Written in 1898 but not published until it appeared in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin in 1969, "The Storm" has been widely regarded as Kate Chopin's most accomplished short story. It is a sequel to the short story "At the 'Cadian Ball," which was published in the collection Bayou Folk in 1894.
Chopin composed "The Storm" shortly after she wrote The Awakening (published 1899), the controversial novel for which she is best known. "The Storm" is predominantly characterized by complexity of theme and characterization, psychological realism, and a focus on sexuality. In the short story, Chopin depicts a sexual encounter between two individuals who are both married to other people.
The Victorian audience and critics who read The Awakening reacted violently to the frank portrayals of human sexuality that the novel contained. (Victorianism refers to the socially and morally conservative attitudes prevalent during the late nineteenth century, and the Victorian era covers the time period of the rule of Britain's Queen Victoria, 1837 to 1901.) Discouraged by this harsh response to the novel, Chopin never sought publication for "The Storm," as it featured the same sexually explicit subject matter. The story is available in the collection in which it was first published. It may also be found in the more recent collection Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories, which was published in 2002.
Born as Katherine O'Flaherty into a prominent St. Louis family on February 8, 1850, Chopin was the second child of merchant Thomas O'Flaherty, an Irish immigrant, and Eliza Faris O'Flaherty, who came from an established, aristocratic Creole family. When Kate was just five, her father perished in a railroad accident. After his death, she returned home from Sacred Heart Academy, which she had just begun attending as a boarding student. Her great grandmother began teaching Kate at home. In 1857, Kate returned to Sacred Heart, this time as a day student. Due to the upheavals and uncertainties brought about by the Civil War (1861-1865), Kate's enrollment at school was sporadic, but she was a good student who read voraciously; she graduated in 1868.
That year, she made her official entrance into Southern aristocratic society and made the required rounds of social appearances as a debutante. In her diary, she confessed that she found the endless social gatherings to be tiresome. In 1870, Kate married Oscar Chopin, a businessman who was the son of a slave-holding French immigrant. Soon after the marriage, Oscar began a career as a cotton factor, or agent, selling cotton for plantation owners to buyers. Chopin gave birth to the couple's first child in 1871. Five more children followed over the next several years. In 1878, as a result of poor cotton harvests, Oscar incurred a great deal of debt and the family moved to Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, where his family owned land. There he opened a general store. Oscar died of yellow fever in 1882, leaving Chopin with children to feed and debts to pay. She took over the general store, but in 1884, she returned to St. Louis to live with her mother.
In 1889, Chopin's first literary effort was published, a poem titled "If It Might Be," in America, a Chicago-based periodical. Her writing began in earnest at this time; she started a novel and published other short stories in a variety of journals. Over the next ten years, Chopin would write three novels, as well as almost 100 stories. All her work was completed at home while caring for her children. Chopin published her first novel, At Fault, in 1890 at her own expense after it was rejected by a publisher. The work treats such issues as women's rights and marital disharmony. While the novel received mixed reviews, a subsequent collection of short stories, Bayou Folk (published by Houghton Mifflin in 1894), garnered reviews that were more favorable, as well as more numerous, and Chopin was encouraged to keep writing. She published another notable collection called A Night in Acadie in 1897.
At this time, Chopin began work on her most well-known piece of writing, the controversial novel The Awakening. The work was accepted by the publisher of A Night in Acadie, Way and Williams, in 1898. While she was waiting for the book to be printed, she completed the short story "The Storm." Way and Williams dissolved, transferring its holdings to Herbert S. Stone & Co., who published The Awakening in 1899. Despite a few early, positive reviews, the novel was viciously attacked by critics for its sexual themes and explicit nature. The public and critical censure was so severe, Chopin did not seek publication for "The Storm" during her lifetime, and it was not published until 1969, when it was included in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. In fact, she published only five other stories following the appearance of The Awakening. Chopin died on August 22, 1904. She collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage suffered after spending a day at the St. Louis World's Fair.
"The Storm" is a sequel to the short story "At the 'Cadian Ball," in which Chopin introduces the characters of Bobinôt, Calixta, Alcée, and Clarisse. In that earlier story, Chopin establishes the attraction that both men (Bobinôt and Alcée) have for Calixta and that despite Alcée's flirtation with Calixta, he is in fact in love with Clarisse, and she with him. Calixta, with whom Alcée had been flirting, witnesses Alcée's eager response to Clarisse's unexpected presence, and asks Bobinôt to walk her home. She tells him that since he has been asking to marry her for so long, she is now willing. A joyful Bobinôt accepts this proposal.
"The Storm" is related from a third-person point of view, by an omniscient (all-knowing) narrator, and opens with the revelation that Bobinôt is now married to Calixta and that they have a four-year-old son, Bibi. In the first section of the story, Bobinôt and Bibi are at Friedheimer's, a local store, waiting out an incoming summer storm. The pair converses about whether or not Calixta will fear the storm; Bibi thinks his mother will be afraid, and his father attempts to reassure him. "She'll shut the house," Bobinôt tells Bibi. Thinking of his wife, Bobinôt purchases a can of shrimp, a favorite of Calixta's. As they wait for the violent storm to dissipate, the young boy "laid his little hand on his father's knee and was not afraid."
The second section of the story is the longest portion. It focuses on Calixta and opens with her sewing on her sewing machine, and perspiring in the summer heat. Initially, she fails to notice the approach of the storm, but when the room grows unnaturally dark, she begins to close the windows and doors before remembering that her husband's clothes are hanging on the gallery, or front porch, to air out. When she goes to fetch them, she finds Alcée outside. It is noted that Calixta has not often seen Alcée since her marriage and that she has not ever been alone with him. He rides toward her on his horse and asks if he may wait out the storm on her gallery. But when the gusting wind and rain pummel the porch, the pair enters the house. Calixta flits nervously about the room, putting away her sewing, while Alcée settles himself in a rocking chair. She expresses her worry about her husband and son, and Alcée reassures her that Bobinôt has "got sense enough to come in out of a cyclone." Having moved to the window to watch the progress of the storm, Calixta is startled by a blast of lightening that has struck a tree in the distance, and she staggers back into Alcée's arms. Calixta shakes fearfully while Alcée holds her. As he embraces her trembling body, he remembers their long-ago infatuation. He kisses her, and then asks her if she recalls how they had kissed years ago. She does not answer aloud, but the reader is told that she did indeed remember how he had "kissed her and kissed her and kissed her." Now, she does not fear the storm; in fact, the roaring of the wind and rain and thunder makes her laugh, now that she is lying in his arms. They have moved to her bedroom and make love while the storm rages outside. By the time they have finished, the sun is shining once again, and Alcée departs. From the gallery, Calixta, watches him ride away, laughing when he turns to smile at her.
In this section, Bobinôt and Bibi are walking home, muddying themselves in the process. The rain has ended, but they are forced to traipse home over roads thick with mud, and through wet fields. They stop at the cistern to wash, Bobinôt fretting that Calixta will be upset by their bedraggled, dirty appearance. Having attempted to clean up as much as possible, Bobinôt prepares himself for "the worst—the meeting with an over-scrupulous housewife." When they enter the house timidly, through the back door, they find Calixta in the kitchen, preparing their dinner. She runs to them, fussing over her son and kissing him, telling her husband how worried she has been. Bobinôt relaxes, seeing that she has been concerned for them but is not angry. His "explanations and apologies," which he had been preparing the whole way home, go unexpressed. Bobinôt presents his wife with the can of shrimp he has purchased for her and is rewarded with her cheerful gratitude and a kiss on the cheek. The family sits down for dinner, laughing and enjoying themselves. It is noted, in fact, that their laughter might have been heard as far away as Alcée's house.
The fourth section is but a paragraph. In it, that same night, Alcée writes to his wife, Clarisse, who is in Biloxi with the couple's children. The reader is informed that his letter is a loving, tender, solicitous one. He implores her to remain a month longer there if she would like, telling her that while he is doing "nicely," he misses her, but does not mind being separated a bit longer if she and the children are enjoying themselves. Their "health and pleasure," he insists, are his first concerns.
