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Table of Contents
2. Sexuality in the second half of the 19th century
2.1 The danger of sexual desire
2.2 The Cult of True Womanhood
2.3 The New Woman
2.4. Women in the South
3. Sexuality in Kate Chopin’s short stories
5. Works Cited
It was a common belief of the 19th century Victorian society that unrestrained sex was a danger to the social order, as it was supposed to threaten the mental health and procreative capacity of the human being. In particular the sexual desires of women were increasingly regarded as inappropriate and unnatural, and were finally denied them altogether. Procreation ought be the only reason for women to engage in sexual intercourse. Consequently, sexual desires and passion hardly exists for most 19th century American literary heroines.
In contrast to this general tendency, Kate Chopin (1851-1904) repeatedly deals with the tabooing subject of women’s sexual urge and sensual experiences. Not only The Awakening reveals Chopin’s close examination of female sexuality, but also several of her short stories challenge cultural assumptions about the role of sex in a woman’s life: Kate Chopin’s protagonists commit adultery, renounce sex, or even turn their affections towards another woman respectively. Whether or not Chopin’s heroines experience their sexual awakening in or outside marriage, they all have in common that they cannot achieve personal self-fulfilment without accepting the sexual dimension of their needs. In a society in which patriarchy tended to confine women’s sexuality on motherhood and procreation, Kate Chopin’s writing is unique in American fiction of that time.
I will therefore examine the way how Kate Chopin depicts women’s sexual desires and refutes Victorian general postulation on female sexuality. First of all, I will give a picture of the views of Kate Chopin’s contemporaries on women’s sexuality and introduce the terms “The Cult of True Womanhood” and the “New Woman”. Then, I will analyse eight of Kate Chopin’s short stories that focus on women’s sexual experiences in and outside marriage. These are: “Athénaïse”, “A Shameful Affair”, “Fedora”, “At the ‘Cadian Ball”, “The Kiss”, “Her Letters”, “A Respectable Woman”, and “The Storm”.
2. 19th Century Assumptions on Female Sexuality
In the second half of the 19th century, during which Chopin wrote, more and more women of her class were becoming committed to various kinds of social reform, including that of their own social and political status. “Self-ownership” was a central topic of these feminist reformers, and when applied to women, had a specific sexual meaning. It signified the wife’s right to refuse to have sex with her husband and was closely linked with “voluntary motherhood”. In discussing freely women’s right on their own body and their sexual desires, women’s rights reformers and feminist free love advocates gradually overturned patriarchal views that had denied women sexual desires and confined them to the role of a submissive wife and mother.
2.1 The Danger of Sexual Desire
Far from denying and devaluating the importance of the sex instinct, Kate Chopin’s contemporaries believed in its omnipresence and power. Sensual or erotic feelings were seen as governed by an internal logic whose dynamic force was lust and whose outcome was personal ruin. Once sensual desires were stimulated they would become insatiable and dominate the unconscious and conscious life of the individual. Even sensual thoughts or fantasies were considered sufficient to trigger off this deteriorating chain reaction. Within a martial relationship temperate sex was seen as an essential source of health and vigour. However, producing a family and reproducing species was the higher goal of sex and gave it real legitimacy. Sexual contacts outside marriage were condemned.1
Even though a woman was seen as quintessentially sexual, as her physiology and emotions were controlled by her reproductive organs, popular scientists like Dr. William Acton claimed that most women had no or few sexual desires:2
“I should say that the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally…. Love of home, of children, and of domestic duties are the only passions they feel.”3 Since male sexuality was viewed as sinful animal, Acton saw in women the last hope of society.4 Certainly, there were also several physicians that did not believe in the frigidity of women. Elizabeth Blackwell, for example, who became the first female physician in the United States, said that frigidity was in the first place a product of upbringing: girls were taught that thinking about sex was sinful in order to keep them virginal until marriage. William Thompson and George Drysdale believed sexual repression to be an important cause of 19th century unhappiness and recommended sexual expression as a cure for both men and women.5
However, Acton’s repressive and orthodox views found wide approval and were reproduced in most 19th century advice books.
After all sex might have played little or no role in the way the Victorians thought about love. True love was spiritualised love and sex was not a way to demonstrate and sustain it. Consequently, many women supported the idea of spiritualised love as a basis of marriage as it gave them the power to control male desire and limit conception, and therefore expanded their control over their lives.6
2.2 “ The Cult of True Womanhood ”
Assumptions about ‘True Womanhood’ affected the physiological analysis of the female body and made scientists bent facts to support foregone conclusions. Barbara Welter described this ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ in detail in her well-known article of the same name in 1966.7 The historian extracted from 19th century women’s magazines, gift annuals, and religious literature four cardinal virtues by which a woman was judged and judged herself: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. These virtues were not only related to the Scriptures and therefore seen as a law given by Heaven, but also regarded as traits that result of her physiognomy.
