Kate Chopins Short Story The Storm, Essay, Research Paper
In Kate Chopin’s short story “The Storm”, the narrative surrounds the brief extramarital affair of two individuals, Calixta and Alc e. Many critics do not see the story as a condemnation of infidelity, but rather as an affirmation of human sexuality. This essay argues that “The Storm” may be interpreted as a specific affirmation of feminine sexuality and passion cojoined with a condemnation of its repression by the constraints of society.
If one is to attempt to interpret “The Storm”, it becomes necessary to examine the conditions surrounding the story’s genesis. The story was written in 1898, very shortly after Chopin had completed “The Awakening”, “the boldest treatment so far in American literature of the sensuous, independant woman” (Seyersted 1969, p164). “The Storm” was not published, however, until well after Chopin’s death, doubtless because of the as-yet unparalleled sensuousness of the story and its characters. In his critical biography Kate Chopin, Per Seyersted argues that “The Storm” is objective in its portrayal of human sexuality and that Chopin is “not consciously speaking as a woman, but as an individual” (p169). One must question this assertion, however; it is doubtful that in writing “The Storm” so soon after completing her ‘feminist’ novel, Chopin had “the protest of “The Awakening” off her mind” (p169).
The title of “The Storm”, with its obvious connotations of sexual energy and passion, is of course critical to any interpretation of the narrative. Chopin’s title refers to nature, which is symbolically feminine; the storm can therefore be seen as symbolic of feminine sexuality and passion, and the image of the storm will be returned to again and again throughout the story. At the beginning of the tale, which is divided into five sections, Bobin t and his young son Bibi decide to wait out a rapidly approaching storm at the store. Bobin t’s wife, Calixta, is home alone, tending to the household chores.
The second section begins with Calixta being unaware that a storm is imminent: She sat at a side window sewing furiously on a sewing machine. She was greatly occupied and did not notice the approaching storm. But she felt very warm and often stopped to mop her face on which the perspiration gathered in beads. She unfastened her white sacque at the throat. It began to grow dark, and suddenly realizing the situation she got up hurriedly and went about closing windows and doors.Out on the small front gallery she had hung Bobin t’s Sunday clothes to air and she hastened out to gather them before the rain fell. (Pickering 1992, p209)Calixta’s unbuttoning of her jacket foreshadows the sexual encounter to come, but her actions imply something greater. She is ignorant of the storm’s approach; although she is married and has a child (and is thus somewhat knowledgeable about sexual matters), she is unaware of the sexuality and passion within her. Her sexuality is repressed by the constraints of her marriage and society’s view of women, represented in this passage by the housework and her husband’s Sunday clothes, which also allude to society in the form of the church.
As Calixta is gathering up the laundry, Alc e Laballi re enters the yard, seeking shelter from the coming storm. The reader’s immediate impression of Alc e is that he is a man of the world; this contrasts sharply with the author’s presentation of Bobin t in the first section. He is seen as a simple man, an intellectual equal to his four-year old son: “Bobin t… was accustomed to converse on terms of perfect equality with his little son” (p209). There is a mutual attraction between Calixta and Alc e, and this attraction is not new: “She had not seen him very often since her marriage, and never alone” (p209). Their acquaintance with each other is explained in another Chopin story, “At the ‘Cadian Ball” (1892), but in this earlier story the attraction between Calixta and Alc e is only briefly explored. With Alc e’s arrival comes the beginning of the rain, and he asks to wait out the storm on the front gallery: “May I come and wait on your gallery till the storm is over, Calixta?” he asked.”Come ‘long in, M’sieur Alc e.”His voice and her own startled her as if from a trance, and she seized Bobin t’s vest. Alc e, mounting to the porch, grabbed the trousers and snatched Bibi’s braided jacket that was about to be carried away by a sudden gust of wind. (p209)The apparent difference in formality with which they address each other is important; Alc e addresses Calixta informally, as befits a man addressing a woman, but her response is almost coquettish, somewhere between formality and informality.
The “trance” that Calixta is startled from is her sudden awareness that she is still sexually attracted to Alc e, even though both are constrained by their respective marriage vows. Alc e grabs Bobin t’s pants, symbollically subverting the social and marital constraints that control Calixta. The strength of the ever-increasing storm quickly drives Alc e inside, and it even becomes necessary to put something underneath the door to keep the storm out: “Calixta … rolled up a piece of bagging and Alc e helped her to thrust it beneath the crack” (p210). The imagery here is obviously sexual, but it is important to note that it is Calixta who is the initiator of the ‘thrusting’; Alc e only helps her to keep the storm out, and therefore the storm of sexual passion in. Chopin next creates a paragraph that details Calixta’s appearance: She was a little fuller of figure than five years before when she married; but she had lost nothing of her vivacity. Her blue eyes still retained their melting quality; and her yellow hair, dishevelled by the wind and rain, kinked more stubbornly than ever about her ears and temples. (p210)Nowhere does Chopin suggest that this is Alc e’s vision of Calixta. The author’s purpose in describing Calixta, then, is to clearly link the protagonist to sensuality and passion, to the very elements of the symbolism of the storm. The storm outside continues to increase, reflecting the sexual tension inside. Calixta and Alc e move through the rooms of the house until they are adjoining Calixta’s bedroom, and we see the lack of passion in marriage represented by the separate beds that Calixta and Bobin t have.
