Authors: Kate Chopin
Tags: #Psychological, #Psychological fiction, #New Orleans (La.), #Fiction, #Literary, #Adultery, #Classics, #Women
A Night In Acadie
About the Author
, first published in 1899, is a disturbing, complex, and glaringly truthful novel. It's not a simple read for a lazy weekend nor can it be considered, as Chopin's very earliest works were, a regional story by a nineteenth-century Southern lady. It must be read with alert and concerned eyes because the wealth of Edna Pontellier's story lies in the symbols of the landscape, the cadence of the language, ultimately in the many things that go unstated—to be discovered by the reader's heart. It demands constant trolling for clues and meaning in the dangerous and murky waters of the Louisiana gulf country.
, and indeed Chopin's entire body of work, is governed by her desire, in her words, to describe "human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it." At the turn of the century, however, America was not necessarily receptive to this departure from the norm. This was a time when only a few groundbreaking writers, such as Whitman and Maupassant, were delving into new fictional territory, and pushing the limits of the treatment of sexuality in literature.
From the very beginning, Chopin's writing was praised and admired, but objections were frequently raised "on moral grounds." Her earliest collection of short stories,
, did, however, establish her as a writer of "local color," a popular literary form during the nineteenth century, in which authors wrote about their particular region of the country, exotic or quaint. Chopin described the people she encountered in Louisiana—Creoles, Cajuns and Negroes—where her marriage to Oscar Chopin had brought her.
and her other early work was welcomed by publishers and critics although they were sometimes shocked by what they saw as the "coarsenesses" in it. The critic for the
nonetheless grasped that her "passionate note" was "characteristic of a power awaiting opportunity." Perhaps the opportunity Chopin was waiting for was literary recognition because the success of
seemed to have a liberating effect on her. In a period when the widespread opinion was that fiction should be pleasant and wholesome, Chopin in her characteristically bold way wrote about suicide, murder, alcoholism, desire, passion and infidelity—uncharted territory for most, especially women writers.
central figure, Edna Pontellier, is a young woman, a mother of two, and, on the surface, a privileged housewife. Her journey of self-discovery is the premise underlying the book's title. As she moves through the daily routines during her family vacation, Edna frequently experiences "vague" senses of dread. Edna doesn't understand these feelings, and Chopin makes no attempt to define her dismay literally as if, at that time, there was no vocabulary to express it. During the early years of the women's movement at the beginning of the twentieth century this was a rare journey and there weren't many established landmarks by which one could be guided.
Edna awakens to many new sensations and realizations: that she accepts being a mother, but will make no concessions to motherhood; that her husband has been kind to her, but her passionate nature cannot be contained in the confines of a marriage; that the full expression of her sexuality is imperative, as is her desire for independence and self-understanding.
The writing in the novel is fresh and perceptive, always emphasizing character over plot, it's remarkable especially for the "intimate distance" she creates.
is intimate in that the reader may glimpse Edna's very soul, see her despair, her struggle; at the same time Chopin creates a literary distance by never intruding a judgmental or assessing voice, she simply presents the voyage Edna takes. Chopin's original title for the novel,
A Solitary Soul
, suggests not only the loneliness of this voyage but also how those surrounding Edna—her husband, children, as well as, in the final analysis, her lovers—never really touch her to her depths.
Edna first becomes attracted to a man other than her husband during the summer months away from her home in New Orleans. She explores the realm of the senses during this sultry time, learns to swim, develops her painting talents, indulges in her fantasies of another man. It is almost irresistable not to impugn Edna's desire, which, although natural, is also somewhat shallow because it is so purely physical. By making Robert, the initial object of Edna's extra-marital interest, a very young unworthy man, Chopin doesn't let the reader succumb to the fantasy of romantic love; her irony throughout keeps us from hoping for the best for this pair of lovers. She debunks the notion of romance about twenty years before it became widely acceptable to do so. As Chopin said describing Edna's love for Robert: "It is as difficult to distinguish between divine love and the natural, animal love, as it is to explain why we love at all…I am inclined to think that love springs from animal instinct, and therefore is, in a measure, divine. One can never resolve to love this man, this woman or child, and then carry out the resolution unless one feels irresistably drawn by an indefinable current of magnetism." Romance, often used in literature to escape reality, is not actually distinct from, but instead a euphemism for, sexual attraction.