Piety was regarded as the core of women’s virtues, as people thought that once a woman was religious the other virtues would naturally follow. Religion was seen as a special gift of God and Nature to womanhood, which was why women were given the task of bringing the world back from sin to salvation.
Purity, the second cardinal virtue of a woman, was considered as vital as piety. No sex education should spoil the innocence of an unmarried girl, and therefore mothers were advised to tell their daughters only very few necessary facts. Since for a woman the loss of her purity meant her social death she had to defend it against men who would try to convince her of the opposite. In this respect women were again seen as stronger and purer than men and had the task of improving men’s behaviour with delicacy and modesty.
Submissiveness and domesticity were the last virtues of a “True Woman”. Since men were appointed by God to be women’s superior, every woman should feel a natural desire to submit to her husband. It was the duty of a wife to minister to the comfort of her family at home, as home symbolised a shelter from the outside turbulences and threats to the family’s moral values.
Even though most women stand in for these four virtues, they did not necessarily do so because of an overpowering patriarch, but because they indirectly served women’s strive for independence: the claim to moral and spiritual superiority legitimated women’s roles as social critics and reformers and expanded their autonomy within and outside the household.8
2.3 The “ New Woman ”
The first step women took toward their own definition of womanhood was to defy traditional gender roles and create new female roles. The educated, independent professional woman emerged and threatened men’s monopoly of power and authority. Women in Europe and the United States developed “grass-roots” organizations as well as national and international lobbying groups to press for maternal and child welfare benefits. Many women used their authority as mothers to campaign for the expansion of women’s rights in society. The controversy over such subjects as premarital chastity, ignorance of sexual life, the profligacy of men, the “double standard” of sexual morality within and outside of marriage, venereal disease and the subject of birth control and its relationship to women’s emancipation became a public debate. More and more women considered that individual liberty and self-realization, even in matters of sexual expression, were as important for women as for men.9
The organised female movement for social reform was rooted in the radical abolitionist reform movement led by William Lloyd Garrison in the 1930s.10 Drawn from their homes by male patriotic rhetoric, and trained by them in leadership and lecturing skill, some of these women did not return to their homes but united with the new bourgeois women who had joint in sanitary and humanistic organisations during the Civil War. Transforming “The Cult of True Womanhood” to suit their needs, they moved into America’s corrupt and unjust cities not as self- confident feminists but as “True Women” that considered their virtues as a national resource.11 Moreover, building new institutions within the new cities, they did not confine themselves to social service, but addressed many of their own needs, served their own intellectual development and demanded equality in education, employment and vote. By the 1980s the ‘New Woman’ - a literary phrase popularised earlier by Henry James - was born. She rejected conventional female roles and the sexual norms of the bourgeois society and strove for personal self-fulfilment.12
2.4. Women in the South
According to Nancy Walker, women in the South and especially in the Creole culture were far less affected by the Victorian doctrines than the women in the North. They participated fully in the sensuous atmosphere that surrounded them, were well educated in literature and in the arts and enjoyed music, drinking wine, dancing and lavish entertainment.13
However, whereas in the North the family was undergoing subtle but significant modifications that weakened its patriarchal core, the southern family was moving towards its fullest expression of patriarchy in the 19th century. This was due to the growth of the black slave system, since the plantation was seen as a single social unit in which the patriarch controlled both his white and black families. Consequently, if the planter’s authority over his wife was threatened, he felt that his power over the slaves was in danger, too.
As the creation of female voluntary and reform associations required an urban setting that did not exist in the mainly rural South, the southern woman could not call upon any existing women’s organization to support a women’s rights movement. However, the Civil War changed the circumstances of southern women, weakened the patriarchal power and gave many southern women the chance to enter into public life. Their late emancipation recalled the development of their northern sisters decades before and started with the emergence of church based women organizations and ultimately resulted in a late women’s social rights and suffrage movement.14
3. Female Sexuality in Kate Chopin ’ s Short Stories
In 1970, on her honey-moon trip to New York, Kate Chopin met Victoria Clafflin, a famous suffragette and emancipated feminist of the Gilded Age. The little woman entreated Kate Chopin “not to fall into the useless degrading life of most married ladies,” but to “elevate her mind” and turn her attention to politics, commerce, question of state, and other traditionally male subjects.15 Kate Chopin assured her to do so, and even though she never was a political activist in the women’s rights movement and did not believe that her writing had a feminist, didactic purpose, she was anxious to record women’s strive for self-fulfilment. What is more, even though Kate Chopin surely was not a free love advocate, some of her stories deal with the sexual arousal of unmarried women and with the sexual attraction of married women to a lover. In showing that women’s sexual desires are not confined to motherhood and procreation, she overturns Victorian moral values and supports the idea of a pure and joyful female sexuality.