In the final section, which is also quite brief, Clarisse reads the letter her husband has sent; she is pleased to have heard from him. The narrator describes how Clarisse and the children are enjoying Biloxi. She has many old friends who are also visiting there. It is observed that this has been her "first free breath since her marriage," and that Clarisse has welcomed the feeling of freedom that she previously had enjoyed before she was married to Alcée. Although Clarisse is committed to her husband, the reader is told, she is not eager to return home to resume her "intimate conjugal life," or sexual relations, with Alcée. This is an aspect of their relationship that she is happy to "forego for a while." The story concludes with the line: "So the storm passed and every one was happy."
Bibi is the four-year-old son of Bobinôt and Calixta. He appears in the first and last sections of the story, and is the only one of the characters in "The Storm" who did not appear in "At the 'Cadian Ball," as he was not yet conceived. His presence in the opening of the story emphasizes the commitment his parents have made to one another, underscoring the fact that Bobinôt and Calixta are no longer young people at a ball, as they were in the earlier story. They, along with Bibi, are now a family. Bibi is portrayed as an attentive and perceptive child, and is described as looking "very wise." He can tell by the stillness in the leaves that it is about to storm. He appears to have a close relationship with both of his parents: he converses comfortably with this father, and he is attuned to the fact that his mother will likely fear the storm that is about to begin. As the scene ends, he places his hand on his father's knee and "was not afraid," demonstrating the trust he places in his father. At the conclusion of the story, when he and Bobinôt return to the house, the family bond is once again emphasized. Bibi's mother Calixta inspects him to make sure he has not been hurt at all by the storm, and kisses him repeatedly. Bibi then shares a meal with his parents, the three of them laughing heartily.
Bobinôt is the husband of Calixta and the father of Bibi. In the opening section of the story, in the scene Bobinôt shares with his son, Bobinôt is portrayed as a loving father. He does not talk down to Bibi. Rather, they share a companionable exchange. Bobinôt in fact is used to conversing "on terms of perfect equality with his little son." He takes care to explain to Bibi the indicators of the approaching storm. He attempts to reassure Bibi that Calixta will not be afraid of the storm, that she will simply shut the windows and doors, but then he proceeds to purchase a can of the shrimp she loves so well, perhaps feeling as though this will cheer her if in fact she was uneasy about the storm. Bobinôt does not appear again in the story until the storm has subsided and he and Bibi are making their way back home, wet and muddy. Considerately, he stops to try and clean the worst of the mud from his own person as well as from Bibi; he is concerned with upsetting his "over-scrupulous housewife." But when he and Bibi enter the house and find Calixta happy to see them, and not at all concerned with them tracking in mud, he opts to not express the "explanations and apologies" he had been preparing the whole way home. Bobinôt presents his wife with the shrimp, for which she expresses a good deal of excitement and gratitude. In his manner with Calixta, Bobinôt is deferential, demonstrating his respect and adoration for her. His words and actions indicate that he is a kind man and a caring husband.
Calixta is the wife of Bobinôt and the mother of Bibi. Although there is little in the story to indicate Calixta is dissatisfied with her husband, she and Alcée, whom Calixta has previously kissed before either of them were married, become sexually involved the afternoon of the storm. Calixta first appears in the second section of the story, going about her domestic chores as the storm approaches. When she steps out to the porch to collect the clothing she has hanging there, she sees Alcée riding toward the house. He asks permission to wait out the storm under the shelter of her porch, but the weather soon drives them both into the house. As the object of both Bobinôt's and Alcée's affection/desire, Calixta is a central figure in the story and the only one to whom any extensive physical description is allotted. She is described, under Alcée's attentive gaze, as being "a little fuller of figure than five years before when married," but just as vivacious, with "melting" blue eyes and kinky blonde hair that has been blown about by the storm's wind and rain. Once Calixta and Alcée are both inside, she moves about the room in a nervous fashion, although it is unclear whether it is the storm or Alcée that is making her anxious. She does express concern that her husband and son are possibly out in the storm. Startled by a bolt of lightening striking a tree, Calixta falls into Alcée's arms, and this moment of contact stirs the feelings they once shared. Once again, her physical appearance is noted. Her individual features—red, moist lips; white neck; firm bosom; drowsy blue eyes—are described in a fragmented, objectified way. Now that she is no longer "inviolate," that is, a virgin, Alcée views her lips, throat, and breasts as "free to be tasted." They make love, and it is noted that they each experience a sexual release that they had not felt before. Calixta laughs in her lover's arms, and again as he rides away, indicating her lack of guilt or remorse for her actions. When her husband and son return home, she has resumed the role of the dutiful wife and is in the kitchen, preparing supper for her family. She tells them how "uneasy" she was, thinking about them out in the storm. Calixta is depicted as a loving mother, attentive to Bibi when he returns with his father; she showers him with kisses. Once the three of them are gathered around their dinner, Calixta laughs again, this time with her own family, the three of them so loud that the laughing might even be heard "as far away as Laballière's." Again, Calixta's laughter, combined with the suggestion that she could be heard at the home of Alcée, suggests that Calixta refuses to address the moral implications of her actions. Her laughter in the dinner scene may be viewed as an invitation to Alcée, or as her own pleased acceptance of what she has done.
Alcée is the husband of Clarisse. When he appears in the second scene of the story, politely asking Calixta for shelter from the storm, he does not indicate any intention of seducing Calixta. His encounter with her is, initially, innocent. He instinctively draws her near when she staggers backwards, after she has been startled by the lightening outside. Touching her in this way arouses "all the old-time infatuation and desire for her flesh." This is a reference to their previous attraction to one another, which is depicted in "At the 'Cadian Ball." In that story as well as in "The Storm," reference is made to the kisses the pair had exchanged in Assumption Parish, Louisiana. Alcée is reminded of Assumption when he sees the "drowsy gleam" in Calixta's eyes that "unconsciously betrayed a sensuous desire." While in Assumption he had fled after their kissing, as it was the only way to control his own desire "and to save" the virgin-Calixta's honor, now he does not run away or try to stop himself; he finds he is no longer honor-bound, despite the fact that Calixta is married, and so is he. After he kisses her, they make their way to the bedroom and make love while the storm roars outside. Later, as he is leaving, he smiles at her "with a beaming face," suggesting that he possesses no shame about what they have done. Indeed, in the fourth section of the story, he is found writing to his wife Clarisse, encouraging her and their children to stay a month longer in Biloxi, where she is visiting. It seems apparent that Alcée is perhaps envisioning another opportunity to be alone with Calixta. He explains that he is doing "nicely" but is able to manage their separation a bit longer if it will please his wife and children. His actions and his kindly-worded letter suggest that while he wishes to spare his wife's feelings, he is not fully invested in his role as a husband or father. In this, he stands in stark contrast to the devoted Bobinôt.
Clarisse is the wife of Alcée Laballière. She appears only in the final section of the story, but her brief appearance reveals quite a bit about her relationship with her husband. Her reaction to receiving the letter Alcée sends her is to feel "charmed." The reader learns not only that Clarisse and her children (they are referred to in various places in the story only as "the babies") are doing well, but that Clarisse has been visiting with old friends and acquaintances while in Biloxi. The next two sentences carry enormous import: "And the first free breath since her marriage seemed to restore the pleasant liberty of her maiden days. Devoted as she was to her husband, their intimate conjugal life was something which she was more than willing to forego for a while." Being away from her husband for the first time since they were wed results in Clarisse's extreme relief, now that she is once again able to enjoy the freedom of not being someone's wife. Furthermore, she is perfectly content to prolong her avoidance of sexual contact with Alcée. In this brief section of the story, Clarisse is shown to be dissatisfied with her marriage; she is eager to avoid confronting her husband about the issues that trouble her. Her succinctly expressed thoughts convey her anxiety about being a wife and all this role entails, and she additionally indicates that she feels suffocated by being Alcée's wife.
