Sunday, September 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 145: Kate Chopin, After the Winter (#119)

Kate Chopin, "After the Winter" (1896) from Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories:

Here's the fourth Chopin story I've read in my Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along project. (You are reading along, aren't you?) And this one sits pretty perfectly between 1896's "Athénaïse" and 1897's "A Morning Walk": Like "Athénaïse," there's a story of marital abandonment and of someone becoming reconciled to domesticity (in a way); like "A Morning Walk," there's a healing, becoming-social that revolves around an Easter-day service.

In plainer terms, here's the story, in three parts:

(1) Trézinie is a young girl who wants to supply some flowers to the church for Easter. But she's the blacksmith's daughter and her land is blasted by heat and infertile. She's inspired by a sight of the now-hermit M’sieur Michel, a man with a bloody history who lives out in the wilds. These kids do not know the real story of Michel's wildness: when he was away in the Civil War, his child(ren) died and his wife abandoned him for another man or something. (We know that his wife is one of the "women whose pulses are stirred by strange voices and eyes that woo"; but what that actually means is unclear. Did she run away with a man? Sleep around in town?)

(2) So Trézinie and her friends go to the wilds around Michel's cabin to pluck wild-flowers. When Michel returns to his savage cabin and finds all the flowers gone, he's upset by the idea that people have been so close to his lands. He heads off to the church to "voice his hate." But when he gets to the church, the Easter-time hymns stir in him some old remembrance. Not that this automatically makes him happy. Instead the language reminds us that any change can be painful: "But the refrain pursued him— “Pax! pax! pax!”—fretting him like a lash." If you want to make the connection between the Civil War that ruined him and the peace--Pax--that Michel hasn't yet found post-war, there might be a paragraph or two in that.

(3) Stirred with a strange desire for human contact, Michel walks down to his old house, which he expects to find in weedy ruins. Instead, his rich neighbor has taken care of it for him, using the land only to graze his cattle. Which means the soil is still rich and fertile--a perfect substitute for a happy wife, I guess. And so he decides to stay after a 25-year absence and take up farming again.

That's all in nine pages, which Chopin can do with her quick omniscient sketches of how people feel or what they know. But still, it's amazing how much she leaves out; and I'm not entirely surprised that the Youth's Companion never published it: the holes in the story seem too easy to fill with immoral imputations. There's that whole issue with Michel's wife and the weird issue between Michel and his rich neighbor, who really seems to be trying to make up for some past fault. And then there's the thematic use of greenness/fertility: Trézinie's place is all blasted, so she goes to pluck flowers from Michel's place, which leads him to the greenness of his old place--where, we can imagine, young Trézinie may soon come as his new bride.

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