Yet there is one exception that proves the rule. Her short story “Athénaïse“ (1897) depicts a young wife who experiences her sexual awakening in the moment she realizes that she is pregnant. After being married, Athénaïse, a young woman known for her intemperate outbursts and stubbornness, experiences that her expectations about conjugal live do not meet with reality: “She called marriage a trap set for the feet of unwary and unsuspecting girls, and in round, unmeasured terms reproached her mother with treachery and deceit”16. One reason for Athénaïse’s disgust of conjugal life might be her lack of maturity. Her husband Cazeau depicts her as ”nothing but a chile in character” (1:439) and her very feature and expression “lurked a softness, a prettiness, a dewiness, that were perhaps too childlike, that savored of immaturity “ (1:432). Athénaïse’s determination not to accept the inevitable with patient resignation could be seen as a remarkable strife for independence. Yet, her inability to control her outbursts and her unwillingness to make a compromise is in fact a sign of childhood. As a result, Athénaïse is not yet prepared to fulfil the duties of a wife, but throws the keys of her new home at the feet of Cazeau’s former housekeeper and keeps visiting her parents’ house.
Moreover, she is certainly not prepared to meet Cazeau’s sexual demands on her after the wedding. Her disgust of his bare feet coupled with her wish to be back in the convent and her habit of sleeping alone on the lounge rather than in her marriage bed suggest that she entered marriage without any sexual desires and any knowledge of sexual intercourse. Cazeau’s playful kisses when she accepted his proposal had been the only sexual arousal she had ever experienced in her life. At that time she was rather flustered, but did not object to them. However, the sexual intimacy in marriage took her completely unawares. Naturally, she is scared by Cazeau, whose severity, masculinity and dominant character is even stressed, and regards his “passionate” and “rude” love as an offence. Not even the amatory advances of Gouvernail in New Orleans are able to arouse in her the sensuality that in Kate Chopin’s other women figures usually reveals the female sexual potential. Gouvernail means nothing to her than a substitute for her brother Montéclin who fulfils with his undemanding and brotherly caring the only relationship to a man she is able to enjoy at that point of time.
However, another reason for Athénaïse’s frigidity might lie in the 19th century canon not to spoil the innocence of a young girl by sex education. Neither her mother nor her friends respond to Athénaïse’s questions: “Her friends laughed at her, and refused to take seriously the hints which she threw out,-feeling her way to discover if marriage were as distasteful to other women as to herself” (1:435). Thus, the marital crisis might have been prevented if Athénaïse were not a victim of the Victorian tabooing attitude towards sexuality.
Athénaïse’s “enlightenment” finally comes through the interview with her landlady Sylvie who discovers her pregnancy. As soon as she realizes that she is pregnant “her whole being was steeped in a wave of ecstasy” and “her whole passionate nature was aroused as if by a miracle” (1:451). This ‘miracle’, which indicates her eventual sexual awakening, can be explained by Athénaïse’s moral training. The Victorian determination of procreation as the legitimation for sex make Athénaïse accept her sexuality and changes her view of marriage. She is not disgusted by the marital intimacy anymore, but longs for Cazeau and feels the “first purely sensuous tremor of her life” (1:451) when she thinks of him. Motherhood has transformed Athénaïse from a child to a woman and enables her to respond to the passion of her husband and to fulfil the role of a wife and mistress.
However, most heroines of Kate Chopin’s short stories do not depend on social justification in order to experience passion and sexual arousal. Yet, they can hardly ever free themselves from the moral values of their time, but are torn between their Victorian moral training and their own sexual desires. Usually, this conflict results in shame and unhappiness, as in the short story “A Shameful Affair” (1891). The story involves the dishonourable awakening of the clever but rather conceited young woman, Mildred Orme, who is vacationing on a farm in order to follow “exalted lines of thought” (1:132). Because of her snootiness and arrogance she usually ignores the farmhands, for they are “not so very nice to look at, and she was nothing of an anthropologist” (1:131), until the day when the erotic-masculine appearance of Fred Evelyn captures her interest and arouses her physically. Fred is a young bourgeois who spends his vacation working as a farmhand on the fields in order to experience life from a different perspective. Fred is said to be not at all intellectual, but “detests Ibsen and abuses Tolstoi. He doesn’t read ‘in books’ - says they are spectacles for the short-sighted to look at life through” (1:135). Obviously, Fred views reading as an aid for people who are too afraid of experiencing life on their own. Mildred, in contrast, favours reading a lot and tries to cultivate her mind by studying sophisticated books. Hence, the principles by which Mildred and Fred live could be hardly more opposing.
