Fascinated with Kate: Women Issues in Chopin’s Fiction [Part 1]

In her TED speech, the esteemed Isabel Allende recalls how she and deceased daughter Paula had a memorable fight over the latter’s declaration that feminism is dated.Being one of the strongest women in fiction, her outrage is perfectly understandble. On the other hand, though I don’t know the exact context within which her daughter made this comment, I could say that the concept may indeed be overrated, seeing how, in my immediate society, woman empowerment abounds. Among others, no less than the immediate past president of the Philippines was a woman. Ms. Allende herself recognizes that Paula could casually assert such remarks as the latter grew up in a privileged environment. And with a mother who allowed her to be the woman she wanted to be, who could blame her for claiming that feminism is a lost cause?

Ms. Allende however, has sufficient reasons to defend feminism, insisting that it is a very present and permanent force. Facts and studies [including those that she herself passionately recounts] reveal that women may have achieved some measure of success in their struggle to penetrate the “man’s world” and may have come a long way since the birth of the Women’s Liberation Movement but in reality, a lot of women today are still suffering from a wide range of abuses–mental, emotional, economic, physical, to name a few. A friend of mine, a Muslim doctor, tells me that many female patients who go to their hospital only pretend to be sick; hence, they [the doctors] have resorted to drastic measures to be able to differentiate the real patients from the “psychic” ones. In one case, he was irritated when an eighteen year-old feigned illness because she could not stand the tyranny at home. It was 4 a.m., he hadn’t slept for 24 hours, and a great number of patients were waiting at the door. He didn’t need the aggravation of a girl’s whims against lives in danger at the threshold of the E.R. Amused, I was tempted to point out that given their kind of culture, this was not surprising–going to the hospital was probably the young woman’s cry for help; her situation was also a matter of life and death like the others. But he is a man confined within the walls of his profession: vital signs stable, so get lost. More importantly, I didn’t want to risk antagonizing him further by my prejudiced analysis, considering how we once argued about women in professional sports: his contention was that women make sports boring because they move slowly. At the opposing end, I insisted on equal opportunity.  In fairness to him though, he was genuinely distressed when another teen-aged girl suffering from severe infection due to a botched circumcision procedure, was brought to him for treatment. Taking these into consideration, I still hold that most women today are generally better off than those in previous centuries. I mean, why was feminism born in the first place?

To illustrate, take how the stories of late nineteenth century writer Kate Chopin depict the moral struggles [or the lack thereof] of women in her time, women imprisoned within the iron grip of traditionalism, living stereotyped existence and fashioned out of a man’s concept of what she ought to be. To even things out, I could cite male writers like Thomas Hardy or Henrik Ibsen who have shocked the public by the very unpopular ways that they portray the cruelties that women suffer from. But I see Chopin’s treatment of her subject matter as so much more fascinating. None of the patronizing tone,nor the propaganda, nor the contrived plots to arouse sympathy, reducing women’s issues as mere literary subjects. Instead, there is a very conspicuous, very absent moral judgment in Chopin’s portrayal of her characters’ moral transgressions as a result of their burgeoning discovery of their individuality–not just wife, mother, daughter but as a human being possessed with intelligence and free-will. Many have described Kate as a “woman ahead of her time.” The description couldn’t be more precise. Chopin has accurately and very sensitively presented her characters’ emerging discernment of their worth, their selfhood, and their otherness.

MOTHERHOOD AND INDIVIDUALISM

“Regret” is a bittersweet story of a spinster who gets a glimpse of the wonders of motherhood when her neighbor temporarily leaves her children in the former’s care. That Mademoiselle Aurelie is never married can be attributed to the fact that she is not feminine enough–she looks more male than female. And she thinks like one too. Most men go for dainty, fragile women. Ranch managers like Aurelie would intimidate a man because she isn’t someone he could protect and therefore, she is a threat to his macho image. The Age of Chivalry [as we all know being a social construct could have been easily left behind where it belongs–in the past] has been much too ingrained in the male psyche it’s become instinct instead of a simple recognition of the biological difference between men and women: men being physically stronger than women should naturally do the heavier work. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be polite. Thus, men would prefer to take care of their women as befitting a true knight. But Aurelie is no damsel in distress. She isn’t someone who would vow “to love and obey” either. Who wants a woman who defies her husband? Poor Aurelie, in utter regret, misses out on the most essential part of being a woman: motherhood.

If Aurelie regrets not having children, Edna in “The Awakening” resents the demands of motherhood. Her awakening comes too late however, as she is already tied to her husband and sons. Her self-declaration that she is her own woman and not her husband’s property has a hollow ring to it for she was never able to articulate and insist on her husband her growing sense of self, to make him see that she, being young,passionate, and starving for romance, has had enough of their boring, predictable and socially correct marriage, that she loves someone else closer to her age and to hell with what people say. In fact, he totally misinterprets the changes in her moods and behavior. But who cares if he never fully grasps the situation? He isn’t expected to anyway. Realizing finally that there is really no way out, she breaks her bonds by drowning herself in the ocean. Death is the ultimate freedom, the ultimate choice, the ultimate rebellion. But her real tragedy lies in wanting too much too soon. Her awakening as a woman and as an individual places her above the rest of her flock, the flock she disdains so much. She is on her way to being in command of her life yet she does not fully understand her accomplishments.

In “A Pair of Silk Stockings” a single mother struggling to make ends meet couldn’t resist the temptation of a pair of silk stockings, obviously a symbol of life’s little luxuries that motherhood deprived her of. This story is a typical demonstration of how mothers[or parents for that matter]sacrifice for their children. Is it possible to actually draw the line separating the self and the mother? Can an impoverished widow spend for herself and not feel guilty from the pleasure this self-indulgence brings her? Should society condemn this woman for not wanting the exciting cable car ride to end because for once she feels freedom from the responsibilities of parenthood?

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