There are a few American authors who, when they pop up as a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week, I try to read. These include Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Kate Chopin. I don’t always manage to read them, but I have read the latest Kate Chopin story they’ve published, “Her letters”. And my, what a powerful one it is. Yes, I know, most of her stories are powerful, but this is certainly up there.
The story is pretty simple, plot-wise, though I shall avoid spoiling it as you may wish to read it from the link below. It starts with a woman, sitting by a “generous wood fire … in an ample fireplace” though outside is “a leaden sky in which there was no gleam, so rift, no promise”. She’s decided that she needs to destroy some letters that, we soon realise, relate to an adulterous affair. She’s been meaning to do this for four years in fact, but they’ve “sustained her … kept her spirit from perishing utterly”. However, she believes her days are numbered and, like many diary-writers and letter-owners, she fears their impact on those left behind, particularly on one “near to her, and whose tenderness and years of devotion had made him, in a manner, dear to her.” Her husband, in other words. The “in a manner” here is telling, isn’t it?
But, she can’t do it. Chopin’s description of her pain at the idea of losing them is visceral. What should she do? She lights on a solution, which is to leave them “in charge of the very one who, above all, should be spared knowledge of their contents.” So, she ties them back up, and leaves them with this note:
“I leave this package to the care of my husband. With perfect faith in his loyalty and his love, I ask him to destroy it unopened.”
Of course, she does die first, and he finds the bundle of letters with the note. (On a day much like that day we’d met her: “The day was much like that day a year ago when the leaves were falling and rain pouring steadily from a leaden sky which held no gleam, no promise.”) What do you think he does?
It’s another powerful story from Chopin, about love, passion, adultery – and also honour and trust. It is a story of its time, but there’s a universality to it too. What is so good about it, though, is the controlled way Chopin unravels the plot, and her language. It’s a little full-blown to our ears, perhaps, but she sustains melancholic tones so well, while at the same time conveying character and emotion.
Without spoiling the ending, I’ll share another excerpt. When the husband finds the bundle of letters, he guesses, of course, that they contain a secret, one that may unlock to him something about this wife whom he’d known “to have been cold and passionless, but true, and watchful of his comfort and his happiness.” He’s affected, but he ponders:
… she had embodied herself with terrible significance in an intangible wish, uttered when life still coursed through her veins; knowing that it would reach him when the annihilation of death was between them, but uttered with all confidence in its power and potency. He was moved by the splendid daring of the act, which at the same time exalted him and lifted him above the head of common mortals.
The conclusion is predictable when you get there, but Chopin leads you carefully along with the husband as he works through the problem. The story has no simple answer, and certainly no condemnation, which is Chopin’s way. She doesn’t judge or pontificate. Rather, she leaves it open for (or, forces!) the reader to consider the ways in which our actions affect others, not to mention the issue of love, passion and marriage, and the accommodations we do or don’t make.
As with other stories by her – including “Fedora”, the last one I reviewed – Chopin didn’t immediately find a publisher for “Her letters”. LOA says:
When she finished the story in December 1894, Chopin sent it off to The Century, which had published several of her previous submissions. By this time Chopin was a well-known and respected writer, but the story was rejected—almost surely because it dealt with a woman’s adulterous affair. The magazine’s editor, Richard Watson Gilder, “felt that fiction should be pleasant and avoid the horrifying, the indelicate, or the immoral,” as Chopin scholar Per Seyersted puts it.
Vogue, though, had no such compunctions – and published it as they had other previously rejected stories of hers. One day I’ll read a biography of her …
Let me know what you think, if you read it (just 8 pages) at the link below.
First published: Vogue, April 11 and 18, 1895
Available: Online at the Library of America