As Mildred does not know about Fred’s true origin, she mistakes him for an ordinary farmhand. Yet, her embarrassment at her attraction to Fred is not only caused by her ill thinking of ordinary people. The sexual and emotional feelings Fred arouses in her are completely unknown to Mildred. As the 19th century Victorian society called sexual desires outside marriage unwomanly, Mildred feels ashamed of her feelings. On top, Fred does not even seem to return them, which piques her a lot. Consequently, Mildred denies being attracted to the young man at all. Kate Chopin manages to present Mildred’s inner struggle to preserve her dignity with amusing irony:
“To be sure, clever young women of twenty, who are handsome, besides, who have refused their half dozen offers and are settling down to the conviction that life is a tedious affair, are not going to care a straw whether farmhands look at them or not. And Mildred did not care, and the thing would not have occupied her a moment if Satan had not intervened, in offering the employment which natural conditions had failed to supply” (1:132).
In fact, Mildred does care and “could have cried for vexation” (1:132) about Fred’s refusal to her request to drive her to church, which was an obvious attempt of her to break his reserve. The next day she follows Fred to the river and artfully manoeuvres herself into his arms. The whole setting suggests that Mildred is driven by an unconscious force rather than a conscious intention: the field of wheat she crosses is often used as a symbol of incarnation and resurrection. Thus, the “reflection of its golden glint in her eyes” (1:133) indicates her transformation into a more sensual, less rational being. Her awakened sexual longing is mirrored in the metaphors of the forest and the river. The forest is both a popular symbol for the subconscious and a popular setting for dramatic irrational actions, whereas the river is a common metaphor for fertility and renewal.
Fred is seduced by Mildred’s nearness and her facial expression that divulges her sexual desire. Yet, his surname “Evelyn”, which is related to the seducing Eve, as well as his fishing - seen as a fishing for Mildred - indicates that he is not as passive as he seems to be:
“He started violently at finding himself so close to a bronze-brown tangle that almost swept his chin - to a hot cheek only a few inches away from his shoulder, to a pair of young, dark eyes that gleamed for an instant unconscious things into his own” (1:134).
Fred kisses her and runs away, leaving Mildred stunned by shame at her own passionate response to the kiss. Mildred has never experienced love or sexual desire before. Although she appears to be a rather liberal-minded and independent woman, which is suggested by her reading of Ibsen17, her wish to spend the summer all by her self, and her high esteem of intellectual skills, she is not able to free herself from the dominant moral codes of her time. Consequently, she is unable to indulge freely in her delicious feelings, but fears them, and tries to suppress her passionate nature. Besides, not only Mildred has internalised Victorian values, also Fred is influenced by “The Cult of True Womanhood”: he takes the blame for the kiss upon him and is rather surprised to find out that Mildred blames herself as well.
Since Mildred cannot suppress her feelings for Fred although she is determined not to “bend the outward condition of her life to serve any shameful whim that chanced to visit her soul” (1:135), she finally decides to leave the farm.
Similar to Mildred, the title figure of “Fedora” (1897) for once follows her instincts and gives in to her sexual drive. Fedora, is a spinster-by-choice, for no one has ever met the ideal she has formed early in her life. Yet, Fedora does not seem to be very happy: her old-maidish affection of superior years, her severe and arrogant behaviour and her disinterest in the amusements of her sister’s friends indicate a lack of joy and light-heartedness in her life. One day though, she is all of a sudden attracted to a friend of her younger sister, whom she has been knowing for eight years already. Looking into his face, she suddenly realizes that “he was a man-in voice, in attitude, in bearing, in every sense-a man” (1:467-68). Without circumlocution the author indicates that Malthers’s masculinity appeals to Fedora’s sexual drive. From that moment Fedora experiences first love and sexual awakening as a mixture of rapture and astonishment. Her revolt against her stirred feelings is indicated by her insistence on driving the carriage to the station in order to pick up Malther’s sister: the charioteer is the personification of the ability to control one’s emotions, hence functions as a symbol of reason. Her eagerness to meet Malthers’s sister is based on the same desire that makes her touch and smell his hat and his coat: through her she hopes to create an intimacy between Malthers and herself. The intensification of
Fedora’s sensuality through her sexual awakening does not only concern the things that belong to Malthers but involve her whole environment: “Fedora loved it all-sky and woods and sunlight; sounds and smells” (1:468). The setting of the train station, which contains symbols of fertility, femininity and initiation, such as the grain, the green nature, the wooden hill, and the rhythmic blow of the hammers, and thus supports the idea of Fedora’s development into a more sensual and less rational being. In this, she undergoes the same development as Mildred, except of the slight difference that Fedora’s story stresses the joyful side of one’s sexual awakening. As Malthers’s sister turns out to look quite like her brother, Fedora succumbs to the temptation “to press a long penetrating kiss upon her mouth” (1:469). The sister is not pleased at all, and Fedora’s sudden reserve for the rest of the drive indicates that she feels ashamed of herself. Her kiss is certainly not a sign of her turning into a homosexual, but simply shows the uncontrolled intensity of her sexual desire. Instead of hoping for Malthers’s notice, she uses his sister as the only possible canal for her aroused feelings. As Emiliy Toth puts it: “The author seems to be suggesting that libido will out in some form, common or eccentric.”18
