contents. Although he can find no other written evidence which documents that “his wife had not been the true and loyal woman he had always believed her to be” (403), he continues to believe that she had a secret, and he continues to attempt to penetrate it. He even searches through her books for tell-tale passages that she might have underlined, but discovers nothing: “nowhere, by the shadow of a sign, could he find that the author had echoed the secret of her existence—the secret which he had held in his hands and had cast into the river” (404). He can find no confirmation, but the letters seem to prove that his wife had a hidden, more sensual nature, a hidden personality which he could not discover while she was alive, and cannot fathom after her death.

These covert texts, these unfathomable letters force the husband into a subversive dialogue questioning his monolithic perception of his wife. He continues this dialogue with other men who have known her, but finds only that his friends also misperceive her: “Foremost he learned she had been unsympathetic because of her coldness of manner. One had admired her intellect; another her accomplishments; a third had thought her beautiful before disease claimed her, regretting, however, that her beauty had lacked warmth of color and expression. … Oh, it was useless to try to discover anything from men!” (404). Men believe his wife to be cold and asexual, but the letters seem to tell another story—a story which is closer to the stories told of her by women: “It was women who would talk of what they knew. … Most of them had loved her; those who had not had held her in respect and esteem” (404). The husband thus finds that the letters enact a subversive dialogue that undermines his perceptions of the woman he thought he knew so well.

The letters, besides creating a dialogic problem, also create a linguistic problem, causing the husband to question his own understanding of how words function. Previously, when his friends boasted of their conquests of women, he had “heard the empty boast … and had always met it with good-humored contempt” (403). Now, however, he distrusts his perception that these words are “empty”: “to-night every flagrant, inane utterance was charged with a new meaning, revealing possibilities that he had hitherto never taken into account” (403). The letters alert the husband to a play of truth and untruth within language, to levels of covert meaning which he has previously believed he could fathom, but now finds he cannot: “He was remembering how she had conducted herself toward this one and that one; striving to recall conversations, subtleties of facial expression that might have meant what he did not suspect at the moment, shades of meaning in words that had seemed the ordinary interchange of social amenities” (403; my emphasis). The husband seems to have an awakening into the unreliable and potentially disruptive possibilities of language—an awakening which profoundly destabilizes his whole universe.

Ultimately, the husband's identity and sense of language is so destabilized that he kills himself. If subjectivity is irremediably founded on the oppression of the Other, then endowing this Other with some unfathomable but private sense of self—as Chopin's covert letters do—undermines the construction of male subjectivity. As Luce Irigaray explains: “If there is no more ‘earth’ to press down/repress, to work, to represent, but also and always to desire (for one's own), no opaque matter which in theory does not know herself, then what pedestal remains for the ex-sistence of the ‘subject’?” (133). Covert texts such as these letters take away the pedestal for the existence of the subject by suggesting that men do not really know the women they marry, live with, and believe they construct.

Texts, it seems, have a life of their own, a life that can create a subversive dialogue which begins to undo some of the erasures of the patriarchal story, the “master plot.” The wife dies, but her letters take on an existence of their own, undermining the “official version” of this exemplary woman's life, affirming the presence of a subject who subverts patriarchal ideals and patriarchal discourse. Similarly, the title character of “Elizabeth Stock's One Story” dies but leaves behind a text which undermines patriarchal control of discourse by giving voice to her subjectivity.12

Unlike Editha Mobry, Elizabeth Stock insists on controlling and speaking her destiny, and in this sense she resembles several heroines present in Chopin's later fiction. In “The Unexpected” (1895), for example, Dorothea refuses to marry a wealthy man for whom she no longer feels any desire, finally finding her voice and asserting her preferences: “She had never spoken a word after bidding him good-by; but now she seemed disposed to make confidants of the tremulous leaves, or the crawling and hopping insects, or the big sky into which she was staring. ‘Never!’ she whispered, ‘not for all his thousands! Never, never! not for millions!’” (461). In “A Family Affair” (1897), a resourceful young woman named Bosey reclaims her family's possessions and silences her possessive and greedy old patriarchal aunt. Bosey engages in a covert war against the reigning order; she seems to be a perfect domestic saint, a wonderful housekeeper, but in reality she is manipulating events in order to reclaim her mother's share of an inheritance.

Like Bosey, Elizabeth Stock's strategy of resistance is inscribed within the existing order, but works to hollow it out from within. First Elizabeth disarms her readers by seeming to be perfectly forthright: “My name is Elizabeth Stock. I'm thirty-eight years old and unmarried, and not afraid or ashamed to say it” (587). Elizabeth is an independent woman who supports herself through her job as post-mistress in the small village of Stonelift, and claims that she has “been pretty comfortable and contented most of my life.” As Barbara Ewell has noted, Elizabeth is one of Chopin's strongest, most self-possessed females; she is not a “woeful ‘old maid,’” but rather “a proud, independent woman of responsibility” (167).

Within the society Chopin depicts, however, an independent woman cannot be tolerated for long. When Elizabeth reads and delivers an urgent postcard that arrives late, officials dismiss her for “reading postal cards and permitting people to help themselves to their own mail” (590). Rather than respecting the fact that only privileged figures have access to “letters,” Elizabeth allows people to help themselves. Therefore, she must be dismissed by an “official” text for her transgressive, unofficial textual practices: “one morning, just like lightning out of a clear sky, here comes an official document from Washington, discharging me from my position as postmistress of Stonelift” (590). After her dismissal from her job she becomes ill and dies. Ultimately Elizabeth's transgressive reading of texts deprives her of both her income and her life; official texts turn upon her, attacking her body and her mind, driving her away from both. Males retake the mail.13

According to the narrator who introduces Elizabeth's story, the physicians at the hospital where Elizabeth is sent to recuperate “say she showed hope of rallying till placed in the incurable ward, when all courage seemed to leave her, and she relapsed into a silence that remained unbroken till the end” (586). Yet Elizabeth's silence is not “unbroken to the end”; her silence is only the final battle in a long but covert war for self-expression which she has waged. Elizabeth is not content with the limits that a patriarchal society has placed on her access to texts. There is a certain “Bartlebyesque” kind of irony in her job as a post-mistress: she is responsible for the care and sorting of letters, yet she is not supposed to read these letters. But, as she explains, it is human nature—especially feminine nature—to want to possess knowledge: “I leave it to any one—to any woman especially, if it ain't human nature in a little place where everybody knows every one else, for the post-mistress to glance at a postal card once in a while. She could hardly help it. And besides, seems like if a person had anything very particular and private to tell, they'd put it under a sealed envelope” (587). Elizabeth believes that certain types of writing—i.e., postcards—are not under “a sealed envelope” and tries to obtain access to them.

Elizabeth's subversive reading practices insist that everyone has access to texts, not just a privileged minority. But Elizabeth desires to do more than just read texts; she also desires to produce them, as the narrator informs the readers: “In Stonelift, the village where Elizabeth Stock was born and raised … they say she was much given over to scribbling” (586). But again, patriarchal forces must attempt to control and limit women's discursive potential; Elizabeth's writing, like her body, must be deemed hopeless and incurable. The narrator finds the story—Elizabeth's one and only story—in her desk, “which was quite filled with scraps and bits of writing in bad prose and impossible verse.” Out of “the whole conglomerate mass” the narrator can discover only one item which “bore any semblance to a connected or consecutive narration” (586).14 Elizabeth's one story, then, is a found narrative, and after this belittling introduction, the narrator disappears, letting the story speak for itself.

Perhaps influenced by certain masculine notions of literature which were current in the late 1880s and early 1890s, the narrator faults Elizabeth's writing for lacking a coherent, linear style.15 Elizabeth's Uncle William, on the other hand, derides her stories because they lack a unique and adventurous plot, as she explains: “Once I wrote about old Si' Shepard that got lost in the woods and never came back, and when I showed it to Uncle William he said: ‘Why, Elizabeth, I reckon you better stick to your dress making: this here ain't no story; everybody knows about old Si' Shepard’” (586). Like the narrator, Uncle William believes Elizabeth's writing is “incurable,” and he sends her back to more feminine pursuits like dress-making. Elizabeth's society extols masculine, heroic narratives—“new adventures” Elizabeth finds herself unable to produce:

[T]he trouble was with plots. Whenever I tried to think of one, it always turned out to be something that some one else had thought about before me. But here back awhile, I heard of great inducements offered for an acceptable story. … I tried to think of a railroad story with a wreck, but couldn't. No more could I make a tale out of murder, or money getting stolen, or even mistaken identity; for the story had to be original, entertaining, full of action and Goodness knows what all. It was no use. I gave it up.


Elizabeth cannot come up with any original, action-packed, muscular design for a plot; she cannot come up with a tale of adventure or heroism, of train wrecks, murder, or money.

Yet Elizabeth still wants to write: “But now that I got my pen in my hand … I feel as I'd like to tell how I lost my position, mostly through my own negligence, I'll admit that” (587). Admitting the negligence of the story, itself, as a story, Elizabeth's tale nonetheless asserts its right to textual existence. If Elizabeth cannot tell the tale of an American Adam, she may be able to tell the tale of an American Eve—the tale of a woman who tastes of forbidden knowledge, forbidden discourse, and thereby loses a privileged status. Her style also reflects her impulses and desires, for she articulates her story in a language that emphasizes its differences from patriarchal forms of writing. Elizabeth's story is fragmentary and nonlinear, moving far back into Elizabeth's childhood, plunging forward into the present, receding to the past events of Elizabeth losing her job. The story vacillates, waffles, digresses, gives details that do not relate to the “plot” of Elizabeth losing her job, and frequently draws attention to its own flaws. Furthermore the tone is personal, subjective, colloquial: “Often seems like the village was most too small”; “Anyway, the train was late that day. It was the breaking up of winter, or the beginning of spring; kind of betwixt and between; along in March” (587). Most important, at the heart of the story there is a mystery: was Elizabeth the victim of a plot to oust her from her position as post-mistress? And is she aware of the details which could support such a reading of events? On this crucial point the text is silent; it remains a riddle, a structure which resists closure by asserting its own mysteriousness.

According to Barbara Ewell, Elizabeth's voice is “colloquial and elliptical”; furthermore, “the one story Elizabeth Stock finally tells … has no conventional plot” (166). Elizabeth's story emphasizes its difference from patriarchal forms of writing through its cumulative, rather than linear structure, its multiple narrative viewpoints, and its open ending: “But indeed, indeed, I don't know what to do. … After all, what I got to do is leave everything in the hands of Providence, and trust to luck” (591). Elizabeth also allies her writing not with masculine novelty and heroism, but with the repetitive, non-linear structures of piecing and quilting: “I laid awake most a whole week; and walked about days in a kind of dream, turning and twisting things in my mind just like I often saw old ladies twisting quilt patches around to compose a design” (586-87). So while Elizabeth's other scraps and bits of writing have been read as babble and discarded, the tale itself endures, pieced, patched, and puzzling, but uniquely expressive of her own voice. Thus Elizabeth's silence is not “unbroken to the end,” as the narrator claims; sometime after losing her job, but before she dies, she describes her experiences in her own, unique way.16

In earlier depictions of women writers such as “Miss Witherwell's Mistake” (1889), Chopin shows women content to write about domestic topics such as “Security Against the Moth.” But Elizabeth refuses to force her writing to conform to patriarchal dictates, either in style or content. Elizabeth's tale is not a form of patriarchal discourse like Miss Witherwell's domestic advice or the letter Elizabeth receives from “Uncle Sam,” but it is also not totally outside the realm of patriarchal understanding, like the “scraps and bits of writing” which the narrator finds in Elizabeth's desk and discards. The unknown narrator does not see this one particular tale as stylistically “incurable”; believing it to tell a connected, consecutive narrative, he admits it to the sanctified halls of discourse. Elizabeth's tale exists in a middle ground: it is neither a linear, masculine, patriarchal plot, nor an insane, illogical, fragmented feminine discourse.

Unlike Naomi Mobry, whose discourse of insanity erases her personality, Elizabeth finds a covert voice with which she can express herself, but which will not be entirely repressed by the patriarchy. Elizabeth disarms her readers with her forthright, simple tone; in other words, she plays the fool. But she is no fool. She remembers the name on the postcard well enough to tell it to her readers—Collins—yet apparently does not make the connection that the post-man hired to replace her after her “negligence” is also named Collins. She blithely informs the reader that the only one who ever actually helped himself to his mail was Nathan Brightman, while apparently not recalling that Nathan Brightman was also the only person who had other concrete evidence for her dismissal and the only person in town who knew the Collins family. Elizabeth presents the reader with “two plus two,” but does not add them up to four. She plays the fool, creating a subversive dialogue between the reader and the text, a dialogue in which we are left to ponder just how much Elizabeth actually knew. If, as Bauer argues, a fool represents “a resisting reader within the text” who provides “the means of unmasking dominant codes” (11), then Elizabeth fits this paradigm perfectly. Elizabeth's resistant “stupidity” unmasks patriarchal repression of women's discursive and economic capacities.

Moreover Elizabeth's text, while seeming to conform to patriarchal dictates (at least in terms of being non-offensive or non-inflammatory) still asserts its difference, its Otherness. Though pressure is exerted on the tale externally, by a hostile narrator, and internally, by an unsympathetic interpretive community, the text does not succumb. Elizabeth is able to refashion patriarchal discourse, to make it take account of her own specific experiences, her own specific subjectivity. Elizabeth's greatest creation, finally, is her own voice, her own self, which, as Ewell argues, rises “well above any conventional characters she might invent” (167). “Elizabeth Stock's One Story” depicts its own exclusion from “proper” discourse, but in so doing nevertheless subverts male control of texts, and perversely insists upon women's right to write/right their own stories.

Elizabeth's hidden message seems to be that women are excluded from language—from reading and writing—and denied self-determination. Her strategy of linguistic resistance relies on a covert insistence on difference from patriarchal norms, but several of Chopin's other later texts use a covert voice which mimics patriarchal dictates in an attempt to subvert them, to hollow them out. In a late story called “The Gentlemen from New Orleans” (1900) for example, Mr. and Mrs. Buddie Bénoîte fit perfectly the pattern of over-bearing, patriarchal husband and silent, subservient wife: “Mr. Buddie was good looking, energetic, a little too stout and blustering; characteristics which were overemphasized by contrast with his wife, too faded for her years and showing a certain lack of self assertion which her husband regarded as the perfection of womanliness” (631). As Chopin's ironic phrasing points out, the perfection of womanliness, according to Buddie Bénoîte, is self-effacement. Chopin mimics the discourse of the patriarchy, while showing it to be utterly misguided, for Mrs. Bénoîte has lost all vestiges of personality, of will, of speech. She even seems to have lost her first name and is continually referred to as “Mrs. Buddie Bénoîte.”17

“Charlie” (1900) uses a more serious and complex strategy of mimicry, for the title character plays a dangerous game of using one man—a crippled father—to avoid becoming shackled to a husband. When the story begins, Charlie is a tomboy who dresses in a costume of her own devising which she calls her “trouserlets”; Charlie engages in many “masculine” behaviors such as riding horses and bicycles, shooting a gun, and telling heroic tales of killing lions and bears (the kind Elizabeth Stock could never write). Yet by the end of the story, Charlie has transformed herself into a perfect young lady, a good domestic saint who cares more for her family than for her own personal happiness. After her father loses the use of his right arm in an accident, Charlie returns from school to care for him and for her younger sisters. When proposed to by her friend Gus, she responds that she “couldn't dream of leaving Dad without a right arm. … And then the twins. I've come to be a sort of mother to them rather than a sister; and you see I'd have to wait till they grew up” (669).

Several critics have argued that by actively choosing to remain single, Charlie finds an alternative to the stereotypical model of femininity enforced by her society—definition through marriage and children.18 Yet Charlie has found this alternative by seeming to conform to stereotypical roles—she uses the role of dutiful daughter, her father's right arm, to avoid becoming a dutiful wife. In fact, Charlie mimics the role of dutiful daughter to attain power and voice. Certainly, she loves her father, but she also uses him to avoid becoming entrapped in relationships which offer her less autonomy. For example, at the end of the story Charlie avoids answering Gus's question about whether she loves him by invoking the “dutiful daughter” image: “Didn't you hear Dad cough? That's a sly way he has of attracting my attention. He doesn't like to call me outright” (669). By playing the good daughter, she is able to postpone a marriage to Gus, as well as to edge him from his control of her father's plantation. “I'm jealous of Mr. Gus,” she tells her father, “‘I know as much as he, more perhaps when it comes to writing letters. I know as much about the plantation as you do, dad; you know I do. And from now on I'm going to be—to be your right hand—your poor right hand,’ she almost sobbed sinking her face in the pillow” (667-68). This feminine demonstration of emotion is certainly appropriate for a dutiful daughter, but Charlie is merely performing this role, mimicking the language of a dutiful daughter in order to get what she wants; a few seconds later she is again speaking “cheerfully” (668).

Charlie's assertion of mastery over texts (the letters) and knowledge (the plantation) is thus embedded within the language of domesticity; her assertions of discursive and personal independence are “covered” by her mimicry of the role of dutiful daughter. “Charlie” also seeks a middle ground between “masculine” and “feminine” norms. The story mimics the wholesale adoption of the feminine ideal, suggesting that it is ridiculous. When Charlie becomes a “woman” she becomes a caricature:

[A]fter the feminine instinct had been aroused in her. … [Charlie] wanted lace and embroideries upon her garments; and she longed to bedeck herself with ribbons and passementeries which the shops displayed in such tempting array. … [S]he resorted to the disfiguring curling irons with results which were, to say the least, appalling to Julia who came in one afternoon and discovered her entertaining young Walton with her head looking like a prize chrysanthemum.


Charlie's wholesale adoption of the “feminine instinct” turns feminine stereotypes into a farce. But in the end, it is not this feminine ideal which Charlie embraces. Although she does not go back to wearing trouserlets, at the story's conclusion she discards a gooey hand cream that she has been using to render her hands white and flawless—as white and flawless as her perfectly womanly sister, Julia.

Thus while mimicking the role of a dutiful daughter, Charlie is actually finding a middle ground between masculine and feminine spheres of influence, a niche of independence and voice in the patriarchal world she inhabits. Charlie also seeks a middle ground in writing, for she is a poet who “had a way, when strongly moved, of expressing herself in verse” (641). In her youth Charlie's poems, like her actions, are heroic and bold, about adventure; when she goes to school, they become conventional and sentimental, about love. However, Charlie eventually burns these sentimental poems, an action which like her abandonment of the hand cream marks her abandonment of traditional feminine norms. Charlie has not ended her quest for a form of resistance to patriarchal norms—she has only made it less overt. And neither has Chopin. Despite the “failure” of The Awakening, she is still looking for ways to subvert patriarchal language.

“Charlie” was never published in Chopin's lifetime; neither was “Elizabeth Stock's One Story.” Chopin did not even attempt to publish her most daring story, “The Storm.” Chopin's short fiction as a whole thus depicts a distinct pattern of feminine linguistic regression—a pattern which is reflected within the lives of the characters she creates, as well as within her own career as a writer. A patriarchal society denies women's right to control their destinies, their desires, and their discourses, and censors or erases female voices which do not conform to its dictates. And yet to conform to patriarchal dictates is to be silent as women, as Xavière Gauthier has explained: “As long as women remain silent, they will be outside the historical process. But, if they begin to speak and write as men do, they will enter history subdued and alienated; it is a history that, logically speaking, their speech should disrupt” (162-63). How to speak in a voice which disrupts patriarchal discourse, without being censored by patriarchal structures? Throughout her career, Chopin confronts this problem, trying various strategies for creating a voice of insubordination: characters who are mostly silent, characters who use overtly resistant voices which go unheard, characters who find a covert discourse, characters who mimic patriarchal language.

Clearly, for Chopin, certain voices (like Naomi Mobry's) are dead avenues; they sacrifice the self for a momentary eruption of language which no one can understand. And mimicry creates its own set of problems: wanting to critique patriarchal norms of silence and submission, Chopin sometimes ends up seeming to endorse them. Yet some forms of voice walk the delicate tightrope between sanity and insanity, between “a language which nobody understood” and the silence that is patriarchal repression of women's speech. So stories like “An Egyptian Cigarette,” “Her Letters” and “Elizabeth Stock's One Story” may be paradigmatic texts for women's experiences with patriarchal language and development of a covert voice. In Julius Caesar Mark Antony states that “the evil that men do lives after them.” But texts, too, have a life of their own—a life which may exceed the author's and one day undo the evil that men do. Chopin's texts live on after her, graphically depicting the way women were silenced and effaced, offering a scathing indictment of the society that rewarded the silent and submissive woman. I think Kate Chopin would be pleased to know that today, her most daring works—works like The Awakening, “Elizabeth Stock's One Story,” and “The Storm”—are widely anthologized, admired, read, and understood. In the end, Chopin had the last laugh. She may have lost the battle for feminine self-expression—but she won the war.


  1. For other assessments of language in The Awakening, see Joseph Urgo, Paula Treichler, and Dale Bauer.

  2. For the notion of Chopin's works as dialogic, I am indebted to Dale Bauer's Feminist Dialogics, particularly Bauer's idea that Edna Pontellier “forces herself into a subversive dialogue with the Creole culture” (xvii). Although Bauer only discusses The Awakening, I want to argue here that certain of Chopin's short stories also create subversive cultural dialogues.

  3. “A language which nobody understood” is the phrase used to describe the parrot's speech in The Awakening (881).

  4. No critic has examined resistance to patriarchal discourse in Chopin's short fiction, although a number have argued generally that liberation is a recurrent theme. See, for example, Patricia Hopkins Lattin and Winfried Fluck.

  5. According to Emily Toth, Chopin grew more vocal and more independent during the first five years of her career (1888-1893). The final stories of Bayou Folk (for example), point “toward a different Kate Chopin, who would not be contented with charming local-color sketches” (224). Stories written in 1894, such as “A Respectable Woman,” “The Story of an Hour,” and “Her Letters,” also reveal “stronger, less conventional female characters” (232-33). She had difficulty publishing her later stories because “by the mid to late 1890s, Kate Chopin's stories no longer fit most magazines' expectations” (283).

  6. All year references are to these stories' compositions, which Chopin was careful to record.

  7. Chopin repeatedly revised this story for publication, perhaps softening the main character. In the end, as Toth notes, “Euphrasie owes her happiness to men's notions of honor” (203).

  8. See, for example, Mariequita in The Awakening, who is portrayed as having much more freedom (sexually and otherwise) than Edna Pontellier. Of course, many of Chopin's women of mixed race have no freedom at all; see, for example, the enslaved Zoraïde in “La Belle Zoraïde” or the quadroon nanny in The Awakening who is described as being “patient as a savage” (939). Chopin's complex attitude towards African Americans and other racial groups at times borders on racism; for an excellent discussion of this topic see Anna Elfenbein.

  9. As Chopin explained in a letter to The Century's editor Richard Gilder, she made certain changes based upon his criticism: “The marriage is omitted, and the girl's character softened and tempered by her rude experience” (Toth 283). Gilder still would not accept the story.

  10. Several other critics have noted these parallels between the treatment of women and the treatment of slaves; see, for example, Anne Jones or Bert Bender.

  11. “Mrs. Mobry's Reason” was written in January of 1891, but not published until April 1893; as Emily Toth notes, it was “Chopin's most rejected story” (198). Toth states that the story concerns venereal disease, a forbidden subject for most American authors. Certainly, several of the story's alternate titles—“A Common Crime” and “A Taint in the Blood”—confirm this analysis.

  12. Chopin wrote “Elizabeth Stock's One Story” in March 1898, after The Awakening. Several editors refused the story and it was never published during Chopin's lifetime.

  13. Ironically, Elizabeth's job is given to the son of the man who wrote the fateful postcard which she was fired for reading. Perhaps this irony explains why the story has been interpreted as a “mild criticism of political favoritism.” See Per Seyersted (214, n 64). Barbara Ewell, on the other hand, interprets this story as being about Chopin's own difficulties with writing (166).

  14. The narrator's sex is never stated, but he or she does have an aggressive, objective tone which stands in marked contrast to Elizabeth Stock's personal and subjective one, as Barbara Ewell has noted (166). Elaine Showalter believes the narrator is either Elizabeth Stock's nephew or her longtime suitor (239-40), but the narrator tells us explicitly that he or she is an outsider to Stonelift.

  15. As Ann Douglas notes, concerned with the “feminization” of American literature and culture, many men and women reacted during this period by an insistence on tougher, more “masculine” values (327).

  16. Patricia Klemans has an alternative view, arguing that Elizabeth “is so bound by self-doubt and self-sacrifice that it is impossible for her to develop her writing talent” (41). Robert Arner similarly sees Elizabeth Stock as a pathetic figure, although he believes that Chopin's story contains an underlying critique of fiction based on great and monumental events (101-2).

  17. Two other late short stories which seem to mimic patriarchal romantic paradigms through irony and hyperbolic exaggeration are “The Wood-Choppers” (1901) and “Polly” (1902). How consciously Chopin uses mimicry in these stories is difficult to determine, particularly since they were both apparently written as children's stories.

  18. A number of critics have argued that Charlie finds a compromise, an alternative to stereotypical feminine roles. Elizabeth McMahan, for example, argues that Charlie is given “the chance to do something different with her life” (32). Wendy Martin also argues that Charlie finds a way of refusing patriarchal authority (10). But for a dissenting opinion see Anne G. Jones (144).

Works Cited

Arner, Robert D. “Kate Chopin.” Louisiana Studies 14 (1975): 11-139.

Bauer, Dale M. Feminist Dialogics: A Theory of Failed Community. Albany: SUNY, 1988.

Bender, Bert. “Kate Chopin's Lyrical Short Stories.” Studies in Short Fiction 11 (1974): 257-66.

Chopin, Kate. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 2 vols.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Elfenbein, Anna Shannon. Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable, Grace King, Kate Chopin. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1989.

Ewell, Barbara C. Kate Chopin. New York: Ungar, 1986.

Fluck, Winfried. “Tentative Transgressions: Kate Chopin's Fiction as a Mode of Symbolic Action.” Studies in American Fiction 10 (1982): 151-69.

Furman, Nelly. “The politics of language: beyond the gender principle?” Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism. Ed. Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn. London: Routledge, 1985. 59-79.

Gallop, Jane. The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Gauthier, Xavière. “Is There Such a Thing as Women's Writing?” New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken Books, 1980. 161-64.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Inscribing femininity: French theories of the feminine.” Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism. Ed. Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn. London: Routledge, 1985. 80-112.

Jones, Anne G. Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP 1981.

Klemans, Patricia A. “The Courageous Soul: Woman as Artist in American Literature.” CEA Critic: An Official Journal of the College English Association 43 (1981): 39-43.

Lattin, Patricia Hopkins. “The Search for Self in Kate Chopin's Fiction: Simple Versus Complex Vision.” Southern Studies 21 (1982): 222-35.

McMahan, Elizabeth. “‘Nature's Decoy’: Kate Chopin's Presentation of Women and Marriage in Her Short Fiction.” Turn-of-the-Century Woman 2 (1985): 32-35.

Martin, Wendy. “Introduction.” New Essays on The Awakening. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 1-31.

Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. New York: Octagon Books, 1980.

Showalter, Elaine. “Piecing and Writing.” The Poetics of Gender. Ed. Nancy K. Miller. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 222-47.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Treichler, Paula A. “The Construction of Ambiguity in The Awakening: A Linguistic Analysis.” Women and Language in Literature and Society. Ed. Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker, Nelly Furman. New York: Praeger, 1980. 239-57.

Urgo, Joseph R. “A Prologue to Rebellion: The Awakening and the Habit of Self-Expression.” Southern Literary Journal 20 (1987): 22-32.

Yaeger, Patricia S. “‘A Language Which Nobody Understood’: Emancipatory Strategies in The Awakening.Novel: A Forum on Fiction 20 (1987): 197-219.

Suzanne D. Green (essay date fall-winter 1994)

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SOURCE: Green, Suzanne D. “Fear, Freedom, and the Perils of Ethnicity: Otherness in Kate Chopin's ‘Beyond the Bayou’ and Zora Neale Hurston's ‘Sweat’.” Southern Studies 5, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1994): 105-24.

[In the following essay, Green finds parallels in the portrayal of marginalized women in “Beyond the Bayou” and Zora Neale Hurston's “Sweat.”]

In the short fiction of Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston, we often see women—particularly women of color—portrayed as a microcosm of society in which we are to view them not only as individuals, but as symbolic representations of the universal problems that women face. Within the microcosm that each writer creates, their female characters deal with issues that range from guilt and fear to racism and Otherness. These issues direct their lives and their interactions with their communities. Women are often marginalized because of their gender, and this separation places them in a position that is by definition divorced from the mainstream. Societal control by a dominant gender or race leads to the exclusion or suppression of those that are not part of the controlling group, and the result is the disempowerment of the nondominant group. The disempowered are placed in the category of Other—literally, that which is Other than the One dominant societal group. While any hierarchically structured society may create a One vs. Other dichotomy, Chopin and Hurston both construct communities in which woman is equated with Other in their short stories “Beyond the Bayou” and “Sweat”.

Initially, the female protagonists of both stories must overcome overwhelming fear that predates the beginning of their narratives and motivate their actions. Once each woman conquers her fear, she is poised to grapple with an underlying Otherness that she has served as the driving force in her life. For Delia in “Sweat,” that Otherness is based in both gender and race; for La Folle in “Beyond the Bayou,” it comes from her ethnicity.

Additionally, “Sweat” and “Beyond the Bayou” recreate a master-slave narrative to illustrate not only the plight of the characters that make up these microcosms, but also the subordinated fate that women often face. In this paper, I define the slave narrative as a representation of male-female relationships in which the woman is under the complete control of the man, and in this capacity, he is symbolically identified with the dominant members of slave holding societies. The woman in this dichotomy then symbolizes the slave, or the group that is forced to submit to the domination of the master. Inherent in the slave narrative is the possibility of rebellion on the part of the disempowered group. In Delia's case, her emotions and sexuality are ruled by an abusive husband. Hurston typically situates her female heros in an exclusively Black community, thus focusing our attention on other issues besides the interaction between the Black and White communities. With our focus diverted from the ethnic issue, she can direct our attention to what she views as a larger issue: the master-slave narrative that underlies the male dominance of woman, with the woman filling the role of slave to her male counterpart's role of master. At the same time, the master-slave narrative in “Sweat” subtextually mirrors the Black experience in slavery, without once commenting on it directly.

In “Beyond the Bayou,” La Folle's socialization—or lack of it—with her white former owners poignantly illustrates the social status of Blacks that continued for decades after the Civil War. P'tit Maitre—“little master” in English—is the source of La Folle's current emotional sustenance in the form of his young son, as well as the lunacy that marks most of her adult life. A wounded P'tit Maitre shocks La Folle as a child, causing her stigmatization. As an adult, he becomes the white patriarch who symbolizes the continuation of racial conflict in the postbellum South. As blacks were enslaved by whites in the South, so is La Folle enslaved symbolically by her fear and literally by her position in Southern society. The source of her fear, and thus the source of her powerlessness, is the White man P'tit Maitre who was formerly her master.

We see different outcomes for Delia and La Folle. Delia Jones in “Sweat” must free herself from her deadbeat, womanizing husband who terrorizes her with his attempts to drive her from her home. Delia remains with Sykes out of fear and guilt which is largely derived from her religious convictions, but his attempt on her life at the end of the story absolves her from her guilt. Delia is successful in her world in that she can support herself, yet her Otherness is not fully dispelled. Although she frees herself from her husband's abuse, and accordingly from one source of her separation from society, she is still marginalized. By the end of the story, she is prepared to address further Otherness in her life—here defined as separation from the Black community—that her fear has obscured. All of her adult life, Delia has been so busy working to support her lazy husband that she has never formed any bonds within her community, but with his death is born the hope that her marginalization will end. As a black woman, she is still in a state of Otherness when compared to the white community. She is in control of her destiny as a financially independent woman, but is still bound by restrictions of acceptable behavior for a black woman in the turn-ofthe-century South.

In “Beyond the Bayou,” La Folle's success is somewhat more nebulous, as she experiences success in overcoming her fear, but her ethnic Otherness is still very pointed. We are told that her paranoia originates in her youth, when an injured man crashed into her family's cabin, bleeding and covered in gunpowder. The shock that this elicits in La Folle causes her to have an irrational fear of crossing the bayou that separates her home from the main part of the plantation where she and her white “family” live. The only thing that motivates her to abandon her fearful refusal to cross the bayou is P'tit Maitre's son, Cheri's, life-threatening accident that simultaneously threatens the safe life that La Folle has constructed for herself. Although she is finally freed from enslavement to her fears, La Folle still fills the role of Other at the end of “Beyond the Bayou” because she is a victim of the prejudice and marginalization that Blacks experienced in the post Civil-War South. Although La Folle, too, begins to address her status as Other within her community, we have less hope that she will be successful because of the historical constructs that she is living within. Chopin positions La Folle as a passive-aggressive symbol at the end of the story, one who is poised to start her rebellion, and extends the master-slave narrative to its logical next stage—that of acting out the rebellion. Chopin uses La Folle as a symbol of the new age of civil rights that will begin to emerge—slowly to be sure—in which African-Americans would begin to emerge from their state of Otherness.


Defining women as Other is not a new concept, as women have been “slaves … like domestic animals” for centuries, and this type of thinking has been endorsed by such revered figures as Aristotle. Aristotle suggests a “primary social hierarchy … [in which we see] subordination of the female to the male” (Winter 2). The term Other originates with Simone de Beauvoir in her treatise The Second Self. This cornerstone of feminist theory argues that female biology is not a “fixed and inevitable destiny” (32) because the “human species is forever in a state of change” (33). Accordingly, we can't base our judgements of gender-based equality, or lack of it, on empirically measurable data. The discourse of masculine superiority has traditionally been couched in terms of physical strength, and since men possess that strength in greater measure, women have been relegated to an inferior position. Accordingly, since the patriarchal system has historically set men up as “the One” because of their superior physical strength, an unavoidable dichotomy is established, in which women, who do not possess the same physical prowess as men, become “Other” (xxiii). Modern feminist critics, such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, describe feminine Otherness as women being relegated to the position of cultural outsiders, saying that “… because a woman is denied the autonomy … [she is] excluded from culture” (Gubar and Gilbert 19). Women are placed in a position of being “an absence or cipher in the social body” (Showalter 21), rather than useful contributors to that society.

Later feminist critics, particularly women of color, have problematized the Otherness notion of de Beauvoir and her successors. Jane Moore argues that the Other, which she defines as “the position of women in relation to men in patriarchal societies” (75), can be useful. Yet she points out that Other can become a meaningless word if overused: “‘the other’ can quickly become a blanket-term for all that is outside the subject possessed of the power to name the other, for everything that is not self-same. In consequence, the effect of otherness can be erasure of difference, so that, for example, all women—past and present—share the same ontological and epistemological space” (Moore 75). Bell Hooks supports Moore's point, stating that “postmodernist discourses are often exclusionary even as they call attention to, appropriate even, the experience of “difference” and “Otherness” to provide oppositional political meaning, legitimacy and immediacy when they are accused of lacking concrete relevance” (Hooks 23). It becomes increasingly important, to define as specifically as possible the boundaries with which we define the state of Otherness, and therefore an explicit definition of the term is needed for the purposes of this discussion.

Otherness, as I construct it, consists of two parts. First, women are often subject to separation from the power structure of a patriarchal system. Women of color are further marginalized, in many instances, by their ethnicity, creating multiple levels of Otherness in their lives which must each be overcome. In addition, as Winter argues, the “oppression of women … can be understood fully only when the ideology of male domination is examined in conjunction with the ideology of slavery” (2). Otherness, then, is a state of separation from the source of patriarchal power, which may be caused by any combination of ethnic or gender issues, and which is further complicated by the dominant ideology of slavery or other willful domination of a cultural group.


When we first meet Delia Jones, she is little more than a workworn doormat, but she is poised on the edge of a transformation. From the outset of their fifteen year marriage, Sykes Jones has subjugated his wife through guilt and fear. He immediately demonstrates his control over Delia by sneaking up behind her and using his bullwhip to imitate a snake crawling on her back. As she is deathly afraid of snakes, her reaction is predictable:

A great terror took hold of her. It softened her knees and dried her mouth so that it was a full minute before she could cry out or move. Then she saw that it was the big bull whip her husband liked to carry when he drove. She lifted her eyes to the door and saw him standing there bent over with laughter at her fright.

(Hurston 38-39)

His tyranny continues throughout the story. Delia stands up to him after this incident, for perhaps the first time in their married life; his response is “cowed … and he did not strike her as he usually did” (Hurston 40). We find further evidence of Delia's well-grounded fear of physical abuse as she lies on her bed that evening; she recalls that “two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating” (Hurston 41). He brings a rattlesnake to their house, placing its cage right outside the door of the house so that Delia must pass it continually. He knows she is afraid of the snake, but he doesn't care. He cruelly tells her that “tain't no use uh you puttin' on airs makin' out lak you skeered uh dat snake—he's gointer stay right heah tell he die” (Hurston 47). Clearly, Sykes is a man who rules his wife through fear and has no qualms about doing so.

In Delia's narrative, the pointed hostility between Sykes and herself, and the fear that he elicits from her speaks indirectly to the legacy of slavery in the post-Civil War South. Black men were often denied the means to support their families and were subsequently forced into roles that caused others to define them as “not fit tuh carry guts tuh a bear” (Hurston 43). Sykes at first glance, might seem to fit the stereotype of the black man who, because of social restrictions, is unable to provide for his family. In this scenario, Delia's strong work ethic would serve to unintentionally emasculate him. Since Sykes is unwilling rather than unable to work to support them, however, he resents Delia for taking on the masculine role of the bread winner, and thus making him look bad in the eyes of the community. He experiences “vulnerability and uncertainty about his own masculinity” and Delia's limited financial success is

one of the reasons that Sykes cannot bear the sight of his wife because her work makes him feel like less than a man. He resents her working for the white folks, washing their dirty laundry, but he does not resent it enough to remove the need for her to do so. Or perhaps his wife's work has removed the need for him to be a man.

(Howard 67)

Rather than assuming the traditional masculine role as breadwinner, Sykes instead perpetuates Delia's literal enslavement to her washboard and her symbolic enslavement to him. She can not stop working—to do so would mean losing her home and eating irregularly—but because of this, her emasculated husband can only relate to her violently. He takes on the symbolic, dominant role of master, forcing Delia to submit to his will even when such submission results in her humiliation or physical injury. Delia is a slave to his temper and must passively submit to his violent outbursts. Yet like the many oppressed people that she represents, Delia begins to rebel, and is ultimately freed from the control of her oppressor.

Fear is not the only tool that Sykes uses to control Delia, however. Up to the epiphany that Delia experiences at the end of the story, we see consistent evidence that she is strongly motivated by guilt. For all of his sloth, Sykes is not a stupid man; he masterfully manipulates Delia in such a way that her guilt keeps her in a subservient position—one in which she will tolerate his abuse. We see most manifestations of Delia's guilt couched in religious terms. The story begins and ends on Sunday, and although Delia works late on these evenings to prepare the week's washing, she seems to harbor some guilt for working on her Sabbath. She does not squeal at Sykes for kicking her laundry around the room when he barks at her that “Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks' clothes outa dis house” (Hurston 39). When he attacks her faith, though, she is quick to protest. He taunts her, saying

Yeah, you just come from de church house on a Sunday night, but heah you is gone to work on them clothes. You ain't nothing but a hypocrite. One of them amen-corner Christians—sing, whoop, and shout, then come home and wash white folks' clothes on the Sabbath.

(Hurston 40)

At this point she gives a “little scream of dismay” and not only tells him to “quit grindin' dirt into these clothes” but protests that she can't “git through by Sat'day if Ah don't start on Sunday” (Hurston 40). Her protest starts now because he has touched a nerve; if Delia didn't feel some guilt for working on Sunday, Sykes' remark wouldn't elicit such a defensive response. Her guilt may be momentarily silenced when she bravely tells Sykes that her “cup is done run ovah”(Hurston 49) when he refuses take the rattlesnake away, but is “glad she did not have to quarrel before she … drove the four miles to Woodbridge” to attend church (Hurston 49). She has gone so far as to change her church membership; she tells Sykes that “Ah got mah letter fum de church an'moved my membership tuh Woodbridge—so Ah don't haftuh take no sacrament wid yuh”(Hurston 48). Delia takes her religion seriously enough that she wants to separate it from the man who would taint it with hatred.

In most of the passages in which Sykes is discussed, Hurston clearly identifies him with snakes, a traditionally Satanic image.1 Hurston uses the snake in two opposing ways. On one hand, Sykes is identified with the snake. He lies like the serpent in Eden, and brings a rattlesnake to Delia's home which he attempts to use to bring about her death just as the serpent in Eden brings about the fall and subsequent death of Adam and Eve. In “Sweat”, the snake is simultaneously a positive, empowering symbol, as it brings about justice rather than undermining it. Although the snake is intended to cause Delia's death, she escapes, and listens to Sykes' gruesome death as the snake's bites poison him slowly and painfully.

Delia's narrative suggests that she feels that she deserves Sykes' abuse in some way. The deprecating fashion with which she endures Sykes' initial attack on her implies that she may have felt that she brought some of her suffering upon herself, at least up to the point that the narrative begins. Descriptions of her working around him after he throws the whip on her (Hurston 39), remaining calm while his “whole manner [is] hoping, praying, for an argument” (Hurston 39), and the picture of her “thin, stooped shoulders” sagging as he speaks (Hurston 39), all describe a woman who is not accustomed to fighting back. Hurston gives us the image of a slave who has been beaten repeatedly. These descriptions are followed by her comment that “Ah ain't for no fuss t'night Sykes, Ah just come from taking sacrament at the church house” (Hurston 39).

While religion and its accompanying trappings are a source of comfort and continued guilt for Delia, the reason for her guilt is always somewhat ambiguous. Delia seems to feel a strong responsibility to maintain her marriage because of the strength of her religious convictions. She attends church regularly and speaks seriously of the church sacraments. Since marriage is sacred to most religions, its sanctity may motivate her to keep her relationship together. In other venues, however, such as the unpublished “The Fiery Chariot,” Hurston subverts the entire idea of religion as a solace for the oppressed, which calls into question Delia's overt religious faith. The attitudes of Southern white slave holders towards the religious fervor of their black slaves paint an inaccurate picture of the laborer praying for release from their suffering. As Hemenway argues

the accepted white cliche about the origins of the black Christian church has always been that the notion of heaven was particularly appealing to laborers in bondage. While this life may be hard, if one trusted in the Lord a better day was coming … [but] the Lawd is exposed as a fraud and a sham, nothing but a plantation owner masquerading in a sheet … the slave is made fun of, but so is Massa. He is soooooo bright, soooo “white and clean,” and the black man is soooo humble in his sight that the Christian support for white supremacy is exaggerated into mockery.

(Hemenway 225)

In light of this argument, we can interpret Delia's religious “faith” as something of a farce. Hurston may intend her to be read as a grotesque character, who so overexemplifies the traditional faith that is exemplified by black spirituals as to make it laughable. Accordingly, she could then subtly suggest that religion is merely another tool of the white community which is used to keep blacks docile by providing the “opiate to the people” of which Karl Marx speaks. Further, neither Hurston's own life, nor her other major characters, support the idea that Hurston viewed marriage as a sacred pact. Hurston herself was married and divorced two times, once because she could not follow her husband and her career simultaneously (Hemenway 94) and once because her much younger husband could not work or maintain a home, and was often abusive (Hemenway 273). In Hurston's most important novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the protagonist, Janey, also has three husbands, all of which Hurston disposes of when Janey has outgrown them. It is arguable, then, that what Hurston succeeds in doing in “Sweat” is subverting the entire concept of religion being a solace to the oppressed, and picturing it as yet another tactic of the oppressors with which they can keep their slaves under control. Thus Delia's supposed guilt over her relationship with her husband and her fears that it will taint her seemingly pure and innocent faith may be subversion of the entire issue of religious faith as a mainstay in the existence of an oppressed people.

