The late 19th century in America was a period notable for prevalence of traditional gender stereotypes, which defined women’s subservient role in the society. However, gender relations of that period were hardly dominated by the conservative mores, as may be easily understood from the relevant literary works. In particular, the protagonists of two short stories by Kate Chopin, “The Story of an Hour” and “The Storm”, are seemingly obedient homemakers, yet in reality they are struggling to break the boundaries of gender hierarchy.
Louise Mallard, a protagonist of “The Story of an Hour”, is described as a frail, but fair young woman who is suffering from serious heart problems. This concern leads Richards, the Mallards family’s friend, and Josephine, her sister, to go to great lengths to cautiously present the news of her husband’s death to Louise. However, they are unaware that her heart malady is not Louise’s main concern now; she feels joy – a cruel triumph of being free from her husband’s embrace and control. In the closing part of the story, the reader sees her unconsciously displaying attitude of an ancient goddess – a “goddess of Victory”, as the author puts it (Chopin, “The Story of an Hour” 354). An unexpected return of her husband puts an end to Louise’s vision of feminine liberty and triumph; unsurprisingly, this spells an end to her corporeal life as well.
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Calixta, a main character of “The Storm”, is a young woman who has been married for five years, still retaining the “vivacity” of her youth (Chopin, “The Storm” 593). She is depicted as an exemplary housewife and loving mother, always caring for her son Bibi’s health and safety. She is fearful and obedient, but still feels secret urges that go far beyond the acceptable in her society. When Alcée Laballière, an old acquaintance of hers, arrives in Bobinôt’s household, Calixta succumbs to her desires, making love to this handsome man, with her emotional state evidently affected by the storm that rages around. However, when Alcée leaves their household and the storm is over, Calixta returns to her usual duties of a homemaker, cheerfully greeting her husband and son. All signs of rebellious sexuality that she exhibited during the storm have died down.
Thus, female protagonists of both stories may be said to be playing a double game in their relations with the male-dominated world around them. While Louise and Calixta’s mental and emotional traits are different, they equally crave for freedom that is denied to them by this society. Perhaps unconsciously, Calixta strives to satisfy her repressed sexual urges which she manifests when exposed to psychological stresses. Louise’s quest for freedom is not confined to a notion of sexual liberation (this aspect is hardly referred to in “The Story of an Hour”). Instead, Louise seeks more general freedom of action and self-expression that her husband’s will has been denying to her so long. Therefore, in spite of possible similarities between the two female protagonists’ desire for liberty, their motivation and, more importantly, visions of this freedom are sharply different. While Louise focuses on the freedom of action, Calixta is content with a freedom of desires. The implications of these different standpoints are of great importance for understanding of the characters’ life attitudes.
In “The Story of an Hour”, the author does not present any evidence of cruelties or misdemeanors that Louise may have experienced from her husband. The only tangible reference to this form of marital problem may be found in the depiction of Louise’s appearance. The author notes that Louise’s face “bespoke repression” (Chopin, “The Storm” 353). However, description of her response to the news of Brenty Mallard’s death is rather indicative of Louise’s true feelings for him. Having retreated to a secluded room, Louise tries to make sense of her state of mind. Initially, she attempts to keep her feeling of jubilation under control. When Louise fails at this endeavor, “a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under the breath: “free, free, free!” (Chopin, “The Story of an Hour” 353). This response is a testimony to Louise’s dissatisfaction with her marriage. Now, as she believes her husband is dead, Louise is ready to make up for the grayness of her previous marriage – a plan that is not to be fulfilled.
In comparison, Calixta does not feel any anger or resentment at Bobinôt, her husband. Calixta’s sexual intercourse with Alcée’s is driven by her desire and anxiety, as well as by inability to withstand her guest’s suggestion. She is concerned with her son’s safety all the time. When Bibi and Bobinôt return home, Calixta presents an image of a caring and concerned wife and mother. She “seemed to express nothing but satisfaction at their safe return” (Chopin, “The Storm” 596). One may wonder, whether such attitude is forced or natural to Calixta. If the latter is true, then the reader is presented with a paradoxical character of an unfaithful wife who is subjectively unaware of her infidelity.
The author makes clear that it is not Brently Mallard himself, but the very system of patriarchal domination which draws Louise’s ire. When reflecting upon her attitude towards her presumably dead husband, Louise alludes to resentment she has always felt at the very notion of a “powerful will bending hers” (Chopin, “The Story of an Hour” 353). In Louise’s mind, this psychological dominance is inherently connected with her husband’s presence. While the author mentions that Louise used to love Brently Mallard, this feeling must have been extinguished long ago. Referring to Brently’s “kind, tender hands” and “the face that had never looked save with love upon her” (Chopin, “The Story of an Hour” 353), Louise, nonetheless, is looking forward to the future of a newly found freedom.
Unlike Louise, Calixta’s yearning for freedom is generally unconscious, as she is content with her role of a homemaker in the patriarchal society. She would like to have freedom to be unfaithful to her husband from time to time. However, Calixta passively accepts a role that she is assigned to in her social life. She is ready to let men run the world, while women tend to their needs – and correct their mistakes. Calixta is ready to care for her husband’s needs. She expresses a somewhat infantile joy at him bringing a can of shrimps after the storm, giving Bobinôt “a smacking kiss on the cheek that resounded” (Chopin, “The Storm” 596). This typically patriarchal mode of response combined gratitude for his contribution to the household and almost maternal care for an allegedly awkward husband. Thus, Calixta’s commitment to playing a housewife’s role is surprisingly subversive.
As one can see, the protagonists’ attitudes to their husbands are drastically different. Whereas Calixta views Bobinôt as a caring but naïve husband who may be cheated all the while, Louise regards Brently as a living incarnation of the male hegemony. In Louise’s mind, Brently is an obstacle that prevents her from living a life she has always dreamt of. She imagines “spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own” (Chopin, “The Story of an Hour” 354), contrasting them with a dull and submissive life she has allegedly led under Brently’s marital power. While this contrast may seem purely subjective, Louise clearly views things in that way.
Another difference between the two women is in their attitude to a general problem of family. Calixta does not question the institute of family as such, as she is a happy mother and regards child rearing as her uppermost duty. Her love and affection for Bibi is a driving force that makes her such an affectionate and somewhat childish wife and mother. Furthermore, her concern for Bibi’s safety during storm is one of the factors that make her vulnerable to Alcée’s erotic advance.
On the other hand, Louise expresses no identifiable desire to experience a childbirth and care for her children. Her craving for personal liberty overrides any concerns for family and sexual life in general. Unlike Calixta, Louise does not show any desire to get a male lover; she may be unwilling to trade a legal dependence on one man with the new one, which would now be accompanied with a public disgrace. The future she pictures to herself while ruminating on the news of Brently’s death is that of individual independence, not of additional sexual affairs with a new man or men. Louise’s vision of feminine liberty is thus more comprehensive and ‘modern’ – that is, more typical for the 20th century, – than Calixta’s libidinal dreams of unhindered sexual satisfaction.
To summarize, the characters of Chopin’s female protagonists embody two different strands of subversive femininity that posed a challenge to the patriarchal world of the late 19th century. While Calixta’s readiness to transcend the boundaries of the allowed forms of sexual relationships is usually sublimated, she is still harboring a hidden desire to follow on her urges. Louise, then, is a potential rebel against the masculine hierarchy, with her resentment being aimed at the very system of the males’ dominance in marital relations and family itself. These two modes of subversive femininity both played their role in the 20th-century Sexual Revolution, and Chopin’s characters may help us understand the roots of the archetypes they embody.
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