Equally rigorous is the behaviour of the hot-spirited Calixta and the southern belle Clarisse of the short story “At the ‘Cadian Ball” (1892). The young women represent two different role models of the Victorian age and have only one thing in common : they both love the handsome young planter Alcée Laballière, on whose plantation Clarisse lives. While the young lady, Clarisse, has seemingly adopted the mores of the Victorian age and plays the soft-spoken respectable lady, Calixta overturns these codes by freely showing her passionate nature. Her whole appearance signals unrestrained sensuality and eroticism; her figure is womanly, her voice seductive and her eyes are tantalizing and drowsy. Yet, Calixta exhibits vulgarity in speech and in behaviour. She like to swear “roundly in fine ‘Cadian French and with true Spanish spirit” (1:219) and without restraint slaps her friend into the face in front of the whole church community. There is also some rumour of her and Alcée having had some sort of tête-à-tête in Assumption a year before. As a result, not everyone views her Spanish heritage as an excuse for her improper behaviour, but regards her rather dismissively. When she meets Alcée at the ball, they play around a little and Calixta freely engages in his erotic kisses: “Calixta’s senses were reeling; and they weel-nigh left her when she felt Alcée’s lips brush her ear like the touch of a rose” (1:225).
Unlike Calixta, Clarisse’s moral education has made her develop a habit of hiding her feelings behind stiff politeness and sisterly kindness. Her reserved manner is supported by her outer appearance: “Dainty as a lily, hardy as a sunflower; slim, tall, graceful, like one of the reeds that grew in the marsh” (1:220). The metaphor “reed”, which symbols fickleness, gives a perfect picture of how Alcée experiences Clarisse’s attitude towards him: “Cold and kind and cruel by turn” (1:220). When Alcée, who is secretly in love with Clarisse, pants “a volley of hot, blistering love- words into her face” (1:220), she turns him down with a disdainful mutter. However, her censorious look indicates that she is not so much intimidated by his passionate outburst, but rather offended by his toil-stained appearance and his rude grip. When she realizes that her rejection drives Alcée from the plantation into the arms of Calixta, her jealousy is stirred and she follows him through the night to bring him back. Her resolute behaviour is not at all what one would expect of a “True Woman”, but resembles Calixta’s uncontrolled emotional reactions. Moreover, the savage attack on her white feet by the mosquitoes suggest that her urge to follow Alcée is not based on a virginal affection but on true love and sexual passion: the whiteness of her feet, indicating her innocence, is blurred by the red, itching bites, which stand for sexual intercourse.
Flexible like a “reed”, Clarisse has proved to be able to set aside her moral values if necessary. Having Alcée ‘rescued’ from Calixta, she transforms back into the respectable woman who is almost to shy to confess her love to Alcée. Resigning to what seems to be her fate, Calixta accepts the proposal of Bobinôt, a man she neither loves nor desires sexually. It almost seems as if the ‘respectable’ lady Clarisse is rewarded, whereas the ‘sensual’ Calixta is punished. Martha J. Cutter believes that Kate Chopin’s censored her aggressive female characters at the demands of her publishers.19
This, however, seems not to be the case in the short story “The Kiss”(1895). Nattie is a young woman who would eagerly commit adultery with her former lover Harvy, if he just went along. When he is sent by her naïve husband to give her a kiss, she “feels like a chess player who, by the clever handling of his pieces, sees the game taking the course intended” (1:381). Married only because she “liked and required the entourage which [her husband’s] wealth could give her” (1:379), she is not to be afraid to deceive her husband and hungrily await Harvey’s kiss.
Obviously, “The Kiss” depicts a woman who has not internalised the moral values of her time. Harvey’s suggestive and permissive attitude towards Nattie indicates that she has experienced her sexual awakening with him long before marriage. She seems to be perfectly aware of her needs and does not feel ashamed of her sexuality. However, Harvy thwarts Nattie’s plans: instead of kissing her, he plainly says that he had stopped kissing women altogether. Kate Chopin’s pitiless remark at the end of the story suggests that she does not support a woman’s independence if the woman is as unscrupulous and self-centred as Nattie: “Well, she had Brantain and his million left. A person can’t have everything in this world; and it was a little unreasonable of her to expect it” (1:381).
The unnamed heroine of “Her Letters” (1895) is the opposite to Nattie. She has fallen in love deeply with another man and actually has committed adultery, but stopped the affair four years ago. Now, facing death because of a fatal illness she wants to burn her love letters in order to spare her husband the possibility of a painful discovery, but cannot bring herself to do so. She has sacrificed her happiness by staying with her husband and is now not able to sacrifice the only embodiment of her love and passion she has.