Although “Sweat” gives ample evidence of Delia's emotional manipulation by her husband, it is equally clear that she is at a turning point in her relationship with him at the beginning of the story. In their initial confrontation, even as she is fearful of Sykes, she surprises him by standing up to him. She argues with him about the laundry—significantly, she does this after he calls her a hypocrite (Hurston 40)—and when he boasts that he has “promised Gawd and a couple of other men, Ah ain't gointer have [white people's laundry] in mah house. Don't gimme no lip, neither, else Ah'll throng ‘em out and put mah fist up side yu’ head to boot” (Hurston 40). Hurston's description of Delia's reaction to the abuse warns us that a change is imminent:

Delia's habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her. “Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur”She seized the iron skillet from the stove and struck a defensive pose, which act surprised him greatly, coming from her. It cowed him and he did not strike her as he usually did.

(Hurston 40)

She is tired of being ordered about and abused, and her stance shows Sykes that she isn't going to tolerate his ill treatment any longer. That evening, when she retires, Delia lies awake, looking back at her marriage, and comes to the conclusion that all she has left is her home. She experiences an emotional awakening, realizing that things will never change between her and Sykes: “if it were not Bertha it would be someone else” (Hurston 41). She takes the first step on the path to self-empowerment, and begins to relinquish the guilt that has bound her to her husband. She can now “build a spiritual earthworks against her husband. His shells could no longer reach her. AMEN” (Hurston 42). Again, Hurston subverts Delia's faith by basing her “faith” on hatred, which goes against the Christian concept of “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Hurston connects the spiritual and the earthly in this passage, and although Delia attributes her decision to stand up for herself to her religion, she is, in fact, strengthened by her hatred rather than her religion. When Sykes returns from his lover's bed early in the morning, hissing at her for her earlier impudence, she feels a “triumphant indifference to all that he was or did,” for probably the first time in their marriage (Hurston 42).

Delia's empowerment and the freedom that it will bring continue rapidly once she has admitted that her relationship is dead. The religious image of Christ describes her humiliation as Sykes parades Bertha in front of the townspeople: “Delia's work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rock of Calvary many, many times during these months” (Hurston 46), again underscoring Hurston's ironic use of the Christian myth as a source of comfort to enslaved peoples. Yet because of her humiliation, Delia is empowered to stand up to her husband without guilt. We see her come to something approximating peace with the rattlesnake, and given Sykes' close association with snake imagery throughout the story, we infer that she also comes to terms with her hatred for her husband. She sees the snake with its fangs embedded in the mesh of its cage and “this time did not run away with averted eyes as usual. She stood for a long time in the doorway in a red fury that grew bloodier for every second that she regarded the creature that was her torment” (Hurston 48). She gathers strength to confront Sykes again from the heat of her righteous anger; he has humiliated her and tormented her with her fears for the last time. Sykes, characteristically, refuses to remove the snake from her house, and she calmly tells him that “Ah hates you, Sykes … Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. Ah done took an' took till mah belly is full up tuh mah neck” (Hurston 48). She further informs him that the next time he hits her, she will tell the “white folks,” whom she presumes will arrest and try him for his abuse (Hurston 49)2. Significantly, this is the only mention of the white folks in the story. Hurston only invokes them as a higher power when Delia is beginning to transcend the miserable existence that Sykes has forced upon her. However, this also illustrates that when Delia transcends the Otherness that her relationship with Sykes implies, she will still be in a marginalized position which she will have to address.

Although Sykes argues with Delia, he doesn't physically attack her. Her new calmness, compared with her screaming at the beginning of the story (Hurston 38-39), frightens Sykes. He responds by putting the snake in her laundry basket, assuming that it will frighten her, and then kill her before she regains her senses enough to escape it. Sykes' plan backfires, however. Delia does, indeed find the snake in her laundry basket, but escapes unharmed. She moves through various stages of dealing with his treachery during the night that she spends in her hay barn, feeling like a “gibbering wreck” for an hour (Hurston 50), but later regathering her composure and evaluating what has happened:

Finally she grew quiet, and after that came coherent thought. With this stalked through her a cold, bloody rage. Hours of this. A period of introspection, a space of retrospection, then a mixture of both. Out of this an awful calm3.

“Well, Ah done de bes' Ah could. If things ain't right, Gawd knows tain't mah fault.”

(Hurston 50-51)

Sykes' attempt on her life has unwittingly supplied the final element for Delia. She is empowered because she is freed from any guilt which has tied her to her husband. Once again, Hurston undermines religion as a source of comfort. If Delia's guilt were truly based in a faith that believed in God and his laws, human betrayal would not have the power to release her from her guilt. However, Sykes' treachery has the effect of absolving her of all responsibility for their relationship and for his imminent death. She can now let him die and embrace the freedom that his death symbolizes. Although she is emotionally freed from Sykes in the kitchen when she tells him that she hates him, his death is required to complete her transformation. She is physically as well as spiritually free from the threat that he imposed on her self as well as her property. She can now listen to “dat ol' scratch” that “is woke up now” and “muse at the tremendous whirr” (Hurston 51) that she hears when the snake strikes Sykes as if she were watching a movie—something that is not real. Because she is released from Sykes and the guilt that tied her to him, she can assume the role of the casual observer. Looking in the window and listening to his screams makes Delia ill—she must lie down in the garden to recover from her revulsion (Hurston 52)—but she makes no move to help the now-stricken man. The closest thing to emotion that she feels through the whole ordeal is a “surge of pity too strong to support” (Hurston 53). Sykes dies with the full knowledge that Delia knows he is dying and that she is no longer guilt-motivated. Because of his oppressive, violent treatment, she does not have to save him to be at peace with herself.

With Sykes dead, Delia is free. Although the narrative ends the moment before Sykes dies, we are confident that Delia will continue to act as an empowered woman, because she has already taken control of her destiny through her handling of Sykes, and that her newfound freedom will give her the inner strength to address a larger issue in her life. Throughout her marriage to Sykes, Delia has lived in a state of Otherness—she has continually been separated from the community that she should have bonded with. She has made little effort to connect with the townspeople for two reasons: she is grossly overworked, attempting to support herself and her shiftless husband, and she is too humiliated by his illicit affairs to have more than minimal contact with her neighbors. The community makes no effort to transcend Delia's separateness. Instead, they discuss her in a detached manner or look down on her, if they think about her at all. We hear their opinions most clearly when Delia drives her mule and buckboard full of clean laundry by Joe Clarke's store. They comment on her regularity in delivering the laundry, on Sykes' slothfulness in providing for her, and on her looks when she was young: “she wuz a right pretty li'l trick when he got huh. Ah'd uh mahtied huh mahself if he hadnter beat me to it … she wuz ez pritty ez a speckled pup” (Hurston 43). Delia is no more of a woman to the men at the store than she is to her husband. She is an object to pass the time talking about, nothing more. No meaningful interaction takes place between the two, and Delia is in no way part of their community4. The discussion turns, at one point, toward exacting justice on Delia's behalf; Clarke comments that “no law on earth kin make a man be decent if it ain't in ‘im” (Hurston 43). The consensus among the men is that the best thing to do with a man like Sykes is “lay on de rawhide till they cain't say Lawd a' mussy … we oughter kill ‘im” but in the end, “the heat was melting their civic virtue” (Hurston 44) and the conversation turns to things more important than a mere unfortunate object. The fact that the object in question is a woman is insignificant.

Delia does not merely hold the position of Other with the men of the community, however. Often, the entire female community is portrayed as Other, yet the only distinctive Other that we see in “Sweat” is Delia. Merchant, one of Joe Clarke's porch sitters, describes his wife's attitude towards Delia: “She tol' him [Sykes] tuh take ‘em right straight back home, ‘cause Delia works so hard ovah dat washtub she reckon everything on de place taste lak sweat an' soapsuds” (Hurston 43). The description smacks of “asterperious-ness”—Hurston's term for haughty—rather than sisterhood or compassion. Even among the women, Delia is not respected. She is a workhorse. Period. Again, Delia's Otherness is forced on her by Sykes' behavior. At end of the story, however, she is poised to deal with her Otherness and to become reinvolved with community now that the primary source of her Otherness has been removed.

The slave narrative subtext of “Sweat,” in which we see Delia being overpowered by Sykes, seems to symbolize the struggle of the Black community against the prejudices of the White community as well as Delia's personal need to overcome the separation from the microcosm of society that is her small town. The dialogue between Sykes and Delia is peppered with orders, demands and beatings and their relationship demonstrates a master-slave narrative, even down to the physical force that requires her obedience. Delia can occasionally escape Sykes' wrath by behaving subserviently towards him, but more often this strategy does not work, and no matter how cooperative Delia is, she is beaten anyway. Symbolically, the same narrative is at work subtextually. The Black community continued to be oppressed during Hurston's lifetime, nearly a century after the legal enslavement that ended with the Civil War. No matter how intelligent, polite or ingratiating a Black individual was, the white prejudice was often insurmountable. So while Hurston focuses our attention on the gender-based dynamics between Sykes and Delia, she also allegorically reminds the reader that just as Delia lives as a virtual slave to Sykes' sloth and violence, so did the Black community remain enslaved by prejudice and lack of opportunity.

Inherent in the slave narrative is the possibility of rebellion by the oppressed. Delia progresses from a subservience to her husband at the beginning of the story, to that of an individual who has successfully revolted and gained her freedom. Her freedom comes at a price, that of Sykes' life, but his violent domination of her life has prescribed his end, just as slavery typically ends in civil unrest and the often bloody overthrow of the slaveholding community. Delia is freed from Sykes' control through her rejection of his dominance of her life. She casts aside the “debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail. Not an image [was] left standing along the way” (Hurston 41). What is still standing is Delia's house, the symbol of her freedom from both her pathetic husband and the imperialistic, dominant existence that he prescribed for her. Hurston focuses our attention on the gender-based dynamic between Sykes and Delia, yet she also reminds the reader that just as Delia lived as a virtual slave to Sykes' sloth and violence, so did the Black community remain enslaved by prejudice and lack of opportunity.


La Folle in “Beyond the Bayou” also experiences Otherness, but her separation is based exclusively on her race rather than being coupled with her gender, as Delia's is. We immediately discover that La Folle is surrounded by the source of her fear; since childhood, she has refused to cross the bayou which “curved like a crescent around the point of land on which La Folle's cabin stood (Chopin 175). Each day, she looks out at the symbol of her fear. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that it is not actually the bayou that she fears, but what it signifies—death, destruction, separation from community—and the threat that these factors pose to her way of life.

La Folle is a victim of the racial discord and resulting insanity that was the Civil War. She is frightened “out of her senses” as a child when her then-master's child staggers into her cabin. This isolated incident takes place during the Civil War (Toth 70), instead of over 35 years later as does the rest of the story. La Folle's shock at seeing her young master stagger through the door, “black with powder and crimson with blood” sets up a metaphor of bodily fluids that Chopin refers to again later in the story to describe La Folle's fear. She paints a gruesome picture of the white man covered in black gunpowder that mingles with his bright red, still flowing blood. If we attempt to visualize the grisly scene, it is not hard to understand how the sight could have permanently marred the psyche of a small child. Since her frightful experience, La Folle is content to stay in her cabin away from “sight and knowledge” (Chopin 175). Ignorance is preferable to taking the risk of leaving the safe haven she has created for herself.

La Folle's isolated, marginalized lifestyle places her, by definition, in the category of Other. She has little way of interacting with the members of the black community, as she rarely leaves her little plot of land across the bayou from Bellissime and never crosses the bayou to the white folks house. The physical barrier formed by the Bayou prevents real interaction between black and white. La Folle is known to have “more physical strength than most men, and made her patch of cotton and corn and tobacco like the best of them” (Chopin 175). She tends her own gardens, bakes, cleans, washes, and relaxes when she likes, and she owes no explanation of her time to anyone, as far as we can tell. However, La Folle may be left alone because she can support herself; she can, after all, tend her plot of ground as well as most men.

La Folle seems content with this state of Otherness at the beginning of the narrative. She is largely left alone except by the people she loves, and the people La Folle loves are P'tit Maitre's white children. The children, especially Cheri, love La Folle in return, but they love her in the way that a child loves a pet. Their interaction consists of La Folle entertaining them and doing things for them; the relationship takes place on the children's terms. La Folle never goes to the children, rather, they always seek her out, and neither party questions the quality of their interaction because society dictated that former slaves would not interfere in the workings of white families.

We are consistently reminded of La Folle's separation from both the Black and the White communities. Although we see that she shares a close relationship with Cheri, P'tit Maitre's son, we are also not allowed to forget that their races are different—a fact that defines the necessity of their separation in the post-Civil War South. Cheri doesn't just stroke La Folle's hand but “strokes her black hand” (Chopin 176). She speaks in a Black dialect; Cheri's speech, while not perfect, is good by Creole standards. La Folle, like the rest of the Black community, lives in a cabin instead of at the mansion, Bellissime, and tends a garden plot (Chopin 175) instead of attending “very fine dinners” (Chopin 176) where items like almonds, raisins and oranges are common fare. Rather than having her home surrounded by patches of flowers, she instead has cows grazing up to her fence (Chopin 176). We are not allowed to forget, even momentarily, that La Folle is a member of that “Other” community—the one that is not White.

Before La Folle is prepared to deal with—or even begin to realize—her state of Otherness, she must first overcome her fear, and she comes face-to-face with it when Cheri is injured in a hunting accident. She is the first person to find the injured child, and rapidly carries him to the edge of the bayou, where she shouts for help, to no avail. All the while, his cries of “it hurt so bad” (Chopin 177) ring in her ears, doubtlessly similar to those uttered by his father after he was chased and injured during the War. The reader suspects that La Folle is experiencing a flashback to the dreadful night when P'tit Maitre staggered into her cabin. The words that Cheri groans in the present are probably frighteningly similar to those moaned by his father on the night that she lost her senses.

Ultimately, the only way for La Folle to overcome her fear is to cross the bayou. At this point, she does transcend the margins of her Otherness, becoming part of the community of women, because she takes on a mother's role as she cares for the injured Cheri. Though in the grip of “extreme terror” (Chopin 177), she forces herself to cross the bayou because it is the only way to save him. She shuts her eyes and starts to run, but she is so overcome by fear that she can not look until the awful deed is done and she is on the Other side of the bayou (Chopin 178). As she crosses the bayou, Chopin again uses the image of bodily fluids to indicate La Folle's overwhelming fear, only this time it is described by the “saliva [that] had gathered in a white foam on her black lips” (Chopin 178). Ironically, the colors are reversed here. When P'tit Maitre was the injured one, the black powder stood out on his white skin, punctuated by the red blood. In the present, the white spit stands out against La Folle's black skin. Chopin makes a significant assertion here, and one fairly uncommon in the post-War South. The color of the fear is insignificant. Black or white, it is still fear. Similarly, the color of the individual does not matter. Black or White, all are still people, with the same fears and needs for acceptance in the community—a colorless community.

La Folle's dread of crossing the bayou is remarkably similar to Delia's fear of the rattlesnake. Her closed eyes, quivering body and “distorted face” during her crossing remind the reader of Delia's feeling of being a “gibbering wreck” (Hurston 50) after seeing the rattlesnake in the house. Similar to Delia's need to lie down on the cool earth to recover after nearly becoming ill at Sykes' screams, La Folle must tightly close her eyes to hide from the “unknown and terrifying world” (Chopin 178) and after delivering the child safely to his father's arms, that world “turned black—like that day she had seen powder and blood” (Chopin 178). She passes out cold on the ground, and again, the colors and body fluids intermingle, signifying La Folle's fear. The faint that La Folle falls into mirrors the “twitch sleep” that Delia experiences after finding the rattlesnake in her laundry basket (Hurston 51).

The colored fluid metaphor does not appear again in the story, however, because La Folle overcomes her fear. She regains consciousness in her cabin, under the care of the “old black mammy” who concocts a potion that will strengthen La Folle (Chopin 179). As soon as La Folle is coherent, the woman caring for her leaves her alone and goes home. Other members of the community “had come, and found that the stupor clung to her, [and] had gone again” (Chopin 179). Her neighbors are curious about her fate, but they are not wailing for her potential loss. They are merely bystanders to the events as they unfold. Clearly, although the fear is gone now, La Folle is still separated from the community.

La Folle's fear is truly gone when she awakens the next morning. She is calm, “as if no tempest had shaken and threatened her existence but yesterday” (Chopin 179). She dresses in her best clothes, because it is Sunday. Her emancipation takes place on the traditional Christian holy day, just as Delia's does. She crosses the bayou “as if she had done this all her life” (Chopin 179). Now that she if free of her fear, like Delia, La Folle is ready to confront her Otherness. We actually see the beginnings of La Folle's attempts to integrate herself into the white community, whereas with Delia, we know that it is necessary for her to bond with the black community as her next step.

“Exultation possessed her soul” as La Folle looks back at the river and the bayou that she has just crossed (Chopin 180). For her, this is one reward for having overcome her fear, but the best rewards are to come. She crosses over once again to check on Cheri and his mother is surprised to see La Folle at her door: “quickly and cleverly she dissembled the astonishment she felt at seeing La Folle” (Chopin 180). We can read this passage in two ways. Madame may merely be surprised at La Folle's appearance; after all, she has never come to the house except in the single emergency that threatened Cheri. However, we should read some measure of insecurity into this surprise as well. La Folle's love for Cheri is well-known about the plantation, but until now it has been limited by the amount of time that he has chosen to spend with her. Suddenly, La Folle is presenting herself on the family doorstep—and at the front door. Blacks were still expected to go to the back door of the house at the turn of the century when Chopin was writing. It was highly unusual—and daring—for a Black woman to come to the front door and expect to be admitted to the house. Madame may have viewed La Folle's visit as quite an unexpected intrusion.

Regardless of her feelings at finding La Folle at her doorstep, Madame does not allow any liberties. She does not invite La Folle into the house, and asks her to “come back when [Cheri] awakes” (Chopin 180). She clearly delineates herself as a member of the White community from La Folle, a member of the Black community. La Folle's ethnic Otherness is poignantly obvious here, when even after her extraordinary efforts the day before, which most likely saved the life of Madame's son, La Folle is not treated as a hero or even a welcome guest. She is told to return when it is more convenient.

La Folle does not accept this Otherness as that which is due to her, however. Without ever raising her voice, she communicates loudly that she does not find the separation of her Otherness acceptable any longer. “Non, madame. I'm goint wait yair tell Cheri wake up,” La Folle tells his mother. Without waiting for an answer, she “seated herself upon the topmost step of the veranda” (Chopin 180). This is not the action of a woman who is cowed, or who readily accepts her place. Rather, the gentle refusal to leave is La Folle's sign that she will not be dismissed because she is a member of the Other race—that had been traditionally less important than the One white race. Instead, she sits and waits, contemplating the “beautiful world beyond the bayou” (Chopin 180). That is to say, she considers a life in which she is not limited by the bayou that signifies her fears or her separation from community. She considers a life in which she is at the center of the community, where she feels she belongs.

P'tit Maitre symbolizes the Master of the slave narrative in “Beyond the Bayou.” The English translation of his name, little master, and his pointed absence in the story's present place him squarely in the position of White patriarch. He lives in the big house while La Folle lives in a cabin, and his lifestyle is leisurely while hers is based on working to support herself. Although no obvious antagonism exists between La Folle and P'tit Maitre, the little master does not share any type of relationship with her. He is portrayed as separate, yet part of a community—the White community—that holds the power. However, La Folle's action of sitting on the front steps the morning after Cheri's accident begins to subvert the superior attitude that Blacks faced. She silently refuses to participate in a dialogue that is based in the master-slave narrative, thus positioning herself such that she can begin to rise above her separated societal status.

Chopin uses La Folle to symbolize the dawning of a new age for the former slaves. Although Chopin's family owned a few slaves prior to the Civil War, the tone of her Creole stories is generally positive towards the Black community. We see a definite distinction between black and white in “Beyond the Bayou,” however, as is most aptly illustrated by Madame's refusal to treat La Folle as a welcome guest, even after the heroic actions that ended in saving Cheri's life. I argue that Chopin intentionally troubles the then-prevailing notion of the black community's inferiority to the white community, and symbolizes this problematizing at the end of “Beyond the Bayou.” After La Folle has been summarily dismissed by Madame, she seats herself on the topmost step of the big house. She looks out over the plantation, and the sun is rising behind her. The rising sun symbolizes literally the dawning of a new life for La Folle, one in which she no longer fears crossing the bayou. On an individual level, La Folle's crossing of the bayou places her in a position to be assimilated into the black community rather than being excluded by her self imposed isolation. She is also positioned as a symbol of the dawning of civil rights for African Americans, which began in Chopin's lifetime. The sun rises behind La Folle as she sits on the steps, symbolizing the dawn of freedom for the entire African American community.

Both Delia and La Folle must overcome remarkable obstacles in order to reach a point in their journeys at which they can confront possible solutions to the Otherness which confines them. Each, in her own way, recovers from her fear, gains her freedom, and is poised to overcome her Otherness. The reader finishes both of the stories with the expectation that the women in them will continue to grow, to stretch and to become a part of their communities. They will, we believe, truly dispel their Otherness just as they have dispelled the fear that ruled their lives at the inception of their narratives.


  1. Since the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, the snake has been an image closely associated with evil and with the devil himself. Hurston consistently equates Sykes Jones with snake and Satanic imagery throughout “Sweat.” When Sykes first appears in the story, he is tormenting Delia with the whip, acting as if a snake is crawling on her (39). As Delia lies on her bed after her first confrontation with her husband, she says aloud that “whatever goes over the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther,Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing” (42), clearly identifying the devil with Sykes; it is Sykes whose comeuppance she is predicting. The storekeeper Joe Clarke describes him as squeezing the life out of Delia, similar to the way a snake might strangle its victim (43-44); Old Man Anderson continues the image with the comment that they should take Sykes and his woman and “lay on de rawhide” (44)—again, a whip image that reminds the reader of a snake. He brags to his neighbors, calling himself a snake charmer (47) and clearly tells Delia that he likes the snake better than her (47). Delia makes ambiguous remarks about “ol Satan” (49) and “dat ol' Scratch” (51) that could be intended to mean either the rattlesnake or Sykes Jones. Ultimately, the snake that Sykes is identified with throughout the story kills him, in an ironic twist of images. Sykes, who we see as a nearly Satanic figure throughout the story, meets his demise at the fangs of “ol Satan.”

  2. Delia's assumption that the “white folks” will come to her aid against Sykes' abuse is uncharacteristic ofthe real plight of Blacks in the South of the 1920's; “Sweat” was written/published in 1926. Realistically, her complaint would have been met with a cursory investigation at best and mirth at worst. The outcome most likely would have been more injury for Delia by Sykes' hand. This passage bears examination, however, as it suggests that Hurston views the Black community as subordinating the White community by the simple act of ignoring it. She seems to show the White community in a position of power; it is to them that Delia feels she must go for legal aid. She only refers to the White folks once in the story, and that when she is trying to scare her undereducated husband. Hurston creates an ambiguous Otherness between the two communities; she privileges the Black community over the White in many instances, yet this statement may cause readers to question her views. She articulates her views in an article condemning the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. “The whole matter revolves around self-respect of my people,” she argues. “I regard the ruling of the United States Supreme Court as insulting rather than honoring my race” (Spunk xii). This argument, made nearly 30 years later (1954), maintains that decision devalued the “already existing black institutions” (Gubar 1639) and seems to continue her lifelong assertion that the Black community was autonomous, self-sufficient, and in no way needed the approval of the White community.

  3. Hurston's verbiage changes significantly in this passage. Before and after this passage, she relies on concrete words to convey her message, using little in the way of articles or demonstrative adjectives. In this passage alone, she relies on the words “this” and “that”to carry her from one sentence to another and from one thought to the next. In the 5 sentences that make up this pivotal paragraph, these demonstrative adjectives appear 4 times, and each in a place where she usually would use a concrete term. The seemingly purposeful ambiguity of her words cries out for a linguistic interpretation that I am not qualified to give.

  4. The reader is led to wonder if Delia's life would have been any better had she chosen someone Other than Sykes as her husband. The men's habit of lounging on the porch of the Clarke's store, dribbling cane-knots and gossiping begs the question of whether she would have worked just as hard regardless of whom she married.

Works Cited

Bair, Deirdre. Introduction. The Second Sex. By Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Random House, 1952, 1989.

Callahan, Bob. Foreward. Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston. By Zora Neale Hurston. Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1985.

Chopin, Kate. The Complete Worics of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.

DeBeauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. end Ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Random House, 1952, 1989.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar, eds. Introduction to “Sweat.” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English. New York: Norton, 1985. 1639-1641.

———. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979, 1984.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Hooks, Bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politic*. Boston: South End P, 1990.

Howard, Lillie P. Zora Neale Hurston. Ed. Kenneth E. Eble. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Sweat.” Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston. Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1985. ix-xiii.

Moore, Jane. “An Other Space: A Future for Feminism?” New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts. Ed. Isobel Armstrong. London: Routledge, 1992.

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin: A Life of the Author of The Awakening. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Winter, Kari J. Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change: Women and Power in Gothic Novels and Slave Narratives, 1790-1865. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.

Sandra Gunning (essay date autumn 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10111

SOURCE: Gunning, Sandra. “Kate Chopin's Local Color Fiction and the Politics of White Supremacy.” Arizona Quarterly 52, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 61-86.

[In the following essay, Gunning examines issues of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and male aggression in “In Sabine,” “La Belle Zoraïde,” and “A No-Account Creole.”]

In Kate Chopin's 1894 local color story “A No-Account Creole,” Euphrasie Manton charts a course to economic and romantic happiness with Wallace Offdean, the New Orleans businessman whose company holds the mortgage on a local plantation in Manton's native Natchitoches parish. But while Chopin seemed to have originally conceived her story around the life of a woman, the plot centers squarely on a man's struggle with destiny and (dis)empowerment, since Euphrasie's discarded Creole lover, the plantation's former owner, Placide Santien, produces much of the story's emotional force. Indeed Placide holds the story hostage when, gun in hand, he sets out to murder the Yankeefied Offdean for winning both his family's land as well as his childhood sweetheart.1 Bloodshed is narrowly averted when, as an ultimate demonstration that no one but a Creole knows “how to love,” Placide decides to free Euphrasie from all romantic obligations (Collected Works [The Complete Works of Kate Chopin] 101).

Chopin's story might well function as simply a tribute to the ideal of self-sacrifice, were it not for the fact that Placide's initial impulse toward murder is distinctly tied through antebellum traditions of Southern honor to a legacy of white violence produced and nurtured by the region's defining history of slavery. Evoking the complex past that inevitably shapes the natures and actions of the story's characters, the black laundress La Chatte comments that as a slave on the Santien plantation she too had stared down the barrel of Placide's gun if she didn't move quickly enough to fix the young man a meal; her hints of even more horrendous deeds committed by the Santien patriarch, Jules, suggests a family history of destructive masculine action that continues to disrupt the lives of blacks and whites within the turn-of-the-century context of progressivism and reconciliation that frames Euphrasie's story.

Ironically, such figures as La Chatte call to mind a disenfranchised black population whose presence and collective memory speak both to the historical brutality of black-white relations under slavery, as well as the dual hope and disappointment fostered by Reconstruction and the years beyond. However, in “A No-Account Creole” Chopin has no interest in confronting interracial politics: the story's sympathetic focus seems to leave room only for Placide as the real victim of post-Civil War social upheaval, and only for Euphrasie and Offdean as the inheritors of a New South full of potential for New Women and their men. Yet through its concern for the impact of history on the lives of its white characters, Chopin's “A No-Account Creole” articulates a distinct preoccupation with white adjustment in the wake of black Emancipation, with the problem of internal ethnic and class divisions, and with the shift from rural to urban, from Southern to Northern bases of power. And it is precisely at the moments when Kate Chopin's stories about men and women engage the problems of particular racially- and regionally-bound identities that ideologies of white supremacy surface not just as a subject for her social commentary, but indeed, as a structuring discourse in her own fiction. Ranging anywhere from the benign paternalism of Henry W. Grady's orderly, segregated New South, to the racial radicalism of politician Benjamin Tillman and novelist Thomas Dixon, white supremacists most often articulated an anxiety over Anglo-America's perceived loss of economic and political power in the after-math of Emancipation and Reconstruction, often at the very historical moment when African Americans themselves were struggling with the effects of widespread discrimination in the form of segregation, lynch law, and voter intimidation.2 Clearly Chopin was no Thomas Dixon, but as has been said of Mark Twain in another context, the “force” of her fiction rests not “in the author's detached judgment against the world depicted, but in [her] … participation in such a world” (Rogin 74).

In Chopin's story, Placide's anxiety of failure engages with but is not analogous to the “failure” of blacks to move from slavery to freedom. Rather, the historical and political isolation suffered by white characters such as Placide both recalls and denies the isolation imposed on American blacks in the post-Reconstruction. If Placide is celebrated on white ethnic terms as a romantic Creole lover, his final disqualification as an overly passionate suitor and irresponsible landowner echoes both the sexual criminalization of black men as Black Beasts under the regime of late nineteenth-century white supremacy, and their disenfranchisement as post-Civil War citizens. Placide's story references that of countless black men in the South in that both he and his creed must be evacuated to make room for a presumably more acceptable type of lover and landowner in the New South. Thus Chopin's structuring of white male heroism evokes the tragedy of black life, only to appropriate that tragedy to consolidate rather than critique late nineteenth-century notions of Southern white privilege, in the midst of a story about the would-be decline of the old order.3 And while Placide is presented as an anachronism, as citizens of the New South Euphrasie and Offdean constitute a partnership of rural ambition and urban capital that is just as dependent on the subjugation of black workers for economic survival as Placide's Old South had been.

In delineating the nature and needs of male and female whites in her story, Kate Chopin engages with turn-of-the-century white-supremacist ideologies that drew their popularity from an urgent need to reconfigure the social, political, and economic landscape after national and regional moves from black slavery to freedom. Thus, consistent with its production in the 1890s, the multifarious themes of “A No-Account Creole” (the rise of the New Woman; adjustments to be made to an era of black wage labor) transform the story into a veritable touchstone for cultural and political change in late nineteenth-century America. In particular “A No-Account Creole,” and as I will be arguing in this essay a number of Chopin's other local color fictions, operate against the backdrop of increasingly powerful racial ideologies which structured prescriptive social roles for whites as well as blacks.

Turn-of-the-century literary returns to the antebellum world were of course generally staged in plantation and to a large extent in local color fiction, where displaced white Southerners become ubiquitous fixtures in works such as Grace King's Monsieur Motte (1888), Thomas Nelson Page's In Ole Virginia (1887) and Joel Chandler Harris' Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches (1887) and his semi-autobiographical On the Plantation: A Story of a Georgia Boy's Adventures During the War (1892). Chopin's work drew freely on both the patterns of historical recall signified by plantation fiction, as well as the delineation of quaint types characterized by local color. But if writers such as King, Page, and Harris paid romantic tribute to tragic but picturesque stereotypes of Old South cavaliers and their belles on the one hand, they also paved the way on the other for a newer stereotype of the post-Reconstruction white male hero, a figure whose fight was for racial purity and familial protection in the wake of black freedom, and who sought to undermine any possibility of a demeaning social equality between blacks and whites. Produced at the very moment of the seeming chaos of anti-black violence, this stereotype of white male heroism would be dramatically articulated throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Reconstruction novels such as Thomas Nelson Page's Red Rock (1898), later in Thomas Dixon's Klan novels The Leopard's Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905). The stereotype of a new racial manhood was finally reaffirmed for even wider audiences when filmmaker D. W. Griffith decided to adapt Dixon's novels for the early Hollywood blockbuster Birth of a Nation (1915).

This fantasy of a white manhood dedicated to the salvation of the race sparked an alternate focus on white female body, which had (and still has) immense repercussions for African Americans. As Martha Hodes has described, after the Civil War the need to guard white woman's virtue and thus ensure the racial integrity of her white offspring in turn justified and sustained a long history of supposedly defensive white violence against black men, who it was assumed, were naturally driven to rape once the restraints of slavery had been thrown off. This myth of the black rapist (the so-called terror of the Black Beast) originated from a line of white supremacist argument which cast African-American political struggle increasingly as a social rape of both the white woman (social equality) and the white nation (equal rights): hence the traditional rationale behind lynching as a necessary act of violence to preserve the nation through the defense of the purity of white womanhood. White women were thus objectified as the mediating moment in an interracial homosocial contest between black and white men, and thus denied existence as sexual or political agents. Though, as Wilbur Cash has argued, “the actual danger of the Southern white woman being violated by the negro … was much less … than the chance that she would be struck by lightning” (115), the belief in black male desire for white women served to contain the threat of white female sexuality and support what Jacqueline Dowd Hall terms as “the comforting fiction that at least in relation to black men, white women were always objects and never agents of sexual desire” (336-37). Ironically, the fear of the black rapist proved so strong, that some early feminists such as Georgia's Rebecca Latimer Felton urged white men of the South to “lynch a thousand times a week if necessary” (qt. Williamson 128). Clearly more disturbed than Felton by the violence of lynching itself, the Women's Christian Temperance Union president Frances Willard, as well as social worker Jane Addams would eventually come out publicly against the practice. However, both believed, in Willard's words, that “the safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities at this moment, so that men dare not go beyond the sight of their roof-trees” (qt. Wells 152).4

Though her own attitude toward white supremacy, lynching, and the myth of the black rapist has never been recorded, Kate Chopin's encounter with slavery, Southern Reconstruction, and white supremacy was ensured initially through her own St. Louis, Missouri, roots in a slave-holding family that had staunchly supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, then later through her marriage to Louisiana resident Oscar Chopin. Settling with her husband in the 1870s first in New Orleans, then in the Chopin family home of Cloutierville, Natchitoches Parish, Chopin maintained close ties with her Louisiana in-laws, and even after she returned to St. Louis following Oscar's death in the 1880s, she still chose to set most of her local color fiction in this region. Throughout the period of Chopin's association with Louisiana, the state (and indeed the parish of Natchitoches itself) was notorious for white racial violence and electoral corruption. By 1898 blacks were disenfranchised with the inclusion of the “grandfather” clause in the state constitution, and in 1900 New Orleans was the site of one of the most infamous race riots in American history, where a bloody white rampage against the city's black population lasted for four days.5

In 1874 the realities of white supremacist violence infiltrated Kate Chopin's own household when, enlisting in the paramilitary Crescent City White League of New Orleans, Oscar Chopin joined in the unsuccessful storming of the Republican City Hall. Though the attack left twenty dead and a hundred wounded, white city residents were not in the least perturbed by the bloodshed, viewing the attack as a stand for sectional independence. Not surprisingly then, while the legitimate Republican government was eventually restored through federal intervention, the rioters—including Oscar Chopin—were never brought to trial.6 Almost at the same historical moment in Cloutierville, a young lawyer named Phanor Breazeale was enthusiastically engaged with local white supremacists in a freewheeling campaign of election fraud and murder, ambushing and then lynching “troublesome” blacks who resisted white supremacist intimidation (Miscellany [A Kate Chopin Miscellany] 157-56). Breazeale eventually married Oscar Chopin's sister, and in later years he served as a friend and confidant to Kate Chopin, entertaining her with tales of his Reconstruction-era activities. According to some it was Breazeale who told Chopin the story which later became The Awakening, and he may have also served as a model for attractive but ungovernable characters like Placide Santien (Toth 323-24, 177).

In such a formative context Chopin's fiction engages with everpresent class, sectional, and ethnic tensions that lay below the surface of white supremacists' stereotypes of monolithic white national identities. The myth of a heroic white male response to the Black Beast suggested solidarity based on race sympathy and a natural communal outrage at the rape of white womanhood/nationhood: as Thomas Dixon put it, “in a moment the white race … [would be] fused into a homogeneous mass of love, sympathy, hate, and revenge. The rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the banker and the blacksmith, the great and the small, they … [would all be] one now” (The Leopard's Spots 372). If in Dixon's fiction race instinct holds at bay normally disruptive class and sectional differences, in Chopin's stories such differences surface obliquely, mediated through localized representations of domestic disputes and rural community clashes among whites with differing class, regional, and ethnic affiliations (upper-class French Creoles still living on the land, urban New Orleans residents, lower-class Cajuns, “American” whites). However, while Chopin's fiction might question the efficacy of violence and restrictive white racial identities as an appropriate response to social change, she does not necessarily support black civil rights or oppose white racism; rather, she sees such violence and identity restrictions as ultimately detrimental to white communal recovery.7


Kate Chopin's local color stories draw on a regular cast of invented characters who inhabit the region in which her Cloutierville home was located. In particular Chopin uses the fictional Santien family as a means of creating a sustained portrait of Creole aristocracy in crisis.8 The first part of my discussion will focus on two of Chopin's texts about the Santiens, namely her first novel, At Fault (1890), and the short story “In Sabine” (1893), with an eye to “the considerable amount of social and historical density” these works provide (Ringe 26), in order to track Chopin's staging of the contradictions around class, white male aggression, and idealization of white masculinity that emerge after the Civil War.

In Chopin's fictional Creole community, the once-wealthy Santiens have fallen on hard times: without free black labor to cultivate their thousand acres they face economic impotence in the altered conditions of the South. After the death of patriarch Jules and the retreat of Madam Santien to France, the sons Hector, Placide, and Grégoire fall into confusion. As Grégoire tells the story in At Fault, their recovery is hopeless: “Hec, he took charge the fir' year an' run it in debt. Placide an' me did'n' have no betta luck the nax' year. Then the creditors come up from New Orleans an' took holt. That' the time I packed my duds an' lef” (Collected Works 751). With their land gone the family referred to in “A No-Account Creole” as “the best blood in the country” has disintegrated: Hector chooses to live among the low-life of New Orleans, and Placide earns the nickname of “a no-account Creole” because of his desultory attitude toward work (Collected Works 84). Only young Grégoire seeks alliances with a postwar community when he goes to help out on the thriving plantation Place-du-Bois, owned by his young, recently widowed aunt Thérèse Lafirme in At Fault.

At Fault adheres to the standard plot of the North/South reunion romance between Thérèse, the enlightened despot of Place-du-Bois, and the St. Louis businessman David Hosmer: since Hosmer runs a timber mill on Thérèse's estate, their relationship signifies the merger of Southern agricultural power with Northern commercial and business interests. The subplot of racial discontent and violence, however, belongs on the one hand to Grégoire Santien and on the other to the mixed-blood mill worker Joçint. The tension between antebellum white ideals and the post-emancipation threat of “color” comes when Grégoire guns down Joçint after he surprises him in the act of setting fire to Hosmer's mill. While Chopin's condemnation of Grégoire's murderous impulse is unmistakable, her narrative allows no sympathy for the victim. Donald Ringe has suggested that Chopin creates parallel figures in Grégoire and Joçint, figures whose “inner natures simply will not permit” assimilation into the postwar South (29). However, anachronism or not, as a Creole Grégoire is allowed a certain heroic measure. Joçint on the other hand—rude, animalistic, and “extremely treacherous” (Collected Works 757) as a direct consequence of his mixed blood—represents a version of the Black Beast stereotype of pro-lynching fiction; as the unruly worker turned saboteur who refuses to adhere to the new order, Joçint and not Grégoire stands as the final obstacle to national progress, and he becomes the primary embodiment of evil in the novel's Southern white community, a fact which demands his extermination.9 Consequently, as an act of salvation for the New South, Grégoire's murder of Joçint “is seen as less threatening and forgiven more easily by the whole community” (Taylor 170). Grégoire's act of racial aggression creates exactly the same effects that the real-life lynching, Klan rides, and race riots engaged in by Chopin's husband and Phanor Breazeale were supposed to achieve: the black workers who have been pilfering from the Lafirme plantation regard the show of white power with awe, and are suitably respectful of traditional racial hierarchies. Thus Chopin's lack of complete condemnation of Grégoire suggests that though she may not approve of white violence, she respects its efficacy.

While Chopin's characterization of Joçint is consistent with aspects of white supremacist ideology, she disrupts at least some of the traditional racial assumptions around the Black Beast in order to re-vision gender and race politics among the white characters. For one thing, the subplot repudiates the specific notion of the black as rapist, since Joçint is never a sexual threat to Thérèse. While the bloodshed in At Fault mirrors that of the real-life lynching of blacks, Chopin here implies in part that violence occurs, as even Thomas Dixon himself would later have to acknowledge, “when the Negro ceases to work under the direction of the Southern white man” (“Booker T. Washington” 2). Thus the conflict between Joçint and his white employers is figured as primarily a clash of racially determined goals over the use of land and labor, rather than the rape and possession of the white female body. This presentation fractures the rhetoric of white supremacy that identifies the white female body with the white nation. As a white woman who does not rely on the necessary protection of white men, Thérèse is self-sufficient, independent, and willing to cultivate a love for the married Hosmer, qualities which mark her as the kind of dangerous woman the Black Beast stereotype was meant to corral.

The reformulation of Thérèse's role in the white South's social and political future articulates a new rhetoric of race, gender, and power which is further exemplified in the contrasts between Grégoire and Thérèse as managers of the land and its black labor force. As an example of the new order of white female management, Thérèse Lafirme handles her intractable black workers with a disciplined yet kindly hand, replacing the male violence of slavery with her Southern knowledge of the “darky” character.10 Though the novel begins after the Civil War and affords us little information about her life as a wife and slave mistress, Thérèse Lafirme's ability to successfully weather changing economic and social conditions speaks to Chopin's revision of the myth of the Southern belle. Specifically, Chopin replaces this myth with the idea of Southern woman as a white man's equal in leadership and business acumen. The roots of such a revision had taken hold during the Civil War when white plantation mistresses had been left to manage the slaves and land when their men joined the Confederate army. Through Thérèse, Chopin argues for a trend identified by her contemporary Wilbur Fisk Tillett: “a woman is respected and honored in the South for earning her own living, and would lose respect if, as an able-bodied woman, she settled herself as a burden on a brother, or even on a father” (“Southern Womanhood” 12).11

Significantly, Chopin will challenge the status quo only enough to liberate her white heroines, while embracing at the same time a structuring of race relations to consolidate their power. Rather than functioning as the embodiment of the besieged nation, Chopin's heroine thus becomes a feminized literalization of Grady's New South community spirit, a community which, when dealing with racial inferiors relies not on “the cowardly menace of mask or shot-gun, but [on] the peaceful majesty of intelligence and responsibility, massed and unified for the protection of its homes and the preservation of its liberty” (The Race Problem 546). Chopin's portrayal of Grégoire confirms Grady's admission that even “under this fair seeming there is disorder and violence” (The Race Problem 542), but Chopin also has Thérèse signify an alternate reality that is respectful of traditional racial codes and racial balances of power, without losing sight of the Southern white need for controlling black labor. As Grady himself might suggest, Thérèse Lafirme's world, at least for ex-slaves, “is simply the old South under new conditions” (The New South 146).

