The Exposed Woman in Kate Chopin’s “The Storm”
The narration in Kate Chopin’s “The Storm” is delivered in third person omniscient and is a key element in the story. The role of the narrator is more than simply communicating the story to the readers; in this case, the narrator provides an unadulterated depiction of the events. This is extremely important when considering the historical context of the story in conjunction with the plot. While the characters Calixta and Clarisse are both notably devout wives and mothers, they also display a yearning for more. Calixta lusts after Alcée, a married man, demonstrating a completely normal sexual desire during a time when this is simply abnormal and wrong. Meanwhile, Clarisse is the complete opposite; she longs to be separated and independent from her husband, an ambitious and ludicrous action. In Kate Chopin’s “The Storm,” the two women represent sexual desire as well as independence, traits that are commonly frowned upon within the culture of the 1890s; however, through the narrator, these actions are completely normalized.
It is important to note the time in which Chopin writes this story. Although it is composed in 1898, it is “not published until 1969 as part of Per Seyersted’s edition of The Complete Works of Kate Chopin” (Norton Anthology 551). The reasoning for Chopin refusing to publish this story during her lifetime is related to “[her] awareness of a disconnect between her work and American culture” (551). Calixta in “The Storm” embodies a sexual desire which, in its historical context, is completely shameful. Chopin is aware that female desire is something to be written about in the form of a cautionary tale; however, the narrator’s voice in “The Storm” begs to differ and instead, offers a much more open-minded and judgement-free approach. Although Calixta is married and has a child, she still has the desire to be with Alcée, a married man, during the storm. Not only is this vivid description of them together very unusual and scandalous for the time it is written, but the lack of judgment in the narrator’s voice is what is most noteworthy. Instead of accusing Calixta of sinning or ridiculing her for having sexual desires, the narrator merely tells it how it is, stating that “[the] generous abundance of her passion, without guile or trickery, [is] like a white flame which [penetrates] and [finds] response in depths of his own sensuous nature that [has] never yet been reached” (560). The narrator also describes “[her] mouth [as] a fountain of delight” (560). The abundance of positive words used by the narrator to describe Calixta and Alcée’s relationship such as “generous,” “passion,” “sensuous nature,” and “delight,” normalizes Calixta’s sexual desire in a world where women are ostracized for displaying such feelings, let alone acting on them as Calixta does. In addition, no harm comes to Calixta, mentally or physically, following her affair with Alcée.
If readers are not struck by the scandal that is the relationship between Calixta and Alcée, the fact that life proceeds normally for both parties after their affair would definitely come as a shock. For some, this story may seem meaningless as it does not appear to have a conflict amongst the characters; however, the lack of struggle is the most important aspect of Chopin’s “The Storm.” As the storm passes, Calixta’s husband returns home with their son. Calixta is described as “preparing supper” and proceeding as normal (560). In fact, the entire family “[seats] themselves at [the] table [and laughs] much and so loud that anyone might… [hear] them,” painting a surprising picture of a happy family (561). Traditionally speaking, affairs result in some kind of consequence for the participants, for example Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, published less than fifty years prior to Chopin’s The Storm. Hester’s punishment after having an affair is considered normal whereas Calixta is never mentioned to suffer any consequences, nor does the narrator give any indication of an internal struggle. Both characters simply proceed with their lives as per usual. Calixta is a major character in terms of rejecting the social norms surrounding women and sex; however, the brief description of Clarisse offers an entirely new perspective on women that has nothing to do with sexuality and focuses more on individuality.
The differences between the characters of Calixta and Clarisse, as told through the third person omniscient narrator, only serves to prove that not all women are the same. While Calixta displays a sexual desire central to her character, Clarisse feels empowered by the lack of this desire in herself. Clarisse displays a nostalgia for her single days, stating that by being away from Alcée she experiences her “first free breath since her marriage [which] seemed to restore the pleasant liberty of her maiden days” (561). Again, the narrator provides a non-judgemental tone and merely explains Clarisse’s valid feelings towards her marriage. Although Clarisse is “[devoted]… to her husband, their intimate conjugal life [is] something which she [is] more than willing to forego for a while” (561). Here, the narrator allows for Clarisse’s need to be without her husband and seek out her individuality as a normal and appropriate feeling, a controversial notion during the time Chopin writes this. The two female characters, though extremely different in terms of their needs, both prove that a woman cannot be characterized into a single group; through this third person omniscient it is clear that all women are individuals and their differing needs and feelings are all valid. Perhaps this is proved most clearly in the last line of the story.
Throughout this story, the narrator remains indifferent towards each situation, not allowing any biased opinions. The narrator merely observes what is happening and tells the story as it plays out while also providing the private, and therefore true, feelings of each character. The final line states that “the storm [passes] and every one [is] happy” (561). Again, readers are more than likely expecting something bad to happen to the characters, more specifically, Calixta; however, that is not the case, nor the point of this story. The point of this story which the narrator undoubtedly gets across to the readers is that a woman who does not fit into the mold in which the society makes for her is not wrong for being different from it. The story not only celebrates one woman for going against the social and cultural norms but recognizes two. The message that this last line, and this story in general, presents to readers is that a woman’s sexual desire is normal as well as a woman’s lack thereof. What readers expect of this story is something as destructive as a violent storm; however, what they are given are the normal outcomes of a storm: nothing notably different. The storm, or the controversial event of the story, occurs and life proceeds as normal for all parties involved.
It is safe to say that Kate Chopin’s “The Storm” is ahead of its time. Written before the twentieth-century feminist movement, this story goes against the socio-cultural norms of the society limiting women’s roles within the world. Not only are all women expected to be wives and mothers, they are also expected to be content with these positions and act appropriately by remaining faithful and fulfilling the expected duties. The third person omniscient narration in this story acts as a window into the everyday woman’s mind, exposing her true wants and feelings. While Calixta portrays a typical woman – a dedicated mother and wife – she also encompasses the unspoken sexual desire which this story attempts to validate. On the other hand, Clarisse – also a dedicated mother and wife – expresses her eagerness to be away from her husband and be on her own – another legitimate request. In “The Storm,” Chopin communicates primarily to her female readers that to have desires other than being a devout mother and wife is not only normal but should also be expected. Through this unbiased narrator, women feel accepted and empowered in a society where they are so often oppressed and pushed aside.
Baym, Nina, and Levine, Robert S., editors. The Norton Anthology of American Literature.C.W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, pp. 550-551.
Chopin, Kate. “The Storm.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Edited by Nina Baym. 8th ed., vol. C. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, pp. 557-661.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Scarlet Letter.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Edited by Nina Baym. 8th ed., vol. B. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, pp. 476-594.
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