Kate Chopin and the Topography of Desire


 

In the final scene in Cooper’s first Leather-Stocking tale, The Pioneers, Natty Bumppo foresakes the settlements of up-state New York for the promise of the open lands to the west. “This was the last that they ever saw of the Leather-Stocking . . . . He had gone far towards the setting sun—the foremost in that band of pioneers who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent.” Fifty years later, Huck Finn follows a similar vision as he abandons feminizing civilization. The promise of a life without restraint becomes the promise of the open road in the twentieth century, and as we map these roads we delineate a topography of desire, highways of relationships in a landscape of unfulfilled yearning.

But what in particular do we find when we set out to map the roads in fictional worlds? What do we uncover about the representation of desire? What happens when we look at worlds not unbounded but carefully circumscribed by bayous, rivers, towns, and patriarchal culture? What lessons do we learn about the promise of the open road in American culture?

Gilma, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s “Dead Men’s Shoes,” appears to share Natty’s and Huck’s distaste for civilization and their desire to light out for the territory. When threatened with the loss of an inheritance, “Gilma could think of nothing better to do than to mount his horse and ride away—anywhere” (305). The revelation of his benefactor’s will finally entitles Gilma to the entire estate; however, he renounces his inheritances and the accompanying restrictions of “dead men’s shoes”:

The exuberant health and strength of his big body; the courage vitality, endurance of his whole nature revolted against the expression in itself, and the meaning which it conveyed to him. Dead men’s shoes! Were they not for such afflicted beings as Septime? as that helpless, dependent woman up there? as those those two little ones, with their poorly fed, poorly clad bodies and sweet appealing eyes? (310-11)

Gilma rejects affliction, dependence, and weakness, slips into his running shoes, and lights out for the territory, taking with him only the essentials for a man without obligations—a picture of his benefactor, a walking stick and a gun: “As he rode out of the gate, mounted upon his well-beloved ‘Jupe,’ the faithful dog following, Gilma felt as if he had awakened from an intoxicating but depressing dream” (311). The intoxication of wealth and ease, in this vision of the lure of civilization, yields to the promise of the open road. Perhaps Chopin’s bayou landscape is not all that different from Cooper’s northern woods or Clemens’ riverworld—men just have to do what men have to do, and they do it best on the road, not in town or on the farm.

In the other tales and sketches in both Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, however, Chopin’s characters more typically encounter detours and roadblocks than experience the thrill of unfettered travel on the road The title character in “For Marse Chouchoute,” “a delightful young fellow” of a “happy, careless nature” (116), apparently will earn his fortune on the road delivering the mail for $30 a month, with “that faithful watch-dog, Wash, always at Marse Chouchoute’s heels”:

One beautiful spring night . . . Chouchoutt, on his way to the station, was riding along the road that skirted the river . . . . He was not thinking of the mail, in fact; he was only feeling that life was very agreeable this delicious spring night. (116)

As is characteristic of many of Chopin’s characters, Chouchoutt does not remain on the road for long, as he is distracted from freedom by the lure of a roadside dance. His delay threatens the delivery of the mail, and so Wash takes his place on the road, attempting to reach the rail station in time for the evening mail train. Wash, “very black and slightly deformed” (much like other figures in Chopin’s fiction), does deliver the mail on time, but at the cost of his own life. Chouchoutee rides madly down the same road to catch Wash, but Chouchoutte arrives only in time to hear Wash’s dying words.

In this story, Chopin disputes the significance and the morality of the glories of life on the road. In other tales, we find these doubts expressed in four ways: 1) she presents offers alternative roads for men and for women, 2) she questions the notion of “tramping” as a means of discovery, 3) she represents the wilderness and road scutting through it not as liberating but as threatening, and 4) she depicts the road as it leads toward, not away from, home.

