Chopin's Exploration of the Difficulties Inherent in the Establishment of a Nonconventional Marriage

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1647

A recurring theme in much of Kate Chopin’s work is women’s difficult struggle for emancipation. In her article for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Tonette Bond Inge notes that as Chopin explores this theme, she does not avoid ‘‘showing the sacri- fices and suffering associated with the journey to self-realization.’’ This struggle becomes the main focus of Chopin’s masterpiece The Awakening as it documents Edna Pontillier’s journey from the restrictions of marriage to a discovery of self that affords her a sense, albeit an ironic one, of freedom.

Illustration of PDF document

Download A Point at Issue! Study Guide

Subscribe Now

As it traces Edna’s difficult process of awakening to selfhood, the novel reflects society’s determination to force women to conform to expected roles. As in The Awakening, most of Chopin’s fiction chronicles the movement of her characters from bondage to freedom, outlining the social obstacles that impede this journey. Yet Chopin’s earliest work is not reflective of this pattern. ‘‘A Point at Issue!,’’ one of her first published short stories, begins with the main character already emancipated. At the beginning of the story, Eleanor, a strong woman with a clear sense of her own desires, has entered into an unconventional marriage with Charles Faraday that affords her the opportunity to express her individuality outside the traditional boundaries of this union. However, while she has been able to withstand social pressure to conform to delineated female roles, she ultimately cannot ignore the dictates of her own heart. As a result, by the end of the story, she has moved from freedom to the bondage of a traditional marriage. In her depiction of Eleanor’s journey, Chopin exemplifies the human as well as social limitations that impede the quest for freedom.

Chopin created Eleanor as a reflection of the growing women’s movement in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when an increasing number of women questioned traditional notions of marriage and motherhood. As a ‘‘new woman’’ Eleanor clearly rejects the primacy of social judgments of behavior, developing her own sense of her identity. At the beginning of the story, she has agreed to enter into a marriage with Charles Faraday, but only because they have both determined that their union will not restrict either partner’s individuality. They idealistically view marriage, as noted by Barbara H. Solomon in her introduction to The Awakening and Selected Stories, as ‘‘an unfinished, incompletely defined institution,’’ where husband and wife are continually making ‘‘new decisions’’ and not playing ‘‘mechanical roles.’’

The first new decision Eleanor makes is to not publish an engagement announcement in the local paper. Eleanor had ‘‘endured long and patiently the trials that beset her path when she chose to diverge from the beaten walks of female Plymdaledom.’’ Her overwhelming need to roam ‘‘the heights of free thought, and taste the sweets of a spiritual emancipation’’ had given her the strength to endure social condemnation.

Charles appreciates Eleanor’s ‘‘clear intellect’’ and ‘‘the beautiful revelations of her mind’’ and so he encourages her to engage with him in the study of the world around them. They seem well suited to each other, each complimenting and balancing the other’s qualities. Her intellectual curiosity piques his own while his humor and optimism temper her earnestness and intensity. She is to him an ideal woman, one who will not reshape her identity into the traditional role of wife. They decide ‘‘to be governed by no precedential methods. Marriage was to be a form, that while fixing legally their relation to each other, was in no wise to touch the individuality of either.’’ As a result, marriage becomes for her ‘‘the open portal through which she might seek the embellishments that her strong, graceful mentality deserved.’’

Per Seyersted, in his biography on Chopin, writes that Eleanor is not a reflection of the more radical tenets of the emerging women’s movement. He notes that Eleanor will enter into marriage with Charles only on an equal footing, but she accomplishes this by cooperating with him ‘‘without any of the antagonism often attributed to her emancipationist sister.’’ Seyersted argues that the story promotes real emancipation, ‘‘not the ‘quasiemancipation’ [Chopin] authorially attributes to women showing their protest by wearing strange clothes, but the true, inner kind of growth and independence.’’ Eleanor and Charles’s union, as the narrator notes, is based on ‘‘trust in each other’s love, honor, courtesy.’’ Chopin, however, did not ignore the complexities of such a union, especially when human nature intervenes.

