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Kate Chopin, A respectable woman

March 9, 2010
Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin: What a lovely face (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

Besides Jane Austen’s works, there are only a few novels that I have read more than once. One of these is Kate Chopin’s The awakening. I was trying to think of an adjective to describe it or my feelings upon reading it, but couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t clichéd. The best way to convey my response is, in fact, the way I have – and that is to say that I’ve read it more than once!

Kate Chopin’s short story, “A respectable woman” (1894), is this week’s Library of America (LOA) offering – and you can read it here. I haven’t read and blogged all of the LOA stories that have lobbed in since I subscribed, but I have done so rather more than I originally expected. This is because they have confronted me with:

  • Authors I’ve never heard of, but who, by LOA’s brief introduction, have intrigued me;
  • Authors I’ve heard of but haven’t yet read, and so have taken the opportunity to be introduced; and
  • Authors I’ve read before and loved (or at least liked a lot!).

As you’ve already realised, Kate Chopin falls into this last category. I was stunned by Chopin when I first read her back in the early 1980s – and this was because I hadn’t before read a 19th century novel that was quite so honest about women’s experience. Thank you Virago!

Written in 1894, 5 years before The awakening was published, “A respectable woman” made me laugh. That’s not quite what I expected when I started it. After all, it is by the author of The awakening! “A respectable woman” has a simple plot. Mrs Baroda (we never learn her first name, she being the woman of the title!) and her husband have just come to the end of the of a busy entertaining period, and she is looking forward to “a period of broken unrest, and undisturbed tête-a-tête with her husband”, but it’s not to be. Her husband, Gaston, has invited his friend Gouvernail to stay…

This is a very short story – just 4 pages – but Chopin is well capable, through some well chosen words, of leading us along. The title for a start sets us up with a number of impressions and expectations that tease us as the story progresses. Will she, won’t she, is the question that follows us. The introductory description of Gouvernail subtly tells us as much about her (and her life with her husband) as about him:

He had been her husband’s college friend; was now a journalist, and in no way a “man about town”, which were, perhaps, some of the reasons she had never met him.

Clearly they are a well-to-do couple moving in other circles. They have a good though not perhaps a passionate relationship: “her husband – who was also her friend”. The story is 3rd person, and told from her point of view – and it explores her reactions to this rather taciturn, self-possessed man who, towards the end, admits that all he now seeks is “a little whiff of genuine life”. What she is learning about herself though is something different:

She wanted 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.

This story is not as iconoclastic as The awakening, but it moves in that direction with Chopin exploring the inner workings of women and their hearts in an honest and sympathetic way. The story plays ironically on the notion of respectability and what that means for women. As for whether she does or doesn’t, well, that’s for you to find out. My lips are sealed.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2010 9:33 pm

    I love Kate Chopin. If you haven’t read it already, then do read her story ‘Desiree’s Baby’ – devastating stuff.

    • March 9, 2010 9:42 pm

      Thanks muchly Kirsty for popping by … I have found it and printed it out. I assume I got the complete story – it’s only 4 pages like this one?

      • March 10, 2010 7:29 am

        I have it in a short story anthology so am used to seeing in usual B-Format page size. But it is very short, so I’m sure you have the whole thing. I thought it was a devastating story.

    • Anni permalink
      November 25, 2010 5:48 am

      Hi:) Do you know good website where is well done analysis of Kate Chopin’s short stories? Because I didn’t find good anlysis of ”respectable woman”. Maybe do you have something in e-book or website?

      • November 25, 2010 9:07 am

        Sorry Anni, I would only do what anyone would do and that is use a search engine, or go to a library to use scholarly electronic journals. A search of Google books might bring something up?

        • Anni permalink
          November 26, 2010 3:35 am

          Thank you for write back. I don’t want to bother you, but I ask you because i have a problem with opening foreign website. ( I come from Poland, i suppose that you spot it that i’m foreign ;) looking on the fact that i have problem with english grammar;)

  2. March 11, 2010 12:22 am

    Kirsty, I have read it. Devastating is the word. It reminds me a little of Guy de Maupassant’s The necklace… but Chopin has taken it to a whole new level. Thanks so much for pointing me to it.

  3. March 11, 2010 2:17 am

    Chopin is marvelous! I’ve not read this particular short story and since it is so short I just went and read it. Wonderful! The ending is delightfully ambiguous :)

    • March 11, 2010 7:34 am

      Ambiguous but with a strong suggestion of which way it will go, eh? It’s beautifully done isn’t it? If you haven’t read Desiree’s baby, here it is: http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/DesiBaby.shtml It’s equally short, so you can read it in a few minutes really.

      • March 12, 2010 2:25 am

        Oh yes, ambiguous with a strong suggestion, but still you wonder, when it comes down to the reality of it, will she or won’t she? Oh, yes, I’ve read Desiree’s Baby in lit classes a number of times. It too is a good one!

  4. November 26, 2010 8:07 am

    Anni, yes, I did guess your first language wasn’t English. I’ve done a little search of Google Scholar BUT the articles I’ve found are from JSTOR which you would need to access, probably, from a library that subscribes to JSTOR OR find the actual journal itself. Here are citations for two articles (both from a journal called American Literature) that say they discuss A respectable woman:

    Kate Chopin on Divine Love and Suicide: Two Rediscovered Articles
    Emily Toth
    American Literature
    Vol. 63, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 115-121
    (article consists of 7 pages)
    Published by: Duke University Press
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2926566

    The Teeth of Desire: The Awakening and The Descent of Man
    Bert Bender
    American Literature
    Vol. 63, No. 3 (Sep., 1991), pp. 459-473
    (article consists of 15 pages)
    Published by: Duke University Press
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2927243

    And here is one, also in JSTOR, from The Southern Literary Journal:

    Gouvernail, Kate Chopin’s Sensitive Bachelor
    Joyce Dyer
    The Southern Literary Journal
    Vol. 14, No. 1 (Fall, 1981), pp. 46-55
    (article consists of 10 pages)
    Published by: University of North Carolina Press
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20067777

    I’m not sure if these help …

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