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KATE CHOPIN AS MODERNIST: A READING OF "LILACS" AND "TWO PORTAITS"
Christopher Keep and Tim
McLaughlin define modernism as "the radical shift in aesthetic
and cultural sensibilities evident in the art and literature
of the post-World War One period." Modernism breaks with
Victorian bourgeois morality and rejects "nineteenth-century
optimism," presenting "a profoundly pessimistic picture
of a culture in disarray. This despair often results in an apparent
apathy and moral relativism." Keep and McLaughlin attribute
the "radical shift" to the Great War, which blew away
the nineteenth century idea of a stable, meaningful world.
This sense of security and order may have been doubted by the young Chopin, whose father had died so unexpectedly, and then shattered when her half- brother and great-grandmother died in close succession when she was twelve.
The Civil War broke out when Kate O'Flaherty was eleven. Although Missouri never seceded, St. Louis was divided between secessionists and unionists, and the atmosphere there throughout the war was tense. The O'Flaherty family owned slaves, and Kate's half-brother joined the Confederate Army. Toth and Seyersted both write about Kate O'Flaherty tearing down a Union flag which had been hung on her house. "The flag incident made Kate O'Flaherty famous among southern sympathizers, as one who'd stood up to the Yankees . . . Kate became known as St. Louis's 'Littlest Rebel'" (Toth 64).
Toth describes the way in which Chopin remembered the Civil War, and the effect it had on her life and writing:
After the war, at age sixteen, Kate O'Flaherty was elected by her classmates and teachers at the Sacred Heart Academy to the Children of Mary, a group of girls who possessed qualities of leadership, piety, popularity, and hard work. The Children of Mary were expected to join adult "sodalities" and devote themselves to charity. According to Toth, Chopin paid dues to the St. Louis Children of Mary Sodality for most of her adult life, but does not appear to have been an otherwise active member (74). It appears that, although a sense of duty to the Children of Mary prevailed, the substance of the commitment lost meaning for Chopin.
Kate O'Flaherty married Oscar Chopin at Holy Angels Church in St. Louis when she was twenty years old (Toth 100). They honeymooned in Europe, where Kate Chopin continued to write in the journal she had kept occasionally as a child. On the day of the Feast of the Assumption, Chopin wrote that she and her husband had missed mass; on the same day, she recorded a story told by a Russian woman they met in Switzerland about
an old priest who made such an impressive sermon to his congregation of the sufferings of Christ, as to excite them all to tears. Seeing the affliction into which he had thrown his good people, he exclaimed: "Do not cry thus, my good children, for after all, it may not be true" (qtd. in Toth 114).
It appears that Chopin, even at this early age, was capable not only of missing an important religious observation (the Feast of the Assumption), but also of poking fun at her professed religion. Later in life, in 1894, Chopin wrote about a visit to one of her old school- friends who had become a nun (not Kitty Garesch). She wrote about the way the Sacred Heart nuns mix the sensual with the sacred:
Then Chopin wondered
"Lilacs," written in 1894, describes a widowed actress living in Paris, Mme. Adrienne Farival. Each spring, when the lilacs bloom, Mme. Farival leaves her worldly life and returns to the convent where she went to school as a child to spend time with the nuns. At the end of the story, she returns again but is turned away at the door. Jacqueline Olson Padgett offers some insight into the ways in which Chopin expresses her modernist sensibility in "Lilacs." Padgett reads "Lilacs" as a story fashioned around what she calls the "Virgin Mary myth" told in St. Luke's gospel of the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus made to Mary by the archangel Gabriel. Padgett says that the Annunciation story has divided women for ages on the basis of chastity, and has divided women internally into spiritual and physical selves. Because of the insistence on Mary's virginity before and after childbirth, Padgett says, the ideal virginal mother is set apart from "real women and mothers whose joyously experienced sexuality closes the doors to work within the clerical ministry even to our day" (97).
Padgett argues that "Lilacs" is an annunciation story by pointing out that the story begins with the sentence "Mme. Adrienne Farival never announced her coming." Padgett calls this a failed annunciation, and says that "as the hope of annunciation fails, so too the coming of redemption and salvation through women and their sisterhood must fail" (98). As further proof that this is an Annunciation story, Padgett notes that Adrienne and Sister Agathe kneel together and recite the Annunciation prayer. Although it seems questionable as to whether the opening sentence and the Annunciation prayer being said can really make this an "annunciation story," in reading the story as such, Padgett offers some interesting insights into Chopin's religious conflicts.
According to Padgett, Chopin "shows both convent and secular worlds to be worlds of meaningless rituals that bury physical and spiritual longing and satisfaction" (103). Sophie, Adrienne's maid, is used to
Padgett claims that the "Virgin Mary myth" "has served to divide women from such harmony [between sacred and secular], and in 'Lilacs' it serves the same function, carefully disrupting the integrated self, parting the spiritual and physical selves" (104). She says that in "Lilacs," Adrienne and Agathe (the nun) long for a union of their "disparate lives." "Both nun and secular woman appear to await a birth of a new sisterhood uniting women divided by an institution" (104). She notes that the women are described as though they might be pregnant with such a birth: the nuns are described as "expectant," and Adrienne is described as having a "rounded" figure.
Padgett then talks about borders being crossed in the story as metaphorical borders between the physical and the spiritual: Adrienne is seen "crossing the beautiful lawn that sloped up to the convent." Sister Agathe, "more daring and impulsive than all, descended the steps and flew across the grass." Sister Agathe and Adrienne linger "long upon the footbridge that spanned the narrow stream which divided the convent grounds from the meadow beyond" (qtd. in Padgett 104-5). Padgett ends by saying that "wholeness and well-being, redemption and salvation: these are the promises of the Annunciation. In ÔLilacs' Kate Chopin questions whether such a promise is available to women separated from each other on the basis of chastity" (106).