As Chopin traces the complications that arise in the couple’s marriage, she illustrates her point that the ideal of freedom that Charles and Eleanor envision can never be obtained in any kind of meaningful relationship. When the two are separated by their individual desires for fulfillment, Chopin suggests that human nature will inevitably impede this type of modern redefinition of love and marriage.

Neither Charles nor Eleanor is influenced by social dictates. The couple stoically face up to the public outcry when they decide that Eleanor will study in Paris and that Charles will continue his teaching at home. The society of Plymdale suffers ‘‘indignant astonishment at the effrontery of the situation. . . . that two young people should presume to introduce such innovations into matrimony!’’ The gossips incorrectly conclude that ‘‘he must have already tired of her idiosyncrasies, since he had left her in Paris.’’ Yet when they question the prudence of Eleanor living alone in Paris (‘‘of all places. . . . Why not at once in Hades?’’), they illustrate the possibility of complications that could arise in this ideal marriage, complications that the couple have refused to acknowledge. As a result, the two ignore the gossip and write each other frequent, long letters after they are separated.

Neither, however, had considered the impact of the loneliness and subsequent need for companionship that would result from such a separation. Charles’s genial nature prompt him to seek out the company of the Beaton family, who welcomed him frequently into their home. Chopin inserts a note of irony into Charles’s relationship with the Beatons, who enjoy a traditional family dynamic, with Mr. Beaton teaching at the nearby university while Mrs. Beaton’s ‘‘aspirations went not further than the desire for her family’s good, and her bearing announced in its every feature, the satisfaction of completed hopes.’’ The comfort Charles finds in their company suggests that his nature is more conventional than he realizes.

His appreciation of the Beaton family extends to their daughter Kitty, whose ‘‘girlish charms’’ and ‘‘soft shining light of her eyes’’ sexually attract Charles. Determined to promote honesty in his marriage, Charles writes Eleanor of his attraction to the girl, apparently convinced that his wife’s progressive thinking and logical sensibility will override any feelings of jealousy. Charles, however, miscalculates, ignoring the strength of this very human emotion.

Chopin suggests that Eleanor responds with jealousy to Charles’s attentions to Kitty, as evidenced by her late and cold letter to him. Her subsequent actions, however, are not as clearly drawn. Not long before Charles’s arrival in Paris, Eleanor is overcome with ‘‘a misery of the heart, against which her reason was in armed rebellion.’’ Eventually she crumbles ‘‘into a storm of sobs and tears,’’ a ‘‘signal of surrender.’’

The narrator refuses to interpret the scene, explaining that the reason for Eleanor’s despondency ‘‘will never be learned unless she chooses to disclose it herself.’’ Chopin only hints at the possibilities: Eleanor may have entered into a romantic relationship with the artist who is painting her portrait and is coming to the painful decision to give him up; or she recognizes that she cannot bear to be separated from her husband and so has decided to give up Paris and return home with him. Either explanation for her outburst involves a very human response. Eleanor could have decided to turn to another in her loneliness, suspecting that her husband was doing the same. Or perhaps she could have come to the realization that her love for Charles was more important than her need for independence, and thus to ensure that Charles would no longer depend on the Beatons for company, she would give up Paris. The only clue Chopin will allow reflects the emergence of Eleanor’s humanness during her breakdown: ‘‘Reason did good work and stood its ground bravely, but against it were the too great odds of a woman’s heart, backed by the soft prejudices of a far-reaching heredity.’’

As is the case with many of Chopin’s heroines, Eleanor finds the obstacles to her independence overwhelming. She has been able to withstand social pressures to conform to traditional notions of a woman’s role, but she cannot hold up against the demands of her own nature. By the end of the story, Eleanor retains a small degree of freedom; she, not Charles, makes the decision for the two of them to return home. Yet, Charles’s final response to her suggests that their union will deteriorate into a conventional relationship. When she admits that his attentions to Kitty stirred her jealousy, he forces her back into a stereotype, insisting ‘‘I love her none the less for it, but my Nellie is only a woman after all.’’ Chopin adds a nice touch of irony in response, noting that ‘‘with man’s usual inconsistency,’’ Charles had forgotten his own bout of jealousy.

