Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 57: Kate Chopin, Athénaïse (#161)

Kate Chopin, "Athénaïse" (1896) from Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories:

You remember how the movie Adaptation starts out as something weird and then swerves into a parody of the action movie that characters discussed earlier, as if to give one more meta twist to the story--or because they didn't know how to actually end it? Or, you know how, in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, there are moments where Cersei or another evil woman is thwarted by her society's sexism and you end up torn between happiness at the failure of some evil scheme and unhappiness at the society's sexism?

Those feelings somewhat capture my reading experience of "Athénaïse," a very very long story (by LoA Story-of-the-Week standards). Athénaïse is an unhappy young wife, who expresses some unhappiness at the situation of being a wife, tout court: her husband is perfectly pleasant, but being a wife isn't for her. To drive home the unpleasant corollary, the husband brings Athénaïse home and remembers bringing a slave home through this same territory when he was a boy.

But Athénaïse isn't exactly a feminist icon here. Other characters reveal that this is just something she does: she starts something--like going to a convent school--and then gets tired of it and wants out. Similarly, her agency is somewhat undercut by her attachment and reliance on her ne'er-do-well brother Monteclin; and then it's further undercut by the acceptance by just about everyone, including the omniscient narrator, that she's young and ignorant. The story ends with her learning that she's pregnant and returning happily to her husband.

So we're given a superficially happy story that remains somewhat upsetting: "unhappy young wife becomes reconciled to her life" should be happy. And Chopin makes us see this as a happy ending with the reminders of how kind and open and reasonable and passionately loving the husband is. But to reduce "protest against system" to "childish pique" and to wipe it away with "she'll know better when she's pregnant" leave a bad taste in my mouth.

From a technical and historical standpoint, I'm surprised by how often the omniscient narrator lays out the issue for us, from Monteclin's jealous dislike of his sister's husband to growing love of the newspaper-man who falls in love with Athénaïse during her retreat to New Orleans. In such a long story, today, you wouldn't probably do that so narratively in such a long story, but would try to dramatize scenes (which Chopin also does).

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