If Grégoire functions as a means of demarcating the space for the existence of a kind of Southern “New Woman,” he also exists to help refigure the significance of white violence. As a throwback to the antebellum South, Grégoire displaces contemporary white anxiety over lynching. No matter what their position on lynching and the myth of black rape, many whites were horrified at the idea of white supremacist violence, precisely because, as Emory professor Andrew Sledd argued, the “heroes” of a lynch mob in actuality were often “coarse, … beastly, and drunk, mad with the terrible blood lust that wild beasts know, … hunting a human prey” (68). In contrast to this view, the violence displayed by the aristocratic Grégoire's is depicted as tragic rather than merely destructive, and he is doubly romanticized as a gentleman and the passionate suitor of Hosmer's sister Melicent. As she does with Placide, Chopin specifically accounts for Grégoire's predilection for violent racial control by linking his behavior to antebellum male models: he is fascinated by the memory of McFarlane, the first owner of Place-du-Bois, whose exercise of complete control over the lives of his slaves made him “the meanest w'ite man thet ever lived”; he “can't res' in his grave fur the niggas he's killed” (Collected Works 751).12 Thus Grégoire's violence has no roots in the present political or domestic world of Place-du-Bois, and the racial and economic management of the South engineered by Thérèse and Hosmer is vindicated from its own historical submersion within a world of racial turmoil. Their system is based on a subjugation of black labor, but their dominance is masked behind the figure of Grégoire; white racial violence is accounted for as simply a declining problem of Creole arrogance out-of-bounds, not a longstanding white antipathy to black economic and political rivalry that would extend into the twentieth century. So, the story implies, violence will disappear upon Grégoire's removal, rather than with a reform of black and white power relations.

In keeping with the need to distance her vision of the postwar South from the reality of lynching and to secure racial boundaries, Chopin uses Grégoire's behavior to repudiate violence as a practice which might put whites in the position of imitating (and thus embodying) the moral deficiency of the racial Other. As an “enlightened” intersectional coalition of white characters, Thérèse, David, and his sister Melicent Hosmer are disturbed by the fact that Grégoire does not “understand [why] … he should receive any thing but praise for having rid the community of so offensive and dangerous a personage as Joçint,” and collectively they register an emotional shock at his complete “blind[ness] to the moral aspect of his deed” (Collected Works 824). The Northern characters exhibit a more extreme response. Indeed, Hosmer's inward abhorrence of the murder situates Grégoire in the same role of destructive animal inhabited by Joçint:

Heredity and pathology had to be considered in relation with the slayer's character. … [Hosmer] was conscious of an inward repulsion which this action of Grégoire's awakened in him,—much the same as a feeling of disgust for an animal whose instinct drives it to the doing of violent deeds,—yet he made no difference in his manner towards him.

(Collected Works 824)

In an outward show of racial solidarity with Thérèse's nephew, Hosmer is silent before his black workers, but his private characterization of Grégoire draws again on the rhetoric of heredity and eugenics, and registers a growing fear that violence achieves only the destruction of white morality.

As a potential mate for Grégoire, Melicent Hosmer responds to the young man with a sort of social segregation that mirrors general white hysteria over physical contact with black men. Immediately she makes plans to leave Place-du-Bois and berates Thérèse for tolerating Grégoire's presence after the murder:

“I don't understand you at all, Mrs. Lafirme. Think what he's done; murdered a defenseless man! How can you have him near you—seated at your table? I don't know what nerves you have in your bodies, you and David. … Never! If he were dying I wouldn't go near him.”

(Collected Works 828)

Melicent is criticized throughout the novel for her dislike of black servants and for her harsh judgment of Southerners, yet her disciplined enforcement of proper separation between races and types stands in contrast to Grégoire's later undisciplined attempts at integration. Angered by Melicent and Thérèse's condemnation of Joçint's murder, Grégoire becomes a parody of the Northern integrationist when at gunpoint he forces his fellow townsmen to drink with blacks. This chaotic, last-ditch attempt to reaffirm his power as an aristocrat only results in the disruption of the community's moral and racial harmony, since whites, angered at this social imposition, begin to threaten the innocent black men Grégoire has ordered into the bar. As the black workers remark “Grégoir gwine be Grégoir tell he die” (Collected Works 833), leaving Thérèse's only option as the expulsion of her nephew from Place-du-Bois.

Still, it is significant that though Grégoire must be exiled, he undergoes an apotheosis in the tradition of Thomas Nelson Page's plantation fiction heroes. When Thérèse learns that Grégoire has been killed in a Texas barroom brawl, all is forgotten as she and her workers unite in their grief and respect for his memory—even the black ferryman Nathan, “who had been one day felled to earth by a crowbar in Grégoire's hand, [and] had come himself to look at that deed as not altogether blamable in light of the provocation that had called it forth” (Collected Works 853). This posthumous reclamation of the Creole as a hero makes sense given that Chopin does not criticize Grégoire's racial attitude, but only his methods of racial control. Joçint is reprehensible because as a mixed-blood figure he is driven to impulsive destruction; Grégoire is reprehensible because his acts begin to imitate the violence, moral vacuity, and anti-progressivism of nonwhites. In their emotional restraint, their benevolent paternalism to blacks, their civilized acknowledgment of social rules, and their stand for modernization, Hosmer and Thérèse together represent for Chopin an alternative route for white development in the context of North-South social and economic alliances, even as they look respectfully back to the region's previous golden age.

In At Fault Chopin deconstructs white supremacy's myth of the black rapist just enough to free her white female characters from restrictive social roles, and her embrace of the entitlement offered by a validation of whiteness is exemplified in her story “In Sabine” where, like many of her contemporaries, Chopin turns from the planter class to lower-class whites for a portrait of real white evil. “In Sabine” traces Grégoire's doings from the time he leaves Place-du-Bois until his fatal arrival in Texas; specifically, the story is less concerned with articulating Creole shortcomings than with defining the class-bound dimension of idealized whiteness. “In Sabine” also functions as a commentary on ethnic division among whites themselves, specifically Americans and Creoles in the context of an increased anxiety over racial purity after emancipation.

In search of shelter near the Louisiana border in Sabine Parish, Grégoire encounters Bud Aiken, the “disreputable so-called ‘Texan’” (Collected Works 326) who habitually abuses his Cajun wife, 'Tite Reine. In the context of his rejection by Thérèse and Melicent, Grégoire is mindful of the need to control his behavior in the presence of women and so chooses not to kill Aiken; instead Grégoire merely distracts him with a long poker game and liberal supplies of alcohol. Exhausted from hours of carousing, Aiken falls into a deep, drunken sleep, allowing Grégoire to put 'Tite Reine on a horse headed back to her family in Natchitoches Parish.

While Grégoire represents for Chopin the aristocratic white man made rigid by his adherence to past values, the alien class and ethnic origins that mark Bud Aiken as malevolent afford the Creole Grégoire a certain absolution in the aftermath of Joçint's murder. As the enemy of the kind of refinement symbolized by Thérèse's regime, Aiken treats Reine like a black slave, sending her “out into the field to pick cotton with old Uncle Mortimer” (Collected Works 331), the neighboring black sharecropper. Such an attempt to appropriate the lifestyle of a wealthy antebellum planter marks Aiken as a social upstart, while his enslavement of 'Tite Reine resembles the corruption of the kinds of social relations epitomized at Place-du-Bois. 'Tite Reine's degradation in Aiken's household is rendered complete when, as she stares at Grégoire from the shock of seeing a familiar face from home, Aiken insults her racially: “‘Well, is that all you got to say to my frien' Mr. Sanchun? That's the way with them Cajuns, … ain't got sense enough to know a white man when they see one’” (Collected Works 327). Aiken's racial humiliation of 'Tite Reine, echoed in her literal enslavement, evokes the familiar nineteenth-century feminist alignment of helpless white femininity with disenfranchised blackness. Indeed, Reine suspects that Aiken really wants her not as a wife but as a slave concubine:

“sometime' he plague me mos' crazy; he tell me 't ent no preacher, it's a Texas drummer w'at marry him an' me; an' w'en I don' know w'at way to turn no mo', he say no, it's a Meth'dis' archbishop, an' keep on laughin' 'bout me, an' I don' know w'at the truth!”

(Collected Works 330)

Anna Shannon Elfenbein suggests that 'Tite Reine's tale of abuse is tantamount to a “denial [on Chopin's part] of the chivalrous claims of white men and their rationalization of lynch law as a means of dealing with the brute ‘nigger’,” demonstrating that “Chopin clearly anticipates the dawning racial awareness of white women” who would later agitate against lynching (119). This idea would seem to hold out with respect to the actions of the story's only black character: as Reine tells the story, Bud “‘would 'a' choke' me to death one day w'en he was drunk, if Unc' Mort'mer had n' make 'im lef go—with his axe ov' his head’” (Collected Works 329-30). This scene of a black raising an ax against a white man might ordinarily result in a lynching, and yet Chopin revises the usual white construction of black violence, not to point to ex-slaves' capacity for heroism but rather to their imagined faithfulness to good whites (a fallback here on particular plantation and local color fiction stereotypes). Mortimer is presented as asexual, a move which further draws on the plantation fiction stereotype of black men in order to underscore Aiken's capacity for lawless sexual desire. And since 'Tite Reine is abused by one white man only to be delivered by another in the form of Grégoire, her story functions less to revise the myth of the Black Beast for the benefit of African Americans, than to protect traditional Cajun and Creole ethnic categories.13

Since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 tensions between Creoles and Americans had run high, a fact replicated in Chopin's designation of Aiken as the alien villain. According to historian Joseph G. Tregle, such tensions were further heightened after the Civil War because black emancipation brought (at least for a time) de jure black equality: “In the midst of this convulsion the Creole was caught up not simply in a general Southern explosion of antiblack fanaticism, but as well in a peculiar complication which once again set him apart.” As Tregle suggests:

Whereas once the danger of confronting them had been humiliating loss of Gallic identity to a devouring Anglo-Saxon homogenization, now it was the infinitely more horrible possibility of being consigned to debased status in the “inferior” race, identified as half-brother to the black, a sort of mixed breed stripped of blood pride as well as of any claim to social or political preferment. … In such a manner was the cardinal tenet of the now familiar myth born: for those so threatened, henceforth to be Creole was to be white.


Traditionally Cajuns would have been “rigorously excluded [from the Creole world] having arrived in the colony not straight from the Continent but by way of Canada”; yet in spite of 'Tite Reine's ethnic origins, because Chopin decries the sexual enslavement and “negroization” of her heroine she proves the latter's value as a white woman, and thus argues the case for her salvation.14 Thus, the urgency to rescue the Cajun 'Tite Reine is also the urgency to open up a space for the articulation of new white American ethnicities chafing under restrictive definitions of Anglo-Saxonism, without altering the racial designation of blackness as undesirable. What will make Grégoire Aiken's social and ethnic superior, what will affirm his racial and moral purity, is both his designation of 'Tite Reine as white (and therefore worthy of his respect for her), and his refusal to act on his sexual desire. Consequently Grégoire becomes the perfect model of the romantic white lover:

Grégoire loved women. He liked their nearness, their atmosphere; the tones of their voices and the things they said; their ways of moving and turning about; the brushing of their garments when they passed him by pleased him. He was fleeing now from the pain that a woman had inflicted upon him. … The sight of 'Tite Reine's distress now moved him painfully.

(Collected Works 329)

The potential critique of “In Sabine” might have been devastating: instead of the homosocial black/white male struggle over the white female body, Chopin shifts to an all-white male context which refocuses anxiety over sexuality and power within the terms of an intra-racial struggle. And since Reine's final savior is in fact the white Grégoire and not the black Mortimer, Chopin both opens and then forecloses a more extended (and dangerous) political discussion of race, masculinity, and desire.


At Fault and “In Sabine” reference post-Reconstruction fantasies of the Black Beast and the white female/nation as victim, without relinquishing the impulse toward white self-protection, a move which is reiterated again and again, even in Chopin's more daring stories about female sexuality. And in works such as “A Lady of Bayou St. John” (1893) and its companion, “La Belle Zoraïde” (1894), Chopin's critique of the restrictive linkage between white female bodies and the South depends upon the availability of an objectified black sexuality as part of a vocabulary of white desire. Not surprisingly, her evocation of black sexuality is heavily regulated through the use of the mulatta, the ubiquitous Western figuration for interracial sex. What results is a teasing play on miscegenation which excites and therefore challenges white sexual self-repression, without seriously threatening a contemporary white audience's abhorrence for integration.15

Set during the Civil War, “A Lady of Bayou St. John” focuses on the appropriately named Madame Delisle as a Southern belle effectively immobilized on the plantation of her soldier-husband Gustave. Cared for by her black mammy Manna-Loulou, Madame Delisle embodies the stereotype of a male-authored Southern femininity which denies female adulthood and independence to white women. Madame Delisle's inaction is contextualized by traditional sources of power in the South (the upper-class white patriarchy signified by the plantation), an idealized blackness in submission (the vague reference to her only companions, the slaves), and also the far-off violence of the Civil War, which eventually precipitates a shift in Southern social roles. Ironically this shift comes not in the form of social “rape” by an emancipated black population, but rather in Madame Delisle's near-seduction via the love letters of her white neighbor Sépincourt. Yet, though life with Sépincourt promises more richness and sexual possibility than her previous existence, Madam Delisle finally fails at the critical moment: learning of her husband's death in battle, she rejects Sépincourt and devotes herself to honorable widowhood, and in her embrace of so traditional a role, she becomes a living memorial to a past ideal of white manhood. Thus, while the Civil War will free her husband's slaves, Madame Delisle's adherence to old constructions will perpetuate a new kind of female restriction that ultimately signifies the death of white femininity, not its protection.

“La Belle Zoraïde” has traditionally been read as Chopin's commentary on what Madame Delisle has lost, since she implicitly contrasts her white heroine with the passionate main character of one of Manna-Loulou's bedtime stories. Like Madame Delisle, the octoroon slave Zoraïde is the tempter of male desire: “‘La belle Zoraïde had eyes that were so dusky, so beautiful, that any man who gazed too long into their depths was sure to lose his head, and even his heart sometimes’” (Collected Works 304). While white men have the option of losing head and heart, of lusting and even loving, Zoraïde (who is clearly a reference for Madame Delisle) does not. But Zoraïde's dilemma lies in the fact that she must choose between M'sieur Ambroise, a light-skinned body servant favored by her despotic mistress Madame Delarivière, and the black field hand Mézor. When Zoraïde takes Mézor as her lover and becomes pregnant, an angry Madame Delarivière arranges for Mézor to be sold, and then snatches away the newborn baby. Believing her child to be dead, Zoraïde goes mad, clutching at a bundle of rags in place of her infant. Insanity saves her from marrying M'sieur Ambroise, but it also cuts her off from motherhood, since she refuses the child returned to her by a remorseful Madame Delarivière. At the story's end, Madame Delisle's only reaction is to moan “‘La pauv' piti! Mieux li mouri!’” (“The poor little one! Better had she died!”), in an ambiguous response either to the fate of the child, or to that of Zoraïde, with whom she perhaps identifies (Collected Works 307). As Anna Shannon Elfenbein writes, Chopin's story suggests that “neither lady nor tragic octoroon can be free, since one is forced to live vicariously through tales of romance, and the other forced to escape the realities of her lot by going mad” (131). Certainly Madame Delisle suggests the tragedy of self-repression for white women, while Zoraïde suggests the tragedy of slavery: both conditions produce a loss of female potential in terms of sexuality and motherhood. But while Zoraïde's fate mirrors that of Madame Delisle, their stories are not analogous. Zoraïde instead becomes the final index of female hysteria and unsuitable sexual desire, the real symbol of excess in female behavior.

Zoraïde functions as a referent for the story's subtextual flirtation with miscegenation as a corrupting social practice. At the start of the story Madame Delisle is figured as a lonely picture of dormant white sexual energy lying sensually “in her sumptuous mahogany bed,” an energy answered by the ministrations of Manna-Loulou: “The old negress … bathed her mistress's pretty white feet and kissed them lovingly, one, then the other. She … brushed her mistress's beautiful hair” (Collected Works 303). Borrowing from Sander L. Gilman's analysis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visual representation of race and womanhood where, in paintings such as Manet's Olympia “the figures of the black servants mark the presence of illicit sexual activity,” we can see the juxtaposition of Madame Delisle and Manna-Loulou as a coding of nineteenth-century white fears of the detrimental connection between masters and slaves, especially since Manna-Loulou's protection of the seemingly helpless Madame Delisle figures as a corruption, her soothing bedtime story perhaps inciting the chaste female mind to lust and infidelity (“Black Bodies” 209). Manna-Loulou even lends a dangerously homoerotic quality to the scene with caresses made more unnerving for a late nineteenth-century audience by the contrast of the servant's skin, “black as the night” with Delisle's blond paleness (Collected Works 303).16 Ultimately the forbidden collapse of white into black is reengaged in the story of Zoraïde herself. With her “‘café-au-lait’” skin and a figure envied by “‘half the ladies who visited her mistress’” (Collected Works 304), Zoraïde as mulatta rather than full black is finally the articulation of a more desired blackness, as well as desirable black female passion. Thus the envy, pleasure, and danger signified by Zoraïde's body would seem at once to defy and confirm the necessity of rabidly enforced Jim Crow segregation laws, which were well-established by the time of the story's publication.

The connection between Zoraïde and Madame Delisle is clear: both are petted, both are fair, both are oppressed by similar rules of social behavior. But in contrast to Madame Delisle, who senses Sépincourt's desire in a “glance that penetrated her own” yet refuses to act upon her “awakening,” Zoraïde seems at first to reverse processes of objectification by tapping into her own sensual feelings: “‘Poor Zoraïde's heart grew sick in her bosom with love for le beau Mézor from the moment she saw the fierce gleam of his eye’” (Collected Works 229, 304). The octoroon whose body excites white male lust is herself capable of lust, but because of the story's framing, she must become the conduit for frustrated white desire, rather than a subject in her own right. Madame Delisle as well as Chopin's white readers can still fantasize about sex in comfort and safety: the spectacle of Zoraïde's sexual transgression furnishes the reader/listener with a moment of distanced sexual pleasure while the punishment for that pleasure (insanity and social exclusion) is distanced within the mulatta's body, itself the permanent reference to racial transgression. In a sense Chopin rewrites black sexual criminality (Mézor is not the black rapist, but rather the desired lover; Zoraïde is not the prostitute, but rather the desiring lover) to speak for white sexual lack, without necessarily disrupting the white supremacist linkage of blackness with bodily excess.

Chopin's complicated play on stereotypes of black and white femininity—to gratify Delisle's longing and then absolve her character of that longing—further grapples with patriarchal notions of white desire by underscoring the excitement inspired by the stereotype of black male sexuality. As a possible sign of her rejection of “her white godmother's racist values” (Elfenbein 133), Zoraïde spurns the mulatto M'sieur Ambroise, “‘with his shining whiskers like a white man's, and his small eyes, that were cruel and false as a snake's’” (Collected Works 304). In “A Lady of Bayou St. John,” Sépincourt's appearance is more appealing: darkened by the sun, he has “quicker and hotter blood in his veins” than his white neighbors; though he has a “slim figure, a little bent” (Collected Works 298-99), he is still more desirable than Gustave Delisle's portrait. (The dead man's impotent sword hangs near the painting.) But all three men are overshadowed by the sexually-charged Mézor. If Sépincourt seduces with words, Mézor seduces with the promise of the black phallus: “‘Mézor was as straight as a cypress-tree and as proud looking as a king. His body, bare to the waist, was like a column of ebony and it glistened like oil’” (Collected Works 304). As with the stereotype of the black rapist, in Chopin's and the reader's, and presumably Madame Delisle's eyes, Mézor is finally the object of white desire instead of white terror. And more than Sépincourt, who wants Madame Delisle but cannot “comprehend that psychological enigma, a woman's heart,” Mézor proves to be a compassionate lover, with “‘kindness’” in his eyes and “‘only gentleness in his voice’” (Collected Works 302, 305).

Despite such gentleness, Mézor also excites because of the very danger implied by his presence: Zoraïde (and through her the reader) first catches sight of him in New Orleans' Congo Square performing the Bamboula, one of a number of antebellum slave dances whites found both disturbing and fascinating. Here Mézor functions doubly as the romantic connection to an exotic African past, as well as a forbidding reference to a “savage” black passion which, according to Chicago physician G. Frank Lydston, accounted for why “the Ashantee warrior knocks down his prospective bride with a club and drags her off into the woods.” Writing with his colleague Hunter McGuire in 1893, Lydston claimed that the primitive sexual feeling which marked the regressive African provided “an excellent prototype illustration of the criminal sexual acts of the negro in the United States” (7). But though Mézor personifies the black phallus, as the potentially violent lover who restricts his animal passion to his dances he is made safe in Chopin's narrative, always tethered to the earth, under white control, “hoeing sugar-cane, barefooted and half naked” (Collected Works 305), the subdued African body, in contrast to the more volatile mulatta Zoraïde.

Chopin's Mézor resembles another larger-than-life African prince, Louisiana slave, and sometime dancer of the Bamboula, the character Bras-Coupé, who appears in George Washington Cable's historical novel of 1803 New Orleans life, The Grandissimes (1880). Reverenced by the quadroon Palmyre but feared by whites, Bras-Coupé functions in The Grandissimes less as a character than as Cable's stereotype of enslaved black masculinity in all its passion and primitive power. A violent figure who showers curses on his master's family but bows down as a tributary before white women, Bras-Coupé is finally mutilated by exasperated slaveholders, and like the lynch victim of post-Civil War American history, he casts a shadow over the novel's Yankees and Southerners struggling to achieve national unity. In Mézor Chopin evacuates altogether the violence that distinguishes Cable's Bras-Coupé, but neither of these African figures has a presence coterminous with white characters; instead they are written out of the national narrative as actors, to remain finally as symbols of white guilt and desire. Consequently Mézor's safety is precisely his usefulness as a device to stage the articulation of Madame Delisle's suppressed lust. Under the burden of the story's framing, Zoraïde is a frustrated mulatta out of control who must stand in for a white woman unable to imagine herself out of control. Mézor, on the other hand, as a black man always in the narrator's grasp, is trapped within the white idealization of the perfect lover, referencing finally white, not black, social insurrection.

Chopin's articulation of an alternately unbounded and controllable blackness as a means of enforcing distance is also underscored by the mingled discourses of failed maternity, eugenics, and racial regression invested in “La Belle Zoraïde.” Within the context of the late nineteenth century, “miscegenation … was a fear not merely of interracial sexuality but of its results, the decline of the population” (Gilman 237). Consequently, Zoraïde's black maternity highlights the barrenness of both Madame Delisle and Madame Delarivière: Delisle moves from immaturity to childless widowhood, while Delarivière can only manage a surrogate black daughter instead of a white one. The play on black fecundity here as a sign of white disempowerment is further emphasized because the birth of Zoraïde's child in the story signifies the octoroon's disobedience to white law. By denying Zoraïde her child, Delarivière deprives her slave of any claim to a domestic identity, and here Chopin seems to be rejecting antebellum social relations much as she does in At Fault, because it allowed such abuses. Yet, though Chopin seems to be engaging in racial disloyalty by validating black female maternal rights, she sets into motion turn-of-the-century discourses about racial inferiority that deny blacks' capacity to exercise those rights.17 Zoraïde might reproduce, but she is ultimately unfit for parenting even when a regretful Madame Delarivière returns the child. Nineteenth-century medical discourse would have assigned her madness not only to her grief over the loss of the child, but to her own racial identity as an octoroon made unstable by virtue of racial interbreeding. The eugenicist language of the story casts M'sieur Ambroise as diminutive, imitative of whiteness, but finally deceitful and cruel, the product of racial refinement that does not improve physical or temperamental characteristics. In The Grandissimes Cable's quadroons are similarly afflicted: they suffer from either uncontrollable anger or from a failure of will. Thus at the moment of her rejection of white domination, Zoraïde proves herself to be a version of the “tragic mulatto” who goes mad at the restrictions set upon her identity.18

But if Zoraïde is trapped within madness and slavery because of the unchangeable features of race and blood, Madame Delisle, on the other hand, is trapped by Southern tradition and history, conditions about to undergo radical change in the story because of its setting during the Civil War. Thus, Zoraïde finally exemplifies black sexuality but also black powerlessness, if we read Madame Delisle's “‘La pauv' piti! Mieux li mouri’” as a comment on the slave's hopeless condition. On the other hand, Delisle exemplifies white female empowerment precisely because of her race: the frustration generated in the narrative by Zoraïde's tragedy as a black slave becomes finally a frustration at Madame Delisle, who does not exercise the choices Chopin implies are hers by virtue of her whiteness.19

In her local color stories, Kate Chopin was neither disengaged from the racial politics of the late nineteenth century, nor actively in resistance to white supremacist thought. Rather, her characterizations are as much a response to stereotypes of race, as they are a reaction to patriarchal domination. While traditional readings cast her as resistant to gender conventions of her age, I would argue that her feminism worked in tandem with her investment in turn-of-the-century racist discourses. As such, her work offers a hitherto neglected site from which to consider the racialization of gender within turn-of-the-century white women's fiction. Inasmuch as Chopin contributes to white supremacist thought with works such as At Fault, “In Sabine,” and “La Belle Zoraïde,” she affirms the multivalency of the stereotype of the black rapist in the imagination of American white male and female literary audiences, at the same time as she revises the white supremacist association of the white female body to suggest alternate possibilities for the development of a white female subjectivity. Chopin's work also registers tensions within “white” culture about the nature of whiteness itself, and the boundaries between ethnicity, race, and region in determining American enfranchisement. Thus, Chopin's work reveals the complex entanglements among white supremacist public discourses, “mainstream” white writing on regional and community development, and especially female fiction, as she articulates mutually constitutive feminist and white supremacist visions that both liberate and confine her.


  1. “A No-Account Creole” was based on one of Chopin's first short stories. Variously titled in her notes “Euphrasie,” “A Maid and her Lovers,” and “Euphrasie's Lovers,” the story was eventually pared down and published in its present form in the Century. See Emily Toth 177-78.

  2. For discussion of white supremacist thought, lynching, and race riots in the post-Reconstruction era, see Shapiro, Fredrickson, and Williamson. See also Wiegman for a discussion of the meaning of lynching as an American social practice.

  3. I am indebted here to a number of important new discussions on the “reading” of race in American literature and culture; see especially Sundquist and Warren.

  4. For a discussion of Willard, see Ware 198-205; for Addams' views on lynching, see her “Respect for Law.”

  5. See Tunnell and Shapiro for a discussion of the high level of Reconstruction violence in the state.

  6. See Toth 134-36. During Reconstruction, Louisiana Creoles from all classes, especially those in New Orleans, swelled the ranks of the state's many local white supremacist organizations such as the Innocents and the more familiar and increasingly violent Ku Klux Klan. In 1868 almost half the white male population of New Orleans belonged to the Knights of the White Camellia (KWC), an organization founded by the French Creole Alcibiade DeBlance, pledged towards “the Maintenance of the Supremacy of the White Race in this Republic” (Trelease 93).

  7. Donald A. Ringe gestures toward this point in “Cane River World,” when he discusses the importance of Chopin's local color fiction as a study of how “the war … has had its effect on the society she depicts” (26).

  8. See Lattin for an early discussion of the notion of repeating characters, as well as the image of the Santiens as a family in decay.

  9. My reading of At Fault is informed by Taylor 166-70.

  10. See also Taylor 167-69.

  11. For an illuminating discussion of white female management of land and labor during the Civil War, see Drew Gilpin Faust, “‘Trying To Do a Man's Business’.”

  12. According to both Toth and Taylor, Place-du-Bois is based on the old Chopin estate, and McFarlane is the renamed Robert McAlpin, the land's previous owner who was allegedly the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Simon Legree.

  13. Aiken's ethnic identity is especially important, since Chopin is much more generous in her portraits of lower-class whites who are of French background (the Cajun characters). The bumbling but kindhearted Bobinôt in “At the 'Cadian Ball” and “The Storm,” and the gallant Telèsphore in “A Night in Acadie” are romantic portrayals of lower-class Cajun chivalry.

  14. See also Dyer and Monroe for a discussion of the Cajun or 'Cadian balls, where Grégoire would have met 'Tite Reine, as places frequented by “sensual, ‘disreputable’ women who threaten domesticity and monogamy” (6).

  15. See Dyer's useful but strangely uncritical description of Chopin's deployment of race to distance and connect her white readers with the sexual desire demonstrated by the black characters in “Techniques of Distancing.” See also Birnbaum's reading of the quadroon nursemaid in Chopin's The Awakening.

  16. See Gilman's reading of blackness, female sexuality, and disease in “Black Bodies, White Bodies,” especially 237.

  17. It is important to note, of course, that black female claims to equality with white women had been argued in the nineteenth century through the figure of the maternal, for instance in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). As both Carby and Tate show, by the 1890s domestic novels by black women stressed black female capacity for moral respectability, responsible motherhood, and racial uplift.

  18. There was of course a separate discourse on womanhood and madness, and my argument here is that as a racial hybrid and a woman, Zoraïde bears the burden of a body doubly inscribed as the site of madness.

  19. See also Birnbaum (304) for a discussion of race and female empowerment in The Awakening in “‘Alien Hands’.”

My thanks to Anne Goldman, Lemuel Johnson, Kerry Larson, Marlon Ross, Stephanie Smith, Patricia Yeager, and Rafia Zafar for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

Works Cited

Addams, Jane. “Respect for Law.” Rpt. Lynching and Rape: An Exchange of Views. Ed. Bettina Aptheker. New York: The American Institute for Marxist Studies, 1977.

Birnbaum, Michele A. “‘Alien Hands’: Kate Chopin and the Colonization of Race.” American Literature 66 (June 1994): 301-23.

Cable, George Washington. The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life. 1880. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Cash, Wilbur. The Mind of the South. New York: Knopf, 1941.

Dixon, Thomas, Jr. “Booker T. Washington and the Negro.” Saturday Evening Post, 19 August 1905: 1-2.

———. The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. 1905. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

———. The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden 1865-1900. 1902; Ridgewood, N.J.: Gregg, 1967.

Dyer, Joyce Coyne. “Techniques of Distancing in the Fiction of Kate Chopin.” Southern Studies 24 (1985): 69-81.

Elfenbein, Anna Shannon. Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable, Grace King, and Kate Chopin. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. “‘Trying To Do a Man's Business’: Slavery, Violence, and Gender in the American Civil War.” Gender and History 4 (Summer 1992): 197-214.

Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.

Gilman, Sander L. “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature.” Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 204-42.

Grady, Henry W. The New South. New York: Robert Bonner, 1890.

———. The Race Problem. 1889. Philadelphia: John D. Morris, 1900.

Hall, Jacqueline Dowd. “‘The Mind That Burns in Each Body’: Women, Rape, and Racial Violence.” Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review, 1983. 328-49.

Harris, Joel Chandler. On the Plantation: A Story of a Georgia Boy's Adventures During the War. 1892. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Hodes, Martha. “The Sexualization of Reconstruction Politics: White Women and Black Men in the South after the Civil War.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1993): 402-17.

King, Grace. Monsieur Motte. Rpt. Grace King of New Orleans: A Selection of Her Writings. Ed. Robert Bush. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973. 53-95.

Lattin, Patricia Hopkins. “Kate Chopin's Repeating Characters.” Mississippi Quarterly 33 (1980): 19-37.

McGuire, Hunter, and G. Frank Lydston. Sexual Crimes Among Southern Negroes. Louisville, Ky.: Renz and Henry, 1893.

Page, Thomas Nelson. In Ole Virginia: Or, Marse Chan and Other Stories. 1887. Nashville: J. S. Sanders, 1991.

———. Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction. New York: Charles Scribner, 1898.

Ringe, Donald A. “Cane River World: At Fault and Related Stories.” Modern Critical View: Kate Chopin. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 25-33.

Rogin, Michael. “Frances Galton and Mark Twain.” Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson: Race, Conflict, and Culture. Ed. Susan Gillman and Forrest G. Robinson. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. 73-85.

Seyersted, Per, and Emily Toth, eds. A Kate Chopin Miscellany. Natchitoches and Oslo: Northwestern State University Press and Universitetsforlaget, 1979.

——— eds. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. 2 vols. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Shapiro, Herbert. White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Sledd, Andrew. “The Negro: Another View.” Atlantic Monthly 90 (1902): 65-73.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Taylor, Helen. Gender, Race, and Region in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Tillett, Wilbur Fisk. “Southern Womanhood As Affected by the War.” The Century, n.s., 21 (November 1891): 9-16.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Tregle, Joseph G., Jr. “Creoles and Americans,” in Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. Ed. Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992. 131-85.

Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. 1971. Westport: Greenwood, 1979.

Tunnell, Ted. Crucible of Reconstruction: War, Radicalism, and Race in Louisiana 1862-1877. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

Ware, Vron. Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History. London: Verso, 1992.

Warren, Kenneth W. Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Wells[-Barnett], Ida B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Ed. Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Wiegman, Robyn. “The Anatomy of Lynching.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1993): 445-67.

Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Lawrence I. Berkove (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Berkove, Lawrence I. “‘Acting Like Fools’: The Ill-Fated Romances of ‘At the 'Cadian Ball’ and ‘The Storm’.” In Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, edited by Alice Hall Petry, pp. 184-96. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, Berkove elucidates Chopin's attitude toward adultery and morality as evinced through her stories “At the 'Cadian Ball” and “The Storm.”]

Since its long-delayed publication in 1969, “The Storm” has generally been read as Kate Chopin's protest at the narrow and unnatural morality of turn-of-the-century America. The story's startling last sentence in particular has been taken to be her boldly amoral stand on an adulterous affair between two young and willing participants. This critical position is not hard to understand, considering the revolutionarily frank sensuality of the story's scene of passion. Inasmuch as Chopin's novel The Awakening, which was completed in 1898, the same year as “The Storm,” is widely regarded as an affirmation of women's sensuality, “The Storm” would seem to be a reinforcement of this position. Chopin was, without doubt, an extraordinarily bold writer, but she was better than bold; she was thoughtful. “The Storm” is even better than its advocates have heretofore realized, for instead of writing merely a daring defiance of established morality, Chopin has even more daringly emplaced a courageous defense of morality, demonstrating an unsuspected mastery of irony to build her case.

“The Storm” is a sequel to “At the 'Cadian Ball” (1892). The earlier story is less spectacular than “The Storm,” but despite the six years separating their composition (and probably their narratives), they fit together seamlessly. Both stories share the same setting, the same four protagonists, the same history, and the same theme, i.e., romantic impulsiveness as folly. Society's disapproval of impulsiveness, especially of sexual license, is shown to be sensible as well as moral, for such license is ultimately damaging to the individuals involved as well as to the circle of family and community around them. Chopin steadily projects this position by implication in both stories through her deft construction of character and plot, brilliantly subtle irony, and short but trenchant authorial commentary.

Chopin did not attempt to publish “The Storm” in her lifetime, hence it did not see print until 1969.1 Per Seyersted described it as “the story [Chopin] knew she could never hope to get published.”2 Chopin no doubt felt that its graphic sex scene was inappropriate for its time, but even so, that she wrote the scene proves only that she was ahead of her era in literary experimentation; it does not mean that she approved—or refrained from disapproving—of Alcée and Calixta's adultery. Chopin is too good an author to have been preachy. The personalities she describes are those of human beings, neither of saints nor of devils, and it seems to be her wont to evoke understanding about human motivation first and foremost, and judgment later. But inasmuch as the moral issue of adultery is central to “The Storm,” Chopin must have had an opinion on it. In contrast to the prevailing view that she ended the story noncommitally, a careful examination of the text makes clear that Chopin was not at all neutral toward the “natural” adulterous action but was instead critical of it. In Chopin's view, morality is an essential part of humanity, and it is morality, not nature, that ultimately characterizes humans.

This view appears in both stories. Although the earlier story must and can stand by itself—and nothing indicates that Chopin planned, in 1892, to write a sequel to it—the two stories are remarkably congruent in characterization, plot, and theme, and crucial similarities between the earlier and later story suggest that they both came out of the same matrix of authorial values. In both stories, Chopin shows her skepticism of “natural” human inclinations by portraying what happens when people allow sexual impulse to govern them. Even the earlier story depicts, with foreboding overtones, the consequences of impetuousness that drives two ill-fated romances to become unwise marriages.

The four main personalities in “At the 'Cadian Ball” also appear in “The Storm.” Although their situations change, their characters do not. They grow older but do not grow up. It is therefore essential to see how their characters are established in “At the 'Cadian Ball.”

From the first paragraph of the earlier story, Calixta is described in pejorative terms. She is called “that little Spanish vixen,” and the reader is told that “the Spanish that was in her blood” made her different from the rest of the prairie people and was the reason they “forgave her much that they would not have overlooked in their own daughters or sisters.” What was different about her was an open sexuality not countenanced by the community. Even her virtuous admirer, Bobinôt, is captivated not by her whole being but rather by her particular physical attributes—tantalizing eyes; flaxen hair; broad, smiling mouth; “tiptilted nose”; and full figure (219).

She also has a rich contralto voice, but ominously, Bobinôt thinks of it as having “cadences in it that must have been taught by Satan” (219). “A breath of scandal” is whispered about her from her trip the previous year to the town of Assumption, and her friend Fronie, in the midst of an argument on the church steps over a lover, calls Calixta a “cocotte,” a fast woman (219). This remark, uttered in anger, is not substantiated in the earlier story but is borne out in the sequel, when Calixta indulges her passionate and impulsive temperament.

The man she was linked with at Assumption is Alcée Laballière, a wealthy, young, handsome, upper-class planter. Alcée is also passionate and impulsive; it is natural that Calixta is deeply attracted to him. Alcée is best understood by Bobinôt, who regards him as a rival. Bobinôt knows that Alcée's main interests are card-playing and discussing crops or politics, but he also knows that “a drink or two could put the devil in [Alcée's] head,” and that “a gleam from Calixta's eyes, a flash of her ankle, a twirl of her skirts could do the same” (220). Alcée, therefore, is dangerous to Bobinôt not because he is a serious rival for Calixta's hand, but because he and Calixta both have a bit of the devil in them and together could do something on the spur of the moment that would endanger Bobinôt's suit.

Alcée, however, is not seriously interested in Calixta. He is infatuated with Clarisse, his beautiful cousin (225) and the goddaughter of his mother. Clarisse lives in his house, but the distance implied by their relationship as kin frustrates him. Then one day, when “he must have been crazy,” he comes in from working in the fields and abruptly “clasped Clarisse by the arms and panted a volley of hot, blistering love-words into her face” (220). This declaration takes her by surprise. Her first reaction to it is a coldly formal reproach, “Monsieur!” (220). Nevertheless, the embrace changes their relationship, and it gets her to thinking.

Until Alcée confesses a passion for her, Clarisse appears not to have felt any for him. There was no courting. As he saw her, she was “[c]old and kind and cruel by turn, and everything that was aggravating” (220). Not until he leaves for the ball, two nights later, does she suddenly become “wild,” conclude that she is in love with him, and impulsively go after him. Whether love or some jealous fear of losing him motivates her is unclear. No evidence of a developing, mutual romance between Alcée and Clarisse appears in the story except for one word in her confession of love to him. She tells him that if he didn't come back with her, she “could n't stan' it,—again” (227). The word “again” at first seems surprising, but in context it is a reference to his visit the year before to Assumption, where he and Calixta were linked in scandal. With that word, therefore, Clarisse retroactively establishes herself as a rival of Calixta.

In contrast to these three attractive but impulsive young people is Bobinôt, with whom the story opens. “[B]ig, brown, and good-natured” (219) is our first glimpse of him, a teddy-bear of a man. He is straight, steady, and deeply in love with Calixta, but he is also “dull-looking and clumsy” (223). When she mocks him at the ball, he takes it with characteristic good nature. Such is his love for her that he feels that “[i]t was better to receive even such notice as that from Calixta than none at all” (224). Bobinôt is an innocent in both the negative and positive senses of the word: naïve but also honest and not devious. Things happen to him; he does not cause things to happen.

A storm precipitates the action in “At the 'Cadian Ball.” It is a cyclone that devastates the nine hundred acres of rice Alcée had planted and worked so hard over. After Clarisse's rejection, this is the second major setback he received in two days. As he interprets events, “God A'mighty an' a 'oman” have joined forces against him, and he decides to compensate himself with a “li'le fling” at the Cajun ball (222). He had not originally intended to go. Judging from Clarisse's contemptuous reaction, “Nice conduc' for a Laballière” (222), attending the ball was somewhat beneath his station—and he acts on an impulse he does not choose to scrutinize: “he was in a mood for ugly things to-night” (223). Bobinôt also had not intended to go to the ball, but changes his mind when he realizes that Calixta would be there and that Alcée might attend. “Poor Bobinôt” is alone in his perception of the motives of his rival and that trouble was brewing with Alcée (223).

It is natural but not auspicious that Alcée and Calixta find each other at the ball. Neither is in love with the other; Alcée loves Clarisse and both expect that Calixta will eventually marry Bobinôt, although Calixta's response to Alcée's inquiry on this point, “I don't say no, me” (224), is at best unenthusiastic. Both are therefore looking for some excitement to divert them; Alcée is reckless and Calixta demonstrates “abandon” (223). Both are physically attractive, and both had shared a scandalous relationship the year before at Assumption. Both have a bit of the devil in them, and the text notes with unusual asperity, “[t]hey were acting like fools” (224).

When Alcée and Calixta meet they quickly pick up their affair where it had left off the year before. But just as Alcée propositions a willing Calixta with the mock threat that he may drown himself unless they both return to Assumption, Clarisse appears unexpectedly and implores Alcée to go with her. Alcée's mood is broken instantly: “He would have followed [Clarisse's] voice anywhere” (225). The shallowness of his attraction to Calixta is unmistakable when, in his hurry to join Clarisse, she reminds him to bid farewell to Calixta, whom he has already forgotten. He does so with a “Good-night, Calixta” (226) and an offer of a handshake.

Two marriages come out of that evening at the ball. Dumped by Alcée, Calixta proposes to Bobinôt after she indifferently (“I don' care”) accepts his offer to walk her home. She is not in love with him. She obviously chooses him in a resentful reaction, and she seals the pact with a “business-like” handclasp (226). She refuses to kiss him, moreover, and the author is surprisingly explicit in her criticism of the whole affair when she describes Calixta's face: it “was almost ugly after the night's dissipation” (226).

Clarisse also essentially proposes to Alcée on their ride home when she confesses her sudden desire for him. The text raises the question of whether Alcée knows what love is when it describes his reaction: “He began to wonder if this meant love. But she had to tell him so, before he believed it. And when she told him, he thought the face of the Universe was changed—just like Bobinôt” (227). The comparison to Bobinôt—who is deceived in his belief that Calixta loves him—is an ironic one; it means that Alcée is no wiser than Bobinôt in matters of love. In light of this, the rest of the paragraph is also ironic.

Was it last week the cyclone had well-nigh ruined him? The cyclone seemed like a huge joke, now. It was he, then, who, an hour ago was kissing little Calixta's ear and whispering nonsense into it. Calixta was like a myth, now. The one, only, great reality in the world was Clarisse standing before him, telling him that she loved him.


The stream of consciousness of this last passage reveals Alcée's admission of insincerity with Calixta, exposes his fickle nature, and betrays his own susceptibility to romantic nonsense. Like Calixta, he believes what he wants to; now he wants to believe that Clarisse is the true love of his life.3 The physical cyclone destroyed his rice crop, and now an inner cyclone of his feelings has destroyed his judgment.

Chopin allows herself one last ironic comment in the concluding line of the story: “le bal est fini”—i.e., “the ball is over.” The ball was a time of romantic illusion. Real life begins when the music stops. For Alcée and Clarisse it will mean a marriage based on sudden gusts of passion; for Bobinôt it will mean a marriage in which his love is not reciprocated; and for Calixta it will mean a marriage of convenience. Her only passion is for passion, and Bobinôt will not supply that. The concluding line therefore ominously recalls the refrain of a popular song of the time: “Many the hopes that have vanished after the ball.”4

Although her writing career was relatively short, Chopin very early demonstrated a mastery of skillful sparseness. Almost an Emily Dickinson of prose, she wrote stories whose boldness of conception was balanced by a tight style with densely layered ironies. Chopin's unconventionalities of plot or daring frankness are elements to be considered in overall interpretation, but they are not the only elements and may not even be the major elements. Her main concern was to render life intelligently as well as accurately, with the complexity it deserves, and to avoid simplistic reduction of its dilemmas. An under-appreciated part of Chopin's extraordinary skill is her ability to subtly undercut bold but morally untenable positions that she has sympathetically represented. This skill is at its peak in “The Storm.” “At the 'Cadian Ball” can stand by itself, but it improves when viewed with its sequel. Likewise, “The Storm” stands by itself but benefits from the running start provided by the earlier story.

