Madame Célestin's Divorce

by Kate Chopin
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

Chopin's story is about the vagaries of the human heart. Set in Creole Louisiana, the story recapitulates a series of conversations a lawyer has while walking past Madame Célestin's house on his way to work. The woman claims her husband, who is absent, does not support her; the lawyer suggests she consider a divorce. Célestin, after consulting her priest who opposes divorce, seems determined nevertheless to go through with it. Eventually her husband returns home, however. The lawyer, who is attracted to Célestin and fantasizes about marrying her, learns in a final conversation that since he has returned she's decided not to follow through on the divorce threat.

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Told from the lawyer's point of view, Chopin's story is notable for what it leaves out. Her narrative device of telling the story through polite conversations forces the reader to imagine, with the lawyer, the rest of the story—they imagine the husband to be abusive, to be a drinker, to treat his wife badly. In the same way, the reader has to draw their own conclusions about Célestin based on the scant information they are given about her: her regular habit of sweeping her porch at the same time every day (the time the lawyer passes on his way to work), her gloves that are torn showing the fingers underneath, and how she looks like something from a Watteau painting.

The woman herself is the biggest mystery of all. Her circumstances, her bravery in taking the lawyer's advice and speaking with her priest, and her apparent honesty and openness with the lawyer, suggest that her intention to divorce is sincere. Her sudden decision to forget about the divorce once her husband is back could mean that her husband found out about her plans and threatened her, or it could mean that she overstated her unhappiness with her husband. She could be either a victim, or simply weak-willed, or, perhaps, the whole divorce thing was a kind of flirtation. Like the lawyer, the reader's access to this information is limited, if not nonexistent. Madame Celestine, and her problems whatever they may be, remain unarticulated, even though (or perhaps because) she has "a good deal to say." To a large degree, the point of the story lies in how her talk is ineffectual, and how the men in the story (her husband, the priest, the lawyer) construct her regardless of what she says. In that sense, the end of the story, in which she simply capitulates to her husband, is a less a defeat for her than a return to comfortable role.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

“Madame Célestin’s Divorce” is a very short story tightly packed with descriptions and dialogue that reveal a variety of details about the main characters. Chopin is considered a regional writer, and her setting often plays as important a role in the story as do her characters. In “The Storm” (1898), for example, the onset of a hurricane propels two former lovers to rekindle their affair in an isolated cabin, while the woman’s husband and son are stranded in town. Although no such atmospheric disturbance occurs in “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” its setting in north central Louisiana, where Chopin once lived with her husband and six children, introduces characters that are unique to a specific place and time in American history.

As a resident of Natchitoches Parish, Chopin developed a fine ear for the local dialect and a keen insight into the characteristics of the Creole community. Madame Célestin’s conversation sparkles with idiosyncratic diction and French sayings that charm Paxton, whose speech is noticeably more monotonous and didactic. Madame Célestin’s language is expressive, dynamic, and forthright, revealing an honest, passionate woman unafraid to possess or express her opinion. Charmed by her wit and wisdom, Paxton, an outsider to the Creole community, does not realize that Madame’s honest outbursts are as subject to change as the very nature that produces them. This misunderstanding reveals the cultural barriers that separate the impetuous Creole woman from the more conventional, reserved Paxton. Her abrupt decision to stay with her husband, accompanied by a rosy blush on her cheeks, baffles the lawyer, but remains consistent with Madame’s ability to adapt to whatever situation is at hand.

The story’s physical setting, Madame’s yard planted with rose bushes, does not change. Madame never strays beyond her front gate, which represents both her literal and figurative separation from Paxton and the outside world. A fence always stands between the anxious lawyer and his would-be client. Madame wields her broom expertly, as she complains about the household duties that keep her so busy. Nevertheless, her domestic ties are undeniable. The rose bushes that adorn her garden symbolize Madame’s delicate beauty as well as her thorny exterior. The roses also serve as another barrier between Paxton and Madame, specifically when it is a rosy blush in her cheek that indicates her husband has again regained his place within the home. While Paxton dreams of their life together in the wide, wide world, Madame remains contained, if not exactly content, within her fenced-in yard. Thus, Chopin’s setting underscores the story’s main theme of a woman who is trapped by her environment, willing to contemplate, but ultimately unable, to face the unknown.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 159

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