Written long before readers were prepared to deal with, much less accept it,
stood alone in late nineteenth-century literature. It was met with hostility and Chopin herself was shunned as a result of its publication. Friends turned away from her, she was denied membership in a local arts club, and her writings were taken out of circulation in St. Louis libraries. Although acceptable, even tame, to today's reader, Chopin's explorations into and descriptions of female sexuality were nearly unpalatable to her audience. A reviewer for
The St. Louis Mirror
called Edna's passion "an ugly cruel loathsome monster." Others described Edna as a shameful woman, an unacceptable focus for a book. The attacks were vociferous, it was said that the feelings of the heroine were so "sensual and devilish" that the book should not have been written. The criticism and rejection crushed Chopin and she wrote very little after this. She died in 1904, some five years later.
Edna's realization, painful because of the time in which she lived, that she's a sexual being is not the only foreshadowing of the twentieth-century woman. She frees herself from her obligations, spiritually, ethically and financially; she devotes herself to her own development and expression. Her tragedy is that she doesn't quite complete her mission, society's dictates are in the end too powerful and her attempt at living her life for herself above all others compels her to suicide. Importantly, this is not because she is a fallen woman nor because she feels any guilt, (she never succumbs to these conventions), but because she cannot fully attain selfhood, she cannot reconcile all that she wants for herself with the life that she is already living. But Chopin still doesn't deliver a neat resolution or a "final truth." Published at a time when there were no ready historical solutions to Edna's dilemna,
manages, however, to pose important questions about women's roles and obligations, and to challenge easy answers which would limit a woman's ability to choose and change her circumstance.
After nearly a half century of virtual absence from bookshelves, critics and readers started to rediscover Chopin's writings. During the 1950s and 1960s critics' declarations ranged from Kenneth Eble's "Quite frankly, the book is about sex," to Larzer Ziff's calling
"the most important piece of fiction about the sexual life of a woman written to date in America." Among the most important contributions to Chopin's resurrection were those made by a Norwegian named Per Seyersted. In 1969 he published
The Complete Works of Kate Chopin
and a critical biography of her. Starting in the 1970s, with reprints of
circulating, dissertations on the novel proliferating in the universities across the country, and critical works produced mainly by an inner circle of devotees piling up, Chopin's work finally received the long overdue recognition it merited, and the discussion it inspired naturally followed.
Modern readers, like modern critics, probably find it easier to understand Edna's attempt to rid herself of stultifying traditions, social rituals, and domestic obligations, than Chopin's contemporaries did. The goal she set for herself—to find a replacement for these things, something more honest, more personally rewarding, and more worthy of her passion—strikes us as a completely deserving one. We understand better what must be Edna's motives when she so feelingly tells a friend "I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself. I can't make it more clear; it's only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me."
—Laura Victoria Levin
A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over:
Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi!
That's all right!"
He could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence.
Mr. Pontellier, unable to read his newspaper with any degree of comfort, arose with an expression and an exclamation of disgust. He walked down the gallery and across the narrow "bridges" which connected the Lebrun cottages one with the other. He had been seated before the door of the main house. The parrot and the mocking-bird were the property of Madame Lebrun, and they had the right to make all the noise they wished. Mr. Pontellier had the privilege of quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining.
He stopped before the door of his own cottage, which was the fourth one from the main building and next to the last. Seating himself in a wicker rocker which was there, he once more applied himself to the task of reading the newspaper. The day was Sunday; the paper was a day old. The Sunday papers had not yet reached Grand Isle. He was already acquainted with the market reports, and he glanced restlessly over the editorials and bits of news which he had not had time to read before quitting New Orleans the day before.
Mr. Pontellier wore eye-glasses. He was a man of forty, of medium height and rather slender build; he stooped a little. His hair was brown and straight, parted on one side. His beard was neatly and closely trimmed.
Once in a while he withdrew his glance from the newspaper and looked about him. There was more noise than ever over at the house. The main building was called "the house," to distinguish it from the cottages. The chattering and whistling birds were still at it. Two young girls, the Farival twins, were playing a duet from "Zampa" upon the piano. Madame Lebrun was bustling in and out, giving orders in a high key to a yard-boy whenever she got inside the house, and directions in an equally high voice to a dining-room servant whenever she got outside. She was a fresh, pretty woman, clad always in white with elbow sleeves. Her starched skirts crinkled as she came and went. Farther down, before one of the cottages, a lady in black was walking demurely up and down, telling her beads. A good many persons of the
had gone over to the
in Beaudelet's lugger to hear mass. Some young people were out under the water-oaks playing croquet. Mr. Pontellier's two children were there—sturdy little fellows of four and five. A quadroon nurse followed them about with a far-away, meditative air.