Fascinated with Kate: Women Issues in Chopin’s Fiction [Part 2]

LOVE AND INFIDELITY

Calixta in “The Storm” does not find sexual fulfillment in her marriage with Bibi. But she finds it again in her old boyfriend Alcee. Sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose–this is how equality between the sexes could be expressed. But not in most cases. Since “The Storm” is only a work of fiction, that is, a projection of what should have been, it does not count as an observance of such maxim [if it is indeed a maxim] The crucial issue Chopin raises through the nonchalant manner in which the wife betrays her husband is that, if society finds it normal and acceptable for a man to be unfaithful, why would a promiscuous or adulterous woman be held with such contempt? Under Philippine law for example, before a man can be convicted of concubinage[very conveniently, this term, which, if I had the authority, I would exile to the archaic list, is used: one could hardly misconstrue the connotation], he has to put up his other woman in a house, live with her or have children with her as a result. If he just picks her up somewhere and bangs her in some cheap motel, even with the presence of his wife and kids, the law is silent. As a consolation however, the wife can kill him right then and there without any criminal liability. While this is justifiable circumstance under human eyes, she is in fact, selling her soul to the devil in the name of justice. And, morally speaking, I don’t think killing someone for whatever reason is acceptable to, or justifiable before God. If my hermeneutics is right, God orders man not to kill. No provisos, no exceptions. Moreover, if the womanizing husband has acknowledged illegitimate children during his marriage, they are entitled to one-fourth of his legal heirs’ inheritance from his fifty percent share of the conjugal property. Unfortunately for the wife, if she is caught in bed with another man, she can be immediately incarcerated for adultery [again, note the biblical term and its implication]. Thus, unfaithful wives commit adultery [a very strong and condemning word] while husbands commit infidelity. The scales are clearly tipped in favor of the husband. Anyhow, the reason for such rigid provision is to protect the husband from supporting or passing assets to illegitimate children that the wife might conceive due to her treachery. Hmmm. Sounds logical enough. By all means, let’s protect the interests of the husband. So who or what protects the wife from the heartache if it was the other way around? Can she claim moral damages for her pain? In another instance,and for the same reasons, the marriage can be voided if the wife was already pregnant with another man’s child before the marriage took place. AS if this isn’t enough, there are societies that permit a man to have multiple wives but not the woman to have multiple husbands. These are just a few of the classic examples of double standards. And, there is a classic question here that doesn’t have a definitive answer until today. If women insist on it being resolved, men would probably turn to Holy Books to defend themselves. But arguing with Holy Books is a futile exercise down unfathomable depths of rhetoric. So we might as well give this question another few millennia. After all, Chopin has been asking it since the 1800s.

The story “A Respectable Woman” has a controversial title. So, is the heroine a respectable woman or not?  She is a young wife who develops feelings for her husband’s friend. The feeling is mutual but neither acts on it of course.The wife regards herself as a respectable woman and upright women never betray their marriage. So she suppresses her desire for the other man, and consequently sacrifices her happiness to maintain that veneer of respectability. But what’s respectable about a wife wanting another man? Isn’t this in itself a form of unfaithfulness?

Edna in “The Awakening” is married to a most eligible man–older, financially successful, and indulgent. She has all the comforts and social position every woman aspires. But all these don’t seem to be enough. She is still restless and unhappy. As the story unfolds, we learn that she did not marry for love. In fact, she discovers love only when she meets Robert. All her negative realizations about her marriage start when she falls madly in love with the young man. What Chopin basically says here is that no amount of luxury can compensate for the misery of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Not even children. And if not for the traditional way in which women were made to think about marriage–that they should always look out for the financial security and social advantages attached to it–she probably would have never married Mr. Pontellier. It is only within this light that readers can understand her unfaithfulness and eventually sympathize with her.

WOMEN AND SOCIETY

These stories challenge societal norms, particularly those regarding women’s traditional role as home-makers.  Regret questions the image of the ideal woman; A Pair of Silk Stockings and The Awakening protest against the shackles of motherhood; while  The Storm and A Respectable Woman compromise society’s dictates about what a correct wife should be.  The Story of an Hour likewise voices a dissent versus male dominance [though not physical in this case] insensitivity, and emotional distance.  The oppression Mrs Mallard suffers stems from the restrictive environment of her marriage and her resentment, all the while repressed, has festered and become sore.  So that when dawning realization of what her husband’s death would mean to her, she thinks ecstatically: “…What did it matter!   What did love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!”   But ironically, her freedom lasts only for an hour, as her husband turns up alive after all.  Nevertheless, just like Edna in The Awakening, Mrs. Mallard escapes through death.  In Desiree’s Baby the same fate awaits Desiree, who gives birth to a black baby.  Her white husband, unaware of his black heritage, banishes her on the unfair assumption that Desiree is not white and heaps the blame on her for “the unconscious injury she had brought to his home and his name.”   What use is love indeed, if it is so fickle and based solely on color and race?

It is worthwhile to note that given the historical setting of these stories, Chopin is probably aware that very few would concur with her or see thi ngs in her perspective.  In fact, her works were banned, and this is the highest form of censorship.  Hence, the death of the heroines of these stories, though tragic, is hardly surprising.  Moreover, these women characters’  deaths symbolize the futility of Chopin’s struggle at that point in time.   And time is the greatest trickster, for in the end, Chopin emerged as an important writer in world literature.  And, so long as women are abused, there will always be Kates to fight for our rights as humans.

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One thought on “Fascinated with Kate: Women Issues in Chopin’s Fiction [Part 2]

  1. Maybe there are relationships of equality that exist between men and women somewhere in this world, but I have not been a witness to it. Maybe things would be better if neither marriage partner had multiple other partners. At least, that seems like it would be the best scenario. If these things do occur however, it’s true. Women are judged differently. I can’t understand that. Why? Because they are women and not men I guess.

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