• Email
  • Print

Sensuous Women

Madame Ratignolle hoped that Robert would exercise extreme caution in dealing with the Mexicans, who, she considered, were a treacherous people, unscrupulous and revengeful. She trusted she did them no injustice in thus condemning them as a race. She had known personally but one Mexican, who made and sold excellent tamales, and whom she would have trusted implicitly, so soft-spoken was he. One day he was arrested for stabbing his wife. She never knew whether he had been hanged or not.

The confident and insouciant holder of this view is a young Creole matron who, with her children (“About every two years she had a baby”) and with other young women and their children of the same ilk, summers at a pension on Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico to escape the city heat and the threat of yellow fever in New Orleans. Mme. Ratignolle’s friend and protégée, Edna Pontellier, is the heroine of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, which, when it was published in 1899, was looked upon as so immoral, so revealing of “positively unseemly” truths that in St. Louis, Mrs. Chopin’s native town, the libraries banned it. She was cut dead by friends and acquaintances and, if this were not humiliation enough, she was blackballed when she was put up for membership in the St. Louis Fine Arts Club, a stigma that must not have been so quaint as it appears now since her writing career, which had theretofore thrived comfortably, began to peter out; after her disgrace—which apparently came to her as a surprise—she wrote only a handful of stories. She died at the age of fifty-three after a visit to the St. Louis Exposition of 1904 and her work (three novels, a hundred or more stories, a few poems and essays) went into eclipse.

It does not seem probable that she will burst into glory with the reissue of her complete works and the publication of a critical biography by Per Seyersted; but she is deserving of a good deal more attention than she has received, partly because she was long before her time in dealing with sexual passion and the intricate familial and personal emotions of women, and partly because she is an uncommonly entertaining writer. The stories, a good many of them only a page or two long, are frequently no more than anecdotes or episodes or even tricks; but, like Maupassant, whom she translated and by whom she was much influenced, she usually embedded her skeleton in sufficient flesh and musculature to conceal the joints.

The unseemly truths” that aroused her critics when she published The Awakening were that married women, like married men, could have roving eyes and unchaste thoughts, could, indeed, kick over the traces and trample upon marriage and motherhood and all other privileges and responsibilities accruing to a respectable woman. It is a theorem of great antiquity and Mrs. Chopin conducts her demonstration in a way so stylized and discreet that it is hard, in 1970, to remember that in 1899 Mrs. Grundy was the editor of every book-page in the country.

Edna Pontellier of The Awakening, at twenty-eight, finds herself in the languid, fragrant summer on Grand Isle becoming aware of a world of possibilities that she had involuntarily foresworn by entering upon married love before, save in imagination, she had ever known any other kind. She is the only American at the pension this summer and, while her husband—considerably her senior—is a Creole, she is not comfortable in the society of these French women from the Vieux Carré whose composure is predicated on a strict and inviolable code of conduct and whose little flirtations and demure sorties into the risqué only serve to emphasize that code; there is no such thing, the author observes several times in various stories, as a jealous Creole husband.

Mrs. Pontellier is a Presbyterian from Anglo-Saxon Kentucky and nothing in her earlier experience has prepared her for her companions’ “entire absence of prudery. Their freedom of expression was at first incomprehensible to her, though she had no difficulty in reconciling it with a lofty chastity which in the Creole woman seems to be inborn and unmistakable.” She is shocked to blushes by Mme. Ratignolle’s account to an old gentleman of one of her accouchements, in which she omits not one forthright detail, and by her frequent allusions to her present pregnancy although the signs of it are not yet manifest. Mme. Ratignolle belongs to a species of woman “who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels…. Many of them were delicious in the role.”

During the week, in the absence of their husbands, they sew, making smallclothes for their children, they nibble at bonbons, and they read Daudet and Goncourt; they slowly stroll on the beach in their pretty muslins as they guard their complexions with parasols and veils. Their talk is gossip or statements of their hard-boiled opinions like that voiced by Mme. Ratignolle when she pronounces on the Mexicans. And they engage in persiflage with Robert Lebrun, the son of the proprietress, who “each summer at Grand Isle had constituted himself the devoted attendant of some fair dame or damsel. Sometimes it was a young girl, again a widow; but as often as not it was some interesting married woman.” The year before, he had indentured himself to the securely unattainable Mme. Ratignolle; this year, when he is twenty-six, he directs his serio-comic chivalry to Mrs. Pontellier, but she, unacquainted with the rituals of the courtly game, takes his overtures at face value and falls in love with him. This is the beginning of her headlong struggle to extricate herself from a life of custom and convention and to plunge into one of romantic freedom.