“She had been feeding upon them ever since; they had sustained her, she believed, and kept her spirit fro perishing utterly. … How desolate and empty would have been her remaining days without them; with only her thoughts, illusive thoughts that she could not hold in her hands and press, as she did these, to her cheeks and her heart” (398).
Kate Chopin stresses the substantial importance of the letters to the wife by describing them as a nourishment. As a matter of fact, one of the letters even becomes the object of an obscene parody of the communion service. Having burnt six letters at random she can not bring herself to destroy the other ones as well. Being in a very overwrought state and feeling great relief to have spared one of the most precious letters, she kisses it over and over again. The letter contains words of “untempered passion” that have “long ago eaten its way into her brain; and which stirred her still to-day” (1:399). The memory of her lover metaphorically changing the water in her veins to wine - another reference to the bible - makes her tore the letter with her teeth and taste the torn scrap with her lover’s name between her lips. Having attained some kind of satisfaction by this, she finally calms down breathing softly and contentedly. This unusual and remarkable depiction of eroticism does not only overturn Victorian sexual restrictions, but even irritates modern readers. Apparently, the wife’s oral aggression, her rising arousal and the calmness afterwards resemble some kind of masturbation. As Allen Stein states, the wife has turned her love letters into sexual totems.20 Her excessive behaviour is the final explosion of her long-repressed sexual and emotional desire. Even though her husband is “in a manner” (1:399) dear to her, the relationship does not satisfy her basic needs and make her waste away, remembering the times of her affair as the “only days when she felt she had lived” (1:399). Since there are no reasons given that explain what prevents the wife from leaving her husband, one can only guess that she plainly lacks the courage to face the disapproval of society regarding divorce. Thus, what seems to be the outcome of the wife’s self-repression is in fact the result of the repressive doctrines of the Victorian age. Moreover, the destructive forces of the repressed desires do not only affect the wife and her lover, but finally lead to the suicide of her husband. It is not the knowledge of the affair that drive him crazy, but the ignorance of it.
“Her Letters” could be the sequel to the Kate Chopin’s story “A Respectable Woman” (1894), as the latter one deals with the beginning attraction of a wife to the vacationing old college-friend of her husband. It also reminds of “A Shameful Affair”, for Mrs. Baroda is as piqued by Gouvernail’s lack of concern for her approval and esteem as Mildred is piqued by Fred’s disinterest. In addition both women try to break the reserve of the men and both are rather puzzled by the feelings of attraction and discontent they arouse in them. Mrs. Baroda “had never known her thoughts or her intentions to be so confused. She could gather nothing from them but the feeling of a distinct necessity to quit her home in the morning”(1:335). Apparently, Mrs. Baroda has never shared similar feelings with her husband, to whom she is deeply attached by friendship rather than by passionate love and sensuality. Her interest in Gouvernail is based on his unusual, non-demanding behaviour; partly because it sets him apart from the patronizing men Mrs. Baroda is used to know, as Allen Stein21 points out, and partly because it wounds her vanity not to be the object of Gouvernail’s desire. The text reveals no direct indication on Mrs. Baroda’s subliminal physical attraction to the friend of her husband until the night of their last encounter. The life oak under which Mrs. Baroda is marvelling about her feelings mirrors the objects of her inner struggle: it symbols power, masculinity and perseverance. Mrs. Baroda is determined to resist her passion for Gouvernail, but this attempt is almost beyond her power. When she hears Gouvernail approaching she hopes to remain unnoticed, but her white gown betrays its usual meaning of innocence by revealing her presence to him, thus giving rise to the dangerous intimacy that follows. Here again, the author seems to be suggesting that passion will out in some form, wanted or not. With his sensitive insight of women’s inner world - which he also proves to have in “Athénaïse” and The Awakening 22 - Gouvernail understands the longing of Mrs. Baroda better than she does herself and expresses her feeling by quoting lines from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. Adding in her mind the unspoken companion lines that contain vivid sexual imagery and stirred by the intimate atmosphere and Gouvernail’s soft voice, Mrs. Baroda arouses physically:
“Her mind only vaguely grasped what he was saying. Her physical being was for the moment predominant. She was not thinking of his words, only drinking in the tones of his voice. She wanted to reach out her hand in the darkness and touch him with the sensitive tips of her fingers upon the face or the lips. She wanted to draw close to him and whisper against his cheek-she did not care what-as she might have done if she had not been a respectable woman.(1:335)
Although she suppresses her desire that night and later rejects her husband’s wish to invite Gouvernail for the summer, the ending of the story remains ambiguous. For after a few months she proposes wholly from herself to have him visit again. Mrs. Baroda’s explanation for her unexpected change of mind leaves open whether the heroine has suppressed her impulse or her inhibitions to act them out: “I have overcome everything! This time I will be very nice to him” (1:336). The question arises whether the repeated emphasis on Mrs. Baroda’s respectability is meant to be more than a little ironic. Gouvernail’s visit might have started in her a process of developing an awareness of her own needs, which might have the power to the moral values which hitherto have prevented her from committing adultery.
