Madame Célestin's Divorce

by Kate Chopin

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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.

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.

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