Sexuality is explored in "The Storm" through the tryst enjoyed by Calixta and Alcée and is symbolized by the storm that occurs in the story. Significantly, the sexual encounter depicted in the story transpires between two individuals who are married to other people. Calixta and Alcée share a past romantic infatuation that is not consummated until the afternoon of the storm. Given that both Calixta and Alcée seem pleased with the event, and unencumbered by guilt following the encounter, and also that the story ends with the suggestion that "the storm" (of adulterous passion) subsided and "every one was happy," it is sometimes argued that Chopin was condoning extramarital affairs. Regardless of her moral position on adultery, however, Chopin explores the possibilities of sexual fulfillment through the characters of Calixta and Alcée. The storm is a metaphor for their passion: it builds gradually and explodes with intensity. Chopin describes the aftermath of the storm by saying that the "rain was over; the sun was turning the glistening green world into a palace of gems." Yet this storm was previously referred to as a "cyclone" by Alcée, and such storms do not come without damage. Leaving the reader to possibly view the last line of the story ironically, Chopin allows for the possibility that the metaphorical storm of Calixta's and Alcée's passion will have its own devastating consequences on their personal relationships. At the same time, Chopin's focus on the "glistening green world" that results from the storm, rather than on any actual wreckage, stresses the rejuvenating power of sexual fulfillment.
Married women in the nineteenth century were expected to be compliant wives, meticulous caretakers of the home, and doting mothers. In "The Storm" Chopin depicts the various ways in which the pressures of such responsibilities are handled by two different women. Neither Calixta nor Clarisse are shown to feel comfortable discussing with their respective husbands any feelings of marital dissatisfaction they might have. Calixta appears to be in a loving relationship, yet the fact that she succumbs to her desire for Alcée indicates that she is far from content with her relationship with Bobinôt. After the sexual encounter, she expresses no remorse, and seems pleased with herself, laughing first with her lover, and then with her family. Her afternoon with Alcée provides an outlet for the underlying dissatisfaction she feels in her marriage, and the fact that her laughter likely reaches Alcée's house suggests that Calixta would be happy to use Alcée in the future as a means of escaping her domestic pressures. Like Calixta, Clarisse also seeks escape from her responsibilities. Clarisse, however, chooses to literally escape, to Biloxi, in an effort to create a place where she can be her old self and breathe freely once again. Her displeasure with her marriage is expressed more literally than Calixta's. Not only is she able to feel at ease now that she is away from her husband and with her old friends, but Clarisse is also relieved with not having to be intimate with her husband, and delighted that Alcée has initiated the extension to her stay in Biloxi. Unable to openly communicate with their husbands and discusses negative feelings regarding their married relationships, the women in the story resort to drastic measures to find release from their marital responsibilities. The men in "The Storm" do not demonstrate a great deal of contentment in their married relationships either. For his part, Bobinôt can only guess at his wife's thoughts, but he does try to make her happy, even if he fails to properly understand her. He buys her presents (the can
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the history of Acadian culture in Louisiana. Like many Acadians in Louisiana during the 1890s, Alcée of "The Storm" was a planter. What were the typical crops during this time period? What was life like for farming families at this time? How has the culture changed over the years? Write a report or prepare an oral report in which you discuss your findings.
- American realist fiction during the late nineteenth-century often focused on social issues. Chopin's works question or reject the traditional domestic roles of women. Write a short story that explores a modern social or political issue. Bear in mind that in stories such as "The Storm" Chopin does not directly discuss the issue about which she is concerned. Rather, her characters respond to the social constraints of their times in various ways. Chopin attempts to accurately depict the details of everyday life in a particular locale. Your story should similarly focus on a specific setting, and should use characterization to aid you in addressing social concerns.
- Chopin wrote works that allowed women a greater scope of behavior than traditional domestic roles. Calixta, for example, is shown to be more than a wife, mother, and homemaker; she is a woman with sexual desires and she appeases them for the sake of pleasure rather than procreation. For such reasons, Chopin is often viewed as a feminist writer with ideas that were ahead of her time. Select another time period in American history and study the writings of the prominent women writers of that time, reflecting on the ways in which they responded to traditional gender roles. Write a report on your findings.
- In "The Storm," Calixta's scene opens with her using a sewing machine, which was a relatively recent invention. Such developments, in that they were typically designed to save time and make certain tasks easier, changed the way nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women performed many of the duties for which they were responsible. Research and write a report on other inventions of this time period, specifically ones that were designed to be used in and around the home. Be sure to include a discussion of the impact that the inventions had. Did they enable families to spend more time together? Or did they create more work? Did they enable women to seek work outside of the home or take on additional work that would help them support their family financially?
- "The Storm" is a sequel to "At the 'Cadian Ball." As such, it further develops the characters from the earlier story, envisioning their lives several years later. Write the next chapter in the lives of these families using what you have already learned about their characters to attempt to predict what might happen next. Where might they be in another five years? Would the adultery between Calixta and Alcée still be ongoing? What would happen if their spouses discovered the affair?
of shrimp) and prepares apologies in order to soothe the bad mood he expects to find her in after the storm. Instead, she seems happy, and elects to not scold him for being wet and muddy. Always prepared to defer and appease, Bobinôt relates to Calixta via guesswork. Alcée is apparently unhappy with his marriage as well; he finds it easy to disregard his vows to Clarisse and sleep with Calixta. He recalls how, at Assumption, his honor urged him to flee and not pursue his desire for Calixta. Yet he neglects his duty to his own marriage without guilt, his sense of honor forgotten now that he has been married for some time. Alcée even encourages his wife to extend her stay in Biloxi, stating that the "health and pleasure" of Clarisse and the
children are foremost in his mind; but it is likely he hopes for another chance to make love to Calixta. Like Calixta, he has responded to his own sense of dissatisfaction with his spouse by becoming increasingly dishonest.
"The Storm" is often described as a work of realist fiction in that it attempts to represent with accuracy the personal lives of its characters as well as depict elements of contemporary society. Not only does Chopin realistically portray the way two characters succumb to sexual temptation in "The Storm," but she also expresses, through Calixta's and Clarisse's dissatisfaction, the constrictive nature of women's roles in the late nineteenth-century. "The Storm" is also representative of American realist fiction in other ways as well. It features particular cultures in a region of the American south—the Acadian and Cajun cultures of Louisiana—rather than making use of a generic "big city" or "small town" setting. In doing so, Chopin heightens the realistic effect of "The Storm," in that she effectively paints a representative picture of daily life in that region. Additionally, the characters speak in the local vernacular, or dialect, again adding to the accuracy of the images the author conveys. American realist writers typically explored particular social issues in their fiction. Chopin, in "The Storm" and in other works such as her novel The Awakening, examined women's roles and marriage; Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about the cruelty of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852); and Upton Sinclair described the horrendous conditions of the meat packing industry in The Jungle (1906). American realism was influenced by French and English realist writers as well, including Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).
Chopin subdivides this very short story (it is about 2,000 words in length) into five individual sections. The first section sets the scene, outlining the relationship of Bobinôt and Calixta through the brief exchange between Bobinôt and his son, and revealing the device to be employed throughout the work: the summer storm that is about to descend upon the area. The second section is by far the longest and forms the heart of the story. In depicting the sexual encounter between Calixta and Alcée in section two of the story, Chopin employs a more lyrical and exuberant tone than the more matter-of-fact, detached tone she uses in the other four sections of the work. Sections three, four, and five describe the calm aftermath of the storm; the peaceable reunion of Bobinôt and Bibi with Calixta; the solicitous letter Alcée pens to his wife encouraging her to extend her vacation; and the relieved acceptance of the letter by Clarisse. The difference in the length and tone of section two, compared to the other sections in the work, emphasizes the significance of the tryst to the Calixta and Alcée and suggests that its meaning to all the characters has the potential to later be magnified, following the closing of the story.
Post-Reconstruction American South
Chopin was a child during the Civil War (1861-1865). She witnessed firsthand the brutality of the war, as well as the government's attempts to reunite a nation fractured by the secession (withdrawal from the Union, or the United States) of many Southern states and the subsequent Civil War. The postwar period of rebuilding was known as Reconstruction. It was a time of tremendous racial, social, political, and economic tension, none of which ceased with the demise in the 1870s of official Reconstruction efforts. During the years following Reconstruction, the post-Reconstruction era (the late 1800s and the early 1900s), Chopin wrote "The Storm." While President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation established the intention of the U.S. government to free all slaves, many Southern states which had seceded from the Union, as well as states along the border between the North and the South, did not recognize the legitimacy of the U.S. government, so the Proclamation did little to actually free slaves. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865 after the end of the war, freed any slaves who had not been emancipated by escaping to the North. Racial tensions were of course not eliminated by the measure, which did nothing to solve the economic challenges of former slaves who now were in desperate need of gainful employment. Also at this time, largely in the urban centers of the Northern states, America was experiencing an enormous surge in industrial development. New factories were being created to mass produce consumer goods, and these factories employed countless poverty-stricken Americans, including new immigrants, poor farmers who moved to the city in search of work, and some recently freed slaves, all of whom were willing to undergo often long migrations north and endure harsh working conditions for very little pay. Yet the money they earned elevated their class status somewhat, broadening the base of working class, or blue collar, citizens throughout the country. This new industrial economy additionally gave rise to a newly solidified middle class in America, consisting of the factory owners and the middlemen who created profits for the wealthy industrialists. Many Americans in rural areas, however, did not benefit economically from this industrial boom and suffered not only from poverty, but from unfair voting qualifications as well. African Americans were given the right to vote with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, and many were subsequently elected to positions in local governments. But by the 1890s, many southern states had established strict voter qualification laws designed to disenfranchise (or strip of voting rights) non-white voters. These laws included literacy tests and poll taxes (fees to be paid in order to vote).