By far the most radical overturning of 19th century moral is the story “The Storm” (1898), for it does not only depict passion and sexual intercourse without circumlocution, but also because it does not at all censor the adultery of its protagonists. “The Storm” is a sequel to Kate Chopin’s story “At the ‘Cadian Ball” and is set a few years later, when Alcée and Calixta are both married to someone else. During a heavy rainstorm, Alcée seeks shelter in the house of Calixta. The absence of Calixta’s husband Bobinôt, the oppressive and thundery weather, and the still existing, subliminal attraction between these two former lovers seduce them into giving in to their sexual desires.
There is complete correspondence between theme, plot and setting. The storm outside the house pictures the tempestuous passion inside the characters. At its peak, the two lovers reach their sexual climax as well. All details in setting are suggestive of the erotic atmosphere and the urge to let out the pent-up desires. Alcée is introduced into the story in connection with such male symbols as the horse and the plow; Calixta is presented furiously sewing, which is a popular metaphor for sexual intercourse. In the same way as the storm threatens Calixta’s house, her attraction to Alcée threatens her faithfulness to Bobinôt. However, since she lacks the power to fight the rain and the lightning, she also lacks the power to resist the old-time infatuation. The same holds for Alcée. He wants to stay outside on the gallery, foreseeing the consequence of being near to Calixta, but the storm forces him inside the house where he surrenders to his desire. The coincidence of passion and the power of nature - i.e. the storm - reveals the passion itself to be a natural force. In other words, sex is depicted as a force as strong, inevitable, and natural as the storm itself.23 Consequently, neither Alcée nor Calixta are to blame for their inability to resist their attraction to one another. This is supported by the ambiguous way Kate Chopin depicts Calixta as an “immaculate dove” one the one hand and a “passionate creature” on the other hand. (2:594) Her hair is dishevelled by the wind and rain, her lips are as red and moist as pomegranate seed, but her flesh is like a creamy lily, the symbol of innocence, that the sun invites. (2:593) These metaphors picture nature in its seductive beauty and savageness. It is an ironic accident that the one piece of garment which he helps save from the rain are the trousers of the man whose privileges he shortly usurps.
Kate Chopin’s explicit and honest writing does not correspond with the Victorian picture of women regarding sex as a duty rather than a pleasure:
“When he touched her breasts they gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy, inviting his lips. Her mouth was a fountain of delight. … With one hand she clasped his head, her lips lightly touching his forehead. The other hand stroked with a soothing rhythm his muscular shoulders” (2:595).
Calixta’s ability to inflame Alcée’s nature to an extent that has never been reached before is due to the generous abundance of her passion and the lack of guile or trickery in her character. She has experienced sexual arousal before, but never had the chance to live out her desires, since her husband is unable to satisfy her passionate nature. Turning to a lover, does not make her a bad conscience, as it is not within her powers to suppress her pent-up feelings anymore. To the contrary, her joyful laughter indicates that she feels completely happy and satisfied. Moreover, Calixta is able to transfer this happiness to her marriage. Before, she used to be a rather quarrelsome and over-scrupulous wife, as one can derive from Bobinôt’s effort to find apologies for his lateness. Freed from her pent-up desires, she is much more amiable. With the slightly euphemistic last sentence of the story, reminding of a fairy tale, Kate Chopin sums up the beneficial effects of adultery: “So the storm passed and every one was happy” (2:596).
The striking similarity of the stories discussed above makes them seem like different stages of one and the same story. All of them reveal Kate Chopin’s underlying conviction that sexual desires are a natural part of the female nature and, as such, essential for women’s self-fulfilment and happiness The beneficial outcomes of the acceptance of one’s sexuality are quite visible in the stories “Fedora” and “The Storm”. While Fedora experiences her sexual awakening as a joyful intensification of her sensuality, Calixta’s giving in to her sexual desires make her a happier and therefore more amiable woman. The pure fact of Calixta’s enjoyment of sexual intimacy belie all 19th century assumptions on women’s frigidity.
Yet, one of Kate Chopin’s great achievements is that she avoids a one-sided view on women’s sexuality. In depicting Athénaïse’s sexual awakening as a result of her pregnancy, she offers the reader a view on female sexuality that perfectly corresponds the Victorian ideal of a “True Woman”. And in punishing Nattie’s lack of chastity and conscience, Kate Chopin wrote a didactic story which would have pleased the sternest of her contemporaries.
