Kate Chopin’s Short Stories
Kate Chopin’s Short Stories
Kate Chopin is often catalogued as an insightful writer who saw ahead of her own time. Her work is filled with examples of the powerful forces which are at play in the human spirit and which go beyond the conventions of society. Chopin captures the ineffable essence of human relationships, outside the rules of social order. Thus, in many of her stories, Chopin tackles marriage as a social convention that acts as a constraint on the life of the individual. Notably, her stories do not usually have intricate plot developments, but rather focus on life scenes where certain revelations or awakenings occur.
The Story of an Hour and The Storm are two of Kate Chopin’s best known pieces of short fiction, both taking up the theme of marriage as their main focus. Ripe Figs is a very brief sketch, which does not focus on marriage, but which, as it shall be seen, shares in the lyrical and revelatory quality of the other two stories. Thus, the three stories offer an important perspective on Chopin’s work: the author focuses on revelation or awakening as the central point of her discourse.
Revelation can take many forms, but in Chopin’s works it is a short escape from the stream of life, somewhere outside the quotidian of existence. The Story of an Hour, Chopin’s best known short fiction, is, as its title emphasizes, the story of a very brief moment in a woman’s life. The text tells the story of Mrs. Mallard who finds out suddenly that there has been a terrible railroad accident and that her husband is on the list of the victims. Her first normal reaction is to burst into tears and isolate herself in a room.
The withdrawal into this room, away from the others, and the pleasant, cheerful view out of the window bring a sudden realization upon her: the death of her husband actually means freedom, the freedom to live for herself only and to enjoy her own life. The story obviously has potent feminist connotations, as Mrs. Mallard discovers freedom for the first time, freedom from marriage as a compelling social institution and from her role as a wife. This awakening is all the more powerful as the woman realizes that she feels liberated despite the love for her husband and despite his gentleness towards her.
She does feel grief, but under the influence of the tranquility of her own room and peaceful view she has from her window, she has the revelation of a life of freedom for her inner self: “She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.
”(Chopin 260) What Mrs. Mallard welcomes is merely a life dedicated to herself only, in which no sacrifice is required of her. The privacy of her own room symbolizes this future inner freedom that she hopes for. Critic Daniel Deneau interprets Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to the prospect of a life that belongs to herself only, as the action of a powerful and perhaps supernatural force that is apt to transform the woman’s perspective on her own life and on her place in the world:
“This ‘something,’ this ‘it,’ which oddly arrives from the sky, exerts a powerful physical influence on Louise and leaves her with a totally new perspective on her self and her place in the scheme of things. In a limited space, and without the assistance of a psychological vocabulary, Chopin may have been forced to rely on the indefinite, the unidentified, which, as best we can judge, is some powerful force, something supernatural, something beyond the realm of mundane experience or the rule of logic. ”(Deneau 212)
Mrs. Mallard awakens to a new perspective of herself and her place in the universe, which is markedly outside the conventional social order. The revelation is all the more baffling as it is connected with a tragic event related to the death of a husband. Chopin thus ignores convention and focuses on the liberated human spirit that can find itself outside the ties of society and tradition. More than an awakening, the moment is also accompanied by a feeling of abandonment. This is significant because Mrs.
Mallard abandons herself to her own, hidden longings and sentiments: “When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free! ’ The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body. ”(Chopin 260) The strong emotion that she feels at the news of her husband’s death causes an inner quake that brings her own hidden desires to the surface.
She is now prepared to live for herself, since it is the first time she actually escapes from the constraints of the social self and gets a glimpse of her own inner life: “There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. ”(Chopin 260) The ending of the story is all the more dramatic as after the brief confrontation with her own self and the happiness felt at her impending freedom, Mrs.
Mallard suddenly sees her husband returning home. Significantly, the rest of the family misunderstands the woman’s seizure and eventual death upon seeing her husband alive, as a sign of shock and incredible joy. Society thus reacts in a conventional way and is blind to the revelation that has come upon Mrs. Mallard. The Storm also focuses on marriage, only from a different point of view. Again, the story focuses on a very brief but intensely revelatory moment in the life of a woman named Calixta.
It is not accidental that Chopin uses a storm as the background for the amorous and passionate encounter that takes place between Calixta and an old lover, Mr. Alcee. The storm symbolizes here freedom and unleashed passion, a moment of disturbance in nature’s calm. The outbreak of the storm and its short but tumultuous moment coincide with the unexpected encounter of the two lovers who had obviously been separated very long. Mr. Alcee’s visit to Calixta seems both unexpected and unusual, as the two appear to have kept their distance for a very long time.
As in The Story of an Hour, Chopin targets here social convention and conformity. Thus, the two lovers are both married and therefore their brief moment of passion is obviously adulterous. Moreover, they come from very different layers of society, a fact which is emphasized primarily by the language style that they use in conversation. These two breaches of morality and convention are all the more striking as the story is written at the end of the nineteenth century when social behavior was very closely monitored.
According to Bert Bender, the social order is violated in order to assert the unification between the human and universal rhythms, symbolized by the two parallel acts, the sexual encounter and the storm: “The Storm is remarkable not only for the freedom it asserts in the face of the suffocating conventionality of the 1890’s, but for the lyrical ease with which it unites human and universal rhythms to celebrate ‘the procreative urge of the world. ’ The story realizes Kate Chopin’s dream of woman’s renewed birthright for passionate self-fulfillment.