The social and class conflicts related to the rise of industrial capitalism had a ripple effect in the American home. The turmoil of the economic sphere increased the desire among middle class, working men for their home life to be characterized by tranquility rather than additional
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1890s: Women in the 1890s do not have the right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment, which afforded women that right, was not added to the constitution until 1920. Chopin, while not actively involved in the suffrage movement (a movement of activists who pursued women's right to vote), is a proponent of gender equality.
Today: Women are not only a powerful political force as voters, but also hold positions as senators, representatives, and governors. Hillary Rodham Clinton is viewed as the forerunner for the Democratic presidential nomination for the 2008 presidential election in the United States.
- 1890s: A coastal state on the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana is frequently ravaged by powerful storms, like the cyclone (or hurricane) that occurs in Chopin's "The Storm." In 1893, a powerful hurricane killed approximately 2,000 people in the region.
Today: Powerful, often lethal storms are not uncommon in Louisiana. In 2005, there were more hurricanes in the Atlantic than had previously been recorded for one season. One of the most devastating of these storms was Hurricane Katrina. The official death toll for Katrina is 1,697, although some believe the number of deaths exceeds 2,000.
- 1890s: Chopin's fiction is groundbreaking in that it is about women that attempt to define themselves outside of the roles traditionally assigned them. Calixta does this through her adulterous encounter.
Today: Modern women writers are interested in assessing the way their identity as women is established in a world in which women have been encouraged to "have it all," to balance the roles of homemaker, mother, wife, and career woman. Such writers include Joyce Carol Oates, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Toni Morrison.
- 1890s: The notion of divorce is only an emerging concept at this time. Women unsatisfied with their marriages, as Calixta and Clarisse in "The Storm" appear to be, have few acceptable outlets to express their feelings or to escape failed relationships.
Today: It is commonly cited that half of American marriages end in divorce; infidelity is often listed as one of the main causes.
conflicts. More than ever before, the home was viewed as a refuge insulated from the strife of the outside world. Because women had long been relegated to this domestic sphere, it became incumbent upon them to provide the social stability on the domestic front that was lacking in the rapidly changing, male-dominated working world. Increasingly, women were looked to not only as the embodiment of beauty, grace, and moral virtue, but were required to be the caretakers and preservers of the domestic realm. The only socially acceptable ambition of young women during this time period was to secure a husband, and then to become a subservient wife, a conscientious homemaker, and a doting mother. Women were discouraged from seeking employment outside of the home, or for contributing to the financial well-being in any manner, although their ability to maintain a pleasant home life was contingent on having adequate income; they were forced to rely on their husbands' abilities to provide for the family. This phenomenon has been referred to as the "cult of domesticity" or the "cult" or "ideology" of "true womanhood" and Chopin reacted strongly against such thinking in works such as "The Storm" and The Awakening. The narrowly-defined roles allotted to women as wives, mothers, and homemakers are reacted against by both Calixta and Clarisse in "The Storm,"
although the form their responses take are quite different from one another.
Given that "The Storm" was not published until 1969, there is no criticism of the work contemporary with the time in which it was written. The bold way in which Chopin presents the adulterous sexual encounter in the story is the topic most often discussed by modern critics. Per Seyersted, writing in Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, praises Chopin's "mostly fresh and honest" diction. In examining Chopin's treatment of the sexual encounter in "The Storm," Seyersted explains that the author treats sex as a powerful, natural force, and that sexuality itself is the subject of the story. Seyersted additionally touches on the subject that is perhaps most controversial among modern critics; he discuss the implications of the last line of story, in which it is noted that following the storm, all of the characters are happy. He states that this line is clearly meant to be ambiguous, and that while the lovers have joyfully embraced the powerful fulfillment of their sexual encounter, the possibility that complications will arise from their actions is not precluded. Concluding his analysis of the work, Seyersted observes that the power in the relationship between Calixta and Alcée is balanced—she is not subservient to him, and he does not attempt to dominate her.
Likewise, Emily Toth, in Kate Chopin, her 1990 analysis of Chopin and her writings, examines the sexual relationship between Calixta and Alcée and finds that both the desire and power in the exchange are mutual. Toth further observes that while some French and English writers at the time had penned works of a similarly explicit nature to "The Storm," female writers in 1898 did not write such detailed accounts of a sexual encounter as appears in "The Storm." In the ease with which she wrote about human sexuality, Chopin was ahead of her time. Toth emphasizes that the story takes place "boldly during the day, in the married woman's own home," and observes that when "The Storm" was written, Chopin "had come to feel that there was no shame in sexual desire." Suggesting that the lovers in the story appease their desire without guilt or shame was an intentional statement on the part of Chopin.
In his assessment of the independence of women in Chopin's short fiction, Allen F. Stein, writing in Women and Autonomy in Kate Chopin's Short Fiction, focuses on the purposefully ambiguous nature of Chopin's language throughout "The Storm," and on her depiction of both the storm and the sexual encounter between Calixta and Alcée. Stein argues that Chopin intentionally emphasizes the unresolvable nature of the lovers' actions in order to express her own complicated understanding of the desire of nineteenth-century married women to pursue their own autonomy (as well as the "dangers" of pursuing that goal).
In a 1996 article included in Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, Lawrence I. Berkove addresses the story's ambiguity by attempting to discern what Chopin intended by the story's last line, and how the author intended the lovers' encounter to be read—as amoral or, alternatively, as acceptable. Berkove concludes that Chopin criticizes Calixta and Alcée's sexual act, stating that as a realist, Chopin was aware that men and women are "led into error by what pleases them." In his reading of "The Storm," which is informed by its prequel "At the 'Cadian Ball," Berkove states that both works speak in favor of moral action by forcing readers to "face up to the consequences of acting foolishly and ignoring it."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- "At the 'Cadian Ball," by Kate Chopin, was originally published in the collection Bayou Folk in 1894. This crucial prequel to "The Storm" introduces the four main characters and their attractions to one another.
- Chopin's The Awakening (1899) met with harsh public and critical attention, and this discouraged Chopin from seeking publication for "The Storm."
- The Man-Made World was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and published in 1911. Gilman (1860-1935) was a feminist social reformer who was writing poetry, fiction, essays, and books during the same years that Chopin was actively writing. Like Chopin, Gilman was concerned with exploring the effects of the traditional societal roles to which women had been relegated. This nonfiction book discusses the negative effects of a male-dominated culture on women as well as on humanity as a whole.
- "Acadian History" and "Cajun History" are located at http://www.acadian-cajun.com/exla.htm, a website devoted to Acadian and Cajun genealogy and history. This site explains the culture of Chopin's characters in "The Storm," who, as Louisiana Acadians and Cajuns, are descendents of seventeenth-century French settlers from Canada.
- The Short Fiction of Charles W. Chestnutt was published in 1981. Like Chopin, Chestnutt was a realist writer. Chestnutt's pieces of short fiction, like his novels, are characterized by a straightforward approach to social issues, as well as by the characters' usage of regional dialects. In addition to representing typical American realist writing, Chestnutt's works of fiction offer information about what life was like in southern America in the late nineteenth-century.
Dominic is an author and freelance editor. In this essay, she argues that in order to fully understand "The Storm," it is necessary to examine Chopin's portrayal of the characters in "At the 'Cadian Ball."
