Sunday, February 3, 2013


Kate Chopin (1850–1904)
From Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories

French Market scene, New Orleans, 1891. From a gouache and watercolor painting by American artist William Woodward (1859–1939). Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.
Three years ago, Story of the Week presented the Kate Chopin story, “A Respectable Woman,” whose heroine is unsettled by her attraction to Gouvernail, her husband’s friend. Gouvernail appears again in the much longer, more complex story “Athénaïse,” and he fills a very similar role: the “sensitive bachelor” (to borrow author Joyce Dyer’s characterization) whose attentions to a married woman straddle the line between flirtatiousness and thoughtfulness.

Athénaïse, the married woman of the story, is trapped—limited by the opportunities afforded to her by society. It’s no coincidence that the character shares the name of Chopin’s grandmother, Marie Anne Athénaïs Charleville, whose husband, a failed Virginia businessman, deserted her and their seven children, leaving them virtually penniless. Given this real-life background, the story takes on a “what if” aspect. The fictional Athénaïse, having escaped an unhappy residence in a convent, is equally “wretched” in marriage—and so she flees again. She is unable to articulate any legitimate complaint against her husband; her main objection to the marriage is the loss of independence: “things seemed all wrongly arranged in this world, and no one was permitted to be happy in his own way.” Her parents, however, hope that “marriage would bring the poise, the desirable pose, so glaringly lacking in Athénaïse’s character.” The editors of The Atlantic seemed to side with this latter view when they added the subtitle “A Story of Temperament,” thereby suggesting that Athénaïse’s rebellion is little more than a matter of individual willfulness and immaturity.

Although the themes in “Athénaïse” are similar to those explored in Chopin’s famous masterpiece The Awakening, the trajectory of each work could hardly be more different. Had Chopin given “Athénaïse” a more cynical ending, or had she pursued her character any further into the bohemian liberties offered by New Orleans, or had she taken to the next level the friendship between Athénaïse and Gouvernail, she would not have been able to publish the story—certainly not in The Atlantic and probably not in any national publication. As it was, she pocketed $155—by far the largest amount paid for any of her stories—while three years later The Awakening caused such a scandal that it virtually ended her career and disappeared from the literary canon for seventy years. Nevertheless, “Athénaïse” is remarkably transgressive in its perspective on social attitudes toward women. As Chopin scholar Per Seyersted writes, “in spite of the happy end, the story contains a deep protest against woman’s condition.”

Notes: The paths of the Cane and Red rivers have changed dramatically over the past two hundred years. Now part of the modern Red River, Rigolet de Bon Dieu was one of the meandering waterways in Louisiana’s Natchitoches Parish. (“Rigolet” means literally “little rapids.”) On page 354, the song Juanita refers to a love song subtitled “A Spanish Ballad” and published in 1855. The Duchess (p. 375) was Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, an Irish writer of romantic fiction, whose novel Molly Bawn (1878) contains the first known appearance in its present form of the English expression “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Frederic Remington (1861–1909) was a famous painter of cowboys and Western scenes.

Chambres garnies – Furnished rooms
Comment ça va? – How are you?
Des esprits forts – Freethinkers
La fille de son père – Her father’s daughter
Pauvre ti chou – Poor little dear
Sacré cochon – Dirty swine
Tiens! tu vas les garder comme tu as jadis fait. Je ne veux plus de ce train là, moi! – There! You’ll keep them the way you used to. I don’t want to do this anymore!
Other expressions and sentences will be clear from context.

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Athénaïse went away in the morning to make a visit to her parents, ten miles back on rigolet de Bon Dieu. She did not return in the evening, and Cazeau, her husband, fretted not a little. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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