The room’s description also hints at the mystery of passion: “The door stood open, and the room with its white, monumental bed, its closed shutters, looked dim and mysterious” (p210). The images in the bedroom seem to contrast one another, the white purity of innocence versus the dark mystery of sin, but there is also irony in the images: neither Calixta nor Alc e are pure, but the forbidden knowledge of sin would be seen by their society as being more the province of men than of women. Calixta begins to gather up a cotton sheet that she has been sewing, in effect putting away a symbol of society’s constraints. She is becoming as unsettled as the elements outside, the passion of the storm echoing her inner emotions. Calixta and Alc e move to a window to watch the storm, and when lightning strikes nearby, Calixta staggers backward into Alc e’s arms, and for a moment he draws her “close and spasmodically to him” (p210). Alc e has apparently not, until this point, sensed the passion that Calixta feels: “The contact of her warm, palpitating body when he had unthinkingly drawn her into his arms had aroused all the old-time infatuation and desire for her flesh” (p210).
Chopin presents both Alc e and Calixta as sexual beings, but she is clearly focusing on the sexuality of her feminine protagonist: Her lips were as red and moist as pomegranate seed. Her white neck and a glimpse of her full, firm bosom disturbed him powerfully. As she glanced up at him the fear in her liquid blue eyes had given place to a drowsy gleam that unconsciously betrayed a sensuous desire. He looked down into her eyes and there was nothing for him to do but to gather her lips in a kiss. (p211)Calixta and Alc e embrace, giving in to the storm of passion that is now present in both of them. It is Calixta’s sexuality, her passion, her sensuality that threatens to deluge Alc e. Chopin again alludes to the characters’ previous attraction, providing further commentary on society’s views of feminine sexuality: “Do you remember — in Assumption, Calixta?” he asked in a low voice broken by passion. Oh! she remembered; for in Assumption he had kissed her and kissed and kissed her; until his senses would well nigh fail, and to save her he would resort to a desperate flight. If she was not an immaculate dove in those days, she was still inviolate; a passionate creature whose very defenselessness had made her defense, against which his honor forbade him to prevail. Now — well, now — her lips seemed in a manner free to be tasted, as well as her round, white throat and her whiter breasts. (p211)
Calixta’s passion, held back before marriage by society’s views on premarital sex and virginity, is now free to be experienced by both Calixta and Alc e. They cast aside the constraints of society and the boundaries of their respective marriages, and Chopin says that Calixta “is knowing for the first time [her] birthright” (p211), the birthright of feminine sexuality and passion. Calixta’s “generous abundance of… passion” is now “without guile or trickery” and it finds “response in depths of his own sensuous nature that had never yet been reached” (p211). Even though neither has found passion of this depth in their respective marriages, Chopin presents the incident as arising from Calixta’s passion and sexuality: When he touched her breasts they gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy, inviting his lips. Her mouth was a fountain of delight. And when he possessed her, they seemed to swoon together at the very borderland of life’s mystery. (p211)
Chopin contrasts the very real existence of feminine sexuality with society’s unwillingness to admit that it exists by describing their lovemaking with an unreserved sensuousness that would have been far too direct for the society of Chopin’s time. The storm outside gives way to a soft rain, and the torrential downpour that was symbolic of passion and sexuality now becomes symbolic of a cleansing purification.
The author implies that female sexuality is pure and without sin. Indeed, as Alc e leaves, he turns and smiles, and Calixta laughs out loud; her passion is seen to be natural, experienced without guilt or shame. In the third section of the story, Bobin t and Bibi return home after walking through the mud left behind by the storm. Here Bobin t is presented as a good and kind man, who has been thoughtful enough to try and tidy himself and his son up and to have bought his wife a can of shrimps. They enter the house “prepared for the worst — the meeting with an over-scrupulous housewife” (p212); this is somewhat ironic, as Calixta had foresaken all of her marital duties in submitting to her passion. Calixta does not reproach them for their appearance, but instead greets them with nothing but happiness and satisfaction at their safe return. After she finishes preparing supper, the family sits down to dinner and “they laughed much and so loud that anyone might have heard them as far away as Laballi re’s” (p212). For Calixta, the story ends with her renewal of her marital duties; she is now aware, however, of the true extent of her natural, passionate, sexual nature. The last two sections of the story serve to further emphasize the author’s views concerning passion and marriage.
Alc e writes a “loving letter, full of tender solicitude” to his wife; although he misses her, he is willing to bear their separation another month if she desires to remain at Biloxi with the babies a while longer, “realizing that their health and pleasure were the first things to be considered” (p212). His wife is perfectly happy to remain at Biloxi: “… the first free breath since her marriage seemed to restore the pleasant liberty of her maiden days. Devoted as she was to her husband, their intimate conjugal life was something which she was more than willing to forego for a while” (p212). Alc e, like Calixta, is newly aware of the depths of the passion within himself, and this passion is not satisfied within the boundaries of his marriage. ConclusionThe final line of “The Storm” is important in its relationship to the work as a whole. The line seems to be interjected haphazardly into the story: “So the storm passed and everyone was happy” (p212). There is a purpose in the ambiguity of the ending, however; it allows Chopin to create an ending that unifies her central theme. Throughout the narrative, she presents feminine sexuality through the imagery of the storm. Her protagonist is unaware of the sexuality within herself, and it is only by casting aside the constraints of society and marriage that she is able to know her true birthright, feminine sexuality. Chopin is not arguing that one can only acheive this knowledge outside of marriage, but rather that it can only be acheived in the absence of societal constraints; her unreserved portrayal of feminine sexuality would have been seen as a radical affront to the society of her time.
The ending is therefore purposefully ambiguous: one may see the storm’s passage as implying a happy ending, or one may see it as implying that the storm will eventually return, perhaps with the intent to destroy. Kate Chopin, however, sees feminine sexuality as something that is pure, natural, and very real in its existence; one cannot assume that a brief and limited awakening that passes like a storm will be enough to make one happy.