"At the 'Cadian Ball," introduces the four main characters that later appear in "The Storm." Both stories begin with Bobinôt. In "At the 'Cadian Ball," Bobinôt is described in the first sentence as "big, brown, good-natured Bobinôt," and he retains his good-natured qualities throughout both stories. Against his better judgment, he loves Calixta, whom he and the other "prairie people" view as a passionate "vixen." When he learns that Alcée will be going to the Acadian Ball, an event he had earlier decided against attending, Bobinôt changes his mind. Viewing Alcée as a rival for Calixta's affections, he feels that he must attend the ball to prevent the two from socializing. At the ball, Bobinôt is depicted as "dull-looking and clumsy." Calixta makes a jibe at his expense, which is overheard by other partygoers and which brings on a round of laughter. Bobinôt joins in, laughing at himself and not begrudging Calixta her joke. After Alcée, who had been flirting with Calixta, leaves with Clarisse, Calixta begins to walk home alone. Bobinôt follows, asking courteously if he may join her. She tells him she does not care, and the two set off across the prairie. As they stumble through the darkness and across the wet grass, she tells him: "You been sayin' all along you want to marry me, Bobinôt. Well, if you want, yet, I don' care, me." Bobinôt is flushed with happiness at her offer. When he asks if she is going to change her mind again, she protests, tells him she means what she says, then presents him with her hand to shake in an attempt to clinch the deal in a businesslike fashion. Significantly, she refuses to let him kiss her.
Several years later, when "The Storm," begins, Bobinôt is the father of Calixta's son, Bibi. He is shown to be amiable and gentle with his offspring, as well as protective of him, assuring him that his mother will be safe from the storm. When father and son return home after the weather has cleared, Bobinôt is careful to clean the mud off of himself and Bibi as much as possible, and he is prepared to explain their appearance and apologize for it. He hopes to avoid upsetting Calixta, and he purchases a can of shrimp for her, indicating how much he still adores her, just as he did throughout "At the 'Cadian Ball." Bobinôt's gentleness and goodness, presented initially in "At the 'Cadian Ball," and reinforced in "The Storm" through his attention to Calixta and his devotedness as a father and family man, are contrasted rather sharply with Calixta's mean-spiritedness in "At the 'Cadian Ball" and her betrayal of Bobinôt in "The Storm."
In "At the 'Cadian Ball," Calixta is the center of attention at the social gathering described in the title of the story. All the men think she is "at her best" that night, being animated, witty, and somewhat reckless, while many of the women frown upon her behavior. She insults Bobinôt's uncomfortable and clumsy manner at the ball, asking him why he is standing about like a "cow in the bog." Later, after she has gone off alone with Alcée, the couple spies Bobinôt looking for Calixta. Alcée comments that Calixta is "going to set poor Bobinôt crazy." Alcée asks if she will marry Bobinôt, and she does not deny that she might. Alcée and Calixta are sitting together, holding hands. She tries to withdraw her hand from his grasp when Bobinôt's name comes up, but Alcée holds on more tightly, and she does not pull away again. When Alcée informs Calixta that he is going to the city, and that if she does not use the excuse of visiting her uncle there as a way of meeting up with him he might drown himself, Calixta becomes aroused. Alcée then kisses her ear, and her senses "well-nigh left her" at his touch. The pair is then interrupted by the message that someone has come looking for Alcée. The someone turns out to be Clarisse. The two women exchange a brief greeting, and then Alcée rushes to Clarisse, leaving Calixta without a glance. It is Clarisse who reminds him to bid Calixta farewell. He does so, belatedly offering her his hand, which she pretends she does not see. Accompanied by Bobinôt on the way home, Calixta states her indifference to his presence, and then tells him that if he still wishes to marry her, she does not care. She clearly feels that she is settling for Bobinôt, now that it is obvious that Alcée has rejected her in favor of Clarisse. When her new fiancée asks to kiss her, Calixta turns her face to him, a face that is described now as being "almost ugly" after the events of the evening, and she replies that she does not want to kiss him. Her "ugly" expression, her insulting of him at the ball, her plain disappointment at the fact that Alcée's flirtations were interrupted by Clarisse, whom Alcée is certainly more interested in, all set the stage for Calixta's adulterous interlude with Alcée behind Bobinôt's back in "The Storm."
In "The Storm," Calixta is now a housewife, and is going about her chores when Alcée, now her neighbor, appears. Hoping to avoid getting caught in the storm, he politely asks if he may wait on her porch. The storm proves too violent and they go inside to the empty house. When Alcée embraces Calixta after she is startled by the storm, the physical contact brings to mind the infatuation they shared years ago. Both recall an experience at the town of Assumption Parish, an event which is also briefly referenced in "At the 'Cadian Ball," but the description of what happened there is more vividly described in "The Storm." Alcée had kissed her there, repeatedly, until he took flight in order to preserve her virtue, for while she was not "an immaculate dove" then, she was still a virgin. Now, however, she seems more available to him despite the fact that they are both married. Calixta laughs in Alcée's arms, and laughs as he rides away, and laughs again while she shares dinner with her husband Bobinôt and her son, Bibi. Likewise, Alcée smiles as he leaves, and writes a note to Clarisse encouraging her to extend her trip, to not return home hastily, clearly hoping for another interlude with Calixta. The pair seem happy to now take what they previously denied themselves. They appear relieved to have succumbed to their long-standing attraction, as well as unconcerned with the implications of their actions upon their loved ones. Additionally, the encounter underscores the fact that Calixta seems to have always preferred Alcée to Bobinôt: she has always responded favorably to Alcée's advances while putting off Bobinôt, and in "The Storm" she reasserts this preference despite the additional complications involved in their new lives. Both Calixta and Alcée are now parents with roles and responsibilities they had not previously possessed. Even so, they have continued to pursue their passion for one another, playing it out further in "The Storm" than they ever have before. Their mutual decision to finally give in to their desire for one another is a testament not only to the unique connection they share with one another, but it also draws attention to the callousness with which they have always handled other people. While Calixta has treated Bobinôt poorly through her insults and her indifference to his goodness and his adoration of her, Alcée has been rude to Calixta. In "At the 'Cadian Ball," he runs to Clarisse without even thinking to say goodbye to Calixta, whom he has just kissed. He has also behaved poorly with Clarisse. In "At the 'Cadian Ball" he grabs her roughly by the arms and "panted a volley of hot, blistering love-words into her face." When she tries to comfort him after he loses his crops in a cyclone, he is indifferent to her kindness. Yet when Clarisse finds him at the ball, and professes her love for him, Alcée recalls that while he was kissing Calixta just "an hour ago," Calixta is now "like a myth." Fickle and unkind in "At the 'Cadian Ball," he is flippant about his betrayal of Clarisse in "The Storm." With a smile at Calixta as he leaves her house, he writes a letter to his wife in which he suggests she not rush back to him.
Clarisse herself is similar to Bobinôt in that Chopin portrays her as good-natured. While it is observed that she can be "cold and kind and cruel by turn," her actions indicate that where Alcée is concerned, she is consistently kind and loving. She is flustered by his initial, brutish embrace, but following that, feels tenderly toward him, attempts to console him after the loss of his crops, and desperately follows him to the ball. Although Clarisse remains devoted to Alcée, it is with relief that she receives his letter. Being away from him is described as her "first free breath since her marriage." It is likely that his growing disinterest was obvious before she left for her trip to Biloxi. His inconsiderate nature with women has already been displayed in "At the 'Cadian Ball," and by the time the reader arrives at the final section of "The Storm" (Clarisse's section), Alcée has committed adultery. While Clarisse does not yet know this, from what has been learned of his character in the earlier story, it comes as no surprise that Clarisse would have mixed emotions about her time away from her husband. His insensitive nature has likely revealed itself in their marriage, and her love for him is therefore tempered by relief at the thought of foregoing her "intimate conjugal life" with him for a while longer.
That Chopin appears to not pass judgment on Calixta and Alcée has been contested among critics, some of whom feel that the encounter between Calixta and Alcée is presented either as a healthy expression of sexuality, or as Calixta's rebellion against the roles to which married women in the nineteenth century were relegated. Other critics suggest that Chopin's ambiguous language and the irony with which they believe the last line should be read indicate that Chopin clearly viewed the adulterous tryst as morally wrong. Another approach, one that is supported through an examination of the complexities of Chopin's characterizations in both "At the 'Cadian Ball" and "The Storm," suggests that Chopin did not intend to make moral statements at all, but rather that, as an accomplished writer of realist fiction, Chopin has successfully portrayed four flawed human beings who have misplaced affections and poor judgment, the ability to love deeply, and the desire to survive one's personal choices.