In “Madame Celestin’s Divorce,” lawyer Paxson (a fictive ancestor of Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens) dreams of life in the world beyond Natchitoches with the married but unhappy Celestin, yet at the end of the story Celestin abandons plans for a divorce, her family remains intact, and the road out of Natchitoches suddenly appears as a dead end. The story “In Sabine” offers both male and female protagonists the promise of the road, but they take very different routes. Gregoire, “fleeing from the pain that a woman had inflicted upon him,” feels “a singular longing to cross the Sabine River and lose himself in Texas” (48), but en route he happens upon the run-down farm of Bud Aiken “who a year ago had run away with and married Baptiste Choupic’s pretty daughter, ’Tite Reine” (45). By the time Gregoire arrives, ’Tite Reine is distraught, thinner, and abused. Finally Gregoire steals Bud’s horse and crosses the Sabine River into Texas, in effect following the open road and lighting out for the territory. ’Tite Reine likewise flees, but not toward Texas: she returns to Natchichotes and her parents’ home—two flights, one male and one female; different destinations, different roads.

“A No Account Creole” offers a slightly different version of the desire/flight/home narrative. In this tale, the wedding plans of Euphasie and the “no-account Creole” Placide, are disrupted by the arrival of Wallace Offdean, an American businessman from New Orleans, at the “old Santien place” in Natchichoches parish. Offdean’s presence and attentions to Euphrasie reveal her discontent with Placide and lead to a potentially-violent confrontation on the road with Placide. Finally, however, Placide flees “deeper into the woods” (28), Offdean takes the train back to the city, and Euphrasie remains at home, a passive figure, silent and “her head bowed upon her arm” (29). It may be easy for Placide and Offdean to ride away, but for Euphrasie all roads lead to home.

The male desire to follow the road away from town, to liberate the self through travel, to go “tramping,” seems undercut in a number of Chopin’s tales. In “Mamouche,” the title character, a young boy of uncertain means and with only an attractive grandmother and an unformed conscience, presents himself one rainy evening at the home of Doctor John-Luis, who had at one time courted Mamouche’s grandmother. Doctor John-Luis asks Mamouche why he is out walking to the 24-mile ferry; Mamouche cannot explain his reasoning. To which the doctor replies: “‘Then you must be a tramp, to be wandering aimlessly about the country in that way!’ exclaimed the doctor. ‘No; I don’ b’leive I’m a tramp, me’” (286). This Louisiana culture views “tramping” with considerable suspicion. When a number of minor disturbances occur in the region, the doctor orders his farm’s gates secured, “For there had been a malicious spirit abroad” (288). “Malicious spirits” tramp; serious men stay home. At the end of “Mamouche,” the doctor takes the young boy into his home, thus again restoring order to society and denying the promise offered by the open road. So too “The Wizard of Gettyburg,” concludes with the re-union of the Delmande family, in decline since the end of the War and the apparent death of the family patriarch, who had been injured at Gettysburg and had spent the intervening years wandering the roads and paths of the South. In “Ozeme’s Holiday,” the title character’s plans for an aimless tour of the roadways of Louisiana are disrupted by the illness of a family he first visits: rather than tramp about the bayou, Ozeme remains at the home of Aunt Tildy to ensure that her crop will be harvested.

Two other tales dramatize a curious inter-relationship among desire, “tramping,” and death. In “At Chernier” Toni, a clumsy Gulf shore fisherman, becomes fascinated, perhaps obssessed, with Claire DuVigne, a “rather pretty young person with blue and nun-brown hair” (313). Their cultural and personal differences frustrate Toni’s desire, and to his mother’s inquiries, he admits “that he had been walking—walking he hardly knew where, and he did not know why. He must have tramped from one end of the island to the other” (313). Like Gregoire in “In Sabine,” Toni responds to heartbreak by wandering, but Toni’s imaginative landscape seemingly limits his travels to his home island. After the death of Claire, however, Toni does not grieve or take to the road. Rather, he cheerfully returns to his mother’s home and a sense of duty. In “A Sentimental Soul,” Madame Fleurette fancies a romantic attachment to the married Lacodie. Like Claire, Lacodie dies; like Toni, Madame Fleurette finally responds not with inconsolable grief or flight: after a visit to a distant (and new) confessor, Madame Fleurette returns to her home and constructs a memorial to Lacodie.

Chopin’s world thus denies the possibilities for liberation or discovery offered by both “tramping” and the open road for all but a few male characters. Even for these few, she chooses not to follow their routes. The cultural values of Creole and Acadian society limits unfettered exploration, exploration restricted as well by mistrust and fear of the wilderness and the land beyond.

