Personal transformation in the novels and short stories of Kate Chopin

Last month I decided to take a slight detour from the usual fare and venture into some feminist fiction rather than nonfiction. While Kate Chopin never called herself a feminist (or suffragist, a term she would have been more familiar with), many of her short stories and two published novels center on strong-willed women and their ambivalent feelings toward traditionally female interests, especially marriage and childrearing.

The awakeningChopin (née O’Flaherty) was born in St. Louis and lived most of her life there, but she collected the material for her fiction from the decade she spent living with her Creole husband Oscar in New Orleans and the central Louisiana Creole country. When her husband died in 1882 she moved back to St. Louis and began writing. She was a popular and prolific short story writer, penning 100 or so in her lifetime. Her two novels – “At Fault,” written toward the beginning of her career, and “The Awakening,” written toward the end – were less well received, likely because they contain the most overt exploration of how Victorian cultural and religious institutions converged to stifle a woman’s happiness, especially if she was married.

Both stories’ heroines are grappling with a physical longing for men who are not their husbands, as well as a more visceral longing for freedom and clarity of purpose. In “The Awakening,” Edna Pontellier is wife and mother of two young boys. She married her husband, Léonce, impulsively, wanting to scandalize her Protestant parents by marrying a Catholic Creole. While vacationing on Grand Isle with her family, she meets Robert Lebrun, a young bachelor who flirts mercilessly with the women around him, single and married, including Edna. But with her, his usually benign attentions blossom into genuine and mutual love. Robert, realizing it is futile to love a married woman, soon leaves Louisiana. Although she is sad when he leaves, their romance is only the beginning of a series of changes for Edna. Realizing that she has not been truly fulfilled by the life society has afforded her, she rebels. She neglects her household duties and social customs, begins studying seriously as an artist and eventually decides to move out of the large house she shares with her husband and children. When Robert inevitably returns, the two take up where they left off – almost. Edna is prepared to transform her romantic life as she has transformed the rest of her life, but Robert cannot bring himself to engage in an affair that he knows will ruin her. He leaves, this time for good. Edna, inconsolable, swims out into the Gulf of Mexico and lets herself sink into the water.

In “At Fault,” Thérèse Lafirme is a young widow who falls in love with a divorcee, David Hosmer. Being an unflinching Catholic, she declines his eventual proposal on account of his status, even though she loves him in return. Furthermore, she convinces him to remarry his first wife, Fanny. At first it seems as if her plan might succeed. David promises to be a more attentive husband – if only to please Thérèse, whom he still loves madly – and succeeds for a little while. But things eventually crumble. David resents his wife for keeping him apart from Thérèse, and Fanny, sensing his resentment and also his love for Thérèse, takes back up with the bottle. Thérèse, confronted with the universal unhappiness her advice has wrought, begins to suspect her staid morality has steered her wrong this time. Tensions reach their breaking point one day and Fanny runs away from home during a storm. Before Hosmer is able to persuade her to return, the cabin she’s taken refuge in is swept away by the choppy water and she drowns. Time passes. Hosmer, free again from the legal constraints of his marriage, and Thérèse, now free from her stringent notions of morality, are married. Their neighbors are scandalized by the entire series of events, but Thérèse and Hosmer ignore the gossip.

The message is clear: True fulfillment lies in casting aside restrictive customs and compulsory obligations, and relying on the guidance of your own mind. While “At Fault” is more optimistic than “The Awakening,” both Thérèse and Edna discover and transcend the flaws in the moral philosophies they’ve been taught to cling to – for Thérèse, it’s her religion, and for Edna, it’s her duty as a wife and mother. Both women are allowed to use their newfound knowledge for self-actualization, something that the female characters in Chopin’s short stories rarely get to do. Maybe this is because her short stories needed to remain palatable for mass consumption, and thus plotlines that should lead to the same character transformations stop short.

In the anthology’s title story, Zaïda is on the run to the altar. She’s young, naive and about to marry André, who her parents consider an unworthy brute (and rightly so – he is a heavy drinker and a notorious brawler). At a ball earlier in the evening she catches the eye of Telèsphore. He refuses to let her leave by herself – even though she assures him she’s perfectly capable of riding alone – and so is unwittingly drawn into helping her elope. When André arrives drunk and late to their destination, she quickly comes to her senses and refuses to marry him. Zaïda has very clearly made up her mind in that moment – she will not marry André no matter how much he begs. However, André refuses to let her leave, so he and Telèsphore must fight. When André is vanquished she comes along quietly with Telèsphore:

When he finally said to Zaïda, “Come, I’m going to take you home now,” and drew her shawl around her, pinning it under the chin, she was like a little child and followed whither he led in all confidence.

