Tuesday, February 16, 2010

So the Storm Passed and Everyone Was Happy


Look at the picture on the left, please. Really look at it. What kind of woman is this? Ignore the hair for a second and focus on her expression. This is Kate Chopin, the woman who rocked polite society with The Awakening and then slammed it again, posthumously, with "The Storm." Does she look like an "unnatural" person? What IS an "unnatural" person, anyway?
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If you're William Dean Howells, and you should probably be thankful that you're not, since he's been dead for 90 years, you believe that a woman should be too high-minded to think about sex, much less write about it. The Puritan influence has dropped to nothing and the European influence has won. That means, among other things, that sex is bad again, and well-bred people pretend it doesn't exist.
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The best word we can think of for 19th Century fin de si├Ęcle society is "repressive." People had buttoned themselves up and down. "Nice" women put little panties on their pianos, lest the sight of piano legs drive male members of the household into a lust-crazed frenzy. (You think I'm kidding? Go check.) People didn't even say the word "leg." It was a "limb," which might as well be something out of a tree. A lot of time was spent in avoiding "coarseness," which meant anything to do with the body. The epitome of this, and I mean it in the worst, most vicious way, was Virginia Woolfe, who ate sparingly because she could not bear the vulgarity of eliminating waste.
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In the middle of all this "niceness," all this denial of the body and its animal functions, Kate Chopin wrote a novel, The Awakening. It was published amid a furor, because it is about a woman who leaves her husband and children because they stifle her, takes a lover because she wants to, and is forced to kill herself because she doesn't fit anywhere in her world any more. We can pretty much bet that neither Kate nor her heroine, Edna Pointellier, covered up their piano legs, but they did understand the power of the physical body.
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And that, said Howells, proved Chopin's "unnaturalness." Women weren't supposed to talk about sex, adultery, and abandoning the family for a life of one's own. (Men could do this, although they were expected to reaffirm the mainstream values in the end.) Howells didn't believe that women were stupid -- he published many stories by women writers -- but he DID believe that they should remain innocent, even after marriage, and preserve those core values of marital fidelity and maternal fecundity.
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Chopin totally flouted all that, bringing down on her beautifully coiffed head the wrath of men and women alike. Some of this wrath was just ordinary brainless outrage at anything outside the cultural norms, but some of it was the outrage of the intelligent, who saw in her a crack in the dam, threatening to wash away the foundations of American society, or at least move them around some.
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Even now, as witnessed in our class discussion, we are indignant, even angry, at Calixta in "The Storm." How dare she? What kind of idiot would suggest that a woman could commit adultery and not suffer at all? It begs the question, and I am asking it, what are Kate Chopin and her amoral characters still threatening to do?

6 comments:

  1. Okay, I'm going to have to fall off the path for just one second and note that Virginia Woolf killed herself and from the background information that I received in my Junior American Lit class in High School, it seems to me that she was mentally unstable.
    Anyway, not what this post is supposed to be about!! (bad Leah, bad...)
    I think that Kate Chopin and her amoral characters are threatening to break down all the walls of morality left in society. True, times and views have immensely changed since she lived, but I think that the threat of the structure of society being broken down has always been and will always be a very scary idea for anyone [other than those like Kate who are the ones bashing in the walls]. We all want to believe that justice will prevail, that the good guy [or girl] will win and that things we view as evil or that go against our views and society's structure will never prevail. Unfortunately, Kate Chopin and her characters are simply slapping us square in the face with the reality that life isn't a story. The bad guys can and do win sometimes. Our societal structure is not what we think it is. There are always holes in it. Women [and men] have cheated and gotten away with it. People have abandoned their families and never had to answer for it, or in some cases, even feel regret for it. [I wonder how absolutely horrendous one's children and spouse have to be to feel no guilt in leaving them high and dry, especially in today's world...]

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  2. One thing we didn't discuss, and I thought about after class was, what about brothels? The men in upper class households were allowed, and encouraged to head out to saloons where they would have their choice of any prostitute they wanted. Why can't Calixta have an affair with a nice guy, if someone like Bobinot is encouraged to go out and have his own affair?
    I guess I didn't feel like Calixta was so bad because she was filling a sexual void that perhaps Bobinot was not filling. He seemed to be a very nice husband, but because of the restrictive and oppressive era of the story I'm certain she was not satisfied with her life, and this was a way to momentarily go against the grain. And for this reason, Calixta is not a bad person, but a rebel, and I like that!

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  3. Christina Gardner....
    I have only read two stories by Kate, but the girl's got style and a natural ability to make the vulgar side of people natural. I have read The Storm and The Story of an Hour. In both stories she shows how women are human and can have the same thoughts and urges of a man. Her characters are real...people do cheat on their partners. Its just that society has demanded that this be an evil break with social norms and how dare a writer shrug off their moral obligation to society and not punish characters who express their true nature. At least that's how I think Howell saw her writings. Her writings inpire me to get off my moral high horse and open my minds to the reality that is the human experience. And her influence is streaming through modern American literature from unconviential Tom Robbins books to the deranged book, American Psycho. Kate allows writers to write real people in a very extreme and unapologetic way. Thanks Kate.

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  4. Debbie Haines
    The rub is that a woman would dare to have or exhibit let alone act on any desires that are not centered on her husband, children and home.

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  5. I can see how Kate Chopin wanted to get her point across but at that time in our society, it just was not taken very well. Men could do whatever the wanted to and women did not have any rights at all. Kate Chopin opened the eyes of everyone and stirred everything up.

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  6. Kate Chopin surprised all the readers of her time in her story "So The Storm Passed and Everyone Was Happy." She showed the ways that women could go and do what they want in time that it was socially unacceptable. She wrote the things that nobody else would write about with women and then played it off as if nothing was wrong after the storm was over.

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