As we embark on the twenty-first century, the obligation to abide by traditional gender roles and social conventions has become somewhat of an ancient practice. Presently, some may feel as though they are trapped by certain social conventions. However, for the protagonists of Kate Chopin’s late nineteenth century “The Storm” and Zora Neale Hurston’s early twentieth century “Sweat”, the Social Conventions of the time are clearly identifiable.
In Chopin’s “The Storm”, a married women named Calixta, is content and occupied in her situation and with the duties that come with maintaining a home. She sat at a side window sewing furiously on a sewing machine. She was greatly occupied and did not notice the approaching storm” (Chopin sec. II, ph. 1). Her husband, Bobinot and son, Bibi were at Friedheimer’s store when it was evident that a storm was near. They were left no choice but to remain there until the storm subsided. Back at the house, Calixta hurries to ready the house and gather clothes as they hung outside to dry. Just then she discovered a familiar acquaintance, Alicee Laballiere, riding through the gate toward her.
Previously involved, but now lead separate lives. He politely asks Calixta if he can wait the storm out on the gallery but it grew more aggressive and they realized he would need to enter the house. Awkwardness can be observed in their reunion, “His voice and her own startled her as if from a trance” (sec. II, ph. 5). They had not seen each other as often since her marriage to Bobinot and never while alone. While inside, they talk about the storm and the whereabouts of Calixta’s husband and son.
Starring out a window, she attempts to remain concerned about the weather. The social conventions engraved in her appeared to govern her actions as she tried to ignore the temptation that stood before her. As he stands to look over her shoulder, he finally gives into his own desires. He takes her in an embrace and kisses her, while images of the past played in his mind. The feelings they once shared never faded and they give into one another. As the rain subsides, Calixta and Alicee say their goodbyes. Bobinot and Bibi finally trudge home.
They do their best to scrape of the mud from their journey, “Then, prepared for the worst the meeting with an over-scrupulous housewife, they entered cautiously at the back door” (sec. III, ph 3). Calixta was preparing dinner and appeared joyful for Bobinot and Bibi’s safe return. She was over ecstatic when Bobinot presented her with a can of shrimp and they sit down to dinner while conversing and laughing uncontrollably. Alicee Laballiere writes to his wife, Clarisse, later that night. In a somewhat routine manner he acknowledges that he misses her and the children and tells her not too hurry home.
On the receiving end, Clarisse was pleased to receive Alicee’s letter. In her response, she comments on society and old friends. It is evident that the break from one another was welcomed more than either cared to admit. “So the storm passed and every one was happy” (sec. V, ph. 2). In Hurston’s “Sweat”, Social Conventions exhibit themselves quite differently than the afore mentioned. The main character, Delia, African-American washwoman is devoted to efficiency and quality in her occupation as well as to her overbearing husband, Sykes.
Fifteen years before, she was beautiful, happy and Sykes made an effort to keep her that way. Now unhappy in the life she leads, she is hopeful and remains consistent in her day-to-day responsibilities. “She collected the soiled clothes on Saturday when she returned the clean things. Sunday night after church, she sorted them and put the white things to soak. It saved her almost a half day’s start” (Hurston pg. 1, ph. 1). She sings a somber tune as she works intently as ever. As she wonders where her husband has gone with her pony, he tosses his bullwhip on top of her.
She is terrified, as the whip resembles a snake. Aware of Delia’s great fear, Sykes is amused by his ability to frighten her. She is angered and he dismisses her as always snorting, “Yeah, you just come from de church house on a Sunday night, but heah you is gone to work on them clothes. You ain’t nuthing but a hypocrite. One of them amen-corner Christians–sing, whoop and shout, then come home and wash white folks clothes on the Sabbath” (pg. 1, ph. 13). Sykes makes a point to interfere with her routine to show his disgust in her service to the whites.
He stepped roughly on the whitest pile of things, kicking the helter-skelter as he crossed the room” (pg. 1, ph. 14). She races to pick up after him and they continue exchanging words. Delia surprises him by defending herself with an iron skillet, when Sykes would have ordinarily struck her. She addresses his severity and adultery, he stammers, puts down her appearance, then leaves, not to return till morning. Delia completes her chores and lays to rest for the night. She finds herself saying aloud, “Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly.
Somehow or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing” (pg. 2, ph. 7). That night he returns and offensively shoves her aside; she shifts herself without speaking, “A triumphant indifference to all that he was or did” (pg. 2, ph. 9). The following morning Delia sets off to make her delivery. She passes some town’s men sitting outside the local store and they gossip about her lost purpose and her disgusting, unfaithful husband. Sykes soon makes an appearance with his mistress; aware and proud that Delia might see them. Sykes wishes to do away with Delia and brings her a box, which he sets on the front steps.
Inside the box is a rattlesnake, which absolutely terrifies her. Afraid to come near and tormented by it she continues her routine. One Sunday she returns from church to begin washing. She is petrified to discover that Sykes had relocated the snake in one of her baskets. She darted out of the house and hid in the hay barn till Sykes returned. As he entered the house Sykes noticed a serene like calm until he disturbed a pot lid by the stove. His instinct was to leap into the bedroom and eventually on to the bed. The snake bit him, sending him into agonizing pain.
Delia could hear Sykes writhing in pain, “All the terror, all the horror, all the rage that man possibly could express, without a recognizable human sound” (pg. 6, ph. 13). She could do nothing; her legs had failed her. Delia started toward the house and saw her husband close to death. She felt pity and due to her hesitation there was nothing that she could do. Too much time had elapsed to save him. She waited in the outside heat, as her husband lay dying. Social Conventions of the era dictated the lifestyles of the characters in Chopin’s “The Storm” and Hurston’s “Sweat”.
In “The Storm” Calixta and Alicee were former lovers who seemed to know they could never marry. Married to different people and with children, they occupied themselves with life and the responsibilities they were obligated to. The final sentence of the story proves that neither planned on changing their situation for what they really wanted… freedom for moment. In “Sweat”, Delia is undoubtedly unhappy. She accepted her place in society and her abusive, cheating husband because not much was expected from a colored woman of that time.
Both imprisoned by physical and emotional barriers in their roles, little is done on their part to break free. However, they do so in their own little way. Calixta gives in, if only for a moment, to Alicee while her husband and child are away. Yet she returns to her commonplace existence. Delia does nothing to keep her husband from being bitten from the agitated rattlesnake looming within the house. Then briefly faces him as he lay dying. The Social Conventions of the respective times encouraged the women to accept their place in life and in turn to make the best of it.
Courtney from Study Moose
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