The care with which Chopin crafted “At the 'Cadian Ball” is evident in the later story, for she is able to pick up the same personalities, situations, and themes, and in the sequel not only use them again, but also reaffirm them. A quick survey of “The Storm” reveals how closely it resembles its predecessor. The four protagonists, although they have grown slightly older, have not changed in character. The sequel also opens with Bobinôt and ends with a glimpse of all the major characters. A storm again drives the main action of both stories. Yet although shorter, “The Storm,” is the better story. It is more complex, deeper, and more daring. It is richer, and more accomplished in technique.

Easily the most controversial feature of “The Storm” is its last line, “So the storm passed and every one was happy” (596). Coming as it does after the powerfully sensuous and daringly explicit scene in which Calixta and Alcée enjoy adulterous sex with each other during a tumultuous thunderstorm, the line seems to sanction the act. “Who was hurt?” it seems to say. “If none of the principals object, why should we?” Probably the strongest case to date that supports this position is Emily Toth's. As Toth reads the story, “Kate made the passion a matter of mutual power and desire. … Kate's two lovers come together without deception or guilt” (320). Placing the story in the contexts of both Chopin's personal life and oeuvre, Toth observes that “living among freethinking intellectuals who made fun of bourgeois proprieties” had made Chopin much bolder. Whereas the action of “At the 'Cadian Ball” had taken place “mostly at night, at back doors,” she says, “‘The Storm’ proceeds boldly during the day, in the married woman's own home. … [Chopin] had come to feel that there was no shame in sexual desire—only in hypocrisy” (321-22).5

It is surprising that Toth has contrasted both stories in terms of surreptitious, “back door” activity at night versus bold activity in the daytime, for neither characterization is correct. That the ball occurs at night and that Alcée leaves for it at night are hardly “back door” actions, and that the adulterous action takes place in the daytime hardly makes it bold. Moreover, living among “freethinking intellectuals” no more causes an author to become liberal than living among conservatives causes a writer to become conservative. These generalizations are misleading.

Much of Toth's interpretation derives from the article “Is Love Divine?” which Chopin wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It appeared on 16 January 1898, after she had already written a draft of The Awakening and six months before she wrote “The Storm.” Toth quotes a surprising reflection of Chopin's on the subject of predestination: “‘One really never knows the exact, definite thing which excites love for any one person, and one can never truly know whether this love is the result of circumstances or whether it is predestination’” (310). Although authors such as Mark Twain have used predestination in the traditional, religious sense as a theme,6 many others, such as Henry James, express the notion of fate through the more secular perspective of determinism.7 If this theme is what Chopin meant by predestination, then it illuminates a good deal of her fiction, including The Awakening and “The Storm.”

Toth summarizes a second statement as suggesting that “choice played a very small role in love”:

I am inclined to think that love springs from animal instinct, and therefore is, in a measure, divine. One can never resolve to love this man, this woman or child, and then carry out the resolution unless one feels irresistibly drawn by an indefinable current of magnetism.


How Chopin qualifies this comment, far from restricting choice, as predestination does absolutely, actually allows both an author and his or her characters more flexibility. If love is only “in a measure” divine, for example, then it is also partly not divine. Determining the proportions of the emotion, particularly the not-divine portion, would be the kind of challenging literary project that Chopin previously undertook in “Two Portraits” (1895). Furthermore, if love were divinely ordained in total, would God induce someone to love in a way contrary to His commandments? Chopin would surely have recognized this obvious logical trap. However, if love is only a function of animal instinct, a human being need not act on that instinct. Western religion differentiates between love and lust by defining acceptable and unacceptable objects of love and ways of expressing the same powerful drive. Rather than assuming that Chopin's remarks in the Post-Dispatch article are clear conclusions on her subject—love—we might better regard them as positions she was exploring and look to “The Storm” for evidence of how she resolved the issues involved. Given the histories and characters of Calixta and Alcée, the way the story's text treats the episode, and Chopin's wariness about adopting simplistic positions, it seems highly unlikely that Chopin seriously meant to categorize their act of sudden and blind passion as divine love, as acceptable love, or as anything worthy of the name of love.

“The Storm” is set in the same place as “At the 'Cadian Ball” but occurs several years later. Bobinôt and Calixta, now married, have a four-year-old son named Bibi. The story opens with a view of Bibi and Bobinôt at the local store. Bibi's presence at the opening is significant because, as a new addition to the four main personalities of the previous story, he symbolizes the marriage and the mutual commitment and trust it should imply. One image of these ideals appears at the end of the first section with the line “Bibi laid his little hand on his father's knee and was not afraid” and another in Bobinôt's purchase of a can of shrimps, “of which Calixta was very fond.” These acts, and the earlier description of Bobinôt's habit of conversing “on terms of perfect equality with his little son,” show that Bobinôt is a good husband and father. Nevertheless, the mood for the entire story is set by the section's description of storm clouds rolling in with “sinister intention” (592).

The story does not paint Calixta and Alcée as schemers. She and Alcée had not planned to meet, let alone commit adultery. The rainstorm—another cyclone—has caught him on the road, and although he lives nearby and might have ridden on, his wish to escape a drenching in Calixta's home is innocent. He greets her by name and properly asks permission to wait out the storm on her porch, and she properly addresses him as “M'sieur Alcée” when she grants it. Calixta is honestly concerned for Bobinôt as the storm hits, but a lightning strike nearby so unnerves her that Alcée clasps her by the shoulders and “unthinkingly” draws her into his arms. So the adulterous passion begins without premeditation. Alcée suddenly discovers that contact with her body “aroused all the old-time infatuation and desire for her flesh.” When she glances up at him, her fear is replaced by a “drowsy gleam that unconsciously betrayed a sensuous desire. He looked down into her eyes and there was nothing for him to do but to gather her lips in a kiss. It reminded him of Assumption” (594). Chopin's text clearly describes their mutual attraction as a spontaneous as well as natural emotion, but it also distinguishes their feelings from love. Calixta is in the grip of a “sensuous desire,” and Alcée equally has a “desire for her flesh.”8 The relationship between the two of them is characterized as an “infatuation,” literally “foolish behavior.”

The story's next paragraph is not so kind to them. We learn what had happened at Assumption that had scandalized the community. The two of them had indulged their passion, kissing until Alcée almost lost control of himself, and “to save her” he resorted “to a desperate flight.” This flight reflects honorably upon Alcée at the time, and it also shows that he had choice and could control himself. The remaining lines of the paragraph contrast, unfavorably, the present Alcée to the earlier one.

If [Calixta] was not an immaculate dove in those days, she was still inviolate; a passionate creature whose very defenselessness had made her defense, against which his honor forbade him to prevail. Now—well, now—her lips seemed in a manner free to be tasted, as well as her round, white throat and her whiter breasts.


Alcée's reasoning is faulty. Inasmuch as he introduced the subject of honor, if honor forbade him to prevail against a virgin, it should have been even more forceful in the case of a married woman, to whom the commandment against adultery applied. As we know from his honorable actions in Assumption, it is not that he now had no choice, that he could not stop himself, but that he did not want to.

The description of the act of passion that follows is indeed impressive, and Chopin deserves all the credit she has received for its daring and its “realism,” but there is more to it than that. Calixta has already been described as a “passionate creature,” but in abandoning herself so utterly to her passions and becoming a mere “creature,” she forfeits some of the other desirable qualities of her humanity. Much as Bobinôt saw her in “At the 'Cadian Ball,” she is described not as a whole woman but as parts of a woman: as “firm, elastic flesh that was knowing for the first time its birthright,” as breasts that “gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy,” as a mouth that “was a fountain of delight.” Her passion is present in “generous abundance” (595), but nothing else is there—no thought, no hesitation, no moral scruples, no reflection. It is a portrayal that unexpectedly illustrates the Victorian fear that women could not be depended upon to govern themselves, that they were only passionate “creatures,” frail vessels when it came to thought or resistance to temptation.

Calixta's subsequent actions also support another Victorian stereotype of women as morally elastic. She laughs as she lies in Alcée's arms; she laughs as he rides away; she laughs at dinner with her husband and son. But she also has begun to lie. In the midst of the sex act, her passion was “without guile or trickery” (595). Yes, she is genuine and honest in her passion, but this condition ends with the departure of her lover. When her husband and son return, she lies. She tells Bobinôt that she was “uneasy” while he was away, and “seemed” to express “nothing but satisfaction” at the safe return of her husband and son. She kisses them with unexpected enthusiasm—Bobinôt expected recriminations—and at dinner they all laughed so loudly that “anyone might have heard them as far away as Laballière's” (596).

The only “anyone” of consequence at Laballière's is Alcée. If he does hear them, this explains why he writes his wife, Clarisse, that night, encouraging her to stay a month longer at Biloxi with the babies. He also lies to her about the real reason, pretending that he is willing to sacrifice himself for their health and pleasure. It is fairly clear that he hopes for a repeat performance with Calixta, and if Calixta intended for her laughter to carry to his house, he indeed had reason to hope.

The consequence of Clarisse's abrupt desire for Alcée in “At the 'Cadian Ball” is spelled out in the sequel by her pleasure at receiving her husband's letter. The visit to Biloxi is described as the first “free” breath of “pleasant liberty” she has enjoyed since her marriage. The marriage itself is summed up in one ironic sentence: “Devoted as she was to her husband, their intimate conjugal life was something which she was more than willing to forego for a while” (596).

Coming as it does just after this sentence, the last sentence of the story, “So the storm passed and every one was happy,” must also be read ironically. Reading it “straight” would not only ascribe to Chopin anachronistically liberal attitudes, it would also create a host of problems that she was too good a writer and thinker not to have avoided. The last line intends to depict different kinds of happiness, none of them desirable.9 Bobinôt and Bibi are happy by virtue of their ignorance. They continue to trust Calixta and to extend her a dedicated love they mistakenly believe is reciprocated. Clarisse, not overly fond of Alcée anymore, is happy in being able to stay away from him for a while longer. She also is happy in her ignorance of her husband's adultery. Surely Chopin cannot be seriously characterizing such deceptions as happiness.

Calixta and Alcée are “happy” because their long suppressed passion for each other has been at last satisfied—at least for the time being. But it is not love. It is only passion, only desire, only an “infatuation.” No serious thought has been given to the future. Alcée has given himself another month in which to enjoy Calixta again, but he is already married and has children, and divorce is not a serious possibility. What happens if they are caught, or if she becomes pregnant? Calixta does not even think about the next hour. They are “acting like fools.” It is difficult to believe that Chopin considers this precarious state of affairs to be true happiness.

Reading the last line as amoral, matter-of-fact realism also begs some important moral questions that Chopin could not have intelligently ignored. To be specific, if everyone was truly happy at the end of the story, is this story intended to be a “realistic” picture of married life? Is this kind of behavior what makes for a happy marriage, or only what passes for one? Is the story an endorsement of occasional escapades of immorality on the grounds that everyone needs to give in, sometimes, to nature, because in the long run satisfying natural desire is beneficial because it promotes happiness? If such escapades can be excused on these grounds, is happiness the greatest good in life, even greater than morality? To put it a little differently, is Kate Chopin advocating hedonism?

Certainly one of the strongest elements in the story is the relationship it implies between man and nature: a storm comes up, releases pent-up energy, and then passes over. This event is followed by happiness, so why should humans deny their affinity to nature? Kate Chopin would be a less impressive author if she were guilty of such simplistic thinking. Writings by Shakespeare (e.g., King Lear) to Stephen Crane (e.g., “The Open Boat”), to Ernest Hemingway (e.g., “The Three-Day Blow”) have demonstrated the falseness of the analogy between human beings and natural phenomena. Storms may be personified, but they are not living persons. They do not know the intimacy of love and children; they are ephemeral; they lack memory and consciences; and they do not have to face consequences. When Alcée responds to the storm in “At the 'Cadian Ball,” it is to imitate it by seeking a fling and getting “in a mood for ugly things.” When the passion between him and Calixta parallels the storm in the sequel, the former pattern is repeated. Imitating nature, they exchange human standards for something mindless and irresponsible. That they can be “happy” afterwards is not particularly a compliment to them.

As with the issue of happiness, the symbolism of nature in these stories is loaded with pitfalls. A recent discussion of The Awakening reminds readers that Chopin was sufficiently influenced by current trends in international literature not to have treated nature “as a medium of transcendence in the Romantic sense.”10 The limited applicability of nature to human affairs is also apparent in these two stories if we recognize that natural storms cannot be brought back at will, but that Alcée certainly, and possibly Calixta, are looking forward to a repeat performance. Storms, moreover, are isolated and irregular phenomena, whereas adultery tends to set a pattern. Storms are destructive though transient; human relationships, especially those involving love and family, cannot thrive in storms. These are self-evident considerations that Chopin could not have overlooked.

Finally, the presence of children in “The Storm” reflects one more enormous difference between human nature and physical nature: humans recognize an obligation to their offspring. Bibi is not the only child in the story; Alcée and Clarisse also have babies. If the affair between Alcée and Calixta blows up or is exposed—and such affairs are very hard to conceal in small towns and close-knit communities—the children will be hurt. All of these direct and likely consequences of “following nature” make the amoralistic approach a highly dubious one for Chopin to have followed.

In claiming that Kate Chopin is critical of the adulterous relationship that had its roots in the scandal at Assumption, grew through the recklessness and impulsive self-indulgence of its principals in “At the 'Cadian Ball,” and ripened into passionate infatuation in “The Storm,” I do not intend to paint Chopin as a narrow Sunday-school moralist. Rather, the care that she has taken with the consistent development of the principal characters in the two stories, and the progression of relationships that begin on the wrong foot in the earlier story and progressively worsen throughout both stories, refute the belief that Chopin abruptly reverses herself in the last sentence of “The Storm” and intends this conclusion to be read literally. The tone of that sentence is ironic, and to miss that tone is also to overlook the careful and extensive preparations for it that constitute the main matter of both stories.

It would be an exaggeration to categorize these stories as moral fiction, but it is also an exaggeration to deny or downplay the moral strands that run through them. They are far from being the only stories in her canon that demonstrate moral concerns about sexual matters; “A Respectable Woman” (1894) and “Athénaïse” (1895) are two others in which such concerns are readily apparent. What makes “The Storm” seem so different are two factors. Intrinsically, it is the most daring and sexually explicit of all her stories. Extrinsically, its rediscovery coincided with a feeling among many that the sexual taboos of the 19th century were outdated. But “The Storm” is also one of Chopin's most accomplished literary creations, and in it her irony, though delicate, is absolutely crucial to its understanding. That Chopin is ultimately critical of Alcée and Calixta's adultery must be recognized not because of any moral predisposition or prejudice on the part of readers, but because the texts of the two stories lead us directly to that conclusion and because the alternative positions are fraught with too many and too obviously insupportable difficulties. It is to her credit that Chopin created convincingly life-like personalities and depicted their careers sympathetically. As a realist, however, and especially as an ironist, she knew that men and women are, classically, led into error by what pleases them. True morality stems from hard thinking as well as great effort of will. These two stories support morality by making readers face up to the consequences of acting foolishly and ignoring it.


  1. Kate Chopin, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted, hardcover ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 592-96. Hereafter cited in the text.

  2. Per Seyersted, “Kate Chopin's Wound: Two New Letters,” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 20 (Fall 1987): 72.

  3. There is a hint, in the line “Calixta was like a myth, now,” of an allusion to the myth of Callisto, whose name Calixta bears in a French adaptation. Juno, jealous of her husband's attraction to the beautiful maiden Callisto, turned her into a bear. This allusion is not fully developed in Chopin's story, but it does suggest jealousy on the part of Clarisse and helps explain her power to suddenly destroy Calixta's appeal to Alcée.

  4. “After the Ball” (1892) was the well-known song:

    After the ball is over, after the break of morn—
    After the dancers' leaving; after the stars are gone;
    Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all;
    Many the hopes that have vanished after the ball.

    (Charles K. Harris, “After the Ball,” Favorite Songs of the Nineties [New York: Dover, 1973], 1-5)

  5. Emily Toth, Kate Chopin (New York: William Morrow, 1990). Robert D. Arner anticipated this reading in “Kate Chopin's Realism: ‘At the 'Cadian Ball’ and ‘The Storm,’” Markham Review 2 (February 1970): 1-4, one of the earliest interpretations of the story. Subsequent discussions, such as those by Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969); Peggy Skaggs, Kate Chopin (Boston: Twayne, 1985); and Chung-Eun Ryu, “Nature and Sexuality in the Fiction of Kate Chopin,” Journal of English Language and Literature 35 (Spring 1989): 131-47, have also generally tended to regard the story as a deliberately amoral celebration of sexuality.

  6. Twain does not openly refer to predestination in his fiction, but the presence of it powerfully shapes his work. For a discussion of its operation, see my essays: “The ‘Poor Players’ of Huckleberry Finn,Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 53 (1968): 291-310; “The Reality of the Dream: Structural and Thematic Unity in A Connecticut Yankee,Mark Twain Journal 23 (Spring 1984): 8-14; and “Mark Twain's Mind and the Illusion of Freedom,” Journal of Humanities, special issue (1992): 1-24.

  7. Although I discuss Toth's quotations in her biography, I have also consulted the full text of Chopin's remarks in Emily Toth's subsequent article, “Kate Chopin on Divine Love and Suicide: Two Rediscovered Articles,” American Literature 63 (March 1991): 115-21. “Predestination” is normally a specific religious term and implies a deity who makes choices for humans.

    “Determinism” also describes a situation in which human choice is preempted, but the cause is usually something secular, such as genetics, psychological makeup, sociological conditions, and so on. I see little evidence in these stories of the operation of divinity behind events. Therefore, either what was on her mind when she made this remark did not manifest itself in her fiction, or it has eluded my recognition of it, or else she used “predestination” in a more generic sense to refer to determinism or “fate.”

  8. In her biography, Toth writes: “When Kate Chopin came to write about men who kindle desire, and who devote themselves to sexual pleasure, she named them all Alcée, an abbreviated form of Albert Sampité: Al. S—é and Alcée are both pronounced ‘Al-say’” (169). The exact nature of the relationship between Chopin and her Clouterville neighbor, Albert Sampité, is still under speculation. Although talk of a romantic affair persisted to recent times, all accounts presented by Toth appear to be either based on rumor or highly inferential, and Toth herself admits that “an affair in the 1880s was not simply a matter of physical consummation” (168). Whatever went on in Chopin's own life, in all her fictional uses of someone named Alcée, that man is associated with desire but not love. Sara deSaussure Davis, in her discussion of Alcée in The Awakening, writes that “Chopin tellingly calls Alcée's effect upon Edna ‘narcotic,’ something that induces sleep and with prolonged use becomes addictive” (“Chopin's Movement Toward Universal Myth,” Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, ed. Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992], 204).

  9. In his biography, Seyersted glimpsed but did not pursue potential difficulties with his claim that the emphasis of the story “is on the momentary joy of the amoral cosmic force” when he qualified it with his preceding recognition that the story's last line “is of course ambiguous. Mrs. Chopin may refuse to sit in judgment on morals, but she covers only one day and one story and does not exclude the possibility of later misery” (166-67).

  10. Dieter Schulz, “Notes Toward a fin-de-siècle Reading of Kate Chopin's The Awakening,American Literary Realism 1870-1910 25 (Spring 1993): 74.

Heather Kirk Thomas (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5449

SOURCE: Thomas, Heather Kirk. “‘The House of Sylvie’ in Kate Chopin's ‘Athénaïse’.” In Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, edited by Alice Hall Petry, pp. 207-17. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, Thomas explores Sylvie's narrative function in “Athénaïse.”]

The imagination that produces work which bears and invites rereadings, which motions to future readings as well as contemporary ones, implies a shareable world and an endlessly flexible language.

—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark1

Per Seyersted, perhaps Kate Chopin's most influential critic, considers her lengthy story “Athénaïse” among her “most important efforts.”2 Written 10-28 April 1895 and published in the fall of 1896 in the Atlantic Monthly, the story not only exhibits the Cane River and New Orleans settings that earned Chopin acclaim in Bayou Folk (1894) but, more significantly, anticipates the overtly sexual themes of her mature work.3 For these reasons Helen Taylor, among others, views “Athénaïse” as a precursor to Chopin's 1899 novel The Awakening, and both the story and its title character have received sustained critical attention.4 By contrast, Chopin's characterization of Sylvie, the hard-working, middle-aged, black woman who runs the New Orleans boarding house where Athénaïse briefly resides, has escaped notice. This lapse appears doubly ironic, considering that Chopin's literary practice of effacing women of color has been so recurrently disparaged. To ignore Sylvie's narrative function is also to misread “Athénaïse”'s operative irony, which raises substantial questions about transitional stages in women's lives, including their deficient preparation for marriage, by contrasting a young white woman's marital loss of identity with a mature African-American woman's capable self-sufficiency.

The narrative features Athénaïse Miché Cazeau, a two-months' bride disillusioned in her marriage to the handsome widower Monsieur Cazeau, a conventionally laconic but nonetheless loving Cane River planter. Similar to Janie Crawford's repulsion to her first husband in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Athénaïse declares that she “‘can't stan' to live with a man; … his ugly bare feet—washing them in my tub, befo' my very eyes, ugh!’”5 Her first petulant flight from Cazeau's Bon Dieu plantation merely returns her to her parents' adjacent farm, but eventually she succumbs to her rakish, adored brother Montéclin's proposal that she flee from Cazeau to New Orleans. At this point, he orchestrates her secretive disappearance and secures lodgings at Sylvie's French Quarter boarding house, a locale he also frequents when visiting the city. During her month-long stay at “the house of Sylvie” (440), Athénaïse meets a cosmopolitan Creole journalist, Monsieur Gouvernail, who falls a little in love with her.6 However, any adulterous liaison is avoided when she discovers her pregnancy, a revelation that returns her “in a wave of ectasy” (451) to her husband where “her lips for the first time respond to the passion of his own” (454). The story's insinuation that maternity fully awakens the young bride's passionate nature constitutes the singular brazen element of its otherwise conventional conclusion. In any case, Montéclin's disgruntled response to his sister's reconciliation with her husband—“he could not help feeling that the affair had taken a very disappointing, an ordinary, a most commonplace turn, after all” (454)—may mirror the reaction of some readers.

Per Seyersted, however, argues that the story's embedded critique of women's marital disempowerment likens Athénaïse “indirectly … to a slave”; Helen Taylor similarly considers it Chopin's most explicit analogy between “marriage and slavery.”7 In this sense, in Athénaïse's chastened return to her husband's Bon Dieu plantation, we might consider her sold “up river.” But Chopin regularly created alternative versions of female emancipation and confinement in her fiction. On the one hand, she experimented with thematic reconfigurations: exploring the ameliorative effects of a surrogate mother's love in “Polydore” (1895), for example, then deconstructing that myth in the later, Faulknerian nuances of “The Godmother” (1899). On the other hand, she commonly utilized parallel female characters or foils within single narratives: for example, in “A Sentimental Soul” and “Regret” (both written in 1894), in “Two Summers and Two Souls” (completed in 1895, immediately after “Athénaïse”), as well as her widely recognized trio—Mademoiselle Reisz, Adèle Ratignolle, and the woman in black—in The Awakening. In “Athénaïse” Chopin follows her customary practice by appointing the proprietor of the “house of Sylvie” as an ironic foil to the title character's personality in that Sylvie, an unmarried, African-American businesswoman, enjoys emotional, economic, and (presumably) sexual emancipation in New Orleans. White, pregnant, and Catholic, Athénaïse is essentially trapped even before she begins her journey.

Stereotyping of racial minorities was a common feature of 19th-century regional writing, and Chopin created her share of “Black Mammies” and fanatically loyal ex-slaves.8 The majority of her black female characters have no family names, illustrated by “Mandy,” “Betsy,” and “Suze” in her first novel At Fault (1890), and others receive the honorary title “Aunt,” a form of address alleging an affectionate bond with white families.9 Chopin presumably copies Southern custom in both matters. Completed in 1892 but never published in her lifetime, the sketch “A Little Free-Mulatto” focuses specifically on free black families, but Chopin rarely created full-bodied characterizations of such people. Hence Sylvie's delineation as a woman of color who is also a New Orleans entrepreneur is not only atypical of Chopin's oeuvre but of American literature in general.

Couched in conventional local color language, the introductory description appears, at first glance, to diminish this exceptional woman of color:

She was a portly quadroon of fifty or there-about, clad in an ample volante of the old-fashioned purple calico so much affected by her class. She wore large golden hoop-earrings, and her hair was combed plainly, with every appearance of effort to smooth out the kinks.


But the overall narrative pays Sylvie uncommon homage as a woman of “dignity” whose strong racial features inscribe “the loftiness and command of her bearing” (440). In fact, the text states specifically that Sylvie's manner is supremely respectful, never obsequious, in the presence of her white patrons, notwithstanding she “believed firmly in maintaining the color line, and would not suffer a white person, even a child, to call her ‘Madame Sylvie’” (440-41).

Anna Shannon Elfenbein notes that in Chopin's stories with black characters, “Her detached observations reveal both the extent to which oppressed people are shaped by the stereotypes applied to them and the extent to which they may use these stereotypes to dupe their oppressors.”10 The survival of “the house of Sylvie, on Dauphine Street” (440) in the heart of the French Quarter commercial world would normally demand that its proprietor adopt “the mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar's term for the obsequious face Southern racist convention required. Sylvie's position as the head of a business, however, excepts her from the traditional address “Aunt Sylvie.” In addition, from “those of her own race”—her employees and others who value her economic achievement—she commands the title “Madame Sylvie,” a form of respect she is said to have “exacted religiously” (441). A successful entrepreneur, Sylvie obviously pays lip service to Southern morés but demands deference when and where she can. Chopin's clarification of Sylvie's prerogatives in this matter cannily confronts Southern codes of etiquette as they intersect with issues of race and class. In “Madam's Past History” (1943), Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes makes the same point about a self-employed black woman who extorts respect for a lifetime of work: “My name is Johnson—/ Madam Alberta K. / The Madam stands for business. / I'm smart that way. … I do cooking, / Day's work, too! / Alberta K. Johnson—/ Madam to you.”11

The story's first mention of Sylvie's Dauphine Street townhouse—“a three-story gray brick, standing directly on the banquette, with three broad stone steps leading to the deep front entrance” (440)—associates its proprietor with an inherent air of respectability. In calling a boarding house “the house of Sylvie” Chopin not only contributes a French flavor to this Creole tale but also conveys a sense of economic sovereignty, like the powerful traditions invoked by “the House of Chanel” or “the House of Lords.” The residence's public face, fronted by a second-story balcony, overlooks Dauphine Street. In the flagstone courtyard, invisible from the street, “fragrant flowering shrubs and plants” thrive in beds and in “tubs and green boxes,” while the guest rooms within are “plain” but “exquisitely clean.” To Athénaïse, who did not take well to housekeeping herself, “the whole place smelled of cleanliness” (440). She resolves “to live on indefinitely in this big, cool, clean back room” (442).

Sylvie's reputable “clientèle” hails mainly from “the southern parishes,” ladies and gentlemen stopping a few days in New Orleans for business or pleasure. In fact, she “pride[s] herself upon the quality and highly respectable character of her patrons” and also rents out the house's “sanctuary of elegance,” its formal front parlor, to “parties of respectable and discreet gentlemen desiring to enjoy a quiet game of cards outside the bosom of their families” (442). Clearly, the respectable gentlemen gather in Sylvie's front parlor because their equally respectable womenfolk discourage or prohibit these masculine pursuits. When they wish to enjoy a convivial evening at cards and smoke in peace, they come to Sylvie's. (The same impulse precipitated Mark Twain's inclusion of an attic billiards room in his Hartford mansion.) Interestingly, in a story about women's loss and gain in marriage, Chopin's irony extends beyond Athénaïse's quandary to critique how women themselves might reinforce the notion of separate spheres.

But Sylvie's racial and material rise has ensued from pleasing both her male and female clients. Installing the discomfited Athénaïse in her new quarters, the owner is irrefutably in charge. She moves “slowly and majestically about the apartment,” checking the towels, smoothing the bed linens, and offering fresh water to ensure all is perfection. If the girl requires anything else, she is to “‘call Pousette: she year you plain,—she right down dere in de kitchen’” (441). If less tyrannical a hotelier than Leona Helmsley, Sylvie nevertheless rules with a practiced authority, which includes keeping a sharp eye on the aging, recalcitrant housemaid who occasionally neglects her duties. On one occasion Pousette forgets to bring ice water to Athénaïse's room. When summoned, she begs that no one tell her mistress about her lapse: “‘Vou pas cri conté ça Madame Sylvie?’” (448) Indeed Sylvie's high standards take an equivalent toil on her own leisure, as “almost every moment of her time was occupied in looking after her house.” Athénaïse would enjoy a conversation from time to time, but Sylvie refuses because “her deferential attitude towards her lodgers forbade … gossipy chats” (449). To engage in gossip would violate her clients' right to privacy and in the long run might affect her income. By contrast, Athénaïse, who sorely requires her own funds, plans daily to locate “some suitable and agreeable employment” (442), but ruling out “two little girls who had promised to take piano lessons at a price … embarrassing to mention” (451), she eventually determines she has no acceptable marketable skills.

A further disparity between Sylvie's and Athénaïse's capabilities concerns their various conceptions of housekeeping, and the narrative's sensual description of a typical meal at Sylvie's reveals another facet of her knowledge and expertise. Normally, Sylvie's guests do not receive board (except for Gouvernail, who takes Sunday breakfast), but she has agreed as a favor to Montéclin to provide for Athénaïse while she is in hiding.12 Gracious dining here contrasts sharply with Athénaïse's disdain for her former housekeeping duties, which resulted in her peevish rejection of the keys to her husband's pantries, a gesture reflecting a naive hubris more than any enlightened disavowal of woman's work. Sundays Chez Sylvie, the “immaculately set” table near the window is spread with “delicate river-shrimps and crushed ice,” “a few hors d'oeuvres,” “a small golden-brown crusty loaf of French bread,” a half-carafe of wine, and “the morning paper.” Lamb chops followed by “café au lait” complete the feast (443). Chopin's savory description highlights Sylvie's culinary wisdom and creative touch. She might spend long hours overseeing her business, but when le bon temps rouler at Mardi Gras, she would know how to enjoy herself with food and friends. Athénaïse, by comparison, grew up amidst Cajun laughter and dancing, and her Cane River neighbors applaud her mother's “gumbo filé” (428). But until her sojourn with Sylvie, she appears to have disassociated the anticipation, preparation, and delights of the table with herself. She now has the opportunity to study an expert housekeeper, to savor fine food and wine, and to observe sophisticated table settings, a course of silent instruction to which Gouvernail also contributes during their educational excursions and private tête-à-têtes.

Sylvie's secluded garden also figures in Chopin's edification theme, particularly when examined alongside the story's most portentous symbol, the “great solitary oak-tree” (433) standing on Cazeau's plantation. After Athénaïse's first defiant flight to her parents, Cazeau collects and then accompanies her home. But at the finale of their journey when he sights this ancient, massive landmark, he abruptly recalls an incident in his childhood when his father permitted “Black Gabe,” an exhausted runaway slave, to rest from the travails of his capture in its dense shade. Cazeau's chilling recollection, considering present developments, makes the oak tree suddenly appear “hideous,” just as the locals' conviction “at the time that Black Gabe was a fool, a great idiot indeed, for wanting to run away” from such a “considerate master” (433) taunts him from the past. Per Seyersted interprets Black Gabe as a symbol of the Archangel Gabriel, the messenger of Mary's conception, and the oak tree, as “woman's immutable destiny which makes her the tree of life.”13 Chopin's satire of the elder Cazeau as a “considerate master” from whom a slave would be a fool to escape clearly parallels the son's dilemma. Sylvie's French Quarter garden, however, offers a benevolent contrast to the malevolent oak tree as well as to Seyersted's essentialist conception of woman's nature. In New Orleans, Athénaïse spends long hours in this sylvan retreat, caring for the flowers, admiring the “cape jessamine”'s bouquet (449), and hearkening to “a mockingbird that hung in a cage” and “a disreputable parrot that belonged to the cook next door, and swore hoarsely all day long in bad French” (451). Earlier the narrative suggests that Athénaïse would eventually come to “know her own mind” as instinctively as “the song to the bird, the perfume and color to the flower” (433). Compared with the evil antebellum tree of knowledge dwarfing Cazeau's plantation, Sylvie's lush courtyard seems prelapsarian; more importantly, it supplies the three preconditions mentioned above that will enable Athénaïse to “know her own mind.” The brilliantly-colored flowers, their sensual perfume, and the plaintive lament of the caged birds work their magic on Athénaïse. This diminutive Eden arouses her senses and quiescent sexuality, easing her metamorphosis into womanhood prior to her realization that she is expecting a child.

But Sylvie offers Athénaïse more than a garden retreat and the leisure in which to assimilate her experience. Like Mademoiselle Reisz, she also serves as a “very wise” counselor to the “very ignorant” Athénaïse (451), who knows surprisingly little, for a planter's daughter, about human reproduction. Hence when she complains of feeling “not herself” (451), it falls to Sylvie to interpret her symptoms, offer the obvious conclusion, and later just as candidly inform Gouvernail, since “[t]here was no subject known to her which Sylvie hesitated to discuss in detail with any man of suitable years and discretion” (453). Sylvie's diagnosis drastically changes Athénaïse's course of action, but before she departs for Bon Dieu, her landlady presents her with a symbolic farewell gift: an heirloom “set of pattern” (apparently for maternity or infant garments) analogous to the designs Adèle Ratignolle imparts to Edna. Sylvie's generosity expresses a sororal bond transcending race, but the very nature of her gift as well as its ominous, allegorical name portend the young woman's future.14 Athénaïse accepts Sylvie's patterns “with reverence, fully sensible of the great compliment and favor” (453) but leaves only some castoffs for the housemaid Pousette: “a handkerchief, a petticoat, a pair of stockings with two tiny holes at the toes, some broken prayer-beads, and finally a silver dollar” (452).

Considering Athénaïse's fiscal straits, however, Pousette's compensation might not be as stingy as it seems. The daughter of tenant farmers, Athénaïse undoubtedly had no dowry. She also has no funds in New Orleans except what little her brother borrowed to pay her room and board or what she later acquires from “Harding & Offdean, her husband's merchants,” to purchase a layette and presents for her family (452). In 19th-century Louisiana, the Napoleonic Code controlling a husband's estates was still regnant; indeed, after her husband, Oscar, died in 1882, Chopin had to petition the courts for her marital property and guardianship of her six children. Although Athénaïse improved her estate by marrying Cazeau, during her month's stay in the city she very likely realized that the “house of Sylvie” was more monetarily secure than she, a silent partner in the “house of Cazeau.” Thus in contrasting an autonomous woman of color with the fiscally dependent Athénaïse, Chopin delivers a dismal truth. The monetary survival of 19th-century, white Louisiana wives in general depended upon their husbands' liberality.

John Carlos Rowe argues that Chopin's writings in general rarely expressed any form of “sisterhood” with “women from other classes, races, and economic conditions.”15 For this reason alone Sylvie's sympathetic characterization is of distinct importance in Chopin's corpus, notwithstanding its extraordinary significance as a rare literary illustration of an entrepreneurial woman of color. Perhaps the earliest prototype is the protagonist of Harriet E. Wilson's rediscovered novel Our Nig (1859), the first known to be published by an African-American woman. Disguised as an “Autobiography,” the novel relates the story of Alfrado or “Frado,” a free woman of color and former servant who supports herself in the North by making straw hats, then by concocting and selling dye “for restoring gray hair to its former color” from a recipe acquired from a benefactor.16 When poor health forces Frado out of work, she writes and then publishes Our Nig. Destitute but disdaining employment as a domestic servant, Frado, a.k.a. Harriet E. Wilson, joined the ranks of 19th-century women who turned to writing to pay their bills. Whereas white women might advance their writing on their own merits, Wilson, like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, required a supporting appendix of testimonials affirming the author's character to market her book.

The resilient Celie, who rises above her violent and abusive childhood in Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple (1982), remains perhaps our most famous literary entrepreneurial woman of color. Ironically, Celie's successful business grew out of her own physical imperfections. Because her awkward figure palls in comparison with the statuesque Shug Avery, she decides to sew herself loose-fitting pants for camouflage and comfort. Eventually she finds a successful vocation as the designer of “Folkspants, Unlimited,” a unisex garment. Celie's flourishing enterprise provides her with creative and meaningful employment, her first earnings, and an ever-increasing circle of customers. As Celie puts it, “‘I got love, I got work, I got money, friends and time.’”17 She demonstrates that the way to escape Mr. __________, her cruel and neglectful husband, is with “a needle and not a razor” in her hand.18 One disparity between Walker's and Chopin's portrayals of black entrepreneurial women lies in the authors' emblematic wordplay. Celie's “patterns” for “Folkspants”—both as mode of dress and as business—bring her freedom and security, but “Madame Sylvie” already possesses what Celie newly acquires. It is precisely Sylvie's disruption of 19th-century racial and gender “patterns” that makes her gift to Athénaïse so paradoxical in light of the conventional mold to which the younger woman is expected to conform.

Andrew Delbanco proposes that The Awakening is ultimately a “cautionary tale—in much the same way that Frederick Douglass, for example, set out to shock his white audiences by hinting at the barbarism that slavery would eventually unleash in the enslaved.”19 Helen Taylor reads similarly “Athénaïse” as an exemplum narrative exhibiting “the problems of self-definition for women, defined and spoken for as they are by men.”20 But “Athénaïse” cautions both sexes about the inevitable conflict between self and other. Although the heroine calls “marriage a trap set for the feet of unwary and unsuspecting girls” (434), portrayal of the husband, who despite his spurs and callouses is not fundamentally at fault for his young wife's unhappiness, is one of its essential ironies. Rather Chopin, like Alice Walker, seems to criticize the institution itself as an uneasy merger in which the spouses infrequently share a substantial conversation, a companionable dinner, an evening at cards, or even a smoke. Chopin's enjoyment of the above activities has been well documented; hence it seems plausible that in presenting both sides of the marital coin she identified as much with the card players who eluded the ladies in Sylvie's front parlor as with the ingenuous bride who braved convention by defecting to Sylvie's second-story rooms.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's autobiographical story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) works well pedagogically alongside “Athénaïse.” However, it is Gilman's evaluation of the cultural symbolism associated with hotel and apartment living that sheds light on the function of “the house of Sylvie” in Chopin's story. In Women and Economics (1898), Gilman's analysis of gender and monetary inequalities, she quips that “[t]o man, so far the only fully human being of his age, the bachelor apartment of some sort has been a temporary home for that part of his life wherein he had escaped from one family and not yet entered another.”21 For exactly this reason, Gouvernail has spent three transitional years at Sylvie's “living amid luxurious surroundings and a multitude of books” (443). But Athénaïse, after her education with the Catholic sisters, went from her parents' home directly into her husband's (a route Chopin also took herself). Hence “the house of Sylvie” provides the site of Athénaïse's first taste of freedom, a locus amoenus between carefree girlhood and the assumption of marital responsibilities. Like the lighthearted bachelor who declares he will “take mine ease in mine inn,”22 Athénaïse enjoys a time of reflection at Sylvie's apart from her husband and family, a time to reevaluate herself, her faltering marriage, and her future. Refurbishing her wardrobe with “pure white” and flower-sprigged dresses (442), she even assumes a new identity in this safe house. To assuage her loneliness she putters long hours in the garden, jots down her thoughts in letters, and converses regularly with a sophisticated man of the world. She finds it “diverting” to watch the passersby from the townhouse's private balcony and, above all, savors “the comforting, comfortable sense of not being married!” (444). Clearly, Athénaïse finds more than a room of her own in New Orleans. She experiences, if only symbolically, the first “house of Athénaïse.”

At the close of her New Orlenian sabbatical, she feels “pride and satisfaction”—“as if she had fallen heir to some magnificent inheritance”—in her decision to return to Cazeau and the household keys: “No one could have said now that she did not know her own mind” (452). Certainly her idealistic conviction remains to be tested, but the evaluation that the story equates marriage with women's enslavement seems unduly harsh. Schooled by the nuns and spoiled by her family, Athénaïse had little conception of a wife's duties or delights when she wed; consequently, she was doomed to disappoint everyone involved. Cazeau, too, held the unrealistic expectation that their union would resemble “the sun shining out of the clouds … like w'at the story-books promise after the wedding” (435). After a month at Sylvie's, however, Athénaïse is better prepared to assume her companionable, conjugal, practical, and maternal responsibilities. No longer an unenlightened girl, she departs a woman, like “Eve after losing her ignorance” (453). What she makes of her marriage and motherhood is now up to her.

In the final analysis, the story is not so much about women's enslavement in marriage but about women's preparation for marriage. And in Athénaïse's example, Chopin teaches that young women, like young men, would profit from a transitional period for emotional growth and at least some rudimentary sex education before they are wooed and moved, like chattel, from one house to another. As “The Yellow Wallpaper”'s conclusion shockingly reveals, late 19th-century women already possessed the “key” to patriarchal confinement, but they first had to unlock the door themselves. In Chopin's story, Athénaïse's three foils likewise instruct us in disclosing that Sylvie, a working woman of color, proves a more reliable guide and surrogate mother than either Madame Miché, who expects marriage to be “a wonderful and powerful agent in the development and formation of a woman's character” (434), or Sister Marie Angélique, who accuses Athénaïse of “turning deaf ears” to her divine calling to become a nun (431).23 The story also denounces the Victorian double standard, which expected women to have no sexual desires but to submit passively to their husbands, whereas men like Gouvernail and Montéclin were free to pursue discreet affairs.24 In “Athénaïse” Chopin affirms that women can enjoy sex and find fulfillment in marriage and motherhood but that their chance for happiness increases in direct proportion to their knowledge of these intimate, familial, and practical roles.

Whatever the author's intentions in “Athénaïse,” it contributed significantly toward her literary maturation. She labored uncommonly long over its composition and was undoubtedly delighted when it was accepted by the Atlantic Monthly, only her second story to appear there.25 Some say that her maternal grandmother, Mary Athénaïse Charleville Faris, provided the inspiration for the title character.26 Another anecdote reports that Oscar's mother, Julia Benoist Chopin, left her “mean and dictatorial” husband for several years in the 1850s but, like Athénaïse, later returned.27 Whatever the influence of biographical materials upon “Athénaïse,” it is unquestionably one of Chopin's best stories. As a prelude to The Awakening, Sylvie's characterization anticipates Grand Isle hotelier Madame Lebrun, just as the short story narrative uses the novel's bird imagery, house and clothing iconography, opposing rural and urban settings, character foils, and finally those prophetic paper “patterns.”

Earlier in this century, Zora Neale Hurston campaigned that it was of “vast importance” for Americans to read stories about average, everyday people of color who worked “above the servant class” if we were ever “to do away with that feeling of difference which inspires fear and which ever expresses itself in dislike.”28 Needless to say, Madame Sylvie's egalitarian portrayal was creatively and politically ahead of its time. Except in widowhood, Madame Cazeau will presumably never achieve her landlady's options or freedoms. Ultimately, “Athénaïse”'s candor concerning female sexuality as well as its frankness about the impact of all gender relationships upon the achievement of selfhood mark a significant stage in Chopin's growth as a storyteller, an evaluation only enhanced when the story is reconsidered with Sylvie's integral, indeed, crucial characterization in mind.