By the end of the story, Eleanor and Charles have given up their idealistic vision of the efficacy of the modern marriage, and Eleanor has relinquished a good measure of her independence. In this bittersweet story, Chopin illustrates a woman’s journey from freedom to repression, suggesting that the requirements of the human heart complicate the best of intentions.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on ‘‘A Point at Issue!,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Perkins is an instructor of American literature and film.

Early Feminist Tendencies of Kate Chopin

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2098

Can women and men be equal? The question appears prosaic and even simplistic. But it elicits a larger question: what is equality? Is it something that exists in nature, or does it spring from the machinations of society? How Kate Chopin answers that question in her short story, ‘‘A Point at Issue!,’’ is a manifestation of both her liberal mindset—especially by mid-nineteenth century standards, which was when the story was written—and of the blossoming of that mindset from within the confines of a society holding fast to the notion that a woman’s position in the hierarchy of the household was strictly beneath her husband. Chopin produces a sly retelling of the happy-ever-after wedding tale and sets up for her readers a revolutionary theory of equality within the union of marriage. The ending does not promise that the vows of equality and mutual respect will be lasting, but it does something more: it turns the tables on what were then perceived as conventional patterns of thought about marriage.

In some ways, the story reads like a sitcom: a couple meets; the man and woman fall in love and attempt to set up an arrangement wherein they share their lives as equals; the two separate temporarily to pursue their individual interests; misunderstandings ensue, but all is gilded with a happy ending. On the surface, it is almost a tale of manners, a comedy of errors. It is easy to envision any number of television stars—dependant upon the generation of the reader, of course—starring in the televised version of the story, or to imagine a laugh track when Charles trips over his chair as he starts to chase down his wife, who is riding in a carriage with another man. But what Chopin is doing in ‘‘A Point at Issue!’’ is far subtler than the broad comedic gestures of a sitcom. In the span of a short tale, Chopin lays down the tenets of her vision of women’s liberation—to be seen as an intellectual equal, and to be given the same opportunities for cerebral advance as men—then layers those desires with societal expectations, exposing the hurdles that stand, even today, in the way of men and women being able to operate on an equal plane. This is a common topic today, but at the time Chopin wrote ‘‘A Point at Issue!,’’ the thoughts were revolutionary— so much so that Chopin’s early work, such as this story, contains outlines of her later stories that loudly decry the inequality between husband and wife.

The story begins with shame. Eleanor Gail shudders at the sight of her name in the local newspaper’s small notice proclaiming: ‘‘MARRIED— On Tuesday, May 11, Eleanor Gail to Charles Faraday.’’ Although the notice is inobtrusive— ‘‘modestly wedged’’—to Eleanor, it is an invitation for the rest of society to scorn at her. Eleanor has previously refused to hold a fancy wedding including members of the community and has made a conscious choice to step away from the expected paths of other young ladies. The narrator explains that Eleanor sees the marriage announcement as ‘‘an indelicate thrusting of herself upon the public notice’’ and that when she sees the notice, ‘‘she was plunged in regret at having made to the proprieties the concession of permitting it.’’ Eleanor chose to ‘‘diverge from the beaten walks of Plymdaledom,’’ with ‘‘Plymdaledom’’ representing a marriage to someone in one’s own social and economic status. From the first paragraph, the reader knows that Eleanor is different, that she is not afraid of going against societal norms.

In fact, Eleanor knowingly accepts the appearance of being ‘‘relegated to a place amid that large and ill-assorted family of ‘cranks.’’’ For, regardless of ‘‘the disappointed public’’ she is an ‘‘ideal woman’’ in the eyes of her husband. She expresses regret only for having given any concessions to societal norms at all. The private life she has chosen affords her an equality that cannot be weighted in public terms. While the ladies of Plymdale were ‘‘condemning her present . . . unsparing of her past, and full with damning prognostic of her future,’’ Charles Faraday ‘‘had caught a look from her eyes into his that he recognized at once as a free masonry of intellect,’’ a woman ‘‘able to grasp a question and anticipate conclusions by a quick intuition.’’ Charles and Eleanor’s courtship lasted for over a year, and in that time, rather than consider how many children to have or where they should live, they ‘‘knocked at the closed doors of philosophy—a field of study not normally open to women. Rather than court each other with family histories and idle chatter, Eleanor and Charles ‘‘went looking for the good things of life.’’