Source: Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on "The Storm," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
Lawrence I. Berkove
In the following excerpt, Berkove sheds light on adultery and morality as they are portrayed in "The Storm."
Since its long-delayed publication in 1969, "The Storm" has generally been read as Kate Chopin's protest at the narrow and unnatural morality of turn-of-the-century America. The story's startling last sentence in particular has been taken to be her boldly amoral stand on an adulterous affair between two young and willing participants. This critical position is not hard to understand, considering the revolutionarily frank sensuality of the story's scene of passion. Inasmuch as Chopin's novel The Awakening, which was completed in 1898, the same year as "The Storm," is widely regarded as an affirmation of women's sensuality, "The Storm" would seem to be a reinforcement of this position. Chopin was, without doubt, an extraordinarily bold writer, but she was better than bold; she was thoughtful. "The Storm" is even better than its advocates have heretofore realized, for instead of writing merely a daring defiance of established morality, Chopin has even more daringly emplaced a courageous defense of morality, demonstrating an unsuspected mastery of irony to build her case.
"The Storm" is a sequel to "At the 'Cadian Ball" (1892). The earlier story is less spectacular than "The Storm," but despite the six years separating their composition (and probably their narratives), they fit together seamlessly. Both stories share the same setting, the same four protagonists, the same history, and the same theme, i.e., romantic impulsiveness as folly. Society's disapproval of impulsiveness, especially of sexual license, is shown to be sensible as well as moral, for such license is ultimately damaging to the individuals involved as well as to the circle of family and community around them. Chopin steadily projects this position by implication in both stories through her deft construction of character and plot, brilliantly subtle irony, and short but trenchant authorial commentary.
Chopin did not attempt to publish "The Storm" in her lifetime, hence it did not see print until 1969. Per Seyersted described it as "the story [Chopin] knew she could never hope to get published." Chopin no doubt felt that its graphic sex scene was inappropriate for its time, but even so, that she wrote the scene proves only that she was ahead of her era in literary experimentation; it does not mean that she approved—or refrained from disapproving—of Alcée and Calixta's adultery. Chopin is too good an author to have been preachy. The personalities she describes are those of human beings, neither of saints nor of devils, and it seems to be her wont to evoke understanding about human motivation first and foremost, and judgment later. But inasmuch as the moral issue of adultery is central to "The Storm," Chopin must have had an opinion on it. In contrast to the prevailing view that she ended the story non-commitally, a careful examination of the text makes clear that Chopin was not at all neutral toward the "natural" adulterous action but was instead critical of it. In Chopin's view, morality is an essential part of humanity, and it is morality, not nature, that ultimately characterizes humans.
This view appears in both stories. Although the earlier story must and can stand by itself—and nothing indicates that Chopin planned, in 1892, to write a sequel to it—the two stories are remarkably congruent in characterization, plot, and theme, and crucial similarities between the earlier and later story suggest that they both came out of the same matrix of authorial values. In both stories, Chopin shows her skepticism of "natural" human inclinations by portraying what happens when people allow sexual impulse to govern them. Even the earlier story depicts, with foreboding overtones, the consequences of impetuousness that drives two ill-fated romances to become unwise marriages.
… "The Storm" is set in the same place as "At the 'Cadian Ball" but occurs several years later. Bobinôt and Calixta, now married, have a four-year-old son named Bibi. The story opens with a view of Bibi and Bobinôt at the local store. Bibi's presence at the opening is significant because, as a new addition to the four main personalities of the previous story, he symbolizes the marriage and the mutual commitment and trust it should imply. One image of these ideals appears at the end of the first section with the line "Bibi laid his little hand on his father's knee and was not afraid" and another in Bobinôt's purchase of a can of shrimps, "of which Calixta was very fond." These acts, and the earlier description of Bobinôt's habit of conversing "on terms of perfect equality with his little son," show that Bobinôt is a good husband and father. Nevertheless, the mood for the entire story is set by the section's description of storm clouds rolling in with "sinister intention."
The story does not paint Calixta and Alcée as schemers. She and Alcée had not planned to meet, let alone commit adultery. The rainstorm—another cyclone—has caught him on the road, and although he lives nearby and might have ridden on, his wish to escape a drenching in Calixta's home is innocent. Hegreets her by name and properly asks permission to wait out the storm on her porch, and she properly addresses him as "M'sieur Alcée" when she grants it. Calixta is honestly concerned for Bobinôt as the storm hits, but a lightning strike nearby so unnerves her that Alcée clasps her by the shoulders and "unthinkingly" draws her into his arms. So the adulterous passion begins without premeditation. Alcée suddenly discovers that contact with her body "aroused all the old-time infatuation and desire for her flesh." When she glances up at him, her fear is replaced by a "drowsy gleam that unconsciously betrayed a sensuous desire. He looked down into her eyes and there was nothing for him to do but to gather her lips in a kiss. It reminded him of Assumption." Chopin's text clearly describes their mutual attraction as a spontaneous as well as natural emotion, but it also distinguishes their feelings from love. Calixta is in the grip of a "sensuous desire," and Alcée equally has a "desire for her flesh." The relationship between the two of them is characterized as an "infatuation," literally "foolish behavior."
The story's next paragraph is not so kind to them. We learn what had happened at Assumption that had scandalized the community. The two of them had indulged their passion, kissing until Alcée almost lost control of himself, and "to save her" he resorted "to a desperate flight." This flight reflects honorably upon Alcée at the time, and it also shows that he had choice and could control himself. The remaining lines of the paragraph contrast, unfavorably, the present Alcée to the earlier one.
If [Calixta] was not an immaculate dove in those days, she was still inviolate; a passionate creature whose very defenselessness had made her defense, against which his honor forbade him to prevail. Now—well, now—her lips seemed in a manner free to be tasted, as well as her round, white throat and her whiter breasts.
Alcée's reasoning is faulty. Inasmuch as he introduced the subject of honor, if honor forbade him to prevail against a virgin, it should have been even more forceful in the case of a married woman, to whom the commandment against adultery applied. As we know from his honorable actions in Assumption, it is not that he now had no choice, that he could not stop himself, but that he did not want to.
The description of the act of passion that follows is indeed impressive, and Chopin deserves all the credit she has received for its daring and its "realism," but there is more to it than that. Calixta has already been described as a "passionate creature," but in abandoning herself so utterly to her passions and becoming a mere "creature," she forfeits some of the other desirable qualities of her humanity. Much as Bobinôt saw he in "At the 'Cadian Ball," she is described not as whole woman but as parts of a woman: as "firm, elastic flesh that was knowing for the first time its birthright," as breast that "gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy," as a mouth that "was a fountain of delight." Her passion is present in "generous abundance," but nothing else is there—no thought, no hesitation, no moral scruples, no reflection. It is a portrayal that unexpectedly illustrates the Victorian fear that women could not be depended upon to govern themselves, that they were only passionate "creatures," frail vessels when it came to thought or resistance to temptation.
Calixta's subsequent actions also support another Victorian stereotype of women as morally elastic. She laughs as she lies in Alcée's arms; she laughs as he rides away; she laughs at dinner with her husband and son. But she also has begun to lie. In the midst of the sex act, her passion was "without guile or trickery." Yes, she is genuine and honest in her passion, but this condition ends with the departure of her lover.
When her husband and son return, she lies. She tells Bobinôt that she was "uneasy" while he was away, and "seemed" to express "nothing but satisfaction" at the safe return of her husband and son. She kisses them with unexpected enthusiasm—Bobinôt expected recriminations—and at dinner they all laughed so loudly that "anyone might have heard them as far away as Laballière's."
The only "anyone" of consequence at Laballière's is Alcée. If he does hear them, this explains why he writes his wife, Clarisse, that night, encouraging her to stay a month longer at Biloxi with the babies. He also lies to her about the real reason, pretending that he is willing to sacrifice himself for their health and pleasure. It is fairly clear that he hopes for a repeat performance with Calixta, and if Calixta intended for her laughter to carry to his house, he indeed had reason to hope.