  1. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Random House, 1993), xii.

  2. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), 114.

  3. The story appeared in the August and September issues of the Atlantic Monthly as “Athénaïse: A Story of Temperament” and was reprinted in A Night in Acadie (1897). See The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted, hardcover ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 426-54, 1025.

  4. Helen Taylor, Gender, Race, and Region in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 179. For discussions of “Athénaïse,” see Taylor, 179-82; Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin, 112-14, 130-32; Barbara Ewell, Kate Chopin (New York: Ungar, 1986), 108-12; Pearl L. Brown, “Kate Chopin's Fiction: Order and Disorder in a Stratified Society,” The University of Mississippi Studies in English 9 (1991), 128-30; and Emily Toth, “Kate Chopin Thinks Back Through Her Mothers: Three Stories by Kate Chopin,” in Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, ed. Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 18-21, 24-25; and Toth's biography, Kate Chopin (New York: William Morrow, 1990), 274-75.

  5. Kate Chopin, “Athénaïse,” in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 431; hereafter cited in the text.

  6. Gouvernail also appears in “A Respectable Woman” (1894) as well as The Awakening.

  7. Per Seyersted, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 27, and Helen Taylor, Gender, Race, and Region, 180.

  8. For analyses of Chopin's African-American characterizations, see Barbara C. Ewell, Kate Chopin, 68-73; Helen Taylor, Gender, Race, and Region, 138-202; Anna Shannon Elfenbein, Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable; Grace King, Kate Chopin (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989), 117-57; and Eunice Manders, “Kate Chopin's ‘Wretched Freeman,’” in Perspectives on Kate Chopin: Proceedings of the Kate Chopin International Conference [6-8 April, 1989], ed. Grady Ballenger, Karen Cole, Katherine Kearns, and Tom Sarnet (Natchitoches, La.: Northwestern State University Press, 1992), 37-45.

  9. Some of Chopin's lengthier characterizations of older women of color are “Old Aunt Peggy” (Bayou Folk), “Aunt Dicey” in “A Gentleman of Bayou Teche” (Bayou Folk) “Aunt Pinky” in “Odalie Misses Mass” (1895), “Aunt Tildy” in “Ozeme's Holiday” (1896), “Aunt Halifax” in “Dead Men's Shoes” (1897), “Aunt Lympy's Interference” (1897) and “Aunt Crissy” in “The Gentleman from New Orleans” (completed in 1900 but published first in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin). Aunt Belindy in At Fault is perhaps the most three-dimensional of the characters.

  10. Elfenbein, Women on the Color Line, 118.

  11. Langston Hughes, “Madam's Past History,” in American Literature, ed. Emory Elliott, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991), 2:1173-1174.

  12. Interestingly, Chopin's “In and Out of Old Natchitoches” (1893), which mentions Athénaïse Miché's approaching marriage, contains a precursor to Sylvie's characterization, a middle-aged white woman who likewise runs a French Quarter boarding house. Unlike Sylvie's hardworking example, however, “Maman Chavan” lounges about in a “white volante” (266), drinks sauterne at breakfast, smokes cigarettes, and enjoys a friendship with Hector Santien, a notorious gambler who, like Gouvernail, similarly takes Sunday breakfast at her townhouse.

  13. Per Seyersted, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 27.

  14. Sylvie obtained this “set of pattern” from “a foreign lady of distinction whom she had nursed years before at the St. Charles hotel” (453), a vetting that not only testifies to Sylvie's rise in the economic world from her earlier position as a nurse-domestic, but also furnishes added subtlety in its implication that the patterned life of a wife and mother is as yet “foreign” to the expectant bride.

  15. John Carlos Rowe, “The Economics of the Body in The Awakening,” in Boren and Davis, Kate Chopin Reconsidered, 134.

  16. Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Random House, 1983), 137.

  17. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), 183.

  18. Walker, 125.

  19. Andrew Delbanco, “The Half-Life of Edna Pontellier,” in New Essays onThe Awakening,” ed. Wendy Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 106.

  20. Taylor, Gender, Race, and Region, 182.

  21. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (Cambridge: The University Press, 1911), 265.

  22. Gilman, 265.

  23. In an “entrepreneurial workshop” hosted by the Department of Marketing at Loyola College, Baltimore, the participants were asked to consider these questions: “What skills, life experiences does this entrepreneur bring?” and “What skills, experiences must this entrepreneur acquire before opening this enterprise?” The first question reveals why the fifty-year-old Sylvie owns a living business. The second highlights the qualities Athénaïse lacks to begin the business of living.

  24. Gouvernail, who associates with a liberal crowd, hopes someday to hold Athénaïse with “a lover's arms”; her marriage “made no particle of difference” to him (450). Montéclin takes frequent, solitary trips to New Orleans, and Cazeau, a widower, was married for ten years before his wife's death.

  25. “Tante Cat'rinette,” published in September 1894, was Chopin's first story in Atlantic Monthly (Seyersted, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 1017).

  26. For a biographical account of Mary Athénaïse Charleville Faris (1799-1887), see Emily Toth, “Kate Chopin Thinks Back,” in Boren and Davis, Kate Chopin Reconsidered, 18-21, 24-25. In Kate Chopin, 30, Toth states that “Athénaïse” was “named for Kate's grandmother.”

  27. Seyersted, Kate Chopin, 36.

  28. Zora Neale Hurston, “What White Publishers Won't Print,” in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again when I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, ed. Alice Walker (New York: The Feminist Press, 1979), 169, 173.

Elizabeth Ann Wolf (essay date winter-spring 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3179

SOURCE: Wolf, Elizabeth Ann. “The Politics of Rhetorical Strategy: Kate Chopin's ‘La Belle Zoraïde’.” Southern Studies 8, nos. 1 & 2 (winter-spring 1997): 43-51.

[In the following essay, Wolf contends that Chopin's indirect rhetorical strategy functions to attack prevailing myths of racial superiority and Southern womanhood in “La Belle Zoraïde.”]

The large body of Kate Chopin's fiction was written in the 1890s, during a critical transition in the history of the social and legal classification of Creole identity in Louisiana1. This point does not assume its full significance, however, until it is considered in the context of Louisiana's legislation of race and gender relations during the same period2. Surprisingly, that context has received little critical attention.

At the close of the centennial celebration of Chopin's writing, scholarship has certainly been extended into areas of inquiry formerly ignored or under-analyzed in Chopin studies. Both Elizabeth Ammons and Michelle Birnbaum have written exemplary essays on class, race, and women's rights. Brook Thomas and Wai-chee Dimock have made remarkable contributions with essays on social contract, possessive individualism, and the “promise” one generation makes to the next. Critics of the novel have, however, remained singularly silent on Chopin's representation of the “human landscape” of Creole Louisiana during the first full decade of Jim Crow3.

My paper attempts to add to the present body of criticism by arguing that the challenge facing Chopin was one of incorporating into her fiction a history of Creole Louisiana rich enough to represent a region of the country that, by the last decade of the nineteenth century, had grown rigidly intolerant of its own complexities. The myth of Creole whiteness; the segregation of the colored and white races; the distinction between Creoles of color and white Creoles; and the unification of white women, to the exclusion of women of color in the suffrage movement—all of these social issues contributed to the marginalization and displacement of the Creole Louisiana about which Chopin wrote. Assuming the challenges of writing that history into her fiction, she confronted dominant cultural, social, and political myths as well as dominant nineteenth-century narrative plots, stereotypes, and caricatures. In the process, she created a unique narrative rhythm, an analogue to the ebb and flow of the Gulf tides—a rhythm structured by the tension between dominant post-bellum myths and plots and the subordinated histories and stories that counter them. We have had difficulty seeing and hearing the tensive structure of that unique narrative rhythm: a lack of familiarity with Creole Louisiana has obscured our view of the challenges a regionalist writer such as Chopin faced. It has muffled the sound of the voice with which the Gulf Coast speaks.

The politics of Louisiana in the 1890s rendered the emergence of a complex Creole history all but impossible. George Washington Cable had attempted it in The Grandissimes (1880), followed by “The Freedman's Case in Equity” (1884)4; but, by the 1890s, the racist myth of a white, aristocratic Creole identity had so thoroughly reshaped the historical record of miscegenation, cutting across all class distinctions, that the author of the canonical History of Louisiana (1879), Charles Gayarré, could claim, with long-standing repute, that his former friend wrote with no intimate knowledge of his subject5. Writing for The Chautauquan in 1892, Mary L. Shaffter added her voice to Gayarré's. In an article entitled “Creole Women,” she defined the Creoles as “descendants of French or Spanish, born in Louisiana, [distinguished by] the chivalry of their men and the grace and beauty of their women” (Culley 137)6 The work of two late-twentieth-century historians, Marjorie Spruill Wheeler and Joseph Tregle, helps us to understand the ideological shifts that resulted in such mythologizing claims.

In an excellent account of the Cable/Gayarré debates of 1885, Tregle writes:

In pre-Civil War New Orleans […], unchallengeable white supremacy […] had made it possible to accommodate a panracial creolism. […] The Civil War changed all that. […] The creole sense of vulnerability was as a consequence turned upside down. Whereas once the danger confronting them had been humiliating loss of Gallic identity to a devouring Anglo-Saxon homogenization, now it was the infinitely more horrible possibility of being consigned to debased status in the “inferior” race, identified as half-brother to the black, a sort of mixed breed stripped of blood pride as well as of any claim to social or political preferment. For the creole knew the world he now lived in to be one obsessed with the no longer settled issue of racial supremacy, in which the very suspicion of “tainted blood” guaranteed a ticket to opprobrium, contempt, and ostracism. He knew it because he had helped make it so. In such manner was the cardinal tenet of the now familiar myth born: for those so threatened, henceforth to be creole was to be white.


What Tregle does not account for constitutes Marjorie Wheeler's invaluable contribution to our understanding of the place of chivalric romance in the birth of a white Creole mythology. In New Women of the New South, she traces the logic by which Southern womanhood was brought into the service of a white, aristocratic Creolism and, doing so, she clarifies the challenges before a writer, like Chopin, who would take women of the Creole South as the subject of her fiction:

The so-called cornerstone of this ‘Southern civilization’ was white supremacy, and the determination of white Southerners to restore and then preserve it […] and defend the ‘state sovereignty’ thought necessary to protect white supremacy—[…] presented a tremendous obstacle to the Southern suffrage movement. […] Opponents of woman suffrage in the South considered the national woman suffrage movement, with its commitment to securing a federal woman suffrage amendment, one with the proponents of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in their disdain for the sovereignty of the states and their eagerness to force change upon an unwilling South.


Arguing that “the commitment to preserving the traditional role of Southern womanhood was not just an isolated, idiosyncratic whim of nostalgic Southerners; it was part of an intense, conscious, quasi-religious drive to protect the South against the ‘ravages’ of Northern culture” (5), Wheeler reveals the sexual chauvinism of the South. She demonstrates its fear of women's rights, as well as its increasingly hysterical white supremacist ideology as the protective reaction of a people subjected to the forces of Northern colonization.

As the aftermath of Gayarre's attack on Cable testified, the emergence of a historically complex Creole voice in the 1890s required the subtlety of a considerably indirect rhetorical strategy. Such indirection is nowhere better controlled than in Chopin's short story “La Belle Zoraïde” (1893)7. Like “Désireé's Baby” (1892), “La Belle Zoraïde” established its Creole identity by critiquing the reality of the very myths of whiteness and of the Southern lady that Creoles in the 1890s indignantly insisted upon. But unlike the earlier story, “La Belle Zoraïde” does so with notable indirection. In this remarkably economic five-page narrative, a woman “as black as the night” (303) tells her mistress the story of another mistress and her slave, a woman whose “soft, smooth skin was the color of café-au-lait” (304). The time separating the two narratives is left unclear; the similarity of the names of the mistresses, Madame Delisle and Madame Delarivière, assists in the blurring of the distance between the dark and the light skinned women. But, the date of publication is clear: in 1893, there were people of color and whites in Louisiana. Law had erased distinctions in complex genealogies: to be “colored” meant to be “black.” Black was black; white was white. Colors like “café-au-lait” threatened this binary legal distinction. Chopin introduces the story of a light-skinned “mulatress” (Zoraïde) from the remove of a woman (Manna-Loulou) whose dark skin testifies to the mythic absence of miscegenation. And the reader is left to understand that Zoraïde is a character from an antebellum Creole world, while Manna-Loulou is a character drawn from its nineteenth-century post-bellum period—one committed to the obfuscation of its own history.

In the course of Manna-Loulou's story, the beautiful Zoraïde becomes “la folle Zoraïde”: Chopin asks us to trace the events leading to the transition. The beautiful girl has fallen in love with “le beau Mézor,” a man “as straight as a cypress-tree and as proud looking as a king […] [whose] body, bare to the waist, was like a column of ebony” (304). Her mistress forbids the marriage of the beautiful Zoraïde to “a negro” (305) and arranges for him to be “sold away into Georgia, or the Carolinas, or one of those distant countries far away, where he would no longer hear his Creole tongue spoken, nor dance Calinda, nor hold la belle Zoraïde in his arms” (306). Zoraïde gives birth to their daughter. When her mistress sends the child away to another of her plantations and tells the beautiful girl that her child is dead, Zoraïde is driven mad. When the mistress sees the pathos she has staged, she repents and sends for the daughter. Seeing her, however, la folle Zoraïde pushes her aside to clutch the bundle of rags that, in the displacement of her despair, she has transformed into her lost “piti.” Manna-Loulou's mistress concludes: “Ah, the poor little one, Man Loulou, the poor little one! better had she died!” (307). Chopin translates: “La pauv'piti, Man Loulou. La pauv'piti! Mieux li mouri!” (308).

It has been difficult to know how to address the description of the storyteller, Manna-Loulou. She remembers stories for a mistress who “lay in her sumptuous mahogany bed, waiting to be fanned and put to sleep”; she combs her “beautiful hair.” She is called an “old negress” who bathes and kisses “her mistress's pretty white feet […] lovingly, one, then the other” (303). The description seems to reproduce the myth of race relations on a happy, antebellum slave plantation. The remembered relations are reminiscent of Léonce Pontellier's, “when he hunted ‘possum in company with some friendly darky; thrashed the pecan trees, shot the grosbec, and roamed the woods and fields in mischievous idleness” (Seyersted, The Awakening, 953). To what in this description could Gayarré or Shaffter object? Both white identity and Southern womanhood are inviolate—befriended and protected by “friendly darkies” and “loving negresses.”

However subtle the approach might be, Chopin's rhetorical strategy is structured as a disruption of the post-bellum Creole mythologizing of history. In “La Belle Zoraïde,” it takes the form of insisting that the antebellum Creole world be understood as an inseparable, however well disguised, part of the Jim Crow realities all are living. Thus, Manna-Loulou tells the story of a girl described as “the envy of half the ladies who visited her mistress,” who “was as charming and as dainty as the finest lady of la rue Royale” (304)—but, most importantly, who is defiant, and most defiant in her demand to be recognized as non-white: “‘Am I white?’ […] ‘I am not white […]’” (305). Zoraïde is Creole; she is a mother, herself of mixed white and African blood, who demands her rights as a human being in a legal system gone mad in the play of black and white binarisms. Manna-Loulou's mistress, Madame Delisle, may conclude that it would have been better had Zoraïde, and the child she bore, died rather than force an analysis of the logic that drives people to legislated madness. But the storytellers, Manna-Loulou as well as Chopin, speak and write in order for the mother and child to live on, to claim the complexities of their cultural and biological genealogies.

In what language can this story be told? Into whose cultural, legal, and social codes can it be entrusted? Zoraïde's story emerges from “an old, half-forgotten Creole romance” (303). It is introduced into the story in the form of an untranslated Creole patois “whose music and charm no English words can convey”: “Lisett' to kité la plaine,/ Mo perdi bonhair à moué;/ Ziés à moué semblé fontaine,/ Dépi mo pa miré toué.” (303). Manna-Loulou recalls the story and its language from an antebellum Creole world that cannot be translated into the post-bellum, Jim Crow world of the United States. In that world, the issue of Zoraïde's defiance can only be sent away; it may enter Creole Louisiana again only in the shape of a rag doll.

In the 1890s, people of color existed in Louisiana—by law—only as Jim Crow puppets. It has emerged in this story in the shape, form, and translated voice of Manna-Loulou. Read in the historical, political, and cultural context of the year in which the short story was first published, Manna-Loulou's “bedtime story” is the outcry of a race of American, Southern women of color, who, through the “alchemy of U.S. race and rights,” have been transformed into rag dolls performing Jim Crow on a minstrel stage8. Reading “La Belle Zoraïde” in this context helps us to read Chopin's Creole Louisiana in terms closer to the ebb and flow of tides, mythologies, and histories that make characters such as Zoraïde and Manna-Loulou interchangeable with rag dolls.

The political, moral, and human strength of the story rests in Chopin's extraordinary skill in playing the mythologies of post-bellum Creole life in Louisiana against its human landscape. Were the narrative a record of the unendurable pain of a woman who loses her husband, her sanity, and her child as the result of the inhumanities of slavery, the reader might be comforted that the “old romance” of the South had been ended by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. But the narrative tells us that the past is never left behind. History, it tells us, is heard in the ebb and flow of time and voice. The truth of history is heard in that respiration.

To whom does an African American woman—whether she is the “color of cafe-au-lait” (Zoraïde) or “as black as the night” (Manna-Loulou)—tell the stories of Creole Louisianan women? The answer would seem to depend in large part upon the time of the telling. Forgetfulness becomes madness by the end of Chopin's tale: the beautiful “belle” becomes the “piti,” the “folle” as a result of that forgetfulness. In 1893, Chopin records the unspeakable human failure of a “white” population to face the challenges of emancipation; she records the unthinkable response of a “white” population as it makes “rag dolls” of human beings during Jim Crow. It is not Zoraïde who has gone mad. It is a state; it is a nation; it is a narrative that understands “a bundle of rags” to be its issue.


  1. Of the 96 short stories and sketches, only 5 were published before 1890 and 7 after 1899. See the appendix to The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted. Throughout this paper, citations from Chopin's fiction refer to the Seyersted edition.

  2. In the 1890s, the Louisiana General Assembly passed a series of Acts resulting in the segregation of the “colored” and “white” races: transportation, Acts of 1890: 111; miscegenation, Acts of 1894: 54; and education, Constitution of 1898: 248. For a history of the reciprocity of race and gender in late-nineteenth-century Jim Crow Louisiana, see Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, New Women of the New South, 3-37. For a history of the transformation of Creole identity during the transition from an antebellum tripartite (white, free people of color, slave) legal system of racial identification to a post Civil War binary (white, colored) legal system of racial identification, see Virginia R. Domínguez, White By Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana, 133-148 especially; and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, “The Formation of Afro-Creole Culture,” Hirsch and Logsdon, 58-87.

  3. I am invoking Toni Morrison, Playing In The Dark: “Criticism as a form of knowledge is capable of robbing literature not only of its own implicit and explicit ideology but of its ideas as well; it can dismiss the difficult, arduous work writers do to make an art that becomes and remains part of and significant within a human landscape” (9).

  4. Originally delivered as an address before the American Social Science Association at Saratoga, New York, September 11, 1884; adapted from a commencement address at the University of Alabama on June 18, 1884. Originally published, Century Magazine 29 (1885): 409-418.

  5. “Mr. Cable's aim is to degrade, lower in the public opinion the reputation of the population of Louisiana, Creole or not, to put it socially, civilly, and politically below the black race, which he considers superior to ours and destined to africanize the entire South. […] When the ‘Grandissimes’ appeared, we were requested by the editor of The Times-Democrat to review the work. We refused from motives of delicacy. Mr. Cable having heard of it and having requested us to change our decision, we replied that we would, if he could name two Creole families with whom he was intimately acquainted. He could not” (Gayarré, article published in The Times-Democrat, 11 January 1885, quoted in Turner, 203).

  6. Although Shaffter did little more than echo Gayarré, she is more widely known today. See the 1976 as well as 1994 Norton Critical Editions of Chopin's The Awakening: the essay is included in both and is the source of the editor's definition of Creole (1994: 10, n. 4; 1976: 11, n. 2).

  7. The story was first published in Vogue, January 1894 (Seyersted, 1016).

  8. See Patricia Williams The Alchemy of Race and Rights.

Works Cited

Ammons, Elizabeth. “The Limits of Freedom: the Fiction of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Kate Chopin, and Pauline Hopkins.” Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Birnbaum, Michele A. “Alien Hands: Kate Chopin and the Colonization of Race.” Subjects and Citizens: Nation, Race, and Gender from Oroonoko to Anita Hill. Eds. Michael Moon and Cathy N. Davidson. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995.

Cable, George Washington. The Grandissimes. New York: Penguin, 1988.

———. “The Freedman's Case in Equity.” The Negro Question: A Selection of Writings on Civil Rights in the South. New York: Doubleday, 1956.

Chopin, Kate. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.

Culley, Margaret, ed. The Awakening. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1976.

———. ed. The Awakening, 2nd Ed. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1994.

Dimock, Wai-chee. “Rightful Subjectivity.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 4 (1990): 25-51.

Domínguez, Virginia R. White By Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1986.

Gayarré, Charles. The Creoles of History and the Creoles of Romance. New Orleans: Hopkins, 1885.

Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. “The Formation of Afro-Creole Culture.” Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. Eds. Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.

Louisiana General Assembly. Acts 1812: 72; Acts 1890: 111; Acts 1894: 54. Constitution 1868; Constitution 1898.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992

Shaffter, Mary L. “Creole Women.” The Chautauouan 15 (1892): 346-7. Rpt. in Culley, 1976: 119-121; 1994: 137-139.

Thomas, Brook. “The Question of Agency and Delivering the Promise.” American Realism and the Failed Promise of Contract. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Tregle, Joseph G. Jr. “Creoles and Americans.” Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. Ed. Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.

Turner, Arlin. George W. Cable: A Biography. Durham: Duke UP, 1956.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. The New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Williams, Patricia J. The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Pearl L. Brown (essay date March 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6045

SOURCE: Brown, Pearl L. “Awakened Men in Kate Chopin's Creole Stories.” American Transcendental Quarterly 13, no. 1 (March 1999): 69-82.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses Chopin's depiction of men who experience liberation from cultural restrictions in their relationships with women.]

Much has been written about Kate Chopin's defiant women. Not only Edna Pontellier, the rebellious heroine in The Awakening, but also the independent-minded women in her Creole stories have received extensive commentary. However, very little has been written about Chopin's defiant men, some of whom have experiences that parallel those of the women. Just as a woman in an intimate moment with a man awakens to an inner self buried beneath a culturally sanctioned social one, so does a man in an intimate moment with a woman discover a subjective self buried beneath a public persona. Just as women defy social expectations for women in the Creole culture, so do men defy that culture's masculine norms. In fact, in Chopin's Creole stories revolving around an intimate moment between a man and a woman, whether a story is told from a male or a female perspective, the narrative follows a similar pattern of discovery. For both men and women such epiphanies lead to self-knowledge as well as a better understanding of cultural norms and of the ways these norms do not satisfy psychological needs. As a consequence, these stories embody a vision of a society considerably more liberated than the social hegemony of nineteenth-century America in general or that of the old South and French Louisiana in particular.

In Chopin's collections, Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, certain stories come together around common features of plot and characterization and can be grouped accordingly. In one group of stories men and women are already established in a social identity and gender role, the men in the workplace and the women in marriage. In these stories both men and women during moments of sexual intimacy and intense feeling awaken to a buried self and to an understanding that the social identity they have created or have accepted from their culture is not compatible with newly discovered psychological needs. Consequently, even men and women who seem already to have begun rebelling against cultural norms are affected by such moments of intimacy. In a second group of stories, men and women, typically young and unmarried, are unawakened both psychologically and socially. Before their intimate experiences, they neither knew themselves nor had given much thought to the gender expectations of their culture or to life choices for themselves. Hence, the intimate encounters come at a turning point in their lives when they are presumably still open to alternative life choices. However, regardless of the groupings, stories have one common feature: both men and women are changed by such intimate moments; both awaken to the possibilities of a fuller, richer life. Though readers of these stories have focussed almost exclusively on female awakenings, Chopin insists on the importance of social and psychological awakenings in men as well as in women.

Though readers might agree with Nancy Walker's assessment that Catholic Creoles lived a freer, more sensuous life-style than their Protestant counterparts (95-103), the social structure reflected in Chopin's Creole stories set in New Orleans and rural Louisiana does not allow for much deviation from cultural norms. Helen Taylor is certainly correct in her observation that the stories set in the Cane River region in particular reflect “fixed social relations and ideologies” and depict a culture in which “characters are allowed limited autonomy …” (165). That world of the plantation aristocracy during and after the Civil War embodies the values of a conservative culture, values re-enforced by both the Catholic Church and the close-knit rural community. It is a culture that measures a woman's worth by her devotion to family, her self-abnegation, and her graciousness and charm in performing her social duties and a man's worth by the degree of authority he exercises over his household. Indeed, even New Orleans Creoles in Chopin's fiction are on the whole isolated in their own cultural enclave with close ties and easy access to their rural origin. In The Awakening urban Creoles like the Lebruns and Ratignolles rarely venture across Canal Street to the American side of the city, and the Pontelliers maintain close ties with Leonce's rural home. It is against such an insular world that the rebellion of Chopin's women has been measured. It is against such a world that her men's rebellion must also be measured.

To explore male norms and departures from them in these stories, Chopin introduces a range of Creole male types from both rural and urban Louisiana and variations on the pattern of a story climaxing with an awakening. She introduces the urban businessman and the professional as well as the independent farmer and the plantation owner. She introduces men who are very conservative in their social and political views, and others who see themselves as socially progressive, even outside the traditional masculine norms of Creole society. Some are in the position of having already made life choices which they come to re-evaluate during an intimate experience with a woman. Others seemingly have no such moments or, if they do, have only limited insight into themselves or their culture. Still others are just beginning to plan their lives when they experience such moments. However, regardless of differences in circumstances, lifestyle or ideology, certain men in these stories are presented with epiphanic moments that are potentially as liberating and thus life altering as the moments women experience. Chopin's narrative strategy in a story is to introduce two men who represent contrasting or opposing male types to suggest alternative life styles and the possibility of different life choices. Stories can also be paired as companion studies suggesting variations on the pattern of self-discovery and of insight into cultural norms. In fact, comparing men from stories in the two different groupings, a man already committed to a social role and one just beginning to consider his choices, can also be illuminating in that such a comparison reveals more clearly the consequences of making wrong choices or of denying the subjective self or of acquiescing too unreflectingly to cultural norms.

In the stories in which men and women seem already established in a gender role, Chopin pairs men who are opposites ideologically and socially. On one end of the socio-political spectrum is the unmarried Creole man who shares an intimate moment with a married woman, an experience that inspires a psycho-sexual awakening in both. Introduced as a social rebel, this Creole bachelor has created for himself an unconventional public image which separates him from more conventional Creole men. In fact, his unconventionality serves as a stimulus for the awakening in the woman he encounters. However, he too is awakened by the intimate experience in that he gains self-knowledge that compels him to question the public or social self he has created and the life choices he has made.

On the other end of the socio-political spectrum is the woman's conventional husband, who has accepted his culture's norms for men. Such a patriarchal male figure has as his primary function the embodiment of the conventions of masculine social and public life against which the defiant men rebel. For example, Gouvernail, who becomes a married woman's confidante in two of these Creole stories, “A Respectable Woman” and “Athenaise,” is a liberal-minded journalist with ties to the bohemian community in New Orleans. He is much less conventional than the husbands of the two women he has encounters with. Both Cazeau, Athenaise's husband, and Gaston Baroda, the husband in “A Respectable Woman,” are conservative and conventional in their understanding of the political and social norms that define Creole masculinity. In another story with close parallels to “A Respectable Woman,” “A Lady of Bayou St. John,” Sepincourt similarly has attempted to distance himself from the socio-political norms for men. Presumably a Creole aristocrat by birth, he has established himself as an outsider to the Creole plantation culture he is a part of even before he meets the married woman who will inspire him to reconsider his life choices. He has rejected the traditional plantation values by refusing to support the Southern cause in the Civil War. Unlike Madame Delisle's husband, Gustave, and presumably other Creole aristocrats, Sepincourt has not joined General Beauregard's military campaign in Virginia. Thus, even before their encounters with women, both Gouvernail and Sepincourt are depicted as having rejected some aspect of the traditional public life of a Creole man. In fact, Gouvernail has rejected even some of the accepted social rituals for men. In “A Respectable Woman,” Madame Baroda has been told by her husband, Gaston, that his old school friend is definitely not the typical Creole bachelor, a “man about town” (333). At home in New Orleans he frequents gatherings in the American quarter rather than attend the Sunday social functions in the Creole section of the city. And his retreat to the country does not include the customary male recreations Gaston Baroda had been looking forward to, fishing and hunting. Gouvernail has no interest in either.

However, though both Gouvernail and Sepincourt are unconventional in their expression of a discontent with the prevailing masculine order, until their intimate moments with the women who come into their lives, both have either ignored or repressed psychological needs. Presumably, Gouvernail has never before acknowledged his feelings of loss, emptiness, and unfulfillment in the life he has chosen until his talk with Mrs. Baroda. This discussion moves him to speak of his past friendship with Gaston when the two meant something to each other and of his past “blind ambition and large intentions.” Only then is he able to admit to himself that over the years all he has been left with is a “philosophic acquiescence to the existing order” with “only a desire to be permitted to exist” (335). What the intimacy of the night and the presence of his hostess open him up to is the realization that neither in terms of personal relationships nor in terms of the direction his life has taken does he currently feel fulfilled. Withdrawing to the country to find some solace from an existence to which he can only acquiesce, he discovers that “little whiff of genuine life” (335) which at least momentarily lifts his spirits as he sits on a bench savoring the night and sharing his most private reflections with his hostess.

Sepincourt's response to the war echoes Gouvernail's alienation from “the existing order.” He shrugs his shoulders “over this strife between brothers, this quarrel which was none of his” (298). His rejection of the Southern cause certainly represents a departure from the prevailing masculinist social and political views; yet, until his meetings with Madame Delisle, his unconventionality rings hollow. His initial remark to Mrs. Delisle about the war—that “it made life uncomfortable” (298)—certainly does not reveal a deeply felt political ideology. He comes to understand, like Gouvemail, that his discontent has a psychological rather than a social or political origin. Like Gouvernail, he is compelled to acknowledge the existence of a subjective self buried beneath his superficial public persona of the rebel. Ironically, it is a child-like Creole woman, herself unawakened both psychologically and socially, who inspires this sophisticated Creole man to drop his public pose as he begins to respond to the intimacy that permeates their afternoon walks. He begins to relish those moments when they are “unconsciously unfolding themselves to each other” (299). Certainly, his proposal to Mrs. Delisle that they leave Louisiana to live outside Creole social and moral norms reveals a more deeply felt rebelliousness than his earlier protest against the Southern cause. Though the life he envisions with Madame Delisle is not meant to be, he has had his moment of self-knowledge and has had to acknowledge psychological needs not satisfied by a public image as a sophisticate and a political critic.

Both women caught in these intimate encounters are at least momentarily awakened to psychological needs that their culturally defined social roles as Creole wives do not sanction. To depict the society these women are inspired to rebel against, Chopin explicitly delineates the culturally sanctioned separation between the domestic and feminine, on the one hand, and the public and masculine, on the other. In the context of the separate spheres, Chopin reflects on what was a reality about gender roles until very recent times. A man's social or public identity was defined primarily by his work and only secondarily by his marital status, though in the Creole culture a man was expected at some point in his life to assume his proper role as the patriarchal head of a household. A woman's social or public identity was defined exclusively by her preparation for marriage and the marital state itself. In stories such as “A Respectable Woman” and “A Lady from Bayou St. John,” the male world of purposeful action is carefully demarcated from the isolated, passive world of feminine concerns. In “A Lady of Bayou St. John,” the husband's guarded letters from the war front are intended to communicate little of the realities of war to the child-wife he has left behind. Indeed, for Madame Delisle the image of her husband has receded into a misty memory. As she begins to awaken sexually and psychologically, the one activity she remembers sharing with her husband, walks beneath the magnolias, seems unreal and inconsequential compared to her intimate walks with Sepincourt. Her walks with Sepincourt are filled with incessant talking or silences in which neither feels the need to talk.

In “A Respectable Woman,” the separate worlds of Creole husband and wife meet in the fulfillment of social obligations demanded by the plantation culture. Gaston encourages his wife in her feminine “work”—the social life of the plantation culture. He accompanies her to New Orleans for the seasonal parties and balls, the “mild dissipations” (333), and he indulges her trips for spring fittings necessary for a fashionable Creole wife. But the world he identifies with as a Creole man is revealed in his anticipation of some hunting and fishing and some male talk when his old college friend Governail comes to visit. Her conversation with Gouvernail introduces her to a world far removed from the social rituals of a Creole wife. Like Madame Delisle's moments with Sepincourt, Mrs. Baroda's encounter with Gouvernail is intimate, deeply felt, and individualized, and thus socially unsanctioned by the culture.

Until their encounters with Sepincourt and Gouvernail, Madame Delisle and Madame Baroda apparently had settled into the conventional roles for Creole women in marriage and in society. The two in fact represent different Creole female types as a kind of parallel to Creole male types in the stories. Madame Delisle has passively accepted her asexual and completely dependent role as the Creole child-woman who is not expected ever to grow up; and, until her encounter with Gouvernail, Mrs. Baroda has remained sexually unawakened in her role as the charming social hostess for her husband. When Gouvernail is first mentioned to her, Mrs. Baroda can only think in terms of social stereo-types, but she soon discovers he is not the charming conversationalist she had come to expect an unmarried Creole man to be. Instead, she finds him “mute and receptive before her chatty eagerness to make him feel at home” (333), decidedly lacking in the courtliness of the Creole gigolo. It isn't until the night Gouvernail shares with her his intimate reverie that she is aroused out of her smug world of superficial social functions and respectable behavior as the desire to draw close to him and touch him almost overwhelms her. That night she is able to repress these unsanctioned desires, but the story ends ambiguously. When Gouvernail comes again to visit, she may be ready to liberate more completely the suppressed sexual self of the respectable Creole wife.

Likewise, Madame Delisle's afternoon walks and talks with Sepincourt momentarily awaken her to an existence different from that of the passive child-wife absorbed in her own loveliness and Manna-Loulou's bedtime stories. With Sepincourt's declaration of love and his proposal for a new life abroad, she momentarily becomes “a woman capable of love or sacrifice” (299). But her awakening proves to be as brief as it is sudden. When she hears of her husband's death, she reacts to the tragic news by sublimating her awakened passion to a religious ecstasy, a life-long devotion to his memory. Her retreat to the stereotypical role of the grieving, devoted Creole wife and Mrs. Baroda's struggle to check her desires suggest that for Chopin moments of self-awareness do not necessarily mark the beginning of permanent change, but they are nonetheless deeply felt and thus life altering. The moment the two have shared is much more than a “tentative transgression” (Fluck 155). It is Chopin's reminder to her nineteenth-century readers of what the relationship between a man and a woman could be and should be.

“A Respectable Woman” and the other story in which Gouvernail appears, “Athenaise,” are companion studies of male and female awakenings with parallel scenes that follow a similar narrative structure. “A Respectable Woman” ends with a woman's awakening to an inner self-buried beneath an external self comprising social responsibilities. “Athenaise” ends with a man's awakening to an inner self buried beneath an external self, defined by his public image as the liberal-minded professional man. Though Gouvernail's moment of genuine life is important in “A Respectable Woman,” the focus of the narrative is much more on Mrs. Baroda and her psycho-sexual awakening. In contrast, in “Athenaise,” while the young wife's rebellion against social expectations for women is certainly important, the awakening placed at a climactic moment in the narrative is Gouvernail's. In a scene that parallels Gouvernail's awakening Mrs. Baroda with his reverie, Athenaise awakens Gouvernail with her intimate outpouring that arouses the buried emotional self in this detached, smugly complacent man. And, in contrast to “A Respectable Woman,” it is the unconventionality of a rebellious married woman that inspires an epiphany in a man. It is Athenaise's frank confession of her unhappiness in an oppressive Creole marriage that liberates the subjective in Gouvernail and compels him to reconsider the public image he has created for himself.

When Gouvernail first meets Athenaise and must share the breakfast table with her, he is “annoyed at having his cherished privacy invaded” and is relieved when she leaves (443). The extent to which he has acquiesced to the existing order of things alluded to in “A Respectable Woman” becomes clearer in “Athenaise.” In New Orleans he emerges as a professional man of regular habits and “invariable” customs, described by the narrator as possessing “a quiet, unobtrusive manner that seem[s] to ask that he be let alone” (443-44)—until his encounter with a weeping Athenaise one night. In “A Respectable Woman,” it is Gouvernail's discontent with the existing order that awakens Mrs. Baroda out of her superficial social existence, but in “Athenaise” it is the young wife's discontent with the existing order of things that awakens Gouvernail out of his orderly predictable life. And Athenaise's intimate moment of reverie is presumably inspired by her finding at last a receptive audience in Gouvernail, just as Mrs. Baroda's awakening was inspired by Gouvernail's reverie.

As Athenaise experiences the emotional freedom to talk about her married life and to ruminate longingly over the sights, sounds, and scents of her family home on Bayou Bon Dieu, Gouvernail feels “a wave of pity and tenderness [sweep] over him” (450), and he is once again in touch with his subjective self as he was when he savored the night and spoke to Mrs. Baroda of that “whiff of genuine life” in “A Respectable Woman.” And, as Gouvernail reflects on the possibilities of a future with Athenaise, he realizes that the fact of her being already married makes no difference to him: “When the time came that she wanted him—as he hoped and believed it would come—he felt he would have a right to her. So long as she did not want him, he had no right to her—no more than her husband had” (450). Unlike Edna Pontellier's conventional-minded lover in The Awakening who cannot imagine a union outside of social and moral norms, Gouvernail is ready to gamble all for a future with Athenaise. The young wife's reaction to her discovery that she is pregnant and her subsequent decision to return to her husband bring an end to Gouvernail's dreams of a future with the woman who has awakened him.

In “Athenaise” Gouvernail is not introduced until section VII of a narrative divided into eleven sections. At that point Athenaise's rebellion from her oppressive Creole marriage to the autocratic Cazeau takes her to New Orleans and her encounter with Gouvernail who has rooms in the same house where she is staying. Chopin's strategy is to prepare for the introduction of a culturally deviant Creole male such as Gouvernail by carefully establishing masculine norms in the depiction of Athenaise's husband. In fact, one variation on the narrative pattern of stories in this group is that this one is more concerned with the Creole marriage and family and the culture's codification of norms for both husbands and wives than either of the two stories discussed earlier. Athenaise's patriarchal husband serves as a foil to Gouvernail, who has allowed himself to respect marriage but has apparently chosen to disregard his culture's expectations for a Creole man—that he marry and assume his role as head of a household. Cazeau has accepted his role as master over his wife and plantation—until his wife leaves him to return to live with her parents. Self-controlled and controlling, he has expected his wife to accept as uncompromisingly as he does the rules of their society—that he be the authority in their marriage and that she passively submit to him.

When Athenaise leaves her husband the first time and seeks a haven in her family home, even her parents assume that it is Cazeau's right as a husband to discipline their rebellious daughter. For his part, Cazeau refuses to admit that her actions bother him except in his musing that “he would find means to keep her at home hereafter” (428). He is “quite prepared to make the best” (428) of the marriage, accepting as he does his culture's view that it is a lifelong arrangement between a man and a woman. Furthermore, when he acts the role of the patriarchal husband and goes to his in-laws to fetch his wife home, his pride will not permit him even to speak to her or to allow her to voice her grievances.

To expand on her exploration of masculine self-discovery, Chopin has even the rigidly patriarchal Cazeau experience a moment of epiphany as he “drives” his wife home. As he follows her on horseback, an image from the past—of him and his father driving a runaway slave back to the plantation—is superimposed on the scene unfolding before him in the present, as he follows behind his runaway wife on their way home. He suddenly realizes that his relationship to his young wife duplicates that of a master over a slave. So disturbing is that revelation that he quickly rides to catch up with her and escort her home, and, when she leaves him a second time to escape to New Orleans, he resolves to let her go because he does not want to feel again the baseness of a master subduing a slave. This epiphany prepares the way for his acknowledging to himself his deep sense of loss at her second leaving, a significant psychological change in this conservative man whose behavior has established him as a stereotypical patriarchal male. Though the story ends without elaborating on the difference in this marriage after the wife's return to her husband, one can only speculate that the awakenings in both will have a salutary effect on their relationship.

In the second group of stories with common narrative features, men and women have barely begun the process of learning about themselves, but they are at a turning point in their lives, a time when they will soon be expected to take a place in a society that endorses gender specific roles. Unlike socially and publicly established men like Gouvernail and Sepincourt, the men in this second group of stories have just begun or have not yet begun to define themselves in terms of a social identity or public image. In fact, their epiphanies come at particularly decisive moments because they are on the verge of making critical decisions around life choices. If not for such moments, Chopin implies, they may have acquiesced to masculine norms, as have the conventional husbands in the other group of stories, or have created a public image that ignored or repressed psychological needs, as have Gouvernail and Sepincourt. Of course, the women awakened by such intimate experiences are also approaching a decisive period in their lives, a time when they will have to decide on a mate and attempt to assert some influence on the kind of marriage they will have. Similar narrative patterns emerge among the stories in the two groups. For example, in these stories about young uninitiated people, unconventionality again stimulates epiphanies; however, unconventionality in women instinctively rebelling against feminine social norms, rather than unconventionality in men, is at the center of such experiences.

Another common narrative pattern Chopin uses is contrasting male types as a device with which to comment on masculine norms in the Creole culture. In such stories of young adulthood, two men who are rivals for the hand of an unawakened woman are opposites, both temperamentally and socially. In “A No-Account Creole,” for example, Placide Santien is in some ways a younger version of Athenaise's autocratic husband, Cazeau. He has never questioned his right as a man in this plantation culture to dominate Euphrasie, the daughter of the manager of his family's plantation and the girl he has loved since childhood. Both he and his community assume she will submit to his will and agree to marry him. And Euphrasie herself has not really questioned that assumption. Unambitious and irresponsible, Placide is the no account Creole of the title of the story and the perfect foil to Euphrasie's other suitor, the ambitious, goal-oriented Wallace Offdean. Indulged by both his community and his family, Placide has yet to assume the responsibility of restoring the family plantation. In contrast, his rival for Euphrasie's hand, the Anglophile, Wallace Offdean, aspires to become an enlightened New Orleans businessman. Before his awakening, he reminds the reader of the repressed Gouvernail in that both are preoccupied with their public image, with a well-ordered life that balances respectability with progressive ideas. Offdean has had the predictable experiences of an intelligent young man of his social class and now, with his inheritance in hand, smugly envisions for himself a well-planned life, one that avoids “the maelstroms of sordid work and senseless pleasure in which the average American business man may be said alternately to exist” (81). His objective is to model himself on the image of the emerging nineteenth-century businessman striving for success, unsullied by the vulgarities of traditional mercantilism. At least that was his life's goal, until he is sent to appraise the Santien plantation and meets Euphrasie.