One evening, as she is listening to an irascible and old and gifted pianist playing Chopin, she is profoundly and wildly moved, brought to tears by unobjectified desire and despair. That same night, after the impromptu recital, she conquers her dread of the sea and learns to swim. The heady excitement of her physical independence and her splurge of emotion (as dangerous heretofore as the waters of the Gulf) combine in a feeling of exultation, “as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul.” Robert, vulnerable—to his own surprise and dismay—is bewitched but, honorable, he goes away to Mexico, bidding her a perfunctory good-bye.

Back in New Orleans, Edna becomes wayward, giving up her Tuesdays at home and refusing to return the calls of ladies whose husbands are important to Mr. Pontellier’s business; she hires an atelier in which she paints plausible banalities, and she lets her ménage drift along any old way so that her husband, by nature mild, explodes over the scorched fish and the imperfect roast and stalks off to his club.

When he goes to New York on a business trip of several months and her children are sent to their grandmother, she sinks luxuriously into a life of indolence and pleasure, going to the race track and having intimate dinners with a smooth Creole man-about-town to whose advances she at last succumbs without shame or remorse but with “a dull pang of regret because it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her….” Lebrun returns from Mexico but when she makes it clear to him that she is prepared to enter upon a serious liaison, he flees again, leaving a note that reads, “Good-by—because I love you.” Now she goes back to Grand Isle, the birthplace of her restive awakening and, naked, walks out into the sea until the shore is far and her strength is gone and she is drowned.

It is a very odd book to have been written in America at the end of the nineteenth century,” writes Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore. “It is not even a ‘problem novel.’ No case for free love or women’s rights or the injustice of marriage is argued. The heroine is simply a sensuous woman who follows her inclinations without thinking much about these issues or tormenting herself with her conscience.” In none of her fiction does Mrs. Chopin applaud or condemn; her compassion shows itself in humor, in glancing suggestions of pathos, but she remains aloof and raises a cautionary white-gloved hand to her reader, enjoining him not to become involved. The performance is carried off admirably and the reader is left satisfied; she lightly intoxicates but closes the bar before her guests can over-tipple.

Marital disturbance and discontent are so recurrent in her work that one cannot help doubting the testimony of Mrs. Chopin’s biographers and that of her children when they declare that her own marriage was one of exemplary fulfillment and serenity. Probably she was outwardly like Mme. Ratignolle and the other “mother-women” of Grand Isle; and it is even possible that she and her husband were, like the Ratignolles, entirely in harmony: “If ever the fusion of two human beings into one had been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union.” But she knows too much, she is too amused, she is too nicely attuned to irony to convince us that her connubial life was heaven on earth.

Kate Chopin, nee Katherine O’Flaherty, was born in 1851 in St. Louis which, while it was southern and aristocratically French Creole (it had been settled by colonists from New Orleans) was also, as “the Gateway to the West,” a tough and energetic frontier town, abounding exuberantly with settlers and fur traders, boatmen and soldiers of fortune from the east who had come out to join the great journey to the gold-fields and buffalo grounds and fertile reaches of western farming land. There were, as well, immigrants from Ireland and from Germany. Thomas O’Flaherty, Katherine’s father, had come from County Galway and, in these boom times, he prospered as a ship chandler, wholesale grocer, and commission merchant; because he had wit and spoke French pleasingly, he was taken up by the elite of St. Louis.

He married a Creole wife who died in childbed, and soon thereafter he married another Creole girl, Eliza Faris, Katherine’s mother, who was descended from pedigreed French settlers who had come to America at the beginning of the eighteenth century. When Katherine was not yet five, O’Flaherty was killed in an accident when, as one of the founders of the Pacific Railroad, he was on the inaugural train at the opening of the St. Louis-Jefferson City branch.

