March 3, 2009
Kate Chopin on two Readings: “The Storm” and “A Shameful Affair”
To truly understand and appreciate Kate Chopin’s uniqueness in her style of writing, we have to locate her stories in the social era and attitudes of her time. We see Chopin’s breeding ground for women in later times. These two short stories dealing with two women who decide to deal with their weakness or perhaps strengths by having more of a male attitude in both sexual and emotional degree. Chopin lived in the Southern United States in which she bases most of her stories, ‘The Storm’, was Biloxi on the Gulf Coast of the state of Mississippi. The period of her writing is generally regarded as the ‘Victorian’ era. In the Victorian era, society was very conservative and male dominated. Women were generally expected to be subservient to their husbands in everything including sexual relations. A woman had no avenue to express her emotional feelings outside the restricted policy of marriage. Therefore, Kate Chopin should be seen as a feminist writer with a lot of courage, who favors to empower women in her writings and set them on the path of freedom from society restrictions in expressing their sexual desires. In her era feminism was a strange word and women empowerment was non-existent.
Kate Chopin’s story “The Storm” centers on the affairs of a married woman Calixta with her ex-lover Alcee during a storm. While her husband Bobinot and son Bibi were taking shelter from the driving rain, where it was thundering and lightning, in a store where they had gone to make some shopping, Calixta was home, sitting by the side window of the house “sewing furiously on a sewing machine” “She was greatly occupied and did not notice the approaching storm. The approaching storm was more than the storm of the hurricane weather and the emotional storm that shook her with the sudden appearance of her ex-lover whom she had no seen since her marriage. “She had not seen him very often since her marriage, and never alone.” In this story, we see a woman of the Victorian era who was very conscious of her duties as a housewife, but at the same time desirous to express her emotional needs for sexual gratification outside the constraints of marriage.
Michel Foucault in his theory on power and sexuality in The History of Sexuality, examines “the strict social and moral codes of the nineteenth-century married life and argues that husbands controlled the sexual practices and sexuality of powerless individuals such as women, children, and slaves.” As a female writer living in the Southern part of the United States, Kate Chopin through her female characters appears to have reversed the convention of the times, by positioning these women to reverse the dominant roles traditionally played by men in the marriage. While she is playing the role of a good Victorian era housewife, she at the same time expressed her emotional needs in her spontaneously accepting to make love to her ex-lover. This later was contrary to the socially acceptable behavior of the time. Kate Chopin again seems to challenge a male dominated society by empowering her female characters to take their emotions in the hand, and give rein to their oppressed emotional desires, which were stifled by conventional social norms. According to Farca: “Calixta shows the tension between the strict law of marriage and the adventurous realm of desire when she both connects to the role of faithful wife and then she engages in a sexual relation to Alcee. She is an [over-protective housewife] who sews, prepares supper for her family, and worries about her family. She is concerned about her loved ones and wonder how they are doing in the rain and makes sure that nothing wrong had happened to them during the storm: “‘Oh, Bobinot! You back! My! but I was uneasy. W’ere you been during the rain? An’ Bibi? he ain’t wet? he ain’t hurt?’ She clasped Bibi and was kissing him effusively” (596). Her husband and son consider that Calixta is powerless and describe her as weak and scared: “‘Mama’ll be ‘fraid, yes’”(4)
Mildred Orme, in the story “ A shameful Affair” gives us another perspective of the role which Kate Chopin assigned to her female characters in her works. Again to place the story in its right order of Victorian era Southern United States, a young aristocratic lady is visiting her family on their farm estate. She accidentally comes into contact with one of the workers, Fred Evelyn, who she thought was a regular farmhand. Mildred Orme asks her hostess, Mrs. Kraummer:
“And that broad-shouldered young fellow- is he a neighbor? The one who handed me my paper the other day- you remember?” “Gott, no! You might yust as well say he vas a tramp. Aber he vorks like a steam ingine”. “
One thing led to another, and when she eventually found herself alone with this young rugged stranger, who she obviously admired secretly, her chastity is violated when he grabbed her and smoothed with kisses. By normal Victorian convention, she was expected to play the part of an emotionally weak female. However, she took control of her emotions and did not allow him the pleasure of seeing her distress at his violating her. Once again, Kate Chopin shows up the strength in her female characters, by not allowing the men to play the dominant hand, but rather empowering her women to take control of their emotions by not allowing the men to play the dominant role always, but rather empowers women to take control of their emotions and actions. Though, the two storied really don’t have a happy ending we cannot elude the significance Chopin mad for women in general as, Larson’s thinks that
“Her concern with women’s place in society and in marriage, her refusal to mix guilt with sexuality, and her narrative writing of sympathetic separation makes her as relevant to modern readers in her marked ability to portrait character and setting…. it can be inspiring to know that more than a century ago women were not necessarily as different.” Kate
Chopin is a master when it a came to empower women to take control for themselves over the male dominion.
Farca, Paula Anca. »Foucault informs Kate Chopin’s short fiction. » Academic Exchange Quarterly. 11.1 (Spring 2007): 120(4). (Accessed October 5, 2007)
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol 1, trad. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980.
Toth, Emily. Introduction. A Vocation and a Voice: Stories by Kate Chopin. Ed. Emily.
Ibid. Chopin, K: (1898) “The Storm”