One variation on the narrative pattern of discovery and self-discovery in this story is that the psycho-sexual awakening necessitates a departure from the gender-specific roles of the Creole culture. During Offdean's first conversation with Euphrasie, he wonders why he is bothering to discuss the property with “a mere girl”; but, after she joins him on his daily excursions to appraise the land, he gains respect for her knowledge of the plantation and for her practical intelligence. Of course, the land inspection is a cover for their awakening passion, though neither is able to acknowledge or express that love until a near violent confrontation between Placide and Offdean over Euphrasie forces the three to make decisions. Euphrasie is compelled to examine what her community approves of, marriage to her old childhood friend, Placide. She comes to understand that marriage to Placide would put an end to what she has come to desire—applying her newly discovered interest and talent in managing land to make the decaying Santien plantation productive again. For his part, Offdean makes the decision to put aside his carefully planned future as an enlightened urban businessman. Instead, he wants to share Euphrasie's life and her dream to rebuild the Santien plantation. Theirs surely will be a non-traditional marriage with Euphrasie actively involved in running the plantation side by side with her husband. Even Placide, like Cazeau in “Athenaise,” has an awakening. When Placide relinquishes his claim on Euphrasie, it is because he finds he must reject the Creole man's sense of ownership and entitlement in relation to a woman. Creole male pride must give way to a sense of honor and respect. In this story both men and the woman gain a better understanding of what it is about the gender norms of their culture they cannot accept.

In at least two of these stories focussing on awakenings in young men, an epiphanie moment inspires a rejection of the notions of status and materialism that define masculine success for Creole men like Leonce Pontellier in The Awakening. When Telesphore in “A Night in Acadie” begins to think about acquiring a wife, he thinks in terms of one who will be the perfect ornament for his home, combining all of the virtues of the stereotypical Creole belle. She will be charming, beautiful and fair-skinned with no hint of racial impurities. She will also bring some wealth to the marriage as well as be an energetic homemaker who will enhance Telesphore's social status in the community. It is no wonder that, before his chance meeting with Zaida, he has been unable to settle on the right woman to be his wife. It is said of Telesphore that he has spent much of his young life trying to be the opposite of his disorderly, lazy, and socially disreputable uncle some had thought the young man resembled. Telesphore, as a consequence, has been cautious and indecisive, preoccupied with external appearance and not at all aware of personal needs. “A Night in Acadie” is similar to “A No-Account Creole” in that it follows the narrative pattern of two young men who are opposites coming together in a confrontation over a woman. In fact, the drunken, disheveled Andre Pascal probably reminds Telesphore of his uncle. The outcome of the physical confrontation between the two men is that Telesphore recognizes his attraction to Zaida and to the spontaneity and individualism she represents. Here Chopin offers a variation on the theme of the importance of deciding wisely on a mate. “A No-Account Creole” ends with the prospects of a marriage that will promote self-fulfillment for both husband and wife because it will be a joint partnership that will transcend the nineteenth-century ideology of the separate spheres. “A Night in Acadie” is more concerned with the choice of a mate as marking a departure from the conventional formula for masculine success and respectability in Creole Louisiana.

Parallels with other stories are easy to find. The young Cajun farmer, Telesphore, certainly differs from Offdean, the urban intellectual. Still, in his naive quest for the perfect wife, Telesphore reminds one of Offdean's quest for the perfectly balanced life. Telesphore's plans to establish himself as a successful and respectable farmer and head of a household are as uninformed psychologically as Offdean's career plans before meeting Euphrasie. In addition, Zaida reminds the reader of the rebellious Athenaise. Both defy their culture's social norms for women. Zaida has openly defied her parents by making plans to meet and marry Andre secretly under the pretext of attending a dance. She would seem to be an even more inappropriate choice for Telesphore, given his ambitions, than Euphrasie for Wallace Offdean. Yet, everything about Zaida, her free and easy walk, her excited and excitable nature, her emotional frankness and unconventional behavior, her bold rebellion from parental rule, appeals to Telesphore as he begins to be less inhibited under the influence of his awakened passion for her. As a catalyst for a man's awakening, she has a similar effect on Telesphore that Athenaise has on Gouvernail. In fact, before his awakening, Telesphore seemed destined to have the kind of unreflective life of conventional-minded men in the plantation culture such as Gustave Baroda in “A Respectable Woman.”

In at least one of these stories grouped around young unawakened men and women, a man's awakening reflects critically not only on cultural norms defining masculinity and the materialistic values of status in the male world of work, but also on the Creole plantation hegemony itself. In “Azelie,” before his encounter with Azelie, ‘Polyte accepted without question the social and economic hierarchy of the plantation culture. His daily life revolved around the responsibilities of his work—running the plantation store. He never speculated that an impoverished, displaced family like Azelie's may not accept the social and moral codes that support the foundation for the plantation economy. Azelie certainly threatens “the calm orderliness of ‘Polyte's existence” (Dyer, “Sleeping Bruties” 72), as Euphrasie has shaken Offdean's identity as an urban businessman and Zaida has shaken Telesphore's as a successful farmer. It is not only ‘Polyte's understanding of his social identity as an assistant manager on a plantation that she threatens, but also his smug identification with the hegemony of the plantation culture in general. Azelie's defiance of the plantation culture forces ‘Polyte to examine the plantation world he has accepted. From her he learns much about the injustices of the system he has helped to perpetuate and re-examines his own values. His leaving the plantation to join Azelie and her family on Lile River represents not only an insight into his own personal needs but also an expansion of his social and moral consciousness. Unlike the two respectable men in the story, the morally unconventional Azelie actively rejects traditional principles of justice and morality as well as the values of the patriarchal southern plantation. She pays ‘Polyte for services rendered by stoically tolerating his caresses; but, when he asks her to stay behind with him when her family must leave, she chooses an uncertain future with her family over the security and respectability he could give her. ‘Polyte's decision to leave the plantation and join Azelie and her family on Lile River represents not only his acceptance of the life of the instincts and passions, but also his rejection of the emptiness of his morally conventional and materially secure world.

Awakenings in men in Chopin's Creole stories inspire them to reflect on their position in this highly patriarchal and hierarchical society, particularly to consider whether they should move toward an acceptance of values more consistent with their own psychic and social vision than those their culture validates. The vision that emerges not only encompasses the liberation of a buried self and a departure from gender norms and conventional social values, but also hints at the wisdom of a more androgynous union between a man and a woman than the nineteenth-century ideology of the separate spheres encouraged. Certainly, some awakened men in these stories become less preoccupied with order, rationality, control, and authority; and awakened women become less dependent, submissive, and self-abnegating. Like her awakened women, Chopin's awakened men cannot always effect a permanent change in their lives; but their moments of self-revelation are, nevertheless, important because they provide a vision not only of a more integrated, fuller life for a man but also of a union between a man and a woman which is freer of the traditional gender roles. Chopin scholarship has understandably concentrated on the awakening of her women, but the awakening of her men also deserves attention. In Chopin's vision of a progressive society, both men and women must strive for autonomy.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. The Complete Works. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana SUP, 1969. Dyer, Joyce. “Kate Chopin's Sleeping Bruties.” The Markham R 10 (1980 Fall-1981 Winter): 10-15.

Fluck, Winfried. “Tentative Transgressions: Kate Chopin's Fiction as a Mode of Symbolic Action.” SAF 10.2 (1982): 151-71.

Walker, Nancy. “Feminist or Naturalist: The Social Context of Kate Chopin's The Awakening.SoQ. 17.2 (1979): 95-103.

Lawrence I. Berkove (essay date winter 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3262

SOURCE: Berkove, Lawrence I. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin's ‘The Story of an Hour’.” American Literary Realism 32, no. 2 (winter 2000): 152-58.

[In the following essay, Berkove views the character of Louise Mallard in “The Story of an Hour” as “an immature egotist and a victim of her own extreme self-assertion.”]

Kate Chopin's thousand-word short story, “The Story of an Hour,” has understandably become a favorite selection for collections of short stories as well as for anthologies of American literature. Few other stories say so much in so few words. There has been, moreover, virtual critical agreement on what the story says: its heroine dies, ironically and tragically, just as she has been freed from a constricting marriage and has realized self-assertion as the deepest element of her being. Confidence in this interpretation, however, may be misplaced, for using the standard proposed for the story by Toth and Seyersted—“every detail contributes to the emotional impact”1—there is evidence of a deeper level of irony in the story which does not regard Louise Mallard as a heroine but as an immature egotist and a victim of her own extreme self-assertion. This self-assertion is achieved not by reflection but, on the contrary, by “a suspension of intelligent thought” masked as “illumination.” As a result, a pattern of basic contradictions and abnormal attitudes emerges which gives structure to the story and forecasts its conclusion. The key to recognizing this deeper, ironic level is to carefully distinguish between the story's narrator, author, and unreliable protagonist.

Seyersted's early biography of Chopin describes the story neutrally as “an extreme example of the theme of self-assertion.”2 More recent interpretation has largely followed a strong, and at times an extreme, feminist bent. Representative of this in both approach and language is Emily Toth's well-known characterization of the story as one of Chopin's “most radical … an attack on marriage, on one person's dominance over another.”3 Toth further elaborates this position in a later article in which she comments that “[a]lthough Louise's death is an occasion for deep irony directed at patriarchal blindness about women's thoughts, Louise dies in the world of her family where she has always sacrificed for others.”4 Ewell similarly sees in the story's “surfaces” Louise's struggle for selfhood against “society's decree” for female “selflessness, being for others.”5

But in the text of this very short story there is no hard evidence whatsoever of patriarchal blindness or suppression, constant or selfless sacrifice by Louise, or an ongoing struggle for selfhood. These positions are all read into the story from non-textual assumptions.6 The simple truth is that this story is not about society or marriage, but about Louise Mallard. The single possible reference in the text to difficulties in her life is a sentence, which says that the lines of her face “bespoke repression and a certain strength.”7 It is not at all clear, however, what the cause of that “repression” was; whether, for instance, it might have been external, in society or in her marriage, or whether it was internal, a recognition that it takes strength to control one's feelings or whims. Such few hints as the story supplies incline toward the latter position. While the text enables us to make certain inferences about Louise, it does not supply us with any information about the truth of her life except her perceptions, and these, as I intend to show, are unreliable and, insofar as they are taken as the statements of the story's omniscient narrator, misleading and contradicted by other textual evidence.

Support for this position is spread throughout the story but the most dramatic elements appear in the following three paragraphs:

There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.

And yet she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!

“Free! Body and soul free!” she kept whispering.

In these paragraphs, the story's omniscient narrator takes us into Louise's mind. However, while the attitudes expressed are definitely Louise's there is no textual justification for also ascribing them to the narrator. Further, it would be a mistake to project them onto Chopin, for that would confuse narrator with author, a move that denies Chopin the full range of literary technique, and that would reduce this brilliant and subtle work of fiction to behind-the-scenes sermonizing.

It is significant, in the quotation's first line, that Louise wishes to “live for herself.” This has been generally understood to imply that she had hitherto sacrificed herself for her husband; however, there is no evidence for this in the text. Nor is there any evidence that her husband had done her living “for her,” whatever that might mean. It is an ipse dixit comment, arbitrary, without support, one of several she makes.

In the quotation's second paragraph, Louise discounts love as secondary to self-assertion. While this is undoubtedly her position, there is no textual reason to assume it is also Chopin's. Louise also recognizes self-assertion “as the strongest impulse of her being.” This is a peculiar value for a married person and is indeed incompatible with marriage, where an emphasis upon shared goals and mutual commitment is the opposite of self-assertion. The unreasoning self-centeredness of Louise partly explains the first two sentences of the quotation's second paragraph, and they tell us more about her than about her husband. Of course, even married people who sincerely love each other have occasional disagreements and may not feel much love for the other at particular times. For most lovers this is not so much a contradiction as a paradox; the moments of hate occur within the larger context of love. But the warmest sentiment that Louise can express after being married to a man whose benevolence the previous paragraph explicitly affirms with its description of his “kind, tender hands” and his face “that had never looked save with love upon her” is the niggardly concession that she had loved him “sometimes.”

It is obvious that there is quite a discrepancy between the way Louise and Brently Mallard feel about each other, but all the mystery of the difference is on Louise's side.

Whatever her original reason had been for marrying Brently, it is clear now that feeling the way she does about him she would be better off not being married. Her love for herself—“she would live only for herself”—does not leave room for anyone else. How, then, would she live?

Her justification for preferring to live for herself, the second and third sentences of the quotation's first paragraph, are extravagant, unrealistic statements, each segment of which is controversial. She views her husband's constant love as a “powerful will bending hers in [a] blind persistence.” Blind? Why is it blind? Inasmuch as Louise has apparently repressed her true feelings about her husband and marriage, if his love for her is blind it is because she has blinded him. In the absence of open communication about her feelings, how would he know what she wants, or what to do or say? In that circumstance, his persistence, which clearly annoys her, may only be a natural attempt on his part to please her and to convince her of his love. The failure of Brently's persistence is due at least in part to Louise's strange view of love—and the wording of the second sentence includes her as well as her husband—as a “crime,” a powerful will that “bends” the other person. This is a distorted view of love, which typically delights in pleasing and giving to the other. Believing love a “crime” cannot be considered a normal attitude, much less an emotionally healthy one.

But even if we grant this point of view, where can we go where the presence of other people does not “impose” some conditions upon us that limit our freedom? There are only two places on earth that meet this specification: an uninhabited spot or the grave. If we have friends, it is assumed that we hold values that are in concord with theirs, and that we do not act in such a way as to violate friends or their principles. Even if we do not have friends but just live in society, there are laws and mores which, out of mere civility, we follow as a condition of being acceptable members of society. And this works equally in reverse. Does Louise not expect that friends will somehow fulfill and continue to meet her personal standards and thereby be more desirable for a closer relationship with her than would strangers? Is this “imposition”? Is she not by her contentions denying herself both friends and society, unless she has no expectations that fellow creatures will observe certain basic laws and mores? If this is true for friends and fellow members of society, how much more is this so for people in love, and especially those who are married! How can the extreme sort of freedom that Louise contemplates, in which there are no expectations or obligations upon anyone, co-exist with living with other human beings?

Marriage of course restricts freedom. Whoever marries, or even loves, gives up large areas of freedom—usually willingly. It is aberrant, therefore, to reduce love merely to an “imposition” of a “private will upon a fellow creature.” Inasmuch as Brently loves her “tenderly,” her attitude about imposition reveals that she is only irritated by a display of affection and equates it with a loss of freedom. One paragraph later, Louise first characterizes love as an “unsolved mystery,” and then immediately dismisses what she admittedly does not understand in preference for the “impulse” of self-assertion, which she, ironically, also appears not to understand either in its form of self-love or in its consequence of radical loneliness.

Even more astonishingly, why is no distinction to be made between a kind and a cruel intention? Here is yet another product of her “suspension of intelligent thought,” another arbitrary and whimsical dictum that would incriminate both friend and spouse. But the proposition is contradicted by actions in the story. At the beginning of the story, for example, her husband's friend Richards hastens to tell Louise himself the news of her husband's death, “to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message.” At the end, Richards attempts vainly to screen Brently from the view of his wife. Are these loving acts of kind intentions crimes? Even more to the point, Louise's whims imperiously put her husband into a no-win situation where anything he does is not only wrong, but also a crime against her absolute freedom. These conceits go beyond being merely strange and impossible views for any social relations, let alone a marriage. What Louise regards as “illumination” are dark and twisted fantasies that reflect a confused and unhealthy mind.

In truth, Louise is sick, emotionally as well as physically. The story's first line tells us that “Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble.” The phraseology is vague; however, the rest of the story gradually makes clear the nature of the heart trouble. Alone in her room, when she “abandoned” herself, a whispered word “escaped” her lips: “Free!” The conjunction first of abandonment and then of something escaping her is significant. What was then in her heart is made clear by the two lines of the next paragraph: “She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial.” Again, Chopin's omniscient narrator makes a subtle but very significant shift from reporting “objectively” in the first line what Louise is thinking to letting us, in the second line, know Louise's opinion about her thinking process. First, she believes that she is enjoying a “clear and exalted perception.” Two paragraphs later she exalts this self-congratulatory perception to an “illumination” when she concludes that love is a crime. Here again, while these extravagant value judgments are certainly Louise's, they cannot be confidently ascribed to either the narrator or Chopin.

Next, Louise dismisses as “trivial” the suggestion of doubt as to whether or not her joy was “monstrous.” But the question most certainly is not trivial. It is a natural question, an important and a healthy one, an intelligent check on unreflected impulse, and the fact that Louise does not address it is ominous. She does not give the question a chance; she does not even face it; she dismisses it out of hand. What Chopin is doing, very subtly, is depicting Louise in the early stages of the delusion that is perturbing her precariously unstable health by aggravating her pathological heart condition. The “monstrous” surge of joy she experiences is both the cause and first sign of a fatal overload to her feeble heart.

In the next paragraph Louise contemplates “a long procession of years … that would belong to her absolutely.” “Absolutely” is a loaded word, further evidence of her extreme and unrealistic egotism in preferring her own company exclusively. In light of Aristotle's statement that “whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god,”8 the joy that Louise takes in the thought of absolute possession of future years may indeed qualify as “monstrous.” And for someone afflicted with heart trouble, the anticipation that those future years will be a long procession is also presumptuous. Louise is not thinking clearly. Insofar as her anticipation reflects growing mental confusion and raises unrealistic hopes, it is also perilous.

After she puts off her sister Josephine, who “implores” admission to the room out of fear that Louise will make herself ill (another case of a “crime” of a powerful will attempting to bend her by imposing a kind intention?), we are told in the next paragraph that “[h]er fancy was running riot.” “Fancy,” with its connotations of fantastic and capricious imaginings, is another signal that Louise is not thinking clearly, and the narrator's observation that it is “running riot” is an additional indication that she is well on the way to losing control of her mind.

This prospect is enhanced by a sentence in the next paragraph: “There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory.” Here Chopin displays her remarkable ability to compress layers of complexity and irony into a single line. “Feverish” is the key word that diagnoses Louise's pathological condition, and the phrase in which it occurs ironically suggests that the fever has already progressed to the point where it is fatally triumphant over her. The rest of the short sentence rapidly but elegantly elaborates on the situation. “Unwittingly,” with its connotation of the absence of reason, reinforces the idea that Louise's fever has triumphed, and her assumption of the posture of the “goddess of Victory” is a double delusion: she is no goddess and she has achieved no victory.

Her husband's unexpected reappearance ends the delusion based on “a monstrous joy.” It has long been recognized that the story's last line is ironic, but it is even more ironic than has previously been surmised. The doctors were technically correct: she did die “of joy that kills.” Louise was indeed doubly afflicted with heart trouble. Physically, her heart was weak, and emotionally, it had no room for anyone else.

We can infer from both the way the description of Louise unfolds and from the absurd nature of Louise's ideal that Kate Chopin was not a romantic. On the one hand, Chopin did not regard marriage as a state of pure and unbroken bliss, but on the other, she could not intelligently believe that it was desirable, healthy, or even possible for anyone to live as Louise, in the grip of her feverish delusion, wishes: to be absolutely free and to live totally and solely for oneself. Absolute freedom is possible only for a divinity, and Louise demonstrates by her death as well as her life that she is not divine. Although earthly love is not ideally perfect, it may at least be the closest thing to the ideal that we can know. Louise's “self-assertion,” really in her case a manifestation of an extreme of self-love, is exposed in this story as an emotional affliction of her heart that has physical consequences. What she wants is, literally, not obtainable in this life. It is a fantasy, a dream, and “A Story of an Hour” was indeed first published in Vogue magazine in 1894 under the more revealing title of “The Dream of an Hour.”9

Given her dissatisfaction with the best that life has to offer her and her unrealistic expectations of absolute freedom, therefore, there is no other option for Louise except death. The conclusion of the story follows logically upon Louise's specifications of her deepest wishes. Chopin's exposé of the fanciful dream of Louise is richly subtle, and is an exquisite example of her remarkable ability to present an untenable view in a seemingly sympathetic way.10 In “The Story of an Hour” Chopin projects with delicately incisive irony what would happen if an immature and shallow egotist were to face the earthly consequence of an impossible dream of her afflicted heart.


  1. Emily Toth and Per Seyersted, eds., Kate Chopin's Private Papers (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1998), p. 245.

  2. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969), p. 58.

  3. Emily Toth, Kate Chopin (New York: William Morrow, 1990), pp. 252-53. Similarly, the story's emphasis upon a woman was equated in a subsequent article by another critic with an attack on the institution of marriage, which is treated as the “culprit” of the story because by its means “[p]atriarchy's social conditioning creates codes of social behavior to ensure the suppression of feminine desires.” Angelyn Mitchell, “Feminine Double Consciousness in Kate Chopin,” CEA Magazine, 3 (Fall 1993), 59-64.

  4. Emily Toth, “Kate Chopin Thinks Back Through Her Mothers: Three Stories by Kate Chopin,” Kate Chopin Reconsidered, ed. Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1992), p. 24.

  5. Barbara C. Ewell, “Chopin and the Dream of Female Selfhood,” Kate Chopin Reconsidered, pp. 160, 162.

  6. The film, “Five Stories of an Hour” (Films for the Humanities, Inc., 1991), widely available and used in educational settings, is a testimony as to how the sparseness of the text invites explanations which require additional text and details. Although the skits which comprise this film complement the story's fictile possibilities by means of creative reader responses, in modifying and going beyond the text those skits do not and cannot explain the text itself.

  7. Kate Chopin, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 52-54. The entire story occupies only three pages, so page numbers are not used.

  8. Aristotle, Politics I, qtd. in Francis Bacon, “Of Friendship.”

  9. Toth, “Kate Chopin Thinks Back,” pp. 22-23.

  10. For an example of how this phenomenon appears in other of her stories, see my article, “‘Acting Like Fools’: The Ill-Fated Romances of ‘At the 'Cadian Ball’ and ‘The Storm,’” Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, ed. Alice Hall Petry (New York: G. K. Hall, 1996), pp. 184-96.

John A. Staunton (essay date autumn 2000)

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SOURCE: Staunton, John A. “Kate Chopin's ‘One Story’: Casting a Shadowy Glance on the Ethics of Regionalism.” Studies in American Fiction 28, no. 2 (autumn 2000): 203-34.

[In the following essay, Staunton considers Chopin's attitude toward regionalism and local color fiction and discusses her short fiction as regionalist writing.]

In Kate Chopin's first two critical essays, both written in 1894, the same year her first collection of short fiction, Bayou Folk, was published, the St. Louis-born writer—who was best known for her Louisiana fictions—demonstrates the ambivalence with which many nineteenth-century American authors approached terms like regionalism and local color. The essays are brief but incisive accounts of the strengths and weaknesses of regional writing and offer a quick glance at the literary conflicts at the end of the century. The first reports on the Western Association of Writers, a mostly Indiana group that Chopin chides for “clinging to past and conventional standards, [for] an almost Creolean sensitiveness to criticism and a singular ignorance of, or disregard for, the value of the highest art forms.”1 The group's provincialism, Chopin suggests, prevents it from realizing that “there is a very, very big world lying not wholly in northern Indiana.” But to ensure that her criticism of local writing here is not itself read provincially, Chopin continues to describe the world good fiction must attempt to configure: “nor does it lie at the antipodes, either. It is human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it” (691). The second is a more measured piece, a mixed review of Crumbling Idols, Hamlin Garland's collection of essays championing the use of regional and local color elements in the service of a literary realism. By Chopin's estimation, when Garland advocates breaking free of “the hold of conventionalism,” he ends up undervaluing “the importance of the past in art and exaggerates the significance of the present,” especially as the present makes itself visible through the meticulous detailing of local life. Though she herself was a writer of regional fiction that was enthusiastically promoted for its artistic and faithful rendering of local life, Chopin here warns that “social problems, social environments, local color and the rest of it are not of themselves motives to insure the survival of a writer who employs them” (693).

Chopin's curious aversion to the efforts of her fellow regional writers in these essays seems to come from a suspicion of any ethical motive or naturalist principle and favor a strict formalism or aestheticism. The critiques also show Chopin to be reluctant to throw in with any aesthetic ideology that blindly attacks the powers that support it or the artistic forms that enable it. Thus she characterizes the Western Association's eschewing of high art as naïve and childish, and she takes Garland to task for his impolitic criticism of the East as a tyrannous literary center. “There can no good come of abusing Boston and New York,” Chopin cautions: “On the contrary, as ‘literary centers’ they have rendered incalculable service … by bringing to light whatever … has been produced of force and originality in the West and South since the war” (694). Such a position is coincidentally (and perhaps ironically) in step with much of the early twentieth-century literary criticism of regional fiction that kept Chopin an admired but minor figure until the rediscovery of her second novel, The Awakening. At first glance, much of Chopin's own fiction seems to discount her critique of Garland's “veritism” and of regional writing in general, but a closer inspection, particularly of the short fiction, tells a different story. Chopin delivers her criticism with authority and conviction, with the authenticity of one who speaks from within a region and tradition, suggesting not that Chopin is simply inconsistent in her criticism and practice, but rather that Chopin's understanding of regional writing includes a sophisticated and indeed implicitly ethical knowledge of the dangers inherent in claiming to offer an authentic or enduring relation of another person or community.

Published six months before her review of Garland's manifesto, Chopin's Bayou Folk contains two stories that explicitly challenge the impulse of local color to provide an authentic vision of a region. In the first, “A Gentleman of Bayou Têche,” a Northern painter wants to capture the colorful spirit of rural Louisiana by portraying a local man in the imagined garb of the 'Cadian rustic, something the man, Evariste Bonamour, considers demeaning for any gentleman—Acadian or other—of the Bayou Têche. Evariste's continued resistance ultimately convinces the painter to allow Evariste himself to title the painting (and in turn provide the title for Chopin's story). In the second story, “La Belle Zoraïde,” a plantation mistress demands of her slave Manna-Loulou that she nightly tell her a true story to help her sleep. When Madame Delisle hears the tale of la belle Zoraïde, a story configured out of the bits of old song the servant hears the locals singing as she goes to her mistress's chamber, Madame instead remains fitful and awake. The “true” story lives on to trouble the woman who wanted only to be entertained by colorful and harmless tales about her region. The story's effect on Madame presents an implicit critique both of her narrative preferences and her treatment of Manna-Loulou.

Chopin continues this sort of internal challenge to local color through her subsequent fiction, but in the brief opening paragraphs of “Elizabeth Stock's One Story”—finished in March 1898, a year before the publication of The Awakening, it is the second piece in what was to have been Kate Chopin's third collection of short fiction, A Vocation and a Voice2—we encounter a more pronounced consideration of the deficiencies of local color through a complex figure of the late-nineteenth-century regional writer herself. Departing from the 'Cadian and Creole characters and settings for which she acquired her fame, Chopin here offers the story of an unmarried Missouri woman of thirty-eight who is also the local postmistress and an aspiring writer of local fiction. The tale begins with a voice from outside the region announcing the death and trying to account for the life of Elizabeth Stock—her unmarried status and independent streak apparently explanation enough of her death for the narrator. By the end of this brief but intricately layered narrative, however, Elizabeth's own voice emerges as the source of truth about what has happened to her and her community. She speaks to us from beyond the grave but also from deep within the community she holds together.

We see highlighted in each of the stories the dangers of undertaking the task of representing a region from the outside, and we witness the repeated narrative and thematic gesture away from the outside perspective toward something more participatory. Explicitly foregrounding the conflict between local color and regional representations by laying one vision beside or over the other, “A Gentleman of Bayou Têche,” “La Belle Zoraïde,” and “Elizabeth Stock” skillfully configure the narrative and ethical consequences of what happens when one attempts to tell the “one story” of a region. In their careful attention to the possibilities of narrative form and the intersection of such literary form and ethical content, they offer a useful site from which to examine a critical difference in the ethical comportment generated by either local color or regionalism.

Despite the suggestion of the title, I do not intend here to argue that Chopin has a singular or uniform vision of what regional writing is or should be. But as we will see in these stories, which range over the 'Cadian, Creole, and Midwestern subjects of her fiction, Chopin is always acutely interested in what is at stake—ethically and aesthetically—when one sets out to fashion an account of regional life that will affect the lives of others. Each of the stories here offers a model of reading within the narrative itself, making more clear one of the central elements of regionalism as it has been defined by a number of critics: to encourage a readerly response based on empathetic connection.

This movement is implicitly an ethical gesture, and I have chosen the stories here for the way they foreground particular formal distinctions between local color and regionalism based on that ethical concern. In conjunction with several recent critical formulations of the differences between local color and regionalism, I will use passages from Chopin's stories to help us survey the dimensions of the critical landscape of regional writing. The key features of the debate are grounded in the formal elements of narration, but what remains unexamined in the criticism to date is the role literary form has in the ethical stances proffered by local color and regionalism. To help us elucidate that connection in Chopin's work and in regionalist literature in general, we will begin by focusing on how the deeply rooted comportment of narrative voice in local colorist and regionalist fictions provides a range of alternate views on region. By intersecting both insider and outsider perspectives, Chopin's work manages to cast each into relief, drawing one out of the shadow of the other. This analysis will then allow us to consider some of the critical and philosophical issues of regionalism, particularly as Chopin considers them, in terms of the ethical consequences of formal innovation. A closer analysis of each story will then follow several different formal configurations of region, leading us back to the questions of how formal and ethical concerns intersect and what happens when they do so, from either a local colorist or regionalist perspective.

Accounts of American literary history often use the terms regionalism and local color interchangeably, and both modes are concerned with rendering true and faithful accounts of local life.3 Each seeks to make visible a sense of life in those places that lie outside the experience of readers from other regions, both offering at the very least the vague ethical lesson that other regions have some value that should interest us. Through their creative configurations of place, both local color and regionalism acknowledge what Eudora Welty says allows for art to fulfill its chief function “to make reality real.” Indeed, it is “location,” Welty says, that “is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction that charge out from a story in its course.”4 As such, either local color or regionalism can succeed only insofar as it renders visible and makes present the ethical currents that find their grounding in a particular place. But as Welty herself notes, “region” can be a careless critical term when talking about locality and fiction. It rarely designates simply a static place or set geographical boundary, and it cannot in itself ensure the worth or survival of any representation of local life. “Regionalism” and “local color” have a similarly vexed quality, for in practice they offer markedly different representations of local life, which have wide-ranging consequences for how we see individual characters and how they see themselves in relation to each other. And yet it is not simply a case of one mode being more accurate or authentic than the other, nor can we simply configure the two modes in terms of good (regionalist) and bad (local colorist) visions of regional writing. Indeed, as Chopin notes in her review of Garland, these differences of themselves matter little for the survival of a region, its literature, or its authors. Rather it is a much more complicated ethical and aesthetic matter of what happens to local life when one chooses to render it artistically at all.

Chopin's work in general and these stories in particular help demonstrate that any regional survival hinges on the success of a readerly refiguration of a particular representation of local life. If “one story” exists in respect to the representation of local life, it is that each literary mode effects a different ethical position, which qualifies any univocal claims to authority or authenticity. As critics such as Judith Fetterley, Jim Wayne Miller, Marjorie Pryse, and David Holman have all come to argue, “regionalism” is best understood as a type of local writing, beginning in the early nineteenth century and extending through the twentieth century, that seeks to privilege the voices of the previously overlooked.5 Local color is generally understood to be the emergent form of American literary realism that flourished particularly in post-Civil War America. Local color found its proponents in Eastern editors such as Howells, and by Chopin's and Garland's time it had essentially become an Eastern aesthetic mode concerned with seeking out distant areas and cultural practices separate from the customs of the coast. In a practice that shares striking similarities with the colonialist projects of other eras and regions, local color fiction marks and contains the excesses of regional difference. Transliterated and phonetically rendered dialect, rich sensual geographical detail, and the evocation of alien customs and systems of power, all are refashioned by a framing narrative in standard written English that suggests the comfort and security of a carefully modulated Eastern cultural vision. The result is a remaking of local life in the regions over into the image of a national or ideal type of American living.

Regionalism resists such idealizing or stereotyping and importantly establishes its differences from local color in its narrative perspective and in the comportment of characters and readers brought forth by the events of the narrative. Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse note in their studies of American women regionalists, for instance, that the literary practice of writers like Chopin operates to establish an aesthetic vision of empathetic connectedness that is markedly different from what local-color writers produced. By “present[ing] regional experience from within, so as to engage the reader's sympathy and identification,” regionalism becomes a literature both of difference and for difference. It attempts to teach readers to read differently, to “see with” instead of “look at” the characters represented.6 David Holman arrives at a similar distinction in his study of Southern and Midwestern literature by both men and women writers. The regionalist artist, he says, reports on the region from within, and “as arbiter of the worlds outside of and within the region, fully participates in both.” In contrast, the local colorist's work, “as the examination and presentation of exotics, is anathema to the aims of most serious writers to present not only a region but the world as they see it.”7

Chopin's “A Gentleman of Bayou Têche” takes as its theme precisely this gap between seeing and not-seeing which separates the practice of regionalist from local colorist.8 The opening lines of the story, for instance, allow the local colorist's vision to become normative for the reader before it will be challenged.

It was no wonder Mr. Sublet … wanted to make a picture of Evariste. The 'Cadian was rather a picturesque subject in his way, and a tempting one to an artist looking for bits of “local color” along the Têche.


By the end of the story, however, Mr. Sublet's perspective on Evariste Bonamour changes. For Evariste saves Sublet's son from drowning in the bayou, something which elevates him for the painter above the “typical” rustic to the status of hero. Evariste has a more modest assessment of himself, and Chopin allows him, not Sublet, to shape the vision (and the title) of the picture that Sublet will make of him, though presumably Evariste will still not possess Sublet's rendering of his own image.

This ending provides a brief but important ironic coda to the otherwise linear sequence that dominates the narration. Through the alternate perspective at the end, Chopin forces her readers to re-think the normative claims of Sublet's local color art and elicits a more sympathetic vision of life along the Têche. That vision is part of a regionalism that is, as Jim Wayne Miller observes, “appreciative of … ways in which small and great traditions are connected.” The texts that emerge from this regionalist vision charge out from the “center of a moral universe [in which] local life [is] aware of itself” as both local—grounded in a region—and as living.9 Regionalism, so defined, is not a literature “about” place, though it is drenched with place and soaked through with concerns for place. Rather it is a literature about how people attempt to live together in community; it is ethical in the broadest sense, examining the simple question, “how ought we to live together here?” The narrative perspective it adopts privileges the voices that come from within the region, so that the ethical stance it seeks to engender in the reader encourages an interaction that will challenge the boundaries drawn by the dominant society and that will attend to the voices of those who otherwise exist on the margins of the societal discourse.10

As we see with Sublet and Evariste, the confrontation of these stances appears almost immediately in Chopin's stories. In the obituary-like opening of “Elizabeth Stock's One Story” we encounter first a monochromatic version of the death of a would-be writer: “Elizabeth Stock, an unmarried woman of thirty-eight, died of consumption during the past winter at the St. Louis City Hospital. There were no unusually pathetic features attending her death” (CW [The Complete Works of Kate Chopin] 586). Despite the apparent normalcy of the death of this supposedly unremarkable woman, the frame narrator nonetheless seeks out Elizabeth's quarters and discovers in her desk a manuscript that is presented to us as an interesting piece of local color. This new narrative begins with an innocuous declaration by the titular character: “Since I was a girl I always felt as if I would like to write stories” (CW 586). Neither introduction to Elizabeth's life seems particularly compelling on its own, but at the intersection of the two narratives—one from the outside, looking in, the other from within, looking closely at itself—we discover that much is at stake in the production of stories about local life and that efforts to establish a single, definitive, or authentic account of one's life need first to reckon with the competing perspectives of others.

The story of Elizabeth's ambition—“I always felt as if I would like to write”—comes to us, for instance, already filtered through the lens of our prior knowledge of her demise, even before the distancing and protective use of the subjunctive that seems to hide her desire for authorship. The frame narrator informs us that after being transferred to the hospital's incurable ward (inexplicably, since “she showed hope of rallying till placed” there), Elizabeth “relapsed into a silence that remained unbroken till the end” (586). But the voice of Elizabeth herself clearly breaks that silence, speaking to us and speaking back to the frame narrator from beyond the grave. Here, in the multi-perspectival narrative that results from the confrontation of outsider/local colorist and insider/regionalist accounts of Elizabeth's life, we arrive, as Mikhail Bakhtin says happens “beginning with any text,” ultimately at the sound of “the human voice, which is to say we come up against the human being.”11 Elizabeth's voice forces us to question any assessment of her life we may have made from the information supplied by the frame narrator. At stake here is not only the legitimacy of Elizabeth's ambition to write but also the authenticity of competing narrative perspectives on local life. For as we confront the question of how the narrative configuration of local life necessarily passes through the troubled intersection of literary form and ethical content, we must still decide on a particular perspective, and in so doing we privilege which vision of community is to survive.

By the time we encounter her, though, Elizabeth Stock has apparently not survived as a writer. Nevertheless, when Chopin's frame narrator offers us an example of the “scraps and bits of writing in bad prose and impossible verse” (586) that fill Elizabeth's desk, we do receive the promise of encountering something outside our own experience and of discovering some truth about this particular woman. We also receive an evaluation, from an unsympathetic source, of Elizabeth's (in)ability to render local life. Elizabeth identifies her own failure to emplot the lives of her regional characters and render their experiences into compelling narrative as an inability to make reality real to prospective readers. “Whenever I wanted to write a story,” she explains, “I could never think of a plot,” for “whenever I tried to think of one [a plot], it turned out to be something that some one else had thought about before me”(586). She tries to write a story about a well-known local figure, “old Si' Shepard that got lost in the woods and never came back,” for example, but her Uncle William chides her: “this here ain't no story; everybody knows about old Si' Shepard” (586). Her uncle's provision implies that a real story is not simply something that happens to someone; rather it is something atypical and unknown that joins the expectation for the exotica of local color with a desire to depict local life faithfully. Indeed, his guidelines are not unlike the requirements for a story contest Elizabeth herself enters, in which the winning entry, Elizabeth says, would have “to be original, entertaining, full of action and Goodness knows what all” (CW 587). Such guidelines, Elizabeth suggests, demand originality but in a format that traffics only in set types, and despite her name, Elizabeth can not seem to emplot the experiences of “stock” local color characters and still render an authentic vision of her regional community. In her ambition to survive as a regional writer, she becomes stuck at the intersection of “local color” and local life. Only when she turns away from reproducing types of local life and concentrates on defining and defending herself through her narrative do we at last acquire “true” pictures of Elizabeth and her community.

The shift in Elizabeth's focus points to a crucial difference in the narrative comportment established by regionalism and local color. Adopting and privileging the outsider's perspective, such as the frame narrator does, local color can not and does not fully “see” what life is like in the regions beyond its own boundaries. Favoring indigenously inflected perspectives, regionalism attempts to bring parts of the world together not under one time-line of Eastern progress, but under competing (and simultaneous) time-lines and narratives of local significance. Gary Saul Morson has called the multi-perspectival aspect of this type of narrative mode a “sideshadowing,” which “projects—from the ‘side’—the shadow of an alternative present. It allows us to see what might have been and therefore changes our view of what is.”12 The regionalist perspective makes visible what local color fails to see, and it sideshadows the chronology of Eastern aesthetic progress implicit in local color writing. As a result, the “outside” view can no longer (as Bakhtin notes of discourse in the novel) perceive the overlooked inhabitants of a region solely “as objects, as typifactions, as local color.”13 In thus seeking to “make reality real” by making visible the previously overlooked, regionalism fashions a corrective re-vision of both local and national life.

Moving the narrative perspective from the margin into the center, and giving ethical weight to an otherwise unheard voice or unseen life, Chopin certainly participates in what has come to be recognized as the regionalist aesthetic of nineteenth-century writing. In “Elizabeth Stock's One Story,” the lack of pretension in the narration, the focus on character over plot, and the participation of the narrator in her own narration are all elements of the regionalist effort to make local life visualizable to readers. To these elements, however, Chopin adds her own criteria for the regionalist short story. In “La Belle Zoraïde,” for instance, the concerns of form and theme spiral and return, sideshadowing each other in a descending helical pattern that becomes subtly self-reflective, in which the possibility of other origins and meanings for a story about authentic origins and meanings always, and troublingly, exists. Chopin frames this story as a narrative in which multiple voices piece together the story of Zoraïde, the “true” tale that will help Madame Delisle sleep. On the surface the “as if” situation here is one which acknowledges and seeks to anesthetize the reader's participatory power. The story's success for Madame Delisle depends on its soporific qualities. But Chopin's story relies on our ability as attentive readers to piece together the bits of information about the racially divided world of Madame Delisle that demands such stories in the first place. Elizabeth Stock's position as both storyteller and manipulator of the written word likewise invites a sideshadowing critique of the frame narrator's opening verdict on her life and challenges the efficacy of narrative to configure the “true” story of regional life.

This rigorous internal examination is one of Chopin's principle formal components of regionalist narration. By examining the formal options for telling a story within the story itself, Chopin questions the epistemological grounding assumed in any given narration and challenges the ethical positions constructed from those “grounds.” The multi-perspectival narratives and the layers of narrative mediation in “Elizabeth Stock,” “A Gentleman of Bayou Têche,” and “La Belle Zoraïde” test the reader's ability to rely on his or her perception and knowledge of the world. Through the formal structures themselves, Chopin configures specific “as if” situations to force an epistemological crisis for readers to help achieve an ethical connection with readers about the lives of characters. We will see this appeal to empathetic connection made in a more mediated and deliberately stylized fashion when we look more closely at “A Gentleman of Bayou Têche” and especially “La Belle Zoraïde.” But a brief return to the opening of “Elizabeth Stock's One Story” will lay out the way Chopin effects the shift in perspective from the outside to the inside, from reserved distance to committed engagement.

As we have seen, the story of Elizabeth's ambition to become a successful writer is already enclosed by the frame narrator's presentation of her apparent failure to distinguish herself. That Elizabeth dies of consumption seems to the frame narrator a natural and logical result of her having been “an unmarried woman of thirty-eight.” This perspective quickly comes under critique, however, as Chopin leads her readers through several re-evaluations of the implied notion that the death of an unmarried woman is inevitable and not worthy of pathos, or that such a death is the univocal story of her life. What we piece together from the “bits and scraps” from Elizabeth's desk challenges the single story and judgment that the narrator and society make on Elizabeth's life. We learn from Elizabeth herself that despite her artistic ambitions she already has secured a position of distinction in her community. She is the successful and widely respected postmistress of Stonelift, Missouri, a rural settlement not far from St. Louis. For six years in this position she has exercised no small measure of power and control over the mail and the people she sees every day. She is independent, but she also holds the community of Stonelift together by providing a locus for conversation and by delivering the written correspondence of its citizens, seeing postcards and letters safely into the hands of the addressees. Far from being the “type” of the unmarried woman the frame narrator suggests, Elizabeth demonstrates the remarkable range of a particular and distinctive voice, one that from the beginning is tied inextricably to stories and to the problem of their configuration and transmission. Her situation is characteristic of many of Chopin's protagonists: the lives of Chopin's characters never have just “one story” but emerge from personalized or alternative accounts of the construction of individual selfhood and identity that live in the shadows and margins of other or more “official” records.