Charles’s admiration for Eleanor’s intellect did not flag upon the end of their courtship; in marriage, they vowed that ‘‘each was to remain a free integral of humanity, responsible to no dominating exactions of so-called marriage laws.’’ As Chopin expounds on the agreement between Eleanor and Charles regarding their relationship, the reader begins to see the full thrust of Chopin’s opinions regarding a woman’s right to think for herself, whether married or single. The couple scoffed at tradition and decided, in their marriage, to be ‘‘governed by no precedential methods.’’ Chopin created a new marriage contract through Charles and Eleanor, one that, according to Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s review in American Writers, closely emulated Chopin’s own marriage. Individuality was to remain intact, made possible through ‘‘trust in each other’s love, honor, courtesy, tempered by the reserving clause of readiness to meet the consequences of reciprocal liberty.’’

It is the final statement in that train of thought, with its ‘‘reserving clause,’’ that opens the door to the plot, and the ultimate point, of Chopin’s story, and foreshadows that there will, indeed, be repercussions to their novel model of marriage. Despite the young couple’s pre-planned, rational approach toward their relationship, when matters of the fidelity impinge upon ‘‘reciprocal liberty,’’ it is instinct that takes root as intellect takes flight. A test of marital fidelity reaches the bounds of rational thought, and the reader sees doubt take over even the most idealistic minds. Suspicion takes hold, and the ‘‘new marriage contract’’ is tested by the harshest of judges: the jealous heart.

After a long honeymoon, Charles ironically leaves Eleanor in Paris—the city of love—to follow her intellectual interests while he returns to the Unites States to run his business. Though they miss each other when apart, all is well between them while this arrangement ensues, and they carry on their intellectual relationship through letters. They are redoubtable in their powers of rationality and adherence to their modern arrangement, unfettered by envy or uncertainty. But Charles and Eleanor fall prey to the seduction of doubt.

It would seem, accordingly to the plot, that Eleanor is the first to fall jealous. But this line is blurred by Chopin’s word choices, which hint at the disdain she feels toward a man so callous as to expect his wife to be always above the caste of jealous society. Regarding the letter that Charles writes to his wife, the narrator explains that ‘‘with the cold-blooded impartiality of choosing a subject which he thought of neither more nor less prominent than the next, he descanted at some length upon the interesting emotions which Miss Kitty’s pretty femininity aroused in him.’’ What woman would not question the effusive praise and admitted sexual attraction related by her husband about another woman? As the narrator explains: ‘‘Reason did good work and stood its ground bravely, but against it were the too great odds of a woman’s heart, backed by the soft prejudices of a far-reaching heredity.’’ Here Chopin seems to indicate that a woman is, by her nature, the weaker sex, prone to fits of jealousy. But the events that follow indicate something more profound: when Chopin refers to ‘‘far-reaching heredity,’’ it is the heredity of mankind, not just of women. It is the eternal condition of man to be jealous, to want to possess another, and to be certain of one’s place in the world. Charles does not think twice about the words of praise he has related to his wife about another woman because he is faithful, but his fidelity does not make him immune to his own jealousy.

Charles comes to Paris after a long absence, and one day he sees his wife in a carriage, gaily conversing with another man. Charles immediately thinks the worst, but just as he considers leaping from his seat to ‘‘follow and demand an explanation,’’ his ‘‘better self and better senses [come] quickly back to him.’’ But are these really his better senses and his better self? Had he leapt from where he sat in the Parisian café, bounded to the horse carriage and bellowed in anger at the sight of his beloved carrying on with another man, might not that have been the more honest presentation of his feelings for Eleanor? The reader is left to ponder these questions, for the event never comes to pass. Charles reasons himself out of his state of vengeful anger, and Eleanor never learns that Charles experienced his jealous rage.

