Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433
As is true with all great works of literature, Kate Chopin's 1893 short story offers multiple themes for the reader's contemplation.
Discouragement of divorce
As the story's title suggests, Madame Célestin considers a divorce because of the unhappiness she is experiencing in her marriage. In 1890, roughly 3 American couples per 1,000 divorced, suggesting its relative rarity. Much of Chopin's writing concerns the narrow options that women of the period had and how economic and social pressures often placed them and kept them in unfulfilling marriages.
Madame Célestin and her two children have been all but abandoned by her irresponsible husband, and she agonizes over her desire to leave him. The sole voice of the attorney, whom she speaks to informally, supports her impulse to free herself, but the voices of her friends, family, and mother all urge her to stay in the marriage because of the "disgrace" and "scandal" it would create. No one in Madame Célestin's life seems to take her feelings into account; instead, they tell her that she must keep up social appearances.
The errant and alcoholic man
Besides the theme of divorce being discouraged, there is the archetype of the errant, alcoholic boy/man suggested by the absent Célestin. He is in and out of his family's life and apparently oblivious or uncaring about the hardship and heartache his indefensible actions create. When he reappears at the story's end, his promise to "turn over a new leaf" rings hollow, and Madame Célestin's belief in him suggests the pattern all too commonly found in troubled marriages.
There are elements of race in the story as well. Lawyer Paxton is attracted to Madame Célestin, and he understands that since she is a Creole in Louisiana (and, the implication is that he is not), a future together in Natitoches would be difficult. He thinks about marrying her but understands that they would face racism that may be relieved by living together elsewhere. There is an element of paternalism present in the story because it might take a man to solve Madame Célestin's problems. Here, Chopin seems to comment on the rarity of a woman in this time and place having agency in her own life.
Criticism of the church
And finally, Chopin also levels some criticism at the church. Madam Célestin goes to a priest, and then a bishop, seeking help and support. What she gets from them both is the admonition that she must stay in her marriage and endure her husband's mistreatment as if it is some kind of personal cross she must bear.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497
In “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” Chopin explores one of her perennial themes: a woman’s struggle between the constraints a closed society places on her versus her quest for self-identity. As in most of Chopin’s work, that struggle is situated in Louisiana’s Creole community, which differs greatly from nineteenth century mainstream Anglo-American society. The barriers between these two cultures often produce conflicts for the characters, who are at odds with themselves and one another.
Madame Célestin’s vivaciousness, mild flirtatiousness, honesty, and self-sufficient attitude reflect the more relaxed gender roles among the French Creoles, which allowed a certain frankness between men and women about personal matters. The general openness among Creoles is best expressed by Madame’s daily public appearance dressed in what amounts to a robe or housecoat. The close-knit Creole community supported Madame and her children by giving her work when her husband all but deserted her. In addition, it remained nonjudgmental about her marital problems or her friendship with Paxton. Nevertheless, Madame is restricted from following her natural instincts to free herself from Célestin because of her strong ties to that same community. Her family and her religion forbid divorce; more important, she retains certain emotional and conjugal attachments to her husband, despite the fact he is a reprobate. Madame must also consider her maternal obligations to her two children.
As a divorced woman, Madame would most likely lose custody of those children. She would be forced to flee from her home and her friends to live among strangers, most likely married this time to Paxton. In addition, whether she realizes it or not, Paxton sees Madame as a trophy, something he can claim as a pretty prize, not as an individual with her own identity. In fact, he knows next to nothing about her as a woman or a person. His inability to understand her position as a Creole wife and mother leads him to misunderstand both her firm resolve to divorce Célestin and her overnight change of heart.
Ultimately, as in Chopin’s masterpiece The Awakening (1899), Madame would be exchanging roles if she divorced her husband and married Paxton, not necessarily achieving independence or self-identity. Although her counterpart in the novel, Edna Pontellier, chooses suicide as a means of escape, Madame makes the less dramatic choice to accept her place within her community.
The end remains ambiguous. Madame has once again submitted to her husband’s authority by accepting his promise to reform. The even rosier color that Paxton notices in her cheek may indicate a deep blush of embarrassment because she has given up the idea of divorce, disappointing both the lawyer and herself. However, her color may also express a deep contentment, no doubt sexual in nature, that her husband has returned home and life might now offer all she can hope for. Either way, Chopin’s overarching theme remains a woman’s lack of autonomy in the face of cultural and social obligations.
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