Given Elizabeth's occupation and position within the town, her apparent problems with the written word that the frame narrator suggests would seem to have little to do with any unfamiliarity with oral or verbal communication. Rather her problem has its source in more formal concerns that seem to arise from too much familiarity with what has already been written. This difficulty similarly besets Zoraïde and Evariste, as they too must face the struggle of living through competing and mediating narratives about who they are. They join Elizabeth in attempting to fashion a story of themselves that will not be, as Elizabeth says, “something that some one else had thought about before” (586). To this end, Chopin's characters search amid a matrix of competing narrative and cultural strains for some permutation that will allow for what Chopin, her readers, and her characters would consider an “authentic” expression of self. That self-defined and self-defining permutation is for these protagonists an elusive goal that seems to reside sometimes beyond and sometimes at the crossroads of the stories told by the self, the world, and others. In the dialogue of these competing narratives we find the location of what we might call Chopin's “ethics of authenticity,” an ethical posture in which one negotiates the expectations and needs of others with the inner desires of the self in order to discover who one most “truly” is or “ought” to be.14 As philosopher Charles Taylor explains, this type of ethical identity has its roots in an aesthetic (and chiefly Romantic) vision of life in which “artistic creation becomes the paradigm[atic] mode in which people can come to self-definition.” Such a self-definition, Taylor notes, arises from—in fact requires—creative construction through dialogue and confrontation with other “horizons of significance.”15 Those “horizons” mark the affective range of a particular vision or system of belief that informs someone's life, but like topographical horizons, they are limited only by the extent of one's own placement and vision. The type of creative encounter Taylor envisions is one in which such limits are crossed or intersect and which allows for a change in one's ethical stance through an empathetic engagement with the horizons of others. And as Werner Marx notes, by “comporting oneself in an attuned and intuitively understanding manner towards the other and others, … [by] partaking in their fate” one can effect or bring forth a community.16 What regionalist criticism terms empathetic connection, then, is precisely this sort of ethical confrontation arising from the narrative configuration of locality.

Chopin's narrative experiments in each of the stories examined here make present and configure local life through the construction of a particular “as if” situation, such as Madame Delisle thinks she needs to sleep and that Elizabeth Stock first imagines she cannot devise. But whereas Elizabeth cannot emplot an “as if” situation for her community, others—beginning with the frame narrator and ending with Nathan Brightman, the local squire who orchestrates her dismissal to advance the fortunes of his friend's son—have already emplotted a number of counterfactual stories—i.e. lies—about Elizabeth. An “as if” situation need not always involve lying of this type, of course. Elizabeth's attempts to make up stories, for instance, involve untruths, but not necessarily lies. In fact, as Michael Riffaterre's analysis of narrative diegesis demonstrates, fictions deliberately present untruths but do so without the intention to deceive that by definition stands behind lies. “Whatever symbolic truth fiction may have,” Riffaterre says, “that truth results from a rhetorical transformation of the narrative into figurative discourse or from situational analogies between the writer's inventions and representations of recognized reality.”17 The rhetorical transformation is also a formal-ethical transformation of fiction into conversation, for as Paul Ricoeur observes, it is at the juncture of narrative configuration and its refiguration by readers that the world of the text confronts and engages the life-world of the reader and “acquires a meaning in the full sense of the term.”18 Put another way, the “as if” situations of Chopin's stories establish a sideshadowing context by which to measure the efficacy of a particular configuration of the world that both responds to the demands of others and remains true to one's own vision. Ultimately, the “as if” situation seeks an empathetic response, a refiguration of the world of the text by the reader.

By eliciting empathetic response from readers, Chopin's fiction immediately establishes an alternative reality for its characters that opens up a number of narrative and ethical possibilities for readers themselves. As one regionalist critic, Elaine Sargent Apthorp, notes, the “empathetic imagination” involved in such a refiguration is an act of creation that works against the antagonistic power of the dominant cultural language which besets the characters of regionalist fictions (especially when those characters are artists).19 The principle characters in Chopin's stories examined here are artists of the self, each seeking to fashion an individual authenticity in their local lives. The stories repeatedly show, however, the tragic results of the dominant cultural language impeding the freedom of individual self-definition. In the strategy of regionalist fiction, according to Apthorp, the empathetic imagination, or imaginative engagement,

is not just practiced by the artist in rendering her material; the narrator urgently challenges the reader to practice it …, and indeed, the “cultural work” that the fiction is intended to perform will not be complete until the reader has … [conducted such an] act of empathetic imagination.20

This sort of imaginative engagement can not come solely through a simple, linearly presented tale in which characters march about in front of exotic backgrounds outside the Eastern seaboard. Rather the contexts of self-definition come into question and leave the reader to imagine alternative outcomes for individual lives in light of competing narratives of locality.

Behind these questions and underpinning the emphasis on empathetic connection in regionalist criticism is the conviction that “as if” situations, fictions, stories can and do provide models of ethical action that can be instructive to readers when they engage those models in conversation and confrontation. They express (as philosopher Martha Nussbaum says of novels) “a normative sense of life,” that “tells … readers to notice this and not this, to be active in these and not those ways. It leads them into certain postures of the mind and heart and not others.”21 What concerns Chopin are the ethical consequences of using particular short story forms to arrive at specific postures of mind and heart. She explores through the fiction itself how the variety of formal options for telling a story makes “normative” the life in that story.

In looking at the process by which regionalist literature attempts to make an empathetic connection, we see the importance of specific formal elements such as narrative point of view in allowing that connection to occur in the first place. I want now to shift attention more centrally to other aspects of literary form that Chopin uses to enable this encounter. Again, the critical distinctions between regionalism and local color are useful in understanding exactly how Chopin's experiments with form affect her interrogation of the ethics of regional writing made normative by different formal elements. But we will examine Chopin's use of form more extensively here, since the stories each investigate the aesthetic and ethical limits of specific elements of local color. For instance, the narrative trajectory of most local-color fiction follows a linear progression that the reader observes passively and indifferently from a position removed from the action. As the events of the story unfold, in a sense inevitably and teleologically, the type of emotional involvement made normative for reader or narrator in local color is almost always implicitly one of superiority to the lives of the characters. In Chopin's deployment of this form, however, she shows that posture to be a dangerous one to adopt for writer/artist or reader. Chopin manipulates just such readerly expectations in “A Gentleman of Bayou Têche” to offer a critique of both linear narration and local color, challenging the smug comportment of the passive observer from outside the region. Through her relation of the experiences Evariste Bonamour has with Mr. Sublet, the Northern painter searching for pictures of local color, Chopin employs the form of local color against itself, showing in Evariste's claim to his own image the moral limits of a form such as Sublet's when it tries uncritically—and unempathetically—to account for “real” life.

Chopin does not pin her challenge of local color practice solely to this ending, however. Early in the story Evariste and his daughter Martinette speculate about Sublet's motives for making the picture, questioning the impulse of the outsider looking for representations of “authentic” and exotic Acadian life. “He tell' me he want' put my picture in one fine’Mag’ zine,” Evariste tells his daughter. “W'at fo' you reckon he want' do dat?” (319). Sublet's motives—or his “eccentric wishes” as Chopin's narrator designates them—to portray Evariste in his ragged clothes do not make sense to the Bonamours. They raise for them a kind of epistemological and ethical crisis, for the northern “local colorist” does not act the way people along the Têche do. For the Bonamours, Sublet's reasons belong to the province of some mag'zine “yonda” (320), and they remain alien to their way of thinking about the world. But Aunt Dicey, a neighbor, raises the possibility that Sublet and his son are driven by more than a predilection for documentation and ethnography, providing some insight into the impulses of local colorists. Sublet may pay Evariste handsomely for the privilege of making his picture, Aunt Dicey tells Martinette, but “Dey [presumably the editors of some “mag'zine yonda”] gwin sot down on' neaf: ‘Dis heah is one dem low-down 'Cajuns o' Bayeh Têch!’” (320). Aunt Dicey speaks from recent experience: Sublet's son wants to photograph her toiling over her ironing board in her work clothes; the woman, though, would prefer to be represented in her best meeting-clothes and as far removed from her ironing board as possible. Her preference does not so much seek to gloss over the harsh reality of her life as it seeks to present another side of the story of who she is. Through this dialogue of motives Chopin allows her characters to demonstrate that life along the Têche has more facets than the Northern taxonomists of local color initially or usually see.

If Chopin allows her regional characters to lampoon the motives of local colorists such as the Sublets, however, she herself is not above using the exchanges between her rural characters to present a vision of local life that is quaintly humorous and naïve. For example, Martinette uncritically takes Aunt Dicey's opinions of Sublet and his son to be the truth of the matter and quickly informs her father about Sublet's supposed subtitle for the picture. She delivers her claim with authority but with a specious logic. “I yeard so,” she says. “I know it's true” (321). Evariste similarly accepts the authority of another's word. Although he does not know (or ask for) the source of his daughter's certainty, Evariste still asks her to return the money to Sublet. Though we learn later that Aunt Dicey's supposition may have some merit, at this point we know nothing certain about Sublet's motives from his own perspective. With the exception of the opening paragraph that gives us the local colorist's position on Evariste, Aunt Dicey's suspicions and Martinette's conviction seem to have no sound base. They remain comically and safely contained within the local colorist vision the opening invites us to assume.

Although Martinette is appalled at the stereotypical way in which Sublet apparently views her father, she does not hesitate from making her own conclusions based solely on her local way of seeing. She knows Sublet, the “stranger gentleman,” immediately, the narrator explains, “because his hair was parted in the middle and he wore a pointed beard” (322). Up to this point in the story, Chopin has kept Sublet from our sight. In allowing Martinette to locate Sublet for us, then, Chopin gives a tacit endorsement to Martinette's vision of him as alien, in which the different (“the stranger gentleman”) even becomes slightly diabolical (“he wore a pointed beard”). Sublet himself remains silent about his motives until after Evariste brings in Sublet's son Archie, whom he has saved from drowning. When Sublet at last speaks, he returns specifically to the idea of a caption for his picture of Evariste, implying that Martinette's earlier challenge of him based on Aunt Dicey's information is not without merit. “You will let me make your picture now, I hope, Evariste,” says Sublet, in a vein that seems on the surface to bestow great respect on Evariste. “I want to place” the picture, he says, “among things I hold most dear, and shall call it ‘A hero of Bayou Têche’” (324). While Sublet's gesture seems to transform positively his initial impulse for condescending local color, Evariste's distress over this new title shows that Sublet still does not see the people of Bayou Têche as they are or even as they see themselves. “No, no, … it's nuttin' hero' to take a li'le boy out de water” (324), protests Evariste, implying that he is simply doing what he thinks anyone else would do. Moreover, Sublet's title of “hero” further prevents the picture from representing Evariste's story. For it inextricably ties Evariste to the story of Sublet and his son, and not to Evariste's own long history along the Têche.

Mr. Hallet, the local planter who is Sublet's host, finally mediates between the two positions, enabling the local color and regional visions to reach a sort of compromise. Hallet proposes that Sublet make the picture but that Evariste choose the title. This intervention effects a narrative return to the beginning of the story. For when Evariste says deliberately, “You will put on'neat' de picture … ‘Dis is one picture of Mista Evariste Anatole Bonamour, a gent'man of de Bayou Têche’” (324), he gives us, in this appositive, a near approximation of the title of Chopin's story. But we do not, of course, get the exact title, and Evariste's directive here, though closing the story, does not give us the final word on either him, Sublet's painting, or Bayou Têche. Chopin herself transforms Evariste's dialect to the more formal designation in her title, though it remains more authentic to Evariste than either of the titles Sublet proposes.

Despite this series of mediations, the story still suggests that Sublet's picture, just as Chopin's story itself, will be but “one picture,” not the definitive record, of Evariste or Bayou Têche. In this way Chopin employs all the techniques of local color—dialect, eccentric characterizations, colorful landscapes—to reveal the inherent deficiencies of local color, which in its attempts to show the “real” picture can do no more than offer one picture. We hear the dialect of Evariste and Martinette; we remember the eccentric Aunt Dicey who apparently sees to the heart of things. We witness the glass-like water of the bayou that does not reflect the image of Sublet's son, but somehow reaches out to draw him beneath its surface. But if we recall the deceptive stillness of this landscape that remains threatening and dangerous to outsiders, we do so only through Evariste's depiction of it. The primary action—saving Sublet's son—occurs outside the frame of the story, off stage. We have access to it, as with the landscape, only through Evariste's account, an account made from within “true” local life. In these transmissions of character and action, Chopin demonstrates the need for a more participatory narrative rendering of local life. As the ironic coda makes clear, such a rendering will not come solely through linear-causal chain narratives that move forward irrespective of the reader's engagement. Those stories can never offer a complete picture of life, nor can they impart adequate knowledge about local life. That knowledge comes to us not through the lens of local color but through a confrontation—perhaps even through the threat of death—with the local environment on its own terms.

The story preceding “A Gentleman of Bayou Têche” in Bayou Folk demonstrates an even greater concern with the ethical consequences of formal innovation in narrative and offers a far more complicated picture of life along the bayous of Louisiana. In “La Belle Zoraïde,” the story that Manna-Loulou tells of Zoraïde, a slave who disobeys her mistress and suffers the loss of her lover, her child, and her mind, follows multiple and sometimes simultaneous narrative trajectories. What is more, it supplements and shadows an existing situation, for it is one tale in a ritual of nightly tale-telling between Manna-Loulou and Madame Delisle. The descending and spiraling movement of the story perhaps makes the reader or listener more and more dispirited about the possibility of real ethical action, as the story's self-reflective turnings keep its fictive nature before the reader. Yet the helical form of this story can also allow for less incapacitating responses, which make visible the complexity of human life in ways that configure the lives of others as real—and not merely notional or imaginary. The alternative perspective drawn from these other lives challenges our own certainty and desires, our own ways of living.

The story begins with a brief description of a summer night, out of which Chopin summons the figure of Manna-Loulou. The opening sentence calls attention to the region with the word “marais” (marsh), followed by the colloquial directive, “yonder.” From these small elements, we discern that the narrator speaks from a familiarity with the surroundings of Manna-Loulou. Those surroundings are francophone and rural, but they are also decidedly southern in their racial hierarchies. This particular imaginative terrain suggests a usually static locality that changes only when something from a region “yonder” arrives. An internal impulse for change, however, always threatens to speak through the guise of the seemingly pretty pictures and stories told from within the region, especially those told from the mouth of Manna-Loulou.

Out of an opening description of the Bayou St. John emanate the notes of a song sung by a man in a boat “that had come out of the lake and was moving with slow, lazy motion down the bayou” (303). The progression of this song into Manna-Loulou's story proceeds just as slowly from sentence to sentence, and each line presents an element that the next sentence takes up and fleshes out for its own use. So, for instance, after we learn that “a man in the boat was singing a song,” we discover that

the notes of the song came faintly to the ears of old Manna-Loulou, herself as black as the night. … Something in the refrain reminded the woman of an old, half-forgotten Creole romance, and she began to sing it low to herself. … And then this old song, a lover's lament for the loss of his mistress, floating into her memory, brought with it the story she would tell to Madame, who lay in her sumptuous mahogany bed, waiting to be fanned and put to sleep to the sound of one of Manna-Loulou's stories.


The old Creole romance that the boatman's song recalls for Manna-Loulou is transcribed by the narrator with a stanza in the patois of Manna-Loulou, and her story of la belle Zoraïde similarly transcribes each of these other tales of lost love into the patois of Madame Delisle's customary bedtime story.

Before Manna-Loulou even speaks to Madame Delisle, then, Chopin's narrative presents at least three different origins of the “authentic” story of Zoraïde. What is more, though none of these are identified decisively as the true account, each begins and ends with the sound or the invocation of a story. Thus, the importance of the form of stories for understanding the “story” of Zoraïde is trebly underscored before we ever discover the content of the “story of Zoraïde,” not to mention the origin of that content. To further complicate the line of transcription of “the story [that] was all there [perhaps already?] in Manna-Loulou's head—the story of la belle Zoraïde,” the narrator informs us that Manna-Loulou tells the story “to her mistress in the soft Creole patois, whose music and charm no English words can convey” (304). The report that Chopin provides of this dialogue, however, is in English. The account, then, concedes the prosaic deficiencies of English to configure the authentic “feel” of Manna-Loulou's story. The English translation implicitly claims only to give us the content. But the twisting lines of the narrative bring us to the beginning of the story. They frustrate any attempt to move simply to the origins behind that story, suggesting in their own helical pattern the ensuing theme of Manna-Loulou's tale about the types of mental and emotional constraints that systems of unequal power place on the oppressed.

After such an intricately stylized rendering of the sounds and songs along the Bayou St. John, the story that follows is a rather straightforward one about the descent into madness of Zoraïde. When her previously indulgent mistress begins to assert her dominance over Zoraïde and further constrains her freedom, Zoraïde understandably suffers a crisis of identity. As a mixed-race servant to one Madame Delarivière, Zoraïde has enjoyed a state of quasi-freedom—so long as she accedes to the wishes of her mistress. But when Zoraïde rejects the wishes of her mistress that she marry M'sieur Ambroise, “a union that will please [Madame Delarivière] in every way” (304), and falls in love with a slave, “le beau Mézor,” the system of power that operates between the two women appears more clearly. When Zoraïde requests permission to marry Mézor, Madame at first can only exclaim her distaste in specifically racial terms: “That negro! That negro! Bon Dieu Seigneur, but that is too much!” (305). Zoraïde then confronts Madame Delarivière with a question that goes to the heart of the system of power governing their relations.

“Am I white, nenaine?” pleaded Zoraïde. “You white! Malheurese! You deserve to have the lash laid upon you like any other slave; you have proven yourself no better than the worst.” “I am not white;” persisted Zoraïde, respectfully and gently. “Doctor Langlé gives me his slave to marry, but he would not give me his son. Then, since I am not white, let me have from out of my own race the one whom my heart has chosen.”


Zoraïde's request, while powerfully delivered and convincing in its appeal to justice, always remains unanswerable under Madame's system. For the master-slave relationship here concedes no appeal to justice based on fairness or equality. In this system, the logic of the master remains iron-clad and inviolable: if Zoraïde is not white, then she has no right to request that she be awarded the one whom her heart has chosen. By this logic, she can only concede to the demands of her mistress.

As we learn from Manna-Loulou, Zoraïde does not in fact conform to Madame's desires. She meets with Mézor and eventually becomes pregnant with his child. Madame Delarivière continues her attempts to control Zoraïde, however, and first lover and then child are parted from her. Describing the continuing devolution of Zoraïde's happiness into sorrow, Manna-Loulou tells Madame Delisle that Mézor is “sold away into Georgia, or the Carolinas, or one of those distant countries far away, where he would no longer hear his Creole tongue spoken, nor dance Calinda, nor hold la belle Zoraïde in his arms” (306). These details perhaps strike a note of pathos and may even effect some sort of change if the value of local life and an intact community maintain privilege in the life-world of the reader. When Zoraïde looks for the child that can be the only consolation for the lost Mézor, Madame and the nurse who are there sever the bonds of community Zoraïde desires: to be with one “out of [her] own race”: “both told her in turn, ‘To piti a toi li mouri’ (‘Your little one is dead’).” Under the privilege of community, the response seems cruel, particularly since it is done in the name of another communal bond. As Manna-Loulou explains to Madame Delisle, Madame Delarivière “had hoped, in thus depriving Zoraïde of her child, to have her young waiting-maid again at her side free, happy, and beautiful as of old” (306). Manna-Loulou's gloss on these motives makes visible for Madame Delisle (the readerly double of Madame Delarivière) the injustice of imparting a degree of freedom to someone only to then enslave that person to one's own desires. Madame's impulse to make Zoraïde “free” by returning her to the place and position of her enslavement not only does not restore her relationship to Zoraïde, but it also leaves Zoraïde in a drastically diminished and fragile mental state.

Zoraïde resists Madame Delarivière's desires by acting as if the separation has not occurred at all. She makes literal what her mistress proposes, that nothing has changed in their community. Deprived of her baby, Zoraïde takes to cuddling a bundle of rags that she claims is her child. “In short,” Manna-Loulou explains, “from that day Zoraïde was demented” (307). When Madame Delarivière—“stung with sorrow and remorse”—attempts to recover her Zoraïde by returning the child to Zoraïde, Zoraïde balks at the attempt and prefers the bundle of rags.

Zoraïde looked with sullen suspicion upon her mistress and the child before her. Reaching out a hand she thrust the little one mistrustfully away from her. With her other hand she clasped the rag bundle fiercely to her breast; for she suspected a plot to deprive her of it.


At the end of the story, “la belle Zoraïde” becomes “Zoraïde la folle, whom no one ever wanted to marry. … She lived to be an old woman, whom some people pitied and others laughed at—always clasping her bundle of rags—her ‘piti’” (307).

With this ending, Manna-Loulou asks Madame Delisle if she is asleep, asking in effect if the story has been “true” enough for Madame Delisle to induce her sleep. But, of course, such a question as Manna-Loulou poses can never be answered affirmatively. The impossibility of an answer suggests in the context of Manna-Loulou's tale-telling the always troublesome nature of fictions which try to impart the truth. Madame Delisle's response acknowledges the power of the story to affect her as if it were true: “Ah, the poor little one, Man Loulou, the poor little one! better had she died!” (307). The unspoken grammar of Madame's judgment—“[it were] better had she died”—makes her response all the more ambiguous. Either Zoraïde's fate or the story itself would be better if she had died. Both options point to a listener unable to imagine herself outside of her own position of privilege and power. Yet in acknowledging the truth of the story, Madame herself unravels the motive for hearing a true tale in the first place—to help her sleep. This “as if” situation does not apparently bring Madame to any change in ethical comportment, at least not one that Chopin allows her to find in this story, though it does cause her to remain (in the pages of the story) forever awake, suggesting perhaps a troubled conscience.22 In either case, the “insomnia” of the ending delivers a fatal blow to the ethic of local color, showing the paralysis that attends an un-self-critical nostalgia for the past that grows out of an idealized vision of regional life.

Here as in “Elizabeth Stock” and “A Gentleman of Bayou Têche,” Chopin's primary device for bringing about this complex effect is the narrative perspective. Manna-Loulou's manner of story-telling seems at first glance, however, to be highly conventional and carries the markings of a fairy-tale or myth. Her transitional elements are flat, absolute statements that call attention to their arbitrariness. For instance, at one point Manna-Loulou says that “La belle Zoraïde's sorrows had now begun in earnest,” but she does not describe the sorrows. Instead, she spins out a series of general statements to advance the time of her tale. The coordination and subordination of the sentences place each of the clauses either on grammatically equal footing, achieving an advancement of time that suggests a causal logic that is never explicitly revealed, or else in a grammatical relationship that mirrors the subservience Zoraïde has in relation to Madame Delarivière. The narration thus continues:

Not only sorrows but sufferings, and with the anguish of maternity came the shadow of death. But there is no agony that a mother will not forget when she holds her first-born to her heart, and presses her lips upon the baby flesh that is her own, yet far more precious than her own.


Throughout narrative moments like this one, Manna-Loulou supplants detail with sentiment, but Madame Delisle does not seem to notice. Manna-Loulou's platitude here raises the question of what is one's own. Zoraïde believes the “piti” to be her own child. Madame Delisle describes Zoraïde as a “pauvre piti.” In both cases Chopin allows the patois to carry the suggestion of pity, revealing, however, that perhaps Madame's sympathy for Zoraïde is itself unreal; it is “poor pity” or a poor showing of pity. In this way, Chopin subtly allows sentiment and convention to become effective critique. Later, Manna-Loulou interrupts her tale at the point when Zoraïde is told her baby is dead to reveal that the claim “was a wicked falsehood that must have caused the angels in heaven to weep” (306). Still later the storyteller opines that “there was a more powerful will than Madame's at work—the will of the good God, who had already designed that Zoraïde should grieve with a sorrow that was never more to be lifted in this world” (306). These elements suggest, if not that the history of Zoraïde is a total fabrication, at least that Manna-Loulou's telling of it is. For they rely on hyperbole and divine intervention to evoke the sympathetic response to Zoraïde that Manna-Loulou has already orchestrated through these vague comparisons.

If the comparisons have an element of un-truth to them, they nonetheless convey to Madame Delisle a sense of truth. For she makes an evaluative judgment on Manna-Loulou's story—“better had she died!”—that, unless she is providing a critique of the story's form, requires a reference to “real” life for it to make sense. More important perhaps, the comparisons and Madame's response tell us what kind of reader she is. Madame Delisle cannot sleep for thinking about the terrible fate of Zoraïde. She thinks the story is “true.” Whether it is or not, Madame Delisle's reaction attests to the power of narrative to affect the listener or reader with the lives of its characters. But her reaction also reveals her inability to discern the difference between fiction and reality. She is like Zoraïde in that she prefers her pity and her “piti”—the bundle of rags, the various songs, the stanza, the Creole romance that Manna-Loulou ties together to recall the story of la belle Zoraïde—to Zoraïde herself. But unlike Zoraïde, who in her tragic retreat into madness still manages what Barbara Ewell deems an “authentic self-assertion,” Madame Delisle cannot escape the power of the fictions she requires to fall asleep. Nor can she use those fictions to remove herself from her isolated, “romantic ‘isle’ of dreams. Clutching her own senseless bundle of memories, she can only mirror-gaze uninterruptedly, forever.”23 For her, the “real”—her own life—has become a nostalgic “as if” fiction.

Chopin complicates any clear critique of Madame Delisle, however, by bringing us out of the English translation of Manna-Loulou's story, to tell us that

this is the way Madame Delisle and Manna-Loulou really talked to each other:—“Vou prè droumi, Ma'zelle Titite?” “Non, pa prè droumi; mo yaprè zongler. Ah, la pauv' piti, Man Loulou. La Pauv' piti! Mieux li mouri!”

(308, emphasis added)

By leaving us with the Creole patois, Chopin highlights the various translations and transformations that the story undergoes, and prevents us from knowing the “true” story of Zoraïde except through these transformations. The truth, Chopin suggests, is in the narration, the fiction. In featuring the regional elements in “La Belle Zoraïde,” Chopin also makes their truth relative to the telling of the story. The story has meaning primarily in the context of Manna-Loulou telling a tale to a woman who prefers the bundle of rags of her own private fictions to the larger world that lives and breathes and continues to change around her. Chopin prepares us to experience Madame Delisle's way of reading at the same time as she equips us with the tools to escape the moribund ethical and moral consequences of such a reading. The story begins as a “story,” a song sung by a local boatman of a time past, which moves across the bayou to take hold in the lives of its hearers. But even as a story, Manna-Loulou's tale is never static; it changes with each teller. It need not immobilize us the way it does Madame Delisle if we can recognize early on its limited usefulness as a pleasing picture of local life. When we are prepared to see the “as if” situation of the story as only a pretty picture, however, then we risk having to face the same pitiful horror as Madame Delisle: that even in stories we cannot escape death.

In the case of “Elizabeth Stock's One Story,” Chopin does present a character who manages to overcome the silence of death through the force of her own story. Like “La Belle Zoraïde,” the story layers narrative strains upon the site of our first encounter with regional characters and moves beyond simple linear progression to offer a densely rendered (in this case, sinusoidal) version of regional life. In returning now to Elizabeth's story, I want to offer my own brief sideshadowing explication of the frame narrator and the frame manuscript that will return us to the confrontation between local color and regionalism. The unnamed narrator, probably a journalist with a bent toward local color,24 gives us a brief history of Elizabeth Stock's life and death. Despite the apparent paucity of detail to Elizabeth Stock's life, the narrator still finds it interesting enough to locate her previous residence. Or rather, the narrator's initial attempts at explaining who Elizabeth was and is are frustrated by the actual details of that life. We come to see that prior ways of knowing regional life prove inadequate when they come up against an authentic human voice. The narrator looking for local color in the material in Elizabeth's desk finds “in the whole conglomerate mass … but the following pages which bore any semblance to a connected or consecutive narration” (586). Seeking a linear tale, the frame narrator seems to find but a single example of one. What follows this discovery is an account of Elizabeth Stock's attempt to write a true account of her community that becomes a story of her own failure to overcome the nineteenth-century version of the glass ceiling and the old boys' network of the local post office.

The voice that begins in the third paragraph of Chopin's story is decidedly different from the authoritative and evaluative collector of local exotica of the framing section. The frame narrator cannot call Elizabeth Stock to life but must find a piece of her writing that will give us her voice. In a sense unmediated, this piece of “consecutive narration” can tell us in Elizabeth's own words that she “never had that ambition to shine or make a name” and that “whenever [she] wanted to write a story [she] never could think of a plot” (586). Elizabeth's decision not only comes within one strain of a sideshadowing story; it shows how a sideshadowing configuration can work to represent local life aware of itself as living and how that form manages to effect an ethical stance for its characters and its readers. Through the careful accumulation of seemingly minor details, Elizabeth manages to render a rather rich sense of her life. In describing her daily interactions with a long-time admirer, for instance, Elizabeth provides an incisive account of her history in Stonelift, and conveys something of her easy command over her own time and person. Vance obviously has a romantic interest in Elizabeth, asking her “as regular as clockwork” if there is anything waiting for him (587). He is more than willing to accompany Elizabeth home from work, but, she says, “that was a thing I'd broken him of long ago” (588). Through configurations such as this, Elizabeth renders a sense of her life and allows us to respond to her plight ethically. For we must have a life rendered as life for us to be able to respond empathetically. She must become real, call herself to life within her own narration, must move outside of the stereotype of the unwed woman offered by the obituary-like opening of the frame narration. Her story—and her life—have to work against the supposed linearity that has warranted their transmission to us by the inquisitive frame narrator.

Elizabeth recasts these other perspectives by demonstrating her own voice and actions, both of which echo roundly with self-deprecating wit, defiance, and common sense. She starts the story on a new trajectory, for instance, by beginning another history, much like the opening of the frame section in its detail, except that this comes from within the frame narrator's linear history of Elizabeth as writer. She declares herself boldly and unapologetically: “My name is Elizabeth Stock. I'm thirty-eight years old and unmarried, and not afraid or ashamed to say it” (587). This boldness acknowledges that some would see shame in her claim, but more important, Elizabeth's declaration charges the reader to accept this history on Elizabeth's own terms. In a story in which reading is a dangerous and damaging endeavor, Elizabeth's proclamation is certainly unsettling.

Later, in her own words, Elizabeth recalls the official explanation for her dismissal as postmistress. Significantly, her version does not gloss over the more serious charges, but allows their harshness to stand beside Elizabeth's reasonableness. According to the directors in Washington, Elizabeth loses her position at Stonelift “for incompetence and negligence in office, through certain accusations of … reading postal cards and permitting people to help themselves to their own mail” (590). As we learn through Elizabeth's “one story,” these charges are obviously the work of Nathan Brightman to remove Elizabeth from office to advance the fortunes of a young man named Collins. The same Collins (or his father or other older male relation) has sent a postal card to Brightman that calls for his urgent response by the following day. It reads:

Dear Brightman: Be on hand tomorrow, Tuesday at 10 A.M. promptly. Important meeting of the board. Your own interest demands your presence. Whatever you do, don't fail. In haste, Collins.


But the card arrives after Brightman has called for his mail; Elizabeth sees the card and cannot rest that evening until she delivers it by hand to Brightman. By delivering the card she tacitly admits that she has read it; if she does not deliver the card, her supposed negligence will prevent Brightman from making an important meeting. In short, Elizabeth cannot win and seems to have been deliberately set up. Following Elizabeth's dismissal, the young Collins assumes her position. Elizabeth slowly deteriorates as a result of the cold she gets from delivering Brightman's mail until she dies of consumption at the St. Louis City Hospital.

Though the story does not overtly accuse Brightman or Collins of any wrongdoing, Elizabeth's prefatory self-defensive utterance shows that she knows what has been done to her. Nor do we know explicitly what Elizabeth knows, but we do know that her life, her career, and her death are not a simple story. The complex compression of Chopin's story underscores Elizabeth's implicit claim that the life of the postmistress of Stonelift is imbricated with layers of meaning that continue to turn in upon and inflect each other. Yet, in trying to order that life linearly (as the frame narrator looking for bits and scraps of local color does), we lose some explanation of the interrelationship, and the life itself falls prey to the parallel and competing lines of the narrative.

Chopin exploits this condition through a narrative that operates as Elizabeth's life does, seeming to offer one thing and giving many others. As a result, Elizabeth's narration throughout the story adopts a naïve quality that nonetheless (and perhaps even therefore) allows it to reveal dangerous truths.25 “I leave it to any one,” she challenges,

to any woman especially, if it ain't human nature in a little place where everybody knows every one else, for the postmistress to glance at a postal card once in a while. She could hardly help it. And besides, seems like if a person had anything very particular and private to tell, they'd put it under sealed envelope.


In this defense, Elizabeth forcefully distinguishes between public and private utterances, unlike the frame narrator, for example, who goes through the scraps in Elizabeth's desk to find this “one story.” She also invites us to share a perspective that will make us complicit in her later defiance of postal regulations.

Chopin effects a complex reversal of these two “found” writings, in that Elizabeth's narrative, though locked away in her desk, is targeted at some sympathetic reader. Collins' card is ostensibly a private document directed toward Brightman, but it in fact ends up targeting Elizabeth. As Elizabeth argues commonsensically, the postal card is a public utterance, but Elizabeth's firing results from a supposed violation of private correspondence. Her transgression lies in reading the correspondence—public or private—between two men of position and power. For by reading the card at all, Elizabeth subverts the closed world of the old boys' network; by delivering the card, she has the effrontery to claim it or to claim her power over it, to deliver it or not. The card by its very design always has power over Elizabeth, and by reading it at all, she cannot escape the consequences of her transgression. The ending of the story (prefigured by the frame narrator's obituary-like prose) thus suggests that the only end for defiant, unmarried women is death. But the story itself suggests another option. Through her writing of the story, Elizabeth has the last word; she exposes Brightman and Collins, effectively returning the card to its senders, and vindicates herself.

Moreover, the force of Elizabeth Stock's story silences the smug authority of the frame narrator who may be able to tell us the rest of her writing is “bad prose and impossible verse,” but who cannot make us believe it. Elizabeth can make us believe her because of the local elements she includes, such as her dialect which couches her indignation (“Well, it don't seem like any use to dwell on this subject”; “Just like when you can't understand a thing because you don't want to” [590]), her reference to the people of Stonelift (Si' Shepherd, Uncle William, Filmore Green, Vance Wallace, men of the community who all support her position and condition to varying degrees), and the detail of her climb to Brightman's house in the storm, which evokes the slipperiness and treacherousness of the man she would help. These elements are not simply part of the story to adorn the background of a tale of small town politics; they are vital touchstones which allow Elizabeth to develop the character (herself) of her narration. We come to see that, despite her own and the frame narrator's disclaimers about her abilities, Elizabeth can in fact spin a captivating tale of intrigue and misadventure. Instead of the local color version of romance and quaint deeds, however, the tale that Elizabeth stitches together is one of needless betrayal and abuse of privilege, all in the name of continuing the dominance of a few men.

The accumulation of those elements—abuse of privilege, betrayal, dominant hierarchies—allows for the realistic impulse of Chopin to work in these stories, but it also allows for Chopin's ethical impulse to operate and to challenge the injustices of national and regional systems. As these stories demonstrate, an ethical position makes sense for Chopin only in terms of its placement or context; only then can the faithful portrayal of characters from a region bring about effective change. Through such configurations of local life, Chopin “revises accepted myths about duty, marriage, and sexuality in order to achieve a more realistic understanding of the human condition.” Yet even in this revisioning, we still see that “a sophisticated caste system operates, the effects of which are to prevent change and preserve traditional patterns of living.”26 Based on an ethics of changelessness, this system remains profoundly anti-human, and in Chopin's eyes it is unnatural. “Human impulses do not change and can not,” Chopin says in her review of Garland's Crumbling Idols, “so long as men and women continue to stand in the relation to one another which they have occupied since our knowledge of their existence began” (693).27 Rather than arguing for the status quo, however, the claim seems to suggest that change in human affairs is desperately overdue. By evoking sympathy in such artistically stylized narrations for the likes of Evariste Bonamour, Zoraïde, and Elizabeth Stock, Chopin's stories certainly argue that some kind of change from tradition is needed. The stories also imply that change does not come simply through telling about the effects of the traditional patterns of living, but doing so from the perspective of one previously excluded from that system.

All of the stories confront the fatal errors of the systems that deny full self-expression to those on the margin, but none of the stories succeeds fully in overcoming those systems. So, for instance, “La Belle Zoraïde” becomes a cautionary tale about the tragic implications of being bound to a fictional role, as is Zoraïde because of her race. Bound by fiction, she prefers fiction (the bundle of rags) and loses her grasp on reality. But as we have seen above, this critique turns on itself in the story, for the narrative strain is constantly calling into life new fictional forms out of the beginning locality. Each strain offers an option, though perhaps not the most viable option, to escape the confinement of restrictive fictions and the constraints of region. Evariste names himself, but does not move himself out of the region along the Têche; and Elizabeth Stock finally tells her story and exposes the corrupt local networks that orchestrated her downfall, but she cannot save her position or her life.

Chopin's short stories do not permit a simple refashioning into our pet ideologies as Madame Delisle would like to do with Manna-Loulou's stories or as the frame narrator tries to do with the scraps of writing in Elizabeth Stock's desk. Rather the stories call us back to their local points of origin and demand that we participate in that locality if we are to learn anything “true” about it, or about the characters who live there, or about ourselves. The use of the local, the regional by Chopin, then, is a deliberate attempt to unsettle readers from both inside and outside the region. Chopin gives us a “true story,” a faithful rendering of life, that always, self-consciously, remains a story.

The fact of the fiction is what the readers have to confront if they are to be able to see local life as it is. In so doing, the readers complete the circuit that Chopin begins, returning it to her grounding in the voice from within the region. Elias Lieberman, an early twentieth-century theorist of the American short story, and still one of the better articulators of what constitutes the form, calls this element in the short story a “flowing circle of cause and effect involving the triplicate elements of locality, writer, reader.” By Lieberman's reckoning, “the locality spurs the writer, the writer furnishes fiction to the reader, the reader creates the locality.”28 The vacillation Lieberman describes is not unlike the sinusoidal pattern of Chopin's stories. The return of the final gesture is the ethical movement of the short story. For Chopin, this ethics has not the ensconced quality of the systems which move those who are weak or vulnerable or different to the margins. In her stories, this ethics is also never the final word, the one story, on the region. Rather Kate Chopin's “one story” is to make this process a component of her fiction so that an “as if” situation can become a lived experience that offers a simultaneous knowledge about oneself and about others in which both are aware of themselves as living.


  1. Kate Chopin, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, ed. Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969), 691. References to all stories discussed in this essay are to this edition, hereafter cited parenthetically as CW.

  2. Published for the first time in 1963 by Per Seyersted, the story is often read as a commentary on the negative criticism The Awakening received. Since it was written only a few months after she finished the manuscript for her second novel, the story does seem to suggest that Chopin at least anticipated some less than positive outcome for the novel. But the fact of the chronology of publication remains and must be considered in spite of the appeal of such a reading. For an excellent corrective to much of the mythologizing that surrounds The Awakening and the end of Chopin's career, see Emily Toth, “A Vocation and a Voice: Why Was It Killed?” in Bernard Koloski, ed., Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne, 1997), 135-40.

  3. The differences acknowledged in the criticism often acquire a gendered focus. This attention to gender serves to recast literary history and re-evaluate the work of American women writers, but it can lead inadvertently to the assumption that regionalism is feminine and local color masculine. Regionalism's focus on the marginal and the overlooked clearly appeals to the concerns of nineteenth-century women writers, but its preference for the adaptability of provisional communities is not strictly or essentially a woman's literary mode (nor can local color be simply male).

  4. Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story (New York: Random House, 1977), 128.

  5. Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse, eds., American Women Regionalists (New York: Norton, 1992); Marjorie Pryse, “Reading Regionalism: The ‘Difference’ It Makes,” Regionalism Reconsidered: New Approaches to the Field, ed. David Jordan (New York: Garland, 1994), 47-63; David Holman, A Certain Slant of Light: Regionalism and the Form of Southern and Midwestern Fiction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1995); and Jim Wayne Miller, “Anytime the Ground Is Uneven: The Outlook for Regional Studies and What to Look-out for,” Geography and Literature: A Meeting of the Disciplines (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1987), 1-20.

  6. American Women Regionalists, xii; Pryse, 49.

  7. Holman, 14.

  8. David Steiling's “Multi-cultural Aesthetic in Kate Chopin's ‘A Gentleman of Bayou Têche,’” Mississippi Quarterly 47 (1994), 197-200, likewise emphasizes Chopin's ambivalence toward the local color school: “What this sketch makes clear … is a reaction to the ethical and aesthetic problems of representing distinct ethnic and regional cultures” (197).

  9. Miller, 13.

  10. Regionalism does not, of course, give voice to every marginal or overlooked group. Recent studies of Chopin's fiction, for example, focus on the ways that in giving voice to (usually white) women, Chopin reinscribes other hierarchies of race and class.

  11. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), 253.

  12. Gary Saul Morson, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1994), 11.

  13. Bakhtin, 289.

  14. Joanne Dobson's “The American Renaissance Reconsidered,” in The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers, ed. Joyce W. Warren (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1993), argues that this dual impulse is also a defining element of sentimental literature. See also Elaine Sargent Apthorp's “Re-Visioning Creativity: Cather, Chopin, Jewett,” Legacy 9, no. 1 (1992), 1-22 and “Sentiment, Naturalism, and the Female Regionalist,” Legacy 7, no. 1 (1990), 3-22 for a discussion of how nineteenth-century women's writing develops from and elicits “sympathetic imagination” for local life.

  15. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), 62, 66.

  16. Werner Marx, Towards a Phenomenological Ethics: Ethos and the Life-World, trans. Stefan Heyvaert (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1992), 54.

  17. Michael Riffaterre, Fictional Truth (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990), 1-2.

  18. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 2, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), 160.

  19. Apthorp, “Re-Visioning Creativity,” 11.

  20. Apthorp, “Sentiment, Naturalism, and the Female Regionalist,” 6.

  21. Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 2.

  22. In Kate Chopin (New York: Ungar, 1986), Barbara Ewell notes that throughout this story (and its companion piece “A Lady of Bayou St. John”), Madame Delisle occupies the position of both Madame Delarivière and Zoraïde: she maintains an “egotistical, destructive desire for control” (72), which amounts to a demented clutching of the bundle of rags that is her past.

  23. Ewell, Kate Chopin, 72, 74.

  24. Criticism is divided on who this frame narrator might be. Barbara Ewell notes the narrator's impersonal reporting style but does not speculate as to the sex of the narrator. Martha Cutter's “Losing the Battle but Winning the War: Resistance to Patriarchal Discourse in Kate Chopin's Short Fiction,” Legacy 11, no. 1 (1994), 17-36, similarly notes that although the sex of the narrator is never given, the narrator has “an aggressive, objective tone which stands in marked contrast to Elizabeth Stock's personal and subjective one” (35n14). Heather Kirk Thomas's “Kate Chopin's Scribbling Women and the American Literary Marketplace,” Studies in American Fiction 23 (1995), 19-34, reads the narrator as female, “perhaps herself a successful literary woman in the manner of Jewett's narrator in The Country of Pointed Firs” (25). And Elaine Showalter sees the narrator as a “male editor, who may be either her nephew or her longtime suitor,” Sister's Choice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 158. Though I think the story itself gives little evidence for the narrator being someone who knew Elizabeth, the tone and the decidedly limiting evaluative perspective that the narrator employs to recover this one “linear” story suggest that the narrator is a journalist and probably male. I will, however, refer to the narrator as neutral, since the narrator's blindness seems less tied to his or her sex than to his or her profession and regional bias.

  25. The reading I am offering here differs from others in that most critics of the story say that Elizabeth does not see what has been done to her. These readers arrive at this conclusion only, I believe, by reading the story as the frame narrator does—linearly and as a piece of local color. Elizabeth seems much more self-aware and in control of her narration throughout the story.

  26. Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt, “The Cane River Characters and Revisionist Mythmaking in the Work of Kate Chopin,” Southern Literary Journal 25, no. 2 (Spring 1993), 14-23, 15; Thomas Bonner, Jr., “Kate Chopin: Tradition and the Moment,” in Castille and Osborne, eds., Southern Literature in Transition (Memphis: Memphis State Univ. Press, 1983), 141-49, 142.

  27. The language is deliberately but interestingly vague, suggesting both the desire for change and a fatalistic resignation that change is impossible.