Both husband and wife fall prey to the same natural weakness, but the way that they relate their feelings to each other in this regard hints at a rupture in their union that is likely to create a permanent emotional divide. By the end of the story, it could be interpreted that, because Eleanor asks her husband to take her back to the states with him, she has somehow given the power in the relationship to her husband. But it may just as easily be interpreted that, in fact, by evidencing her desire to be with him, and in admitting her jealousy, she has opened her heart, and her soul, to the possibility of true intimacy and equality. When he responds with shock at her belief that he ‘‘cared’’ for another woman, she believes him heartily, and says, ‘‘there are certain things which a woman can’t philosophize about, any more than she can about death when it touches that which is near to her.’’ Eleanor has brought her humanity to bear on the misunderstandings she and her husband have shared, and it brings out the best in her. Charles, on the other hand, says nothing to Eleanor about his doubts, and instead reduces Eleanor from her status as ‘‘pre-eminent’’ and ‘‘his ideal woman’’ to that of ‘‘only a woman,’’ like any other. The reader might at this point agree with Charles that Eleanor has a woman’s frailty and that Charles is the stronger of the two, but for the final sentence of the story: ‘‘With man’s usual inconsistency, he had quite forgotten the episode of the portrait.’’ Charles, in seeing his wife’s weakness exposed so clearly, stands tall in his righteousness, forgetting his own identical imperfection.

Chopin seems to be winking at the reader, offering an irony to those sympathetic to her views. Hers is a tentative leaning to the possibility of the intellectual emancipation of women, and a precursor to her most acclaimed work, The Awakening, in which she more openly calls for the emancipation of women from the stifling confines of marriage, to which her society clung so tightly. It is unclear whether it was Chopin’s deliberate choice to speak subtly about the infidelities of a man’s mind in regard to his wife, or the result of a young writer still timid about bearing her beliefs about equality to a public unaccustomed to the notion of a wife as the equal of her husband. In either case, the end result is a delightfully subtle and slyly political reproach of men’s refusal to recognize the full potential of their wives. In ‘‘A Point at Issue!,’’ Charles may think he has pegged his wife as ‘‘only a woman,’’ hypocritically forgiving her for her petty jealousy, but it is actually Eleanor who truly understands the nature of the relationship between man and wife. And, it was Chopin who saw that, for all the whispers of equality in the nineteenth century, women remained placed behind their men.

Source: Allison DeFrees, Critical Essay on ‘‘A Point at Issue!,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. DeFrees is a published writer and an editor with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Virginia and a law degree from the University of Texas.

A More Powerful Female Realism

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2791

Kate Chopin was never a feminist in the dictionary sense of the term, that is, she never joined or supported any of the organizations through which women fought to get ‘‘political, economic, and social rights equal to those of men.’’ Not only did she shy away from societies and issues in general, but she probably regarded the New World feminists as unrealistic when they so closely allied themselves with efforts to elevate men to their own supposedly very high level of purity; she undoubtedly concurred with the early George Sand, who felt that woman largely had the same drives as man and therefore also should have his ‘‘rights.’’

Though American literary permissiveness was slowly being somewhat extended in matters connected with the senses—we might point to the fact that R. W. Gilder published Whitman and that Reedy’s Mirror gave space to sex-scientists like Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis—the feminists turned their back on a novel like Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins because the author dared to combine her plea for a single standard with a discreet mention of male promiscuity and its results. As usual, Kate Chopin was a detached observer, a skeptic who could not share any easy optimism. When a friend praised Mrs. Grand’s book, in which there is much talk about women’s rights, but no suggestion that females as well as men have sexual urges, she exclaimed in her diary: ‘‘She thinks ‘the Heavenly Twin’ a book calculated to do incalculable good in the world: by helping young girls to a fuller comprehension of truth in the marriage relation! Truth is certainly concealed in a well for most of us.’’