”(Bender 261) Like The Story of an Hour, this text celebrates the rights of human passion to exist outside the impositions of society. The discoveries that the two lovers make are similar to those obtained by Mrs. Mallard in the previous story. Here, the two lovers share not only their passion but also a moment of freedom and revelation, in which they overcome their obedience to social convention. Calixta’s body is associated to a lily to emphasize the woman’s belonging to the spirit of nature itself: “They did not heed the crashing torrents, and the roar of the elements made her laugh as she lay in his arms.
She was a revelation in that dim, mysterious chamber; as white as the couch she lay upon. Her firm, elastic flesh that was knowing for the first time its birthright, was like a creamy lily that the sun invites to contribute its breath and perfume to the undying life of the world. ”(Chopin 345) The image of the body as a white lily in the ‘dim, mysterious chamber’ underscores the state of revelation which animates the two lovers. Moreover, the idea of ‘birthright’ is very significant, as it alludes to the rights of the natural human being unenclosed by the laws of society.
Chopin thus manages to capture the intensity and sensuality of the lovers’ encounter as a moment of absolute liberation. As in The Story of an Hour where Mrs. Mallard had abandoned herself to her own, yet unknown feelings, here the two lovers abandon themselves to passion and to one another without interrupting the moment with any thoughts of regret or guilt: “The generous abundance of her passion, without guile or trickery, was like a white flame which penetrated and found response in depths of his own sensuous nature that had never yet been reached.
”(Chopin 345) What is more, the two lovers do not feel any guilt after their love making either. The text thus closes with the return of Calixta’s husband and his son after the storm and then with the affectionate exchange of letters between Mr. Alcee and his wife. The lovers are suddenly and completely reintegrated into their families once the storm ends. This fact emphasizes even more the idea that the passion they share briefly is a revelation of their true selves and that after this moment is passed they return to their customary social roles.
The third story under analysis here, Ripe Figs, is short text which also focuses on a momentary life scene. Here, the theme is not that of marriage or human relationships. The protagonists are a young girl, Babette and her grandmother, Maman – Nainaine. However, the story shares the lyrical quality of the other two texts and the parallel between the rhythms of human life and that of nature. The grandmother who counts her time with the aid of seasonal succession seems to live outside the hassle of modern life, in a space and time that obey natural rather than artificial laws.
The story thus underlines primarily the coincidence between the rhythms of nature and those of the human spirit. Another focus of Ripe Figs is the relationship between the young girl and her grandmother, as representing stark differences in age. Babette is young and restless ‘as a humming – bird’ while the grandmother seems to live outside the course of time: “But warm rains came along and plenty of strong sunshine; and though Maman-Nainaine was as patient as the statue of la Madone, and Babette as restless as a humming-bird, the first thing they both knew it was hot summer-time.
”(Chopin 174) For Maman – Nainaine, the heat and impatience of youth have gone, and she seems to live in a privileged cyclic motion of nature. Like the other characters presented in this analysis, the grandmother has been liberated from the immediate laws and requirements of life to live in conformity with nature.
She thus guides her granddaughter according to the rules of seasonal cycle, choosing the ripening of figs and the blooming of the chrysanthemums as her references in time: “’Babette,’ continued Maman-Nainaine, as she peeled the very plumpest figs with her pointed silver fruit-knife, ‘you will carry my love to them all down on Bayou-Boeuf. And tell your tante Frosine I shall look for her at Toussaint–when the chrysanthemums are in bloom. ’”(Chopin 174) There is therefore a substantial difference between the young girl who waits impatiently for the future and the progression of time and the grandmother who lives in the cyclic motion of nature.
The story therefore reveals the contrasts between the young and the old age as well as a significant parallelism between the life of nature and the human spirit. The three stories under analysis, The Story of an Hour, The Storm and Ripe Figs disclose essential aspects of Kate Chopin’s fiction. The main purport of Chopin’s works is thus to show the connection between the life of nature and the human spirit, in the form of sudden revelation or the escape of an individual from the quotidian existence.
Chopin’s works are therefore psychologically modern, focusing on the relationship between the true human self and the social self. What is striking about the stories is that the stories always have an unconventional content. Far from suggesting any guilt in her characters, Chopin emphasizes their sense of liberation and freedom. Furthermore, the author chooses to present this sudden liberation in the form of revelation. The characters in her stories do not necessarily flee from burdensome, dreadful situation. Mrs. Mallard and Calixta are both comfortable if not thoroughly happy in their marriages.
However, in Chopin’s view, the chains imposed by society have to be repelled in order to attain a sense of one’s true self. It is in this moment of revelation that the characters finally get a sense of their own nature and manage to escape the pressure of social convention. Works Cited: Bender, Bert. “Kate Chopin’s Lyrical Short Stories. ” Studies in Short Fiction. Vol. XI (3) 1974. 257-266. Deneau, Daniel P. “Chopin’s The Story of an Hour. ”The Explicator 61 (4) 2003. 210-214. Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Other Stories. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 10 November 2016
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