  28. Elias Lieberman, The American Short Story: A Study of the Influence of Locality in its Development (Ridgewood, NJ: The Editor, 1912), 168.

Andrew Crosland (essay date winter 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1678

SOURCE: Crosland, Andrew. “Kate Chopin's ‘Lilacs’ and the Myth of Persephone.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 14, no. 1 (winter 2001): 31-4.

[In the following essay, Crosland explores Chopin's use of the Persephone myth in her story “Lilacs.”]

The myth of Persephone provides a framework for Kate Chopin's 1894 story “Lilacs,” a tale of ambiguous good and evil subtly defined through mythological allusion. Chopin's use of myth in her other writing, the prominence of mythology in the literary magazines of her day, her familiarity with authors who employed it, and evidence in the story itself all argue for her reliance on it in “Lilacs.”

Critics have shown that Chopin used mythology in her most studied work, The Awakening. Lawrence Thornton bases his analysis of the novel on the myth of Icarus (138); taking another approach, Rosemary F. Franklin draws parallels between protagonist Edna Pontellier and Psyche (144). Sandra Gilbert regards Chopin as a precursor of James Joyce, whose Ulysses superimposes a modern plot on a structure of mythology. She examines Chopin's use of Aphrodite, focusing on the “mythic radiance that might at any moment flash through ordinary reality” in The Awakening (46). These essays demonstrate that myth is a tool in Chopin's creative repertoire. It is also an instrument she hones in “Lilacs” for later use in The Awakening.

Sarah Way Sherman notes that mythology was a popular subject in American literary circles during the 1800s and that the Atlantic Monthly “regularly informed its readers on pre-Christian goddesses and their rituals” (16). In Sarah Orne Jewett, an American Persephone, she argues that Jewett and many other American writers of the period used the myth of Demeter and Persephone in their work. Indeed, this story of female strength, fidelity, and triumph was a favorite of nineteenth-century feminists (Sherman 21-27). About the time she began “Lilacs” in 1894, Chopin advised her neighbor and would-be author Kate Hull, “I know of no one better than Miss Jewett to study for technique and nicety of construction” (Toth 237). Chopin's familiarity with the Atlantic is evident from its having rejected “Lilacs” for publication (Toth 473). Thus, Chopin's literary models and the prevalent interest in mythology suggest her awareness of Persephone and of the uses of mythology in fiction.

The parallels between the myth of Persephone and “Lilacs” are obvious. In the myth, Cupid's arrow strikes Pluto, making him love Persephone and want her for his queen. He abducts her to the underworld. Demeter, the young virgin's divine mother, searches the globe for her daughter. When she finds her, she bargains for Persephone's release, but because the daughter has eaten a pomegranate seed in the underworld, she cannot gain complete freedom. Pluto and Demeter agree that Persephone should spend spring and summer on earth and the other two seasons in Hades as queen.

In “Lilacs,” Adrienne Farival leaves the innocent days of her convent schooling for the worldliness of Paris, where she performs on stage and has several lovers. Each spring, when the lilacs first bloom, she leaves her tawdry, chaotic life for a visit to her old convent school. There she finds peace, order, and renewed innocence. Like Persephone, Adrienne lives in two worlds: the convent that restores her and the city that exhausts her.

Although Persephone receives an annual reprieve from Hades and the world is granted springtime, fertility, and renewal, in the end Adrienne is denied access to the convent; she has no intervals of peace and must stay always in the tumult of Paris. Persephone finds a respite that Adrienne is denied.

Other details amplify the differences in Adrienne's story. Kidnapped by Pluto, Persephone drops the lilies she had been gathering. Traditional symbols of innocence, lilies signify Persephone's loss of this quality. Adrienne retreats to her convent each spring when the lilacs bloom, but when the nuns bar her from entering, she similarly drops the bouquet of lilacs she has made. Among the first flowers to bloom in spring, lilacs symbolize renewal and signal Adrienne's departure from the sins of Paris. By changing the lilies to lilacs, Chopin replaces lost innocence with the loss of hope.

Another telling detail is the reason for the betrayal of both young women. Aphrodite orders Cupid to shoot Pluto with one of his arrows so she can influence the underworld. She also fears Persephone may join virginal Athena and Artemis in scorning her. Under the influence of love, Pluto abducts his unwilling queen. Adrienne, who has Henri, Paul, and perhaps other lovers, is clearly no enemy of Aphrodite. The story suggests that she is denied entry to the convent because one of these lovers or her manager persuades the Mother Superior that she is morally unfit to be there. Thus, love betrays both the virgin and the worldly entertainer. Persephone falls for having no beau; Adrienne suffers because she strongly attracts several men.

A major irony in the story is that the Mother Superior denies Adrienne her annual retreat from the squalor of Paris. The obligation of those in religious orders is to help people in need, not to scorn them. Thus, a person who should sustain Adrienne turns her away. The nun's title of “Mother Superior” compounds the irony. Compared to Demeter, she fails as a mother. Demeter searched both earth and Hades for Persephone and did all she could to aid her. The childless Mother Superior is without maternal love and even Christian charity because she spurns Adrienne as a visitor to the convent. Her superiority is merely titular.

Taking a different view, Elmo Howell argues that “Lilacs” is not “an indictment of the Church as represented by the Mother Superior” but is the story of “an individual soul at odds with itself” (106). He thinks Adrienne “hopes to have both worlds at once by keeping them tidily apart, for use in their seasons as the need arises” (108). Interestingly, Howell's choice of words also suggests the underlying myth of Persephone, a figure who succeeds in living in two worlds “in their seasons” even as Adrienne does not.

Howell's analysis denies Adrienne the role of innocent victim. She makes no effort to save her soul at the convent but goes there to revive her youth and temporarily escape Paris. Unlike Persephone, she moves at will between her two worlds; she is drawn to the convent and her past by the smell of the spring lilac blooms, but she soon will return voluntarily to the city.

Sister Agathe, Adrienne's closest companion at the convent, tells her, “I fear that you do not turn as you might to our Blessed Mother in heaven, who is ever ready to comfort and solace an afflicted heart with the precious balm of her sympathy and love” (358). Adrienne admits that she does not. The Virgin Mary also is neglected by the nuns who refurbish a statue of Joseph, leaving Mary's “almost dingy by contrast” (356). In “Lilacs,” the Holy Mother may be considered another counterpart for Demeter. As such, she is not her child's salvation, and this failure is emphasized when Adrienne finds the expensive necklace she donated for the statue of Mary among the items returned to her at the end of the story.

Perhaps the major difference between the myth and the story is the role of the divine. The mythological gods protect Persephone and humanity, making fertility and the rotation of the seasons the outcome of a sorrowful abduction. Divinity and its agents, however, are ineffectual in Adrienne's world. Not only is Mary neglected, but the picture of Ste. Catherine de Sienne—a mystic who gave Pope Gregory XI the courage to return the papacy from Avignon to Rome—is removed from its place of honor in the convent. Finally, the pharisaic Mother Superior strays from her religious duties. The gods who shaped the mythological world have been replaced by a heavenly power that does not intervene and is ignored.

By building her story on a framework of myth, Chopin subtly emphasizes her portrayal of a lost world: one where the sinner seeks rest but not salvation, where the religious leader is more sanctimonious than saintly, where even good Sister Agathe is disconcertingly gullible and ignorant. However, the tone of “Lilacs”—at least until Adrienne is denied entry to the convent—is lighter than might be expected with such pessimism. This disparity is explained in an episode of the story that Chopin may have included as an allegorical gloss on her fictional method. Adrienne tries to catch the attention of her complaining servant Sophie by pelting her face with rose blossoms. Failing in this effort, she playfully threatens to throw a book and says: “Now I warn you, Sophie, the weightiness, the heaviness of Mons. Zola are such that they cannot fail to prostrate you” (362). Chopin subtly contrasts Persephone's world of female strength, fidelity, and triumph with Adrienne's experience of betrayal and defeat; she does it deftly, like the gentle toss of a rose, which she prefers to the heavy-handed literary naturalism of Zola.

Allusion to the myth of Persephone emphasizes the duality of good and evil, of salvation and damnation, and of renewal and death. It is an excellent structural device that invokes a richer past to emphasize by contrast the barrenness of the present. Understanding Chopin's reliance on myth in “Lilacs” is important because it illuminates both her subtle fictional technique and her pessimistic message.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. “Lilacs.” The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 355-65.

Franklin, Rosemary F. “Edna as Psyche: The Self and the Unconscious.” Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening. Ed. Bernard Koloski. New York: MLA, 1988. 144-49.

Gilbert, Sandra M. “The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin's Fantasy of Desire.” Kenyon Review 5.3 (Summer 1983): 42-66.

Howell, Elmo. “Kate Chopin and the Pull of Faith: A Note on ‘Lilacs.’” Southern Studies 18 (1979): 103-09.

Sherman, Sarah Way. Sarah Orne Jewett, an American Persephone. Hanover: UP of New England, 1989.

Thornton, Lawrence. “Edna as Icarus: A Mythic Issue.” Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening. Ed. Bernard Koloski. New York: MLA, 1988. 138-43.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin: A Life of the Author of The Awakening. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (essay date spring 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7681

SOURCE: Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. “In Possession of the Letter: Kate Chopin's ‘Her Letters’.” Studies in American Fiction 30, no. 1 (spring 2002): 45-62.

[In the following essay, Weinstock contrasts the treatment of female sexuality in Chopin's “Her Letters” and The Awakening.]

The scandal surrounding the publication of Kate Chopin's 1899 The Awakening tarnished its author's reputation and “effectively removed the novel from wide circulation and influence for fifty years following its publication.”1 The book was derided by Chopin's contemporaries as “trite and sordid,”2 and the behavior of its heroine, Edna Pontellier, was described by reviewers as “shocking,” “sickening,” and “selfish.”3 The second half of the twentieth century has witnessed a dramatic reappraisal of the text and of its main character, and a regeneration of Chopin's reputation. In particular, feminist critics such as Elaine Showalter have embraced the text as one which depicts and contests restraints upon female expression and behavior. Showalter asserts for instance that in The Awakening, “Chopin went boldly beyond the work of her precursors in writing about women's longing for sexual and personal emancipation,” and thus she characterizes the text as “a revolutionary book.”4

Given all the attention to and debate surrounding The Awakening, it is particularly interesting to note that, as Peggy Skaggs has observed, Chopin experimented with the same themes of female sexual awakening, adultery, and gender constraints in several of her short stories, including her obscure and brilliant short story “Her Letters,” published in Vogue in 1895.5 Indeed, given the representation of Edna Pontellier as a woman ruled by passion to the extent that she abandons all maternal and social obligations, conforming as it does to the stereotype of the female as irrational and easily swayed by passion, I will argue that “Her Letters” is in fact in many ways a less problematically feminist statement than The Awakening. As in The Awakening, a conflict is structured in “Her Letters” between social expectations that the wife's subordinate her personhood to the needs of her husband and female desire for independence and recognition of sexual and social equality. That is, a contest is structured between possession by another and self-possession. The conclusions of the text are that women, like men, do indeed have sexual needs and desires, and that love, not social or financial status, is the foundation for marriage.

At the same time, “Her Letters” also has a more general and uncanny conclusion that also turns on the double meaning of the term possession, considered both in the sense of ownership and control of property by an individual and in its opposite sense of control of an individual by an entity or idea. While highlighting the desire for self-possession, the disturbing effects of a bundle of letters on first the unnamed wife and then the equally anonymous husband demonstrate the ways in which subjectivity is constructed from without—that is, following psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the ways in which language and culture construct or constitute identity. Indeed, “Her Letters” is a decidedly Lacanian text, one which demonstrates at every turn the manner in which the subject is subject to the signifier.6 In “Her Letters,” the unavoidable conclusion of the text is that neither husband nor wife possess the letters; rather, the letters possess each—and deprive each of life—in turn. The “truth” of each character, the wife and the husband, is figured as that which comes from without.

“Her Letters” opens with an upper-class woman contemplating and preparing to destroy a bundle of letters. She manages to consign six letters to the flames of her fireplace before she is overwhelmed with emotion and unable to proceed further. The letters, to which the woman has a powerful affective attachment, are the only evidence of a passionate extramarital affair. The woman, who is dying from an unspecified disease, had hoped to be able to destroy the letters before her death, rather than let her husband, whom she regards fondly but does not love, discover the letters after her death. However, she cannot bring herself to obliterate the last remnants of “the days when she felt she had lived.”7 Instead, she attaches a note to the bundle of letters reading, “I leave this package to the care of my husband. With perfect faith in his loyalty and his love, I ask him to destroy it unopened” (97).

The remaining three short sections of the narrative concern the husband's discovery of the letters and this request and the dramatic ramifications. The letters and the note occasion an epistemological—and, ultimately, ontological—crisis for the husband: all his assumptions concerning his marriage are destabilized and he is forced to reassess his past marriage in light of the possible contents of the letters. The widower resists the temptation to read the letters and follows his wife's instructions by sinking them into a river. However, he becomes obsessed with the secret of the letters, haunted by his unconfirmable suspicions. Convinced that there is no secret “save one” that a woman would choose to have die with her—the secret of a sexual indiscretion—the husband attempts to confirm his suspicion by first meticulously probing his wife's belongings, and then interviewing both her friends and his. However, no evidence supporting his suspicion is uncovered. Unable to bear the weight of his uncertainty, the husband ultimately commits suicide by drowning himself in the same river into which he earlier had discarded the letters.


In the brief first section, the reader discovers a passionate, emotional woman who has been unfaithful to a husband whom she respects and cares for, but for whom she does not feel love. Her extramarital affair has been over for four years and the letters are her only connection to a recollected past of vitality and passion. She cannot bring herself to destroy the letters, cannot give them up. Indeed, she feels that the letters are the only thing keeping her alive: “she had been feeding on them … they had sustained her, she believed, and kept her spirit from perishing utterly” (95). The woman, however, is pained by the thought of her husband's response should her secret infidelity come to light. She is extremely aware of the fact that an intrinsic quality of writing is its persistence and iterability, that is, that her letters can survive her and produce effects beyond the context of the closed circuit of her correspondence with her lover. Surveying her letters spread out upon her desk, she considers, “before her were envelopes of various sizes and shapes, all of them addressed in the handwriting of one man and one woman. He had sent her letters all back to her one day when, sick with dread of possibilities, she had asked to have them returned” (95). The woman's “dread of possibilities” is the fear of discovery inspired by the fact that writing persists and continues to function even in the absence of its producer and intended recipient.8 Part of the uncanniness of writing is precisely this automatic functioning, the way in which, at the instant of its production, it distances itself from its producer and takes on a life of its own.

The woman believes that her letters are keeping her alive, sustaining her and keeping her spirit from “perishing” (95). Her relationship to the letters and the sustenance they provide plays on the notions of incorporation and consumption. She has metaphorically been “feeding upon them,” and, in a vampiric literalization of this trope, she actually attempts physically to incorporate one of the letters: “She crushed it between her palms when she found it. She kissed it again and again. With her sharp white teeth she tore the far corner from the letter, where the name was written; she bit the torn scrap and tasted it between her lips and upon her tongue like some god-given morsel” (96). This literal move toward incorporation is especially suggestive of Freudian melancholia. Rather than let go of the letters, let go of the other, allow the past to assume its position as past, the woman both figuratively and literally attempts to consume the other, to incorporate the lost love object into herself.9 The woman would rather have the letters than memories or thoughts: “How desolate and empty would have been her remaining days without them; with only her thoughts, illusive thoughts that she could not hold in her hands and press, as she did these, to her cheeks and her heart” (96). The letters displace the necessity of memory. She wants the letters to be there, in front of her. Her resistance is precisely to accepting the loss, the absence, of the other, her lover. Her attempt is rather to “eat the other,” to “cannibalize” or incorporate the love object rather than to accept its loss.

However, it is clear that in this melancholic attachment it is the woman herself who is being consumed. The unavoidable conclusion of the text is that the letters themselves are the true center of agency within the story, as well as its center of both life and death. Although the text does not detail the nature of the woman's disease, the logic of the text insists upon a correlation between the letters and her physical sickness. Her illness begins when she becomes “sick with the dread of possibilities,” and accelerates with the return of letters “in which every word of untempered passion had long ago eaten its way into her brain” (96). She who would eat the letters is being eaten by them. This reversal leads to the conclusion that what the woman is suffering from, figuratively if not literally, is consumption. She is consumed by the letters—letters which are more active and alive than she is.

Compared to the foregrounded presence of emotion contained in the letters, as well as to the intense materiality of the letters themselves, the woman herself is ghostly. Her lack of strength—the text describes her as “far from strong” (95)—is implicitly contrasted with the vitality, agency, and substance demonstrated by the letters. These letters, which are both hers and not hers, survive her, persist when she dies, and act where she cannot. At the same time that the letters are anthropomorphized—corporealized or concretized as passionate bodies that burn—the woman fades, wastes away. Or rather, in this text which features the transubstantiation of bits of paper into “god-given morsels” and refers to the lover's conversion of the “water in her veins to wine” (96), the letters which sustain her spirit at the expense of her body effect a “spiritualization.” Her “untempered passion” makes clear that this is, in a sense, a passion play. The woman martyrs herself to the other within, feeding the other at her own expense. Her melancholic attachment to the letters reveals that she does not possess the letters, but, rather, is possessed by them. She will—and does—die to preserve the after-life of her lover's letters.


The “her story/his story” structuring of the text in which the husband is eventually driven to suicide by suspicion of infidelity on his wife's part indicates the extent to which “Her Letters” is explicitly concerned with gender and gender expectations—and the ways in which these expectations turn on the notion of “possession.” Indeed, gender expectations and their violation are foregrounded throughout the brief narrative at every turn. In the opening section, the reader is introduced to an educated woman of means. That she is financially secure is evident from the fact that she has servants—she has “given orders” not be disturbed and a fire has been lit in the room—and that “her room” itself is described as a “luxurious apartment” (94). The woman herself is presented as aristocratic in bearing; she has a “long, sensitive face” and “long and delicate and blue-veined” hands (102). That she is educated is evidenced by the fact that she has a writing desk and that, later in the narrative, the husband, seeking clues that will confirm his suspicions, searches through the woman's impressive library. Following careful scrutiny of the woman's writing desk, the husband “began a second and far more exhausting and arduous quest than the first, turning, page by page, the volumes that crowded her room—books of fiction, poetry, philosophy. She had read them all” (102). These details—the woman's comfortable financial status, the fact that she has her own room with a writing desk, her aristocratic mien, her extensive library—simultaneously work to suggest both the financial dependence of the nineteenth-century upper-class woman upon her wealthy husband and the woman's independence of thought. As in The Awakening, Chopin depicts a conflict in “Her Letters” between social expectations that woman subordinate thought, expression, and personhood in marriage to the needs of her husband—the wife as object to be possessed—and female desire for social and sexual equality—self-possession.

The parallel with The Awakening is heightened by the fact that the wife in “Her Letters,” trapped in a loveless marriage, at some point experienced a sexual “awakening” and engaged in a passionate extramarital affair. The reader learns that the woman's primary motivation for attempting to destroy the letters is that “she shrank from inflicting the pain, the anguish which the discovery of those letters would bring to others; to one, above all, who was near to her, and whose tenderness and years of devotion had made him, in a manner, dear to her” (95). The narrative juxtaposes the recollected ecstasy of her illicit affair to this perfunctory if not uncomfortable relationship with her husband. “Her Letters,” like The Awakening, asserts that women, like men, do indeed have sexual needs and desires, and implicitly criticizes nineteenth-century attitudes toward female sexuality that proclaimed the contrary. And, like The Awakening, “Her Letters” implicitly argues that love, not social or financial status, is the foundation for marriage.

Throughout “Her Letters,” Chopin plays with the conventional gender roles of narrative fiction. Indeed, the presence of the letters as evidence of the wife's amours turns the entire tradition of the epistolary novel in which the female protagonist recounts the assaults upon her virtue and her successful resistance on its head. Aware that she is approaching death, the wife considers that she soon will have to “part with her treasure” (95). The treasure that she will have to surrender here is not her chastity, but precisely the evidence that she has been unchaste. The wife, as the active agent who engages in a passionate affair and demonstrates little love for the husband whom she controls and who dotes upon her, is cast in the typical role of the rakish husband. The husband, as the betrayed lover who drowns himself, assumes the stereotypical role of the female protagonist in the sentimental novel. The result is a political text that, by revealing masculinity to be contingent upon control of female sexuality and contesting the assumptions that females are by nature docile and passionless, concludes that loveless marriages in which the subordination of women is assumed are recipes for disaster.

In this way, “Her Letters” is a more directly feminist statement than The Awakening. One could argue that Chopin's representation of Edna Pontellier as a woman ruled by her passion to the extent that she abandons all maternal and social obligations is in fact a regressive representation of femininity, supporting as it does the stereotypical and derogatory correlations of femininity with irrationality and irresponsibility. The wife in “Her Letters,” although perhaps sharing Edna's “narcissism,” abandons neither her husband nor her social obligations. Her affair, passionate though it may have been, is carefully concealed and at no point in the narrative can the wife's emotion be said to displace her logic. (In fact, her irrefutable logic displaces her husband's reason!) Indeed, the representation of the wife in private as loving and passionate, contrasting as it does with the characterization of her by others as intelligent, accomplished, and passionless, culminates in a well-rounded character who is a remarkable synthesis of stereotypical male and female characteristics. And her consideration for her husband, despite the agonizing injunction of the letters, arguably makes her a more sympathetic character than The Awakening's Edna Pontellier. In contrast to the wife, in “Her Letters” the husband seems more pathetic than sympathetic. After his long devotion to a woman who did not reciprocate his affections, the fact that his suspicion of his wife's affair obsesses him and drives him to suicide suggests that the “man-instinct of possession” (99) is both misogynistic and untenable in a society in which women express their sexuality and independence. As with The Awakening, Chopin allows some small degree of sympathy for the abandoned male husband, but suggests that disappointment is inevitable for husbands who conceive of their wives as property instead of people when their wives begin to assert themselves.

However, in a fascinating contrast with The Awakening, in “Her Letters” a strong woman—or the memory of a strong woman—controls a weaker man and propels that man toward suicide by drowning. In “Her Letters,” the wife is demonstrated to have dominated the husband during her lifetime.10 It is the man's “tenderness and years of devotion” that have made him, “in a manner,” dear to her. The narrator tells the reader that “every line of his face—no longer young—spoke loyalty and honesty, and his eyes were as faithful as a dog's and as loving” (98). In these details, the husband is likened both to a faithful servant and a loving pet. He has been a tender companion to a woman he has always known as “cold and passionless but true, and watchful of his comfort and his happiness” (98). There have been no pretenses of passion in this marriage, nor does the wife, as demonstrated by the library and her private room, seem to have surrendered or masked her thoughts and identity.11

The wife in “Her Letters” was perceived by others as domineering, beautiful, and cold. In an attempt to discover if any of his friends had been his wife's secret paramour, the man questions his acquaintances: “Foremost he learned that she had been unsympathetic because of her coldness of manner. One had admired her intellect; another her accomplishments; a third had thought her beautiful before the disease claimed her, regretting, however, that her beauty had lacked warmth of color and expression” (102). In these responses, the femininity of the wife is called into question. She is characterized as intelligent and accomplished, yet cold and unsympathetic. The husband, who demonstrates dog-like devotion to a woman who does not reciprocate his affection, is in turn, according to traditional representations of gender, “feminized.” However, this inversion of the stereotyped power dynamic is acceptable to the husband, and perhaps this is because, despite the inversion of gendered social power relations, the reversal still does not radically disrupt the status quo. That is, despite the woman's independence of thought and lack of passion, she remains the husband's property. She may have a room of her own in which to write, but it remains in his house. And her coldness and lack of passion are acceptable in a culture that denies the sexual nature of women—her “frigidity” is not unusual. What is most threatening to the husband's masculinity and most subversive of traditional gender expectations is not the wife's frigidity, but the possibility instead of the “heat” of extramarital passion, which would undermine the wife's position as her husband's possession.

That what is in question here is ownership rights and male control of female sexuality is indicated by the husband's consideration of the possible contents of the letters: “What secret save one could a woman choose to have die with her? As quickly as the suggestion came into his mind, so swiftly did the man-instinct of possession creep into his blood. … The agonizing suspicion that perhaps another had shared with him her thoughts, her affections, her life, deprived him for a swift instant of honor and reason” (99, emphasis added). Observe the careful phrasing here: what disconcerts the husband is that another man has “shared” with him his wife's attention. Even in this consideration of an extramarital affair, his wife remains passive, an object to be possessed. There is no sense of her having been an active agent in the liaison. This one detail alone indicates the gulf that exists between the “her story” and the “his story” of the text. The contrast here between the active, passionate woman revealed in the first section and the husband's conception of the wife as an object to be owned or shared seemingly without her consent could not be more dramatic. Indeed, the irony of the story is, despite the husband's assumptions concerning his wife's passivity, she is the active one who engaged in an affair, requested the return of the letters, manages to burn a few of them, and enjoins the task of destroying the remainder upon her husband. He, in contrast, is the character subordinated throughout: to society's definitions of masculinity, to his devotion to his wife, and to the past. Concerned about the possibility that his wife was possessed by another, it is the husband himself who becomes “possessed.”


The husband's narrative similarly turns on the dual meaning of possession. Falling in possession of the letters, he becomes “possessed” (101) by the notion that he did not in fact possess his wife as property. In the interstice between the first and second sections, the woman dies and the remaining three sections—the bulk of the brief narrative—detail the husband's response to the discovery of these letters and the wife's agonizing request that the letters be destroyed unopened and unread. The “her story” of the first section and the “his story” of the remaining sections never fully mesh; although the reader can confirm the husband's suspicions as correct, the husband himself is driven to suicide not because of disgrace but because of uncertainty.

As the husband himself appreciates, the wife's request is a bold stratagem; to discover her unfaithfulness, he himself would have to be unfaithful to her memory and to her dying wish. Although the husband himself does not believe in an afterlife, cannot “think of her in any far-off paradise awaiting him” (98-99), he is haunted all the same by his wife's request and the secret it protects. Although he feels that “there [is] no smallest part of her anywhere in the universe, more than there had been before she was born into the world,” his dead wife has “embodied herself with terrible significance in an intangible wish, uttered when life still coursed through her veins; knowing that it would reach him when the annihilation of death was between them, but uttered with all confidence in its power and potency” (99). The request to dispose of the letters is not merely a request, but figured as a spell, a conjuration. The written characters of the note address him “like a voice speaking to his soul” (99).

After contemplating the letters and the instructions in amazement for half an hour, the man decides to act. However, he does not consider burning the letters. Rather, the man presumes that his wife had a different fate in mind for the letters: “He did not for a moment think of casting the thick package into the flames to be licked by the fiery tongues, and charred and half-revealed to his eyes. That was not what she meant” (99). Burning here is clearly allied with intense, indiscreet sexual passion; in giving over “her letters” to be “licked by fiery tongues,” the man would, in essence, become voyeur to an affair which had excluded him. Destruction by burning is also correlated with vision and revelation: in a recapitulation of the crisis of the narrative itself, to burn the letters would be at least momentarily to “half-reveal” their contents. Embraced by the flames, the “truth” of the letters would burn briefly and brightly before his eyes, before being consumed entirely and disappearing.

In contrast to the woman's intention to burn the letters, the text itself is persistently concerned not with burning but with drowning, in both literal and metaphorical senses. The story begins on a day during which “the rain was falling steadily from a leaden sky in which there was no gleam, no rift, no promise” (94). Significantly, the man comes across the letters on a day “much like that day a year ago when the leaves were falling and rain pouring steadily from a leaden sky which held no gleam, no promise” (97). That the husband should eventually drown himself seems the natural culmination of a tale in which it rains steadily with no hope of abatement. However, although the weather is the same, the repetition of the description is not exact, highlighting the fact that although there is still neither “gleam” nor “promise,” a “rift” has been introduced, symbolic of the separation of man and wife by the latter's death and foreshadowing the mental separation the letters incur.

That the husband rejects the option of burning the letters bears witness both to his continued respect for his wife's modesty and discretion—he will not become voyeur to her affair—and his own psychic conflict: the man can neither accept the truth of his wife's infidelity nor deny it. Within the symbolic framework of the narrative, for the man to burn the letters would be for him to accept his wife's passion for another. To watch the letters go up in flames would be to watch the destruction of his whole conception of their marriage together. Instead, the man attaches a paper-weight (itself perhaps symbolic of the “weight” of the papers upon him) to the letters, walks to a bridge in the rain, and drops the package into a “deep, broad, swift, black river dividing two States” (100). Letting go of the letters, “he could not follow its descent through the darkness, nor hear its dip into the water far below. It vanished silently; seemingly into some inky unfathomable space” (100). His sense is that he has flung the package back to his wife, “in that unknown world wither she had gone” (100). In drowning the letters, the man shies away from confronting the traumatic truth. Instead of the painfully bright light of revelation, the man opts for the preservative repression of denial and darkness. The “broad, swift, black river” dividing “two States” is symbolic of the man's own mental state—standing in the “very center” of the bridge (100), the man is caught between past and present. His past having been uprooted by the unconfirmed possibility of infidelity, the man himself has become unmoored, begins to drift. In his dreams, he sees, “the dark river rushing by, carrying away his heart, his ambitions, his life” (102). The black river between two states defines his world; he feels himself to be “alone in a black, boundless universe” (100). The husband's ontological crisis is precipitated by what he perceives to be an assault upon his manhood.

The suspicion of adultery deprives the husband not just of “honor and reason,” but of masculinity itself. The occasion of his discovery of the letters is described as “that night when the darkness had closed around him and engulfed his manhood” (103). Masculinity is here revealed to be relative, contingent upon the ownership and control of women conceived of as property. The husband is “unmanned” by the suspicion that his wife has been “possessed” by another. Part of this “unmanning” is that he himself becomes “possessed,” haunted by the thought that “there is but one secret which a woman could choose to have die with her” (103). This unmanning takes the form of a loss of “honor and reason.” Masculinity therefore is connected to the husband's ability to control his wife's sexuality, as well as to logical, linear thought processes.

Indeed, the wife's request of her husband is such a bold gesture because it is precisely unreasonable: it forces him into a space in which traditional gender expectations cannot be met. The linchpin of the story is the fact that the husband obeys the wife's request and destroys the letters unread. In so doing, he is figured as a sort of reverse Pandora; although he is consumed by curiosity—and apprehension—he respects his wife's command. However, although he subordinates his own curiosity, he also subordinates his own initiative; his wife's dominance of him persists even beyond her death. In acquiescing to her demand, the husband continues in his “feminized” position within the power dynamic of their relationship. But had he opened the letters, not only would his suspicions of his wife's infidelity and his “dishonored” position—his status as cuckold—have been confirmed, but in letting curiosity and emotion override “duty,” he would have been cast in the role of Pandora and again been “feminized,” this time by letting curiosity win out over respect and duty. The very fact of the letters combined with the wife's injunction against reading them structures a chiasmas of gender and writing which the husband cannot negotiate with his sense of masculinity intact.12

The irony of the husband's possession of—and by—the letters is that his wife becomes more present in death to him than she ever was during his life. Following receipt of the letters, she becomes a person for him rather than a possession; her otherness, the fact that he may never really have known her, becomes apparent. The wife “embodie[s] herself” in her writing (99), the letters revive the wife, give her a presence and a materiality that she had not assumed in life for the husband. The prospect of her adulterous affair can only suggest to the husband that she was something other than his possession, that she had secret feelings and encounters which would force him to alter his entire conception of her as a person and of their relationship together. Indeed, the question of her chastity is precisely a question of her body and of ownership and control of that body. Her absent body—a body significantly that was also in a sense absent during their marriage and her passionless relationship to him—is rendered spectrally present by the material fact of the letters.

If the letters revivify the wife in some fashion after her death, in contrast, the husband is rendered figuratively dead from the moment that he discovers them. The letters consume him in the same way that they consumed her. Deprived of his reason, his rationality, by his suspicion of his wife's infidelity, he is also deprived of a reason, a purpose, for living:

It seemed no longer of any moment to him that men should come and go; and fall or rise in the world; and wed and die. It did not signify if money came to him by a turn of chance or eluded him. Empty and meaningless seemed to him all devices which the world offers for man's entertainment. The food and drink set before him had lost their flavor. He did not longer know or care if the sun shone or the clouds lowered about him. A cruel hazard had struck him there where he was weakest, shattering his whole being, leaving him with but one wish in his soul, one gnawing desire, to know the mystery which he had held in his hands and had cast into the river.


In relinquishing the letters, the husband has relinquished life and spirit as well. Animated solely by the “mystery” of the letters, he is as one already dead—zombified. Past and future collapse and dissolve into a static moment of present obsession for the husband and the uncanny agency of the letters renders the husband first figuratively and then literally dead.

The step from the man's metaphoric drowning in the past and his own insecurities to his actual drowning at the end of the story is a short one. Haunted by the thought that “there is but one secret which a woman could choose to have die with her” (103), the thought indeed “possessing him” (101), the husband returns to the bridge that he visited on the night when he had discarded the letters and throws himself into the river. His suicide literalizes the operative metaphor of drowning governing his representation in the text: from the moment of discovering the letters, he has been overwhelmed and “engulfed” by the potential revelations they contain.

The most important thing about the letters in “Her Letters” as concerns the husband is precisely that they go unread by him. The husband can speculate concerning their contents—and the narrative in fact validates his suspicion as correct—but the actual contents of the letter remain a blank, a secret, a “mystery which he had held in his hands and had cast into the river” (103). Unable to read the letters, the man is also unable to read his own past. His assessment of the past is contingent upon the unknown contents of the letters; the husband, like the letters, is the site of a gap, an intolerable secret. In “Her Letters,” the letters are fetishized by the husband as the locus of truth. If only they could be read, all answers would be known, the past would be fixed. The letters are presumed to offer solutions to crises of mortality and identity. The husband would know if his wife had actually been unfaithful and would thus be able to redefine or “fix” his past relationship with his wife. The letters in this way are a projection of fantasy for the husband—impossible objects which, if they could be possessed and interpreted, would reveal all.

However, the husband is forced to arrive at the same uncanny conclusion as the unnamed protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Man of the Crowd”—that there are some texts that will not allow themselves to be read, some things that can never be known. Indeed, as in Poe, these “resistant” texts are connected with crime: in the case of “Her Letters,” with a secret affair, with unsanctioned passion, and the violations of the marriage bond and the husband's trust. The death of his wife and his destruction of her letters dispel the fantasy of the “knowability” of the other. The husband in “Her Letters” cannot live with his suspicion and can find no secure ground upon which to build a future when his conception of the past itself has been disrupted and left unresolved.

In “Her Letters,” a mystery pertaining to the past emerges and takes over the present, disordering possibilities for the future. Indeed, the past itself is revealed as a mystery, as something other than what the husband thought it was or needs it to be. For the husband in “Her Letters,” the tantalizing possibilities of the letters precipitate a crisis of memory in which the widower can no longer be sure that his recollections of his life with his wife in fact reflect the true state of affairs—the past is wrenched free from its moorings. In a sense, the husband's unconfirmable suspicion suggests that the past in fact never was there, that his wife was not the person he had imagined her to be. Ultimately, this haunting suspicion and concomitant destabilization of the past displace the present to such an extent that any possibility of a future is foreclosed and the only resolution is suicide.


What arrives for the husband in “Her Letters” along with the haunting presence of the unreadable letters is the inescapable fact of castration in the Lacanian sense. The dilemma for the husband is explicit: the unavailable letters not only hold the truth concerning his wife's marital fidelity, but the letters become his truth—the truth of his past and the truth of his identity as man, husband, and lover. His obsession with the irretrievable letters and the irresolvable question of his wife's fidelity forecloses all future possibilities. He cannot live with his epistemological uncertainty and the concomitant awareness of ontological lack. Recognition of this essentially “castrated” state prompts him to take his own life.

What haunts in “Her Letters” is the secret of another. The wife's secret, secreted in her letters, becomes fetishized as the husband's truth—an unrealizable truth. The two stories of “Her Letters” are structured around a formal repetition: a woman receives letters from her lover which engulf her. She passes them on to her husband who in turn is overwhelmed by the letters. Each, in turn, becomes subject to the signifier—their identities take shape in relation to the perceived contents of the letters. In the process, the haunting power of writing is made manifest: the letters “possess,” and, ghost-like, they intercede between presence and absence. For the woman, her melancholic attachment to the materiality of the letters prevents the past from assuming its place, prevents her from having to mourn the loss of her love; for the husband, the same letters conjure up the wife while simultaneously foregrounding her absence. “Her Letters” is thus a story of “dead letters”—but in the peculiar sense of letters from the dead, from the past, which arrive at their destinations. Indeed, the letters are precisely “living-dead” letters, signifiers that hold a strange vitality, exercise an uncanny agency, and, in the process, drain the life out of their recipients.

If “Her Letters” raises the question of the ownership of letters, and of writing more generally, the uncanny agency of the letters, the way in which the letters and their real or presumed content possess first the wife and then the husband, suggests that one is in fact owned or “possessed” by writing. In a reference to the characters in Poe's “The Purloined Letter,” which could just as easily be applied to the wife and husband in Chopin's “Her Letters,” Lacan writes, “Falling in possession of the letter—admirable ambiguity of language—its meaning possesses them.”13 For Lacan, this is an example of the ways in which language—the symbolic—constructs identity, the way in which the subject is “traversed” by the signifying chain.14 It supports Lacan's fundamental philosophy that “it is the symbolic order which is constitutive for the subject.”15 “Her Letters,” like “The Purloined Letter,” is fundamentally a story about the effects of the signifier upon the subject. The letters are the material support for the woman's “true” identity as a passionate, independent subject. In contrast, the mere fact of the letters assaults the husband's conception of self. The truth of both characters' identities depends upon their relationships to the real or imagined content of the letters. Both wife and husband are subject to the signifier. What this suggests is that the letters are neither “her letters” nor “his letters.” Rather, there is a problematic third term that interrupts the his/her dichotomy. The letters are in fact the Other's letters, letters from the Other. Both wife and husband “fade” beneath the weight of the signifying chain. The truth of the subject comes from the Other. This is made most obvious by the husband's questioning of his and his wife's friends in the attempt to confirm his suspicion—following the revelation that his wife perhaps was other than his imaginary projection of her, his address is to the other to find out precisely who he was and is. The uncanny quality of “Her Letters” thus derives from its demonstration of the uncanny agency of language itself: the way in which language possesses rather than is possessed.

If The Awakening is a “revolutionary book,” to recall Elaine Showalter's praise, because it illustrates gender constraints and “women's longing for sexual and personal emancipation,” “Her Letters,” illustrating as it does the ways in which gender expectations can constrict and disorder the lives of men as well as women, must also be considered as a revolutionary text. Indeed, “Her Letters” may even be more radical than The Awakening in that the wife in “Her Letters,” rather than seeking sexual and personal emancipation, clearly has found a degree of each. It is also apparent that the two drownings represented by the two texts have much in common: Edna's fatal swim is the culmination of her “awakening” and her ensuing placelessness; her personal desires are incommensurate with society's expectations and, rather than become a pariah, she commits suicide. In a similar manner, the husband in “Her Letters” is subject to an “awakening,” his realization that his wife was a person, rather than an object, and a person who potentially differed from his conception of her. His sense of placelessness, of being “caught between two states,” which precipitates his suicide, results from the unmooring of his past and his obsession with the possibility of his wife's infidelity. The text makes clear that this state of affairs is the result of constraining gender expectations: where the “man-instinct of possession” is thwarted, manhood is “engulfed.” “Her Letters” thus demonstrates that gender expectations pertaining to men can be just as damaging as those operative for women.

“Her Letters,” however, ultimately is bleaker in tone than The Awakening. Edna ends her life as a result of an understanding on some level of the constraints upon her. She becomes aware to a certain extent of the manner in which she as subject is subject to the signifier, that is, the ways in which her identity and the social positions which she can occupy are rigidly delimited by language and culture. Her suicide is her response—some would say defiant response—to her “awakening” to the fact of castration. In contrast, the husband in “Her Letters” does not resist social gender expectations—rather, his despair derives from his inability to satisfy the expectations placed upon him. His suicide is by no stretch of the imagination a positive act of refusal or self-affirmation, but rather a negative act of resignation in the face of the inevitability of castration. Or, to put it differently, “Her Letters” ends with a “negative apocalypse.” What the husband is left with is precisely the intolerable recognition that the “truth” of his wife and of his past are unavailable, and hence his identity as husband and man are put into question. The secret of the wife, swallowed up by the river, becomes his truth—a truth that he cannot possess. The husband's search for the unavailable truth of the other and the past—and the manner in which he constantly seeks his truth outside of himself, by putting questions to the others, to the Other—is what makes this text so dark (and so Lacanian) through the intimation that the mortal condition is precisely one of loss and possession, of unavailable truths and subjection to the signifying order of language and culture.


  1. Nancy A. Walker, ed., “Introduction: Biographical and Historical Contexts,” The Awakening, by Kate Chopin (New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993), 14.

  2. Emily Toth, Kate Chopin (New York: Ungar, 1986), 352.

  3. Walker, 14.

  4. Elaine Showalter, “Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book,” in Walker, ed., The Awakening, 170.

  5. Much better known is Chopin's 1894 short story “The Story of An Hour,” in which a woman's response to the news of her husband's death is a sense of elation over her liberation. When the news turns out to be false and she is surprised by her husband's return, the shock literally kills her.

  6. Much of Lacan's work focuses on the role that the symbolic realm of language and culture plays in constituting identity. Especially pertinent to this essay are “The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud,” in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), and “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida and Psychoanalytic Reading, ed. John P. Muller and William J. Richardson (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1988).

  7. Kate Chopin, “Her Letters,” in A Vocation and a Voice: Stories, ed. Emily Toth (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 97. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

  8. Jacques Derrida observes in “Signature, Event, Context” that “to write is to produce a mark that will constitute a sort of machine which is productive in turn, and which my future disappearance will not, in principle, hinder in its functioning, offering things and itself to be read and to be rewritten.” See Jacques Derrida, “Signature, Event, Context,” in Limited Inc, ed. Gerald Graff, trans. Alan Bass (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1988), 8.

  9. Freud writes of melancholia that “The ego wishes to incorporate this object into itself, and the method by which it would do so, in this oral or cannibalistic stage, is by devouring it.” See Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), in General Psychological Theory, ed. Philip Rieff, trans. Alix Strachey (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 171.

  10. A reader's response to this essay noted that the wife's control over her husband and the method in which she passes the letters on to him suggest a sadistic streak. Indeed, the perversity of the story derives precisely from the “catch-22” of the letters and the injunction against reading them. One may speculate that the “passing on” of the letters is punitive toward the husband and is designed to torment him. One may also postulate the reverse and propose that the preservation of the letters is an act of confession motivated by shame and contrition. However, there is little evidence to support either interpretation. Given the woman's mental state—dying and overwhelmed by a melancholic attachment to an affair long since past—it is not even clear that the woman necessarily values the letters more than her husband's happiness. After all, she did request that the letters be returned so that they could be destroyed. There is no denying that the passing on of the letters has dramatic ramifications for the husband which make the act seem cruel indeed; however, it is difficult to determine the motivation for this act.

  11. It seems significant in this context that the story makes no mention of children. This suggests that their marriage was one entirely devoid of passion and intimacy.

  12. To the extent that Chopin rewrites the Pandora myth here, she reveals that Pandora's situation was a double-bind, that the consequences of her not opening the box would have been just as woeful—perhaps even more so because what the husband is deprived of in “Her Letters” ultimately is hope.

  13. Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,” 44.

  14. Lacan, “Seminar,” 43.

  15. Lacan, “Seminar,” 29.


Kate Chopin Long Fiction Analysis


Chopin, Kate (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)