However, Kate Chopin also avoids an euphemistical picture of the way women experience their sexual awakening. Most of her heroines view their sexual drive as a forbidden desire that has to be suppressed. Hence, her stories establish a visible point of conflict between the needs of women and the moral values of the Victorian age. Mildred, for example, can be seen as a victim of the 19th century doctrines. Since she has internalised the social values of her culture, she is unable to indulge in the overwhelming feelings Fred arouses in her.
Above all, the unnatural and aggressive outburst of the unnamed wife in “The Letters” shows the destructive forces of repression. Her fate suggests only one thing: neither social doctrines nor self-imposed demands will in the long run withstand the strong urge of sexual desires.
Unfortunately, Kate Chopin’s contemporaries were not yet ready for and open defence of women’s sexual and sensual individualism.
5. Works Cited
Boren, Lynda S., and Sara deSaussure Davis, eds. Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.
Fluck, Winfried. “Tentative Transgressions: Kate Chopin’s Fiction as a Mode of Symbolic Action.” Studies in American Fiction 10 (1982): 151-71.
Groag Bell, Susan, and Karen M. Offen. Introduction to Part I. Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Document:1880-1950. 2 vols. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1983. Helsinger, K. Elisabeth, Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder. The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837 - 1883. 2 vols. Chicago: UP, 1989 Knibiehler, Yvonne. “Bodies and Hearts.” Eds. Geneviève Fraisse and Michelle Perrot. A History of Women in the West: IV. Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War. 5 vols. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1998. 325-368.
Koloski, Bernard. Approaches to Teaching Chopin ’ s The Awakening. New York: MLA of America, 1988.
Koloski, Bernhard. Kate Chopin: A Study of Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. Koloski, Bernard, ed.. K ate Chopin, Baxyou Folk; and, A Night in Acadie. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.
Kuppler, Elisabeth. „Weiblichkeitsmythen zwischen gender, race und class: True Womanhood im Spiegel der Geschichtsschreibung.“ Eds. Hadumod Bußmann and Renate Hof. Genus:. Zur Geschlechterdifferenz in den Kulturwissen-schaften. Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1995. 262-291.
Seidman, Steven. Romantic longings: Love in America, 1830-1980. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1991.
Seyersted, Per, ed. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. 2 vols. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Stein, Allen. After the vows were spoken. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1984.
Toth, Emily. „The Independent Woman and ‘Free’ Love.” The Massachusetts Review 16 (1975): 647-664.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 - 1860.” American Quarterly 18 (1966): 151-174.
Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds. Encyclopaedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.
1 Steven Seidman, Romantic longings: Love in America, 1830-1980 ( New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1991) 18-24.
2 Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Oxford UP, 1986) 183.
3 Elisabeth K. Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder. The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837 - 1883, vol. 2 (Chicago: UP, 1989) 61-62.
4 Helsinger, Lauterbach Sheets, and Veeder 56- 57.
5 Yvonne Knibiehler, “Bodies and Hearts,” eds. Geneviève Fraisse and Michelle Perrot. A History of Women in the West: IV. Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War, vol. 5 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1998) 340.
6 Seidman 41-42.
7 Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18 (1966): 151- 174.
8 Seidman 55
9 Susan Groag Bell, and Karen M. Offen, Introduction to Part I, Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Document: 1880-1950, vol. 2 (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1983) 9-10
10 Suzanne M. Maril1ey, Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820 - 1920 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996) 6-21.
11 Smith-Rosenberg 173-175.
12 Smith-Rosenberg 176-178.
13 Nancy Walker, “The Historical and Cultural Setting”, ed. Bernard Koloski, Approaches to Teaching Chopin ’ s The Awakening (New York: MLA of America, 1988) 70.
14 Charles R. Wilson, and William Ferris, eds. Encyclopaedia of Southern Culture (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989) 1520-1524.
15 Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969) 33.
16 Per Seyersted, ed, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, vol. 1 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969) 434. Hereafter cited parenthetically.
17 Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), known for his dramas that overturned 19th century conventional views of marriage.
18 ---, „The Independent Woman and „Free Love””, The Massachusetts Review 16 (1975): 656.
19 ---, “Losing the Battle but Winning the War: Resistance to Patriarchal Discourse in Kate Chopin’s Short Fiction”, Legacy 22 (1994): 20.
20 Allen Stein, After the vows were spoken (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1984) 187.
21 Stein 190.
22 Bernard Koloski, ed., Introduction, Kate Chopin, Baxyou Folk; and, A Night in Acadie, by Koloski (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999) xxi.
23 Bernhard Koloski, Kate Chopin. A Study of Short Fiction (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996) 147.
- Quote paper
- Katrin Meyer (Author), 2000, Female Sexuality in Depicted Short Stories by Kate Chopin, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/106982