The titular character of the next story, “Athénaïse,” detests her husband, Cazeau, for no other reason than that she detests the general state of being married. “I can’t stan’ to live with a man,” she says. “To have him always there.” Cazeau is not cruel, or even disrespectful, but nonetheless she resents him because she married him without having any idea what marriage would be like, and realizes too late she’s made a hasty mistake.

“Why in the name of God had she married Cazeau? Her father had lashed her with the question a dozen times. Why indeed? It was difficult now for her to understand why, unless because she supposed it was customary for girls to marry when the right opportunity came. Cazeau, she knew, would make life more
comfortable for her …”

With the help of her brother she runs away to live on her own in a boarding house, and is ready to live the life of a single woman. Her fellow boarder, Mr. Gouvernail, falls in love with her and does not care that she is married. But sensing that she sees him only as a close friend – a stand-in for her brother – he makes no move. During her fourth week at the boarding house she discovers she is pregnant. This news awakens in her the first feelings of passion she has ever had for her husband, and soon she returns to him. In the final paragraphs her brother voices what the modern audience (and perhaps the author in writing it) must feel:

“But after he had deposited her at her own gate, and as he continued his way toward the rigolet, he could not help feeling that the affair had taken a very disappointing, an ordinary, a most commonplace turn, after all.”

Here I should note the drastic difference in how Edna and Athénaïse react to motherhood. Edna is frequently criticized by Léonce for failing to be properly attentive to their children. In the final chapters of “The Awakening,” after Robert has come back and Edna is about to commence an affair, her best friend Adèle Ratignolle admonishes her to “think of the children.” As Edna wades into the water:

“She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she had said to Adèle Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children. … The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’d slavery for the rest of her days.”

Through motherhood, Athénaïse experiences her first feelings of love for her husband. For Enda, motherhood is the final roadblock to her self-actualization.

In another story featuring Mr. Gouvernail, “A Respectable Woman,” he is briefly the love interest for Mrs. Baroda. Outwardly she appears to be very annoyed by him, and badgers her husband about when he will leave. But eventually she realizes that her feelings of annoyance are a perverted expression of deeper feelings of affection for Mr. Gouvernail.

“Mrs. Baroda was quite tempted to tell her husband – who was also her friend – of this folly that had seized her. But she did not yield to the temptation. Beside being a respectable woman she was a very sensible one; and she knew there are some battles in life which a human being must fight alone.”

Mrs. Baroda is tempted but does not give in, and eventually extinguishes entirely her feelings for Mr. Gouvernail. When a character does undergo a dramatic personality transformation in Chopin’s short stories, it usually toward gender conformity, not against it. Characters start out as fairly a-typical women but eventually find themselves behaving in a more typically feminine way. In “Regret,” Mamzelle Aurélie:

“… had never thought of marrying. She had never been in love. At the age of twenty she had received a proposal, which she had promptly declined, and at the age of fifty she had not yet lived to regret it.”

One day she is unexpectedly charged with watching her neighbor’s four children. Her feelings toward children are no different than her feelings toward marriage: she had never had any, nor had she ever wanted any. But during their two-week stay she finds her heart growing slowly warmer toward them, and when eventually the children must go back to their mother Mamzelle Aurélie cries “sobs that seemed to tear her very soul.”

There is one story in “A Night in Acadie” where the characters experience a transformation similar to what Edna and Thérèse experience. In “A Sentimental Soul,” two women are again the victims of oppressive social customs: Augustine Lacodie, who is derided for remarrying so soon, and Mamzelle Fleurette, whose fear of sin keeps her from showing even measured affection for a man she loves. Mamzelle Fleurette, who runs a small general store, is in love with Monsieur Lacodie. Mamzelle Fleurette has never acted on this love and keenly recognizes that she never can act on it beyond merely being friendly. After she is “roundly, unpityingly” scolded by her priest for even daring to think about another woman’s husband, Mamzelle Fleurette decides she must never speak to Lacodie again and goes out of her way to avoid seeing him. One day she is disturbed to see Augustine enter her general store. Lacodie is sick; every day it becomes more apparent that he will die and yet her worries of sin keep her from going to her friend until the very last minute. When he does die, Mamzelle Fleurette’s priest forbids her from going to the funeral. Augustine remarries within the year and everyone, including Mamzelle Fleurette, is scandalized. It’s then that Mamzelle Fleurette finally decides to “for the first time in her life take her conscience into her own keeping.” She hangs a picture of Lacodie on her wall “and she did not care if [Augustine] saw it or not.”

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