Just as Mrs. Chopin saw that the problems confronting her sex were too complicated to admit of easy solutions, she was also well acquainted with the manifold tendencies in the women themselves. It seems more than an accident that her three earliest extant stories are each in turn devoted to one of what we might call the three main types of women: the ‘‘feminine,’’ the ‘‘emancipated,’’ and the ‘‘modern’’ (to use the terminology of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex), and that the tension between the two leading components of this triad was to reverberate through her whole oeuvre.

‘‘Euphrasie,’’ Kate Chopin’s first tale from 1888, is the story of a feminine or traditional heroine, that is, a woman of the kind who accepts the patriarchal view of her role very pointedly expressed, for example, in the marriage sermon of Father Beaulieu of Cloutierville: ‘‘Madame, be submissive to your husband . . . You no longer belong to yourself.’’

In a society where man makes the rules, woman is often kept in a state of tutelage and regarded as property or as a servant. Her ‘‘lack of self assertion’’ is equated with ‘‘the perfection of womanliness,’’ as Mrs. Chopin later expressed it in a story. The female’s capital is her body and her innocence, and she should be attractive and playful enough for the man to want her, while showing a reticence and resistance which can gratify his sense of conquest, or ‘‘the main-instinct of possession,’’ as the author termed it in another tale. What man wishes, writes Simone de Beauvoir, ‘‘is that this struggle remain a game for him, while for woman it involves . . . [a recognition of] him as her destiny.’’ In the man’s world, woman should accept a special standard for the ‘‘more expansive’’ sex, and for herself, she should eagerly welcome the ‘‘sanctity of motherhood.’’ As Mme. de Staël’s Corinne is told: Whatever extraordinary gifts she may have, her duty and ‘‘her proper destiny is to devote herself to her husband and to the raising of her children.’’

Euphrasie is a dutiful daughter, and also a loyal fiancée as she tries to hide even from herself that she has suddenly fallen in love with someone else than the man she is engaged to. In the tradition of the feminine woman, she accepts the role of the passive, self-obliterating object as she makes no attempt to influence her fate, and she is willing to break her heart and proceed with the marriage, even though she considers it immoral to kiss her fiancé when she does not love him. (It is interesting to note that the author, in her very first story, on this point echoes George Sand; she does not openly offend by saying in so many words that Euphrasie should have kissed the other man when it becomes evident that they are mutually attracted, but that is what she implies.) As behooves a feminine woman, she lets the men decide her destiny: When her fiancé learns the truth by accident, he sets her free, thus—in Euphrasie’s words—saving her from the sin a marriage to him would have meant to her.

As has been noted before, Kate Chopin put this story aside for a few years and destroyed the next two she wrote. The original draft of ‘‘Euphrasie’’ is lost, and we do not know why she titled the tale after the girl’s fiancé when she later revised and shortened it. Nor do we know anything about the two other stories, except that the first was set on Grand Isle, and that the second, ‘‘A Poor Girl,’’ was offensive to editorial eyes, perhaps because the author already here was too open about untraditional urges in women.

The next of Kate Chopin’s tales which has come down to us is ‘‘Wiser than a God.’’ It is the story of Paula Von Stoltz, a young woman who works hard to become a concert pianist. She loves the rich George Brainard, but when he asks her to follow a calling that asks ‘‘only for the labor of loving,’’ she replies that marriage does not enter into the ‘‘purpose of [her] life.’’ George insists that he does not ask her to give up anything; she tells him, however, that music to her is ‘‘something dearer than life, than riches, even than love.’’ This is too contrary to George’s idea of woman’s role; calling Paula mad, he lectures her and declares that even if the one who loved him had taken the vows as a nun, she would owe it to herself, to him, and to God to be his wife. But Fräulein Von Stoltz leaves to become an internationally renowned pianist, and her later constant companion is a composer who is wise enough not to make any emotional demands on her.

Paula largely answers to Simone de Beauvoir’s definition of the emancipated woman that is, a female who ‘‘wants to be active, a taker, and refuses the passivity man means to impose on her’’; who insists on the active transcendence of a subject, the pour soi, rather than the passive immanence of an object, the en soi; and who attempts to achieve an existentialist authenticity through making a conscious choice, giving her own laws, realizing her essence, and making herself her own destiny.

