I am, as many of you know, a Kate Chopin fan and I therefore tend to keep an eye out for her in the Library of America‘s (LOA) Story of the Week program. “After the winter”, one of her earlier works, was an LOA story in April and so here I am for the fourth time writing about Kate Chopin.
According to LOA’s notes, “After the winter” was written in late 1891, expressly for Easter, and was bought by Youth’s Companion. However, they never published it. LOA writes:
Chopin’s story includes a mention on the very first page to [?] the calamity that had turned the main character into a misanthrope; while he was away fighting in the Civil War, his wife had grown “wanton with roaming” and had left him. It was Chopin’s first reference in her fiction to an unfaithful spouse, and it’s possible, one biographer [Emily Toth] suggests, that youth in the 1890s needed to be protected from even a passing reference to adultery – especially one that describes “women whose pulses are stirred by strange voices and eyes that woo”.
Chopin sold it again a few years later and it was finally published in 1896.
Despite the apparently risqué reference to “wanton” women, “After the winter” is a lighter story than most of her work that I’ve read. It is also a more straightforward read, but this doesn’t mean it’s not a good read. Chopin has a wonderful ability to engage readers with strong characters and effective imagery.
The story is set at Easter, which of course symbolises rebirth. As we read the story, we wonder whether this symbolism is going to play out literally or ironically, and Chopin manages to maintain our interest and suspense about this right to the end. The plot is fairly simple. Monsieur Michel had returned from the Civil War some 25 years prior to the time of the story to find his wife gone and his child dead
But that was no reason, some people thought, why he should have cursed men who found their blessings where they had left them
or, indeed, why he should have “cursed God”. However, he did and still does, so that by the time of the story he is living pretty much as a hermit, engaging with people as little as possible. Consequently, exaggerated stories had built up about things he’d done and was capable of doing. Enter a young girl, Trézanine, who has no flowers to contribute to the Easter church service. She ventures to the area around Monsieur Michel’s hut and picks all the flowers there, setting off a reaction in Michel that leads us to the story’s conclusion (which I’ll not divulge here).
What this story shows is Chopin’s writing skill and ability to develop a plot, maintain reader engagement, and use effective imagery to convey meaning and tone. The title, for example, is also both literal and metaphoric. Easter, of course, comes after winter, but our misanthrope’s life has, for 25 years, been a wintry one. Chopin makes a clever and ironic link between spring-affected Trézanine and winter-bound Michel. She needs to go hunting for flowers because none can grow in the “bleak, black yard” of her father’s blacksmith shop, while his “low, forbidding” “kennel” that seems to “scowl” is surrounded by “brilliant flowers”.
The story is told in three short acts. In the first we are introduced to Trézanine and Michel, and learn of Trézanine’s plan to go flowerpicking. In the second, Trézanine picks the flowers and Michel comes into town to confront the townspeople, whom he finds in church for the Easter service. The final act resolves the tension … but I won’t give that away except perhaps to say that it has biblical elements.
Another good story from Chopin that I’d happily recommend.
“After the winter”
First published: New Orleans Times-Democrat, April 5, 1896
Reprinted in the story collection A night in Arcadie (1897)
Available: Online at the Library of America