In her reading, Padgett's own religious prejudices appear to come forward. Her observations about the maid Sophie are astute; however, it is a stretch to claim that, through Sophie, Chopin is showing the convent world to be utterly meaningless. With the exception of the Mother Superior, the nuns are shown in a sympathetic light. In addition, Mme. Farival actually does seem to find spiritual satisfaction at the convent, but either she is too vain to allow this satisfaction to last, or, as Padgett indicates, it is impossible to have this type of experience in the secular world; thus, once Adrienne leaves the convent, she must leave the spiritual behind. Elmo Howell, in his reading of "Lilacs," offers some biographical notes. He states that, although she went to confession shortly before her death, towards the end of her life, Chopin was religiously indifferent (104). In contrast to Padgett, Howell asserts that "Mrs. Chopin shies away from making a point about religion" (105) and states that he does not believe "Lilacs" is an indictment of the church but is about Mme. Farival, an "individual soul at odds with itself" (106). In other words, he sees "Lilacs" as more of a modernist existentialist story than as a political/religious statement.
Howell says that Mme. Farival grieves at the end when she is turned out of the convent at "her failure to incorporate and possess two forms of experience that are not compatible" (108). Padgett's reading, that the cause of this incompatibility is the Virgin Mary myth, is useful in understanding Mme. Farival's -- and Chopin's -- predicament.
In "Lilacs," we see the patriarchal structure of society being represented by the church, and we see Chopin attempt to comment on it:
The row of wood chairs seems to represent the structured, orderly, authoritarian patriarchy. The female-oriented icons have been neglected or replaced. Although she is a woman, the Mother Superior, "whose dignity would not permit her to so much as step outside the door of her private apartments to welcome this old pupil" (132), also represents this male-oriented order. Chopin describes her as "dignity in person; large, uncompromising, unbending" and states that she "discussed conventional themes learnedly and prosaically" (132-3) -- further indicating that she represents les convenances, the customary societal behaviors and expectations.
It is possible, through a reading of "Lilacs," to perceive a ray of hope in the seeming incompatibility of secular and religious aspects of the self. This hope may be in nature. We see Adrienne "contemplating old Sophie with quizzical, half-closed eyes, and pelting her with hot-house roses" (140). These artificially grown roses, representational of the secular world, are being used as ammunition against the religious world (if we accept Padgett's reading of Sophie as representational of the religious). However, these roses are contrasted with the naturally blooming lilacs. Adrienne says:
The smell of lilacs draws her to the convent, to God. However, when Adrienne tells this to the nun Agathe, she is chastised for not turning to "Our Blessed Mother" in her despondency (136). So, while nature pulls her to the convent -- the religious -- she is repelled by the convent back into the secular, since she cannot live up to the ideal of the Virgin Mary, nor can she abide by the patriarchal rules and hierarchy.
In the first section, Alberta becomes a wanton, and in the second she becomes a nun. Although Elmo Howell claims that the story is a linear one in which a woman, who is a wanton, goes through a change and becomes a nun, a close reading reveals that the two sections describe two hypothetical ends for the same woman.
Jacqueline Olson Padgett offers a brief reading of "Two Portraits," stating that in this story the idea of an integration of spiritual and physical desire -- which is lacking in "Lilacs" -- is played out. The wanton lacks spirituality, but for the nun, "spirituality merges with physicality. . . Here, the sacred and the sensual mingle again, penetrating the life of the nun, and so identifying the ways in which flesh and desire prove redemptive. Such redemption and such harmony of spirit and flesh are blocked for the women in 'Lilacs'" (104).
Chopin is having far too much fun with the nun, though, to seriously consider the nun's as a desirable state. In the two sections of this story, Chopin is still showing two extremes: the wanton is tormented by desire; the nun is fulfilled to a ridiculously ecstatic, orgasmic extreme -- and it is not physical, only imaginary.
In "Two Portraits," Chopin's writing style is modernist. John Barth could be describing Chopin's short story when he describes the style of modernist writing as involving:
Chopin, in "Two Portraits," throws out the idea of a unified, coherent plot (which confounds Elmo Howell); she uses an "ironic and ambiguous juxtaposition" by offering the reader two opposed versions of Alberta, and in doing so she distorts the bourgeois, Victorian, Catholic ideals of women.
Yet, here again, as in "Lilacs," nature seems to offer some sort of possible redemption. Alberta the nun-to-be is shown "the creeping insects, the blades of grass, the flowers and trees, the rain-drops falling from the clouds; the sky and stars and the men and women moving on the earth" -- "God created all" (48). Nature leads one to God. However, although nature seems to offer some sort of comfortable hope, Chopin might not really have seen such hope; she may have just been playing a cynical modernist's game.
From her early experiences with war's devastating power over human life and childhood ideals, Chopin appears to have acquired a distaste for simple answers as provided by the sensual Catholicism and Victorian conventions with which she was reared. Through her short fiction, as seen especially in "Lilacs" and "Two Portraits," Chopin plays with the discord between the religious and the secular, showing the philosophical and moral problems created by the traditional patriarchal religion and conventions. She appears to offer an answer in the natural world's power over human emotions, but even this hope is called into question through her cynical, mocking, modernist style. It seems clear that, in her writing, Chopin was preparing the way for the modernist viewpoint that would become popular twenty years after the writing of these two stories.
Bonner, Thomas, Jr. "Christianity and Catholicism in
the Fiction of Kate Chopin." Southern Quarterly: A Journal
of the Arts in the South 20 (1982): 118-125.