The pride indicated in Paula’s family name does not manifest itself in a haughty attitude toward her admirer; she is soft-spoken compared to the impetuous, youthful George who insists that she is throwing him into ‘‘a gulf . . . of everlasting misery.’’ But she speaks up when she realizes they are in two different worlds, that he represents the patriarchal view of woman, and she the view of Margaret Fuller that women so inclined should be allowed to leave aside motherhood and domesticity and instead use their wings to soar toward the transcendence of a nonbiological career. ‘‘Wiser than a God’’ has something of Mme. de Staël’s Corinne in that George for a moment believes he can accept a wife who lives not solely for him and his children; unlike the French heroine, however, Paula tells her suitor that life is less important to her than the unhampered exertion of what she considers her authentic calling and her true self.

The self-sacrifice represented by Corinne’s suicide to set Oswald free is unthinkable in the Kate Chopin heroines who are awakened to unusual gifts or impulses in themselves and to self-assertion. ‘‘Euphrasie’’ proves that it is not female submission as such which the author leaves out in her writings, but only the concessions to sentimentality and conventionality, the violations of the logic in the various types of heroines. The author combines in these two tales a detachment and objectivity with a tender understanding and respect for both the feminine and the emancipated young lady.

In the third story we have from Mrs. Chopin, ‘‘A Point at Issue,’’—she turns to modern woman, that is, the female who insists on being a subject and man’s equal, but who cooperates with the male rather than fighting him, without any of the antagonism often attributed to her emancipationist sister. Such modern women were not uncommon at the time, and when they married, some decided not to take their husband’s name, that sign of ownership, but to keep their own. In 1895, for example, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed the statements which such a woman and her husband had made when they entered their ‘‘advanced matrimony.’’ She not only kept her maiden name, but also declared that she and her suitor entered marriage with the understanding that both should preserve their individuality and that he should not ‘‘let this marriage interfere with the life work she had chosen.’’

Unlike Paula of the previous story, Eleanor Gail of ‘‘A Point at Issue’’ does wed her suitor, Charles Faraday; they decide, however:

. . . to be governed by no precedential methods. Marriage was to be a form, that while fixing legally their relation to each other, was in no wise to touch the individuality of either; that was to be preserved intact. Each was to remain a free integral of humanity, responsible to no dominating exactions of so-called marriage laws. And the element that was to make possible such a union was trust in each other’s love, honor, courtesy, tempered by the reserving clause of readiness to meet the consequences of reciprocal liberty.

The Latin proverb which Kate Chopin gave as a motto for the previous story: ‘‘To love and be wise is scarcely granted even to a god,’’ should more appropriately have been put at the head of ‘‘A Point at Issue.’’ While Euphrasie disregards the conflict between love and reason because she has been indoctrinated with the idea of leaving the responsibility for her life to a man, and Paula avoids it by devoting herself to art and making her own decisions, Eleanor is the one really to be put to the test, as she, like her husband, believes that she can both love and be wise as they share a life in ‘‘Plymdale’’ as equals.

The two progressive lovers seem well fitted for their venture. Eleanor, who combines her ‘‘graceful womanly charms’’ with a lack of self-consciousness, has chosen to ‘‘diverge from the beaten walks of female Plymdaledom . . . [and taste] the sweets of a spiritual emancipation.’’ This strange person is, like her mathematician husband, ‘‘possessed of a clear intellect: sharp in its reasoning, strong and unprejudiced in its outlook. She was that rara avis, a logical woman.’’ The two are ready to take broad views of life and humanity as they live in the harmony of a united purpose and ‘‘a free masonry of intellect.’’ Being more learned, Charles leads the way when they, for example, study science, but with her ‘‘oftentimes in her eagerness taking the lead.’’

Faraday agrees with his wife that she shall spend a year or two alone in Paris learning French. Once he tells her in a letter how a girl had momentarily charmed him, feeling no qualms in doing so as he saw it as unimportant, and, besides, ‘‘Was not Eleanor’s large comprehensiveness far above the littleness of ordinary women?’’ While he thinks no more of the matter, Eleanor cannot escape oldfashioned jealousy; nor can Charles when he joins her in Paris for the summer and one day sees her with another man, who later turns out to be a painter doing her portrait. For a moment he wants to kill the ‘‘villain,’’ but reason takes over, even before he learns that his jealousy was unfounded.

