Time methinks for another Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week, particularly since one of their recent offerings was one of my favourite American authors, Kate Chopin. “Fedora” is the sixth story by Chopin I’ve discussed here, and is probably the shortest, more of a “sketch”. In fact its original title was apparently ““The Falling in Love of Fedora. A Sketch”
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, or her novel The awakening which I read a couple of times before blogging, you’ll know that Chopin was not afraid to tackle confronting subjects, like suicide, adultery, and miscegenation. LOA’s notes briefly discuss the controversy surrounding The awakening. Words such as “morbid,” “sex fiction,” “poison,” were applied to it, and the clearly more conservative, younger, Willa Cather, whom I’ve also reviewed here, said that “I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme.”
Well, of course, many of us do know why she explored the themes she did in puritanical late-nineteenth century America, and we admire her for doing so. LOA explains that while her stories were usually sought after, some were a little too hot to handle. “Fedora” was one such, being “turned down by the national magazines that often competed for her work”, only appearing “in an upstart literary journal in her hometown of St. Louis”.
So, what is it that was so shocking about “Fedora”? Well, there’s the rub, because it’s one of those short stories that leaves you wondering. Fedora is 30 years old – and is described pretty much as the quintessential spinster:
The young people—her brothers’ and sisters’ guests, who were constantly coming and going that summer—occupied her to a great extent, but failed to interest her. She concerned herself with their comforts—in the absence of her mother—looked after their health and well-being; contrived for their amusements, in which she never joined. And, as Fedora was tall and slim, and carried her head loftily, and wore eye-glasses and a severe expression, some of them—the silliest—felt as if she were a hundred years old. Young Malthers thought she was about forty.
The story concerns her going to the station – driving the horse and cart – to pick up young Malthers’ sister who is returning from college. Young Malthers is, we are told, 23 – and Fedora has become fascinated by him, suddenly realising he is a man – “in voice, in attitude, in bearing, in every sense — a man”. Now, early in the story, we’d been told that:
Fedora had too early in life formed an ideal and treasured it. By this ideal she had measured such male beings as had hitherto challenged her attention, and needless to say she had found them wanting.
But, suddenly she is aware of him, she watches him:
She sought him out; she selected him when occasion permitted. She wanted him by her, though his nearness troubled her. There was uneasiness, restlessness, expectation when he was not there within sight or sound. There was redoubled uneasiness when he was by—there was inward revolt, astonishment, rapture, self-contumely; a swift, fierce encounter betwixt thought and feeling.
Fedora could hardly explain to her own satisfaction why she wanted to go herself to the station for young Malthers’ sister. She felt a desire to see the girl, to be near her; as unaccountable, when she tried to analyze it, as the impulse which drove her, and to which she often yielded, to touch his hat, hanging with others upon the hall pegs, when she passed it by.
It seems, then, that she is in love with him, as the original title encourages us to think – or that she, at least, feels a desire or passion for him. So, when she picks up Miss Malthers, why does she do what she does? That is the question – and it’s one I’m not going to answer, because that would be a spoiler and because the story is so short that you can read it, and ponder it, yourself. And anyhow, I’m still thinking about it myself, given the way Chopin teases us. Suffice it to say that, however you read it, Chopin was challenging her readers to think about desire – its origins, its expression, and its impact on the person who desires.
This is a beautiful and intriguing little “sketch”, though to call it that doesn’t fully do it justice.
First published: Criterion, February 20, 1897
(Under the pseudonym, La Tour)
Available: Online at the Library of America