The consequence of Clarisse's abrupt desire for Alcée in "At the 'Cadian Ball" is spelled out in the sequel by her pleasure at receiving her husband's letter. The visit to Biloxi is described as the first "free" breath of "pleasant liberty" she has enjoyed since her marriage. The marriage itself is summed up in one ironic sentence: "Devoted as she was to her husband, their intimate conjugal life was something which she was more than willing to forego for a while."
Coming as it does just after this sentence, the last sentence of the story, "So the storm passed and every one was happy," must also be read ironically. Reading it "straight" would not only ascribe to Chopin anachronistically liberal attitudes, it would also create a host of problems that she was too good a writer and thinker not to have avoided. The last line intends to depict different kinds of happiness, none of them desirable. Bobinôt and Bibi are happy by virtue of their ignorance. They continue to trust Calixta and to extend her a dedicated love they mistakenly believe is reciprocated. Clarisse, not overly fond of Alcée anymore, is happy in being able to stay away from him for a while longer. She also is happy in her ignorance of her husband's adultery. Surely Chopin cannot be seriously characterizing such deceptions as happiness.
Calixta and Alcée are "happy" because their long suppressed passion for each other has been at last satisfied—at least for the time being. But it is not love. It is only passion, only desire, only an "infatuation." No serious thought has been given to the future. Alcée has given himself another month in which to enjoy Calixta again, but he is already married and has children, and divorce is not a serious possibility. What happens if they are caught, or if she becomes pregnant? Calixta does not even think about the next hour. They are "acting like fools." It is difficult to believe that Chopin considers this precarious state of affairs to be true happiness.
Reading the last line as amoral, matter-of-fact realism also begs some important moral questions that Chopin could not have intelligently ignored. To be specific, if everyone was truly happy at the end of the story, is this story intended to be a "realistic" picture of married life? Is this kind of behavior what makes for a happy marriage, or only what passes for one? Is the story an endorsement of occasional escapades of immorality on the grounds that everyone needs to give in, sometimes, to nature, because in the long run satisfying natural desire is beneficial because it promotes happiness? If such escapades can be excused on these grounds, is happiness the greatest good in life, even greater than morality? To put it a little differently, is Kate Chopin advocating hedonism?
Certainly one of the strongest elements in the story is the relationship it implies between man and nature: a storm comes up, releases pent-up energy, and then passes over. This event is followed by happiness, so why should humans deny their affinity to nature? Kate Chopin would be a less impressive author if she were guilty of such simplistic thinking. Writings by Shakespeare (e.g., King Lear) to Stephen Crane (e.g., "The Open Boat"), to Ernest Hemingway (e.g., "The Three-Day Blow") have demonstrated the falseness of the analogy between human beings and natural phenomena. Storms may be personified, but they are not living persons. They do not know the intimacy of love and children; they are ephemeral; they lack memory and consciences; and they do not have to face consequences. When Alcée responds to the storm in "At the 'Cadian Ball," it is to imitate it by seeking a fling and getting "in a mood for ugly things." When the passion between him and Calixta parallels the storm in the sequel, the former pattern is repeated. Imitating nature, they exchange human standards for something mindless and irresponsible. That they can be "happy" afterwards is not particularly a compliment to them.
As with the issue of happiness, the symbolism of nature in these stories is loaded with pitfalls. A recent discussion of The Awakening reminds readers that Chopin was sufficiently influenced by current trends in international literature not to have treated nature "as a medium of transcendence in the Romantic sense." The limited applicability of nature to human affairs is also apparent in these two stories if we recognize that natural storms cannot be brought back at will, but that Alcée certainly, and possibly Calixta, are looking forward to a repeat performance. Storms, moreover, are isolated and irregular phenomena, whereas adultery tends to set a pattern. Storms are destructive though transient; human relationships, especially those involving love and family, cannot thrive in storms. These are self-evident considerations that Chopin could not have overlooked.
Finally, the presence of children in "The Storm" reflects one more enormous difference between human nature and physical nature: humans recognize an obligation to their offspring. Bibi is not the only child in the story; Alcée and Clarisse also have babies. If the affair between Alcée and Calixta blows up or is exposed—and such affairs are very hard to conceal in small towns and close-knit communities—the children will be hurt. All of these direct and likely consequences of "following nature" make the amoralistic approach a highly dubious one for Chopin to have followed.
In claiming that Kate Chopin is critical of the adulterous relationship that had its roots in the scandal at Assumption, grew through the recklessness and impulsive self-indulgence of its principals in "At the 'Cadian Ball," and ripened into passionate infatuation in "The Storm," I do not intend to paint Chopin as a narrow Sunday-school moralist. Rather, the care that she has taken with the consistent development of the principal characters in the two stories, and the progression of relationships that begin on the wrong foot in the earlier story and progressively worsen throughout both stories, refute the belief that Chopin abruptly reverses herself in the last sentence of "The Storm" and intends this conclusion to be read literally. The tone of that sentence is ironic, and to miss that tone is also to overlook the careful and extensive preparations for it that constitute the main matter of both stories.
It would be an exaggeration to categorize these stories as moral fiction, but it is also an exaggeration to deny or downplay the moral strands that run through them. They are far from being the only stories in her canon that demonstrate moral concerns about sexual matters; "A Respectable Woman" (1894) and "Athénaïse" (1895) are two others in which such concerns are readily apparent. What makes "The Storm" seem so different are two factors. Intrinsically, it is the most daring and sexually explicit of all her stories. Extrinsically, its rediscovery coincided with a feeling among many that the sexual taboos of the 19th century were outdated. But "The Storm" is also one of Chopin's most accomplished literary creations, and in it her irony, though delicate, is absolutely crucial to its understanding. That Chopin is ultimately critical of Alcée and Calixta's adultery must be recognized not because of any moral predisposition or prejudice on the part of readers, but because the texts of the two stories lead us directly to that conclusion and because the alternative positions are fraught with too many and too obviously insupportable difficulties. It is to her credit that Chopin created convincingly life-like personalities and depicted their careers sympathetically. As a realist, however, and especially as an ironist, she knew that men and women are, classically, led into error by what pleases them. True morality stems from hard thinking as well as great effort of will. These two stories support morality by making readers face up to the consequences of acting foolishly and ignoring it.
Source: Lawrence I. Berkove, "‘Acting Like Fools’: The Ill-Fated Romances of ‘At the 'Cadian Ball’ and ‘The Storm,’" in Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, edited by Alice Hall Petry, G. K. Hall, 1996, pp. 184-96.
Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt
In the following excerpt, Shurbutt argues that Chopin's short stories attempt to revise the Victorian myth of the meek, passionless woman. Shurbutt touches upon several of Chopin's stories, including "The Storm."
… In "The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and the Revisionist Mythmaking," Alicia Ostriker explains the process of revisionist mythmaking: "Whenever a poet employs a figure or story previously accepted and defined by a culture, the poet is using myth, and the potential is always present that the use will be revisionist: that is, the figure or tale will be appropriated for altered ends, the old vessel filled with new wine, initially satisfying the thirst of the individual poet but ultimately making cultural change possible" (317). Ostriker details how "old stories are changed … by female experience, so that they can no longer stand as foundations of collective male fantasy. Instead … they are corrections; they are representations of what women find divine and demonic in themselves; they are retrieved images of what women have collectively and historically suffered; in some cases they are instructions for survival" (316).
There are few better examples of the revisionist process at work than in the regional stories and tales of Kate O'Flaherty Chopin. The Creole characters in such collections as Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie become the perfect vehicle for Chopin's revisionist writing: her Natchitoches folk, with their "directness and lack of sophistication," their "more genuine and spontaneous, more natural and wholesome" zest for "a hedonist enjoyment of the present" (Seyersted 96), are set apart from the traditional types more susceptible to the patriarchal colorings employed to construct myths about marriage and female sexuality current in Chopin's gilded America of the 1880s and 1890s. In stories like "Charlie" and "The Storm" Chopin presents revised portraits of women achieving fulfillment in roles other than marriage and of women evincing a passionate nature considered inappropriate by conventional, patriarchal standards of "Victorian" America.