As a result of these incidents, both retreat one step from their advanced stand. Eleanor rejoins her husband in America, and, being unable to forget how jealousy made her suffer like a ‘‘distressed goddess,’’ she has gained insight into her own nature and knows that, as she tells Charles, ‘‘there are certain things which a woman can’t philosophize about.’’ He has learned nothing from his agony, however, while Eleanor’s affliction causes him to slip into the traditional attitude of the male when he patronizingly concludes: ‘‘I love her none the less for it, but my Nellie is only a woman, after all.’’ And the author adds: ‘‘With a man’s usual inconsistency, he had quite forgotten the episode of the portrait.’’

In her first two stories, Kate Chopin had betrayed a possible involvement with marriage only when she in ‘‘Wiser than a God,’’ with what looks like mild irony, speaks of ‘‘the serious offices of wifehood and matrimony’’ which constitute all of life to the woman Brainard eventually marries. When there is a somewhat more pronounced suggestion of an engagement in the third tale, it is again on the issue of woman and matrimony. The author by no means makes it clear that she speaks only for Eleanor when she writes: ‘‘Marriage, which marks too often the closing period of a woman’s intellectual existence, was to be in her case the open portal through which she might seek the embellishments that her strong, graceful mentality deserved.’’ It is interesting to note the surprising juxtaposition of marriage and death with which the story opens when it informs us that the wedding announcement of the Faradays was printed side by side with a ‘‘somber-clad’’ advertisement for ‘‘marble and granite monuments.’’

The impression we are left with by this tale is that Kate Chopin sympathizes with Eleanor even more than with Euphrasie and Paula and that she wishes the Faradays success in their venture to live as perfect equals. She appears to favor female emancipation, not the ‘‘quasi-emancipation’’ she authorially attributes to women showing their protest by wearing strange clothes, but the true, inner kind of growth and independence. She also seems to favor the couple’s lack of preconceptions as they attempt to make ‘‘innovations into matrimony’’ by introducing a marital liberty. But Mrs. Chopin saw the complexities of this point at issue: ‘‘Reason did good work,’’ she observes in connection with Eleanor’s fight with jealousy, ‘‘but against it were the too great odds of a woman’s heart, backed by the soft prejudices of a far-reaching heredity.’’ Among the inherited factors imposing themselves upon even a modern woman and a modern man are fundamental impulses, such as jealousy, and notions, such as that of male supremacy.

The idea of man’s superiority is emphasized as Charles falls back into the age-old concept that his wife is ‘‘only a woman.’’ It is perhaps a little surprising to find inconsistency attributed to him, a quality which traditionally typifies the so-called changeable women; how ever, it serves to stress his male overevaluation of himself: As a female, Eleanor is not expected to know much; therefore she can allow herself to feel that ‘‘she knew nothing,’’ and at the same time be open for learning. Charles, on the other hand, is a man, thus a superior being, and as such he does not need to be taught anything.

With her three first stories, Kate Chopin had stated her major theme: woman’s spiritual emancipation— or her ‘‘being set free from servitude, bondage, or restraint,’’ as the term has been defined— in connection with her men and her career. The sensuous is not touched upon in these tales, except in the case of Faraday. His ‘‘stronger man nature’’ may refer to expressions of eroticism, and we are told, apropos of the matter dealt with in his letter, that ‘‘it is idle to suppose that even the most exemplary men go through life with their eyes closed to woman’s beauty and their senses steeled against its charm.’’ The modest success of At Fault gave the author a certain encouragement and selfconfidence, and seemingly as a result of this, she began, as she entered the second stage of her career, to deal with woman’s emancipation also in the field of the senses.

Source: Per Seyersted, ‘‘A More Powerful Female Realism,’’ in Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, Louisiana State University Press, 1969, pp. 99–115.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview

Explore Study Guides