Katherine grew up in a household of devoutly religious widows: her great grandmother, Mme. Charleville, her grandmother, and her mother. Mme. Charleville, according to Kate Chopin’s biographer Per Seyersted, “combined the warmth of the Creole mother and the regal bearing of the French chatelaine with something of the resourcefulness of an American frontier woman and the open-mindedness found among the women of French literary salons.” From her, the child heard engrossing tales of the founding fathers of St. Louis which, often involving peccadilloes or outright scandals, may have prepared the soil for the harvest of realism she would later reap.

At home and at the day school of the Sacred Heart, whose atmosphere was predominantly Gallic, Kate studied French classics and read Walter Scott, Grimm, Dickens; with a friend, who was to become a nun, she “secretly” learned Italian. She played the piano, she was schooled in needlework and the domestic sciences and, for the stimulation of her intellect and so that she could converse vigorously, she was introduced to scientific discoveries and to politics. (During the war, she was an ardent Rebel although St. Louis was under stern Union rule, and on one occasion she “tore down the union flag from the front porch when the Yanks tied it up there” and was very nearly arrested.)

After her formal education, she was for two years one of the belles of the town, but she complained in her commonplace book that balls and skating parties and “amusement ad infinitum” diverted her from her reading and writing, although she seems to have managed, between the jollifications of her debutante season, to read Goethe (her German was proficient) and Dante (her clandestine study of Italian evidently paid off), Cervantes, Molière, Corneille, Racine, Coleridge, Longfellow, Jane Austen.

On a visit to New Orleans, she learned to smoke and she met “a Mrs. Bader…[who] was the famous Miss Ferringer”—singer and Schauspielerin, who in order to support indigent parents went upon the stage, thereby not only retaining respect, but gaining it from every quarter. Her talents and womanly attractions won her a kind and loving husband—Mr. Bader—one of the first merchants of New Orleans and a man worth $60,000. Even in liberal New Orleans, actresses were seldom welcomed to the drawing rooms of the select; young Kate, giddy with cigarettes, was bouleversée by this emancipated woman artist and doubtless fancied herself in such a role.

At nineteen, she married Oscar Chopin (“I am going to be married…to the right man,” she confided to her commonplace book. “It does not seem strange as I thought it would—I feel perfectly calm, perfectly collected”), a Louisiana cotton factor, and went with him to live in New Orleans, first in the Vieux Carré and then in the Garden District, the American part of the city. She was a tireless student of the voluptuous Mediterranean city; she rode the trolley cars, spying and eavesdropping, and she roamed the warm streets and slumberous bypaths where oleanders and magnolias bloomed in hidden gardens; she was much attracted to the restless waterfront with its various multitudes of Creoles and Cajuns, Negroes and mulattoes, who were lazy and murderous, superstitious and gallant, dreamy and volatile, and she learned their pungent patois thoroughly. Although it had officially been banned, voodoo was still practiced, and octoroon balls were still being held, lending to New Orleans an exotic mystery enhanced by the fragrant flowers and flowering trees and the hypnotic air, sometimes balmy and sometimes smothering.

At the same time as she was making her explorations, Mrs. Chopin was punctilious as a society woman and as a wife and as the mother of six children; besides, she took part in a sophisticated cultural life, heard Wagner at the French Opera House, saw Edwin Booth and Sarah Bernhardt at the theater, read Lafcadio Hearn’s column in the newspaper. She went back to St. Louis for long visits with her kinswomen, and in the summer she removed her children to Grand Isle away from the plague of Yellow Jack, which struck Louisiana almost annually.

In 1879, Oscar Chopin’s factorage suffered so much from poor cotton yields because of undue rains that he closed his business and moved his family to the small town of Cloutierville on the Cane River, a tributary of the Red, in Natchitoches Parish. Here, while he managed several small plantations that had been in his family, and ran a general store, his wife continued to accumulate impressions of people and places, riding through the countryside on horseback, endearing herself to the villagers and the country people and the Creole gentry in their splendid houses. She cut a figure of magnificence and benevolence, distributing baskets of food, dispensing medicine and sympathy. After four years of this agreeable life, Oscar died of swamp fever, leaving Kate a widow at thirty. She lingered on for a year, capably managing the business, and then returned to St. Louis where, in 1887, she began to write.