Chopin had little patience with the saccharin myths that molded the lives of men and women in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Indeed, as Emily Toth points out in her recent biography, Chopin, as the unconventional wife of a Creole planter, did her best to flaunt the feminine standards of provincial Cloutierville in her own life—galloping through the cane fields astride her stallion, managing the plantation store and her amiable husband, Oscar Chopin, and perhaps even carrying on a torrid affair with friend and neighbor Albert Sampite. Later, in an 1894 published review of the Hoosier poets, Chopin indirectly suggests her own realistic aesthetic, one wonderfully infected with the clear-sighted attempt to revise the limiting images offered by a patriarchal society: "[in their] garden of Eden," she says of this particular group of Midwestern local colorists, "the disturbing fruit of the tree of knowledge still hangs unplucked." The real world, as Chopin knew it, was one far removed from the philosophic pablum offered America by this collection of poets; indeed, it was one where, as she wrote, "human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning" is "stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it" (Works [The Complete Works of Kate Chopin] 691-92). Chopir has many of her Creole characters purposefully pluck "the tree" in order to discover their own awakenings; in so doing she revises accepted myths about duty, marriage, and sexuality in order to achieve a more realistic understanding of the human condition. In this article I wish to examine some of those accepted myths of the patriarchy that Chopin attempts to reinterpret or rewrite in her regional fiction.
… The myth most often promulgated by the patriarchy for the purpose of keeping female passions under rein, and the one Chopin finds immense pleasure in revising, is that Victorian notion of woman's somewhat anemic sexuality. The Cane River locale offers a number of particularly successful characters who have no intention of subverting their sexuality merely to conform with patriarchal standards of behavior. Perhaps the vampish Calixta of Chopin's "At the 'Cadian Ball" and the companion story "The Storm" is the best known example of a woman bent on fulfilling her complete sexual potential. However, Gaston Baroda's wife in "A Respectable Woman" is one of the most intriguing examples. When her husband's friend Gouvernail is up from New Orleans "to spend a week or two on the plantation," she is at first unhappy with his intrusion on her family and home (Awakening and Selected Stories [The Awakening, and Selected Short Stories of Kate Chopin] 194). As she spends time with the gentle, quiet-voiced Gouvernail, so unlike her husband's other men friends, she begin to warm to him, though "why she liked him she could not explain satisfactorily to herself" (194). The attraction she feels for Gouvernail grows, and one evening she experiences the impulse 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" (197). Some months later as Gaston prepares to invite Gouvernail again to the plantation, he tells his wife, "I am glad, chère amie, to know that you have finally overcome your dislike for him; truly he did not deserve it." His wife presses a "long, tender kiss on his lips" and replies with curious and playful ambiguity which, however perplexing to her husband, is understood by the reader for its sexual implication: "Oh … I have overcome everything! You will see. This time I shall be very nice to him" (197).
Perhaps the most complex revisionist mythmaking on Chopin's part occurs as she portrays the variety of marital relationships in her fiction. Chopin's own attitude toward marriage was extremely complex. Although Seyersted insists that she was a most contented wife and had extraordinary affection for her Creole husband, Oscar Chopin, enjoyed family life and the presence of her affectionate brood of children around her, her diary records ten years after Oscar's death what she calls "the past ten years of my growth—my real growth." She goes on to note, however, that were "her mother and husband to return to earth, she would willingly give up everything she had become since their deaths, so the sense of freedom," as Helen Taylor suggests, "is by no means unequivocal" (141-42). Chopin's personal writing and the reminiscences of her children indicate she did indeed adore her family, the close and loving physical relationship with her husband, and the extraordinary sensations accompanying motherhood; however, much of the fiction suggests that she believed the demands of family and marriage to be diametrically opposed to a woman's achieving her own personal selfhood. Edna Pontellier is perhaps Chopin's best known character to have grappled with the complexities and limitations of marriage; however, the Cane River stories offer Chopin an opportunity to portray the full range and variety of her ideas about marriage and to revise many of the myths associated with women and marriage in the 1890s.
… Chopin was well aware of the power of myth in our lives and specifically the power of literature to create myth, to create a reality more potent than real life. In her first attempt at novel writing, Chopin portrays the unfortunate and ill-fated Fanny Hosmer as a woman who succumbs both to cheap wine and cheap novels—the novels being those "unwholesome intellectual sweets so tirelessly, to be devoured by the girls and women of the age" (At Fault 97). Carolyn Heilbrun writes of this power of literature to produce the myth that shapes the lives of women, women who "can only retell and live by the stories … [they] have read or heard." "We live our lives through texts," Heilbrun remarks, "They may be read or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all" (37). Feminist critics are discovering that a sizable portion of nineteenth-century literature by women was created as a response to patriarchal myths—whether the response was direct and overt as in the work of Chopin or indirect and masked as in the work of Christina Rossetti or George Eliot. Heilbrun concludes by saying that there can be true narratives of female lives "only when women no longer live their lives isolated in the houses and the stories of men" (47). Katherine O'Flaherty Chopin for a brief space at the end of the nineteenth century had the courage to write her own story; in doing so, she has helped women today to write theirs.
Source: Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt, "The Cane River Characters and Revisionist Mythmaking in the Work of Kate Chopin," in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring 1993, 7 pp.
Berkove, Lawrence I., "‘Acting Like Fools’: The Ill-Fated Romances of ‘At the 'Cadian Ball’ and ‘The Storm,’" in Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, edited by Alice Hall Petry, G. K. Hall, 1996, pp. 184-96.
Chopin, Kate, "At the 'Cadian Ball," in Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert, Library of America, 2002, pp. 302-11.
———, "The Storm," in Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert, Library of America, 2002, pp. 926-31.
Gilbert, Sandra M., Chronology, in Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert, Library of America, 2002, pp. 1043-53.
Inge, Tonette Bond, and William E. Grant, "Kate Chopin," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 78, American Short-Story Writers, 1880-1910, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 90-110.
Koloski, Bernard, "Uncollected Stories," in Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 73-81.
Papke, Mary E., "The Ideology of True Womanhood," in Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton, Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 9-19.
Penrose, Patricia, "American Realism: 1865-1910," National Council of Teachers of English website, http://www.ncteamericancollection.org/amer_realism.htm (accessed November 2, 2007).
Seyersted, Per, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, Louisiana State University Press, 1969, pp. 166-67.
Skaggs, Peggy, "Miscellaneous Works," in Kate Chopin, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 54-72.
Stein, Allen F., Women and Autonomy in Kate Chopin's Short Fiction, Peter Lang, 2005, p. 56.
Toth, Emily, "‘The Storm’ and The Awakening," in Kate Chopin, William Morrow, 1990, pp. 317-35.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Modern Critical Views: Kate Chopin, Chelsea House, 1987.
This book is a collection of critical essays written by various scholars about Chopin's writing. Some of the essays focus on individual works, such as the novel The Awakening; some focus on a grouping of works, such as her short fiction; and others examine themes that appear throughout Chopin's work.
Eliot, Lorraine Nye, The Real Kate Chopin, Dorrance Publishing, 2002.
In this critical biography, Eliot offers an exhaustively researched account of the events in Chopin's life that influenced her writing.
Fitzgerald, Michael W., "Gender, Race, and Civil Society in the Reconstruction South," in Splendid Failure: Post-war Reconstruction in the American South, Ivan R. Dee, 2007, pp. 143-64.
This chapter examines the social tensions of southern American society in the Reconstruction era, a turbulent time period during which Chopin and her husband were raising their family. Chopin's writings were undoubtedly influenced by the racial conflicts of this time, as well as the social changes that were shaping women's domestic roles.
Rushton, William Faulkner, The Cajuns: From Acadia to Louisiana, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.
This book offers a history of the Acadian expulsion from Canada, the immigration of some Acadians to Louisiana, and their subsequent merging with other local cultures, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the unique culture of the Cajuns. Chopin's "The Storm" is set in the Acadian region of Louisiana.
Welter, Barbara, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Ohio University Press, 1976.
In this work, the prominent historian Barbara Welter explores the roles of women in nineteenth-century American society, focusing on the qualities of "true womanhood," which included piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. The essays collected in the volume were published primarily in the late 1960s and early 1970s and formed the foundation of the studies of many modern historians. Welter's work is often cited in critical discussions of Chopin's writings.
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