Mrs. Chopin never remarried. It seems likely that once she had had the experience of matrimony, she was not tempted to repeat it; it had been an obligation that she had met honorably and probably with enjoyment, but she may have been secretly relieved that she was now free to get down to her real business of writing, while at the same time she could maintain the glamorous role of stricken widow. In one of the stories. “Madame Martel’s Christmas Eve,” she writes,

…Madame Martel was one of those women—not rare among Creoles—who make a luxury of grief…. More than one woman had secretly resolved, in the event of a like bereavement, to model her own widowhood upon just such lines. And there were men who felt that death would lose half its sting if, in dying they might bear away with them the assurance of being mourned so faithfully, so persistently as Madame Martel mourned her departed husband.

In “A Lady of Bayou St. John,” a beautiful child-bride (“So young that she romped with the dogs, teased the parrot, and could not fall asleep at night unless old black Manna-Loulou sat beside her bed and told her stories”) accepts the attentions of a neighboring Frenchman while her husband is somewhere in Virginia with Beauregard and she is alone with her slaves; but just as she has succumbed altogether to her passion and has agreed to run away to Paris, she has word that her husband has been killed, and without a second thought she renounces her lover and dedicates the rest of her life to an inconsolable widowhood.

Not all the stories are as triste as these; there is one mischievously lighthearted brief tale, “The Storm,” which recounts the quick, sweet capitulation, “without guile or trickery,” of a Cajun housewife to an old admirer who seeks shelter in her house from a pouring rain; her husband and child are away from home, and she takes time out from her sewing for this cozy roll in the hay. When the storm is over,

Calixta, on the gallery, watched Alcée ride away. He turned and smiled at her with a beaming face; and she lifted her pretty chin in the air and laughed aloud.

Guiltless, she joyfully welcomes her family when they come home, exclaims over her husband’s gift of shrimps of which she is especially fond,

Shrimps! Oh, Bobinôt! You too good of’ anything!” And she gave him a smacking kiss on the cheek that resounded.

And while the happy family feast on shrimps, Alcée, at his own house, writes a uxorious letter to his wife away in Biloxi with their babies, and the story ends like a fairy tale, “So the storm passed and every one was happy.”

Mrs. Chopin’s landscapes and her interiors, metropolitan or rural, are animate and immediately perceived; there is no self-indulgent clutter in them, just as her characters rarely are cartoons, generically recognizable as they may be. She is sparing and precise whether she is dealing with simple folk or people of elaborate construction, and she seems to have known and to have comprehended fully a great variety of people in a variety of strata. In At Fault, her first novel, she uses both St. Louis and Natchitoches Parish as settings, and tenants them not only with her familiars—Negro servants, Creole planters and chatelaines, Cajun rustics—but as well with a covey of barbarous Midwestern city women who eat chocolates at matinées, read morbid novels, dress fit to kill, and cow their husbands. In the following passage, two of them are on their way to the theater:

In full garb, she presented the figure of a splendid woman; trim and tight in a black silk gown of expensive quality, heavy with jets which hung and shone, and jangled from every available point of her person. Not a thread of her yellow hair was misplaced. She shone with cleanliness, and her broad expressionless face and meaningless blue eyes were set to a goodhumored readiness for laughter, which would be wholesome if not musical. She exhaled a fragrance of patchouly or jockey-club, or something odorous and “strong” that clung to every article of her apparel, even to the yellow kid gloves which she would now be forced to put on during her ride in the car. Mrs. Dawson, attired with equal richness and style, showed more of individuality in her toilet.

As they quitted the house she observed to her friend:

I wish you’d let up on that smell; its enough to sicken a body.”

I know you don’t like it, Lou,” was Mrs. Worthington’s apologetic and half disconcerted reply, “and I was careful as could be. Give you my word, I didn’t think you could notice it.”

Notice it? Gee!” responded Mrs. Worthington.

I do not know when I have seen “Gee!” used to convey such a wealth of social and individual information.

Mr. Seyersted’s biography of this interesting woman is solemn and effusive, but it is competent and a good many of the data are illuminating; if some of his interpretations are arguable, his premises are ingenious.

It will be my policy from now on to rebuke anyone who misuses the word “hopefully” in print as Mr. Seyersted does when he writes, “…her ambition was to become known among the nationally important critics and hopefully have their encouragement.” The Louisiana State University Press is also, by association, guilty of this misdemeanor.

  • Email
  • Print