In both “Desiree’s Baby” and “Love on the Bon Dieu,” women do not like Leather-Stockings march confidently into the wilderness. Lalie, the young object of Azenor’s apparent love, “disappeared into the woods” (98), where she lives in squalid conditions until Azenor rescues her. After her husband’s renunciation, Desiree “disappeared among the reeds and willows . . . she did not come back ” (86). These two tales suggest a region beyond the boundaries of civilization, a region into which figures disappear, not a landscape through which characters willingly and freely travel.

Chopin suggests both this view of the wilderness and patriarchal attempts to control its influence in “Loka.” The title character, “a half-breed Indian girl” (106) disappears into the woods with Bibine, the infant son of Baptiste Padue. Loka’s “heart was aching with savage homesickenss,” we are told. “She could not feel just then that the sin and pain of that life were anything beside the joy of its freedom. Lola was sick for the woods. She felt she must die if she could not get back to them, and to her vagabond life” (109-110). In order to explain her flight with Baptiste’s child, she tells him that “‘I want to run ’way bad, an’ take to de wood; an’ go yonda back to Bayou Choctaw to steal an’ lie agin. It’s on’y Bibine w’at hole me back’” (112). Baptiste siezes the moment “to assert his authority” (112) over both Loka and his doubtful wife. Loka “done tole us how she wa temp’ to-day to turn canaille [low, dishonest]—like we all temp’ sometime,’ he explains to his wife. “‘W’at was it save her? That li’le chile w’at you hole in yo’ arm . . . We got to remember she ent like you an’ me, po’ think; she’s one Injun, her’” (112). In this Acadian world of racial identities and typology, Indians represent the “dark side” of human conduct, human embodiments of the wilderness which threatens civilized society with chaos.

In “Love on the Bon Dieu,” this wilderness is governed by an older woman from whom a young male rescues a distressed maiden. A similar pattern occurs in “In and Out of Old Natchichokes,” in which the impetuous newcomer, Laballiere, “crossed the bayou one day and penetrated into the wilds where Madame St. Denys Godolph ruled” (34) in order to meet her daughter Suzanne. By the end of the story, “through the sheer force of his will” (42), Laballiere leads the pacified Suzanne on a train ride back to old Natchichokes. In these two tales, Chopin’s roads lead not into the territory or the West, but back toward home.

Other roads in other tales similarly depict such domestication. After a night of revelry at ball in the woods in “At the ’Cadian Ball,” two would-be lovers uncover their affection for each other: “Riding through a patch of wood, Clarisse’s saddle became ungirted, and she and Alcee dismounted to readjust it” (150). Clarisse states her love for Alcee, and he quickly forgets the passionate (and somewhat disreputable) Calixta. In “A Night in Acadie,” we encounter four roads, all of which eventually lead to a reconstitution of patriarchal authority. Road #1 leads the protagonists away from home and toward the countryside—Tehesphore, a 28-year-old , “robust young fellow” who “had long felt the need of a wife” (175), and young woman “neither tall nor short, nor stout nor slender; nor was she beautiful, nor was she plain” (177). Road #2 takes both Telesphore and Zaida to a country ball; road #3 leads the pair away from the ball to a midnight rendezvous with Andre Pascal, with whom Zaida plans to elope: we are told that Telesphore “followed rather than accompanied her” (184). After Telesphore has physically beaten the unruly and drunken Pascal, he takes road #4 back to town with Zaida, whose “will, which had been overmastering and aggressive, seemed to have grown mild” (190).

In “Athenaise” the title character, unhappily married to the domineering Cazeau, first takes to the road to flee her husband and return to her parents’ home. Cazeau follows her on this road and retrieves his very reluctant wife. In order to formulate plans for her second flight from her husband, Athenaise meets her brother Monteclin on the road midway between their homes. Athenaise then travels secretly to New Orleans, where she meets the journalist Gourvenail, with whom she walks the streets of the city. When Athenaise learns that she is pregnant (by Cazeau), she again journeys back to her husband and home. However, this occasion becomes “a day of supreme happiness and expectancy,” as Athenaise submits to her husband and familial duty: “Athenaise turned to him with an appealing gesture. As he clasped her in his arms, he felt the yielding of her whole body against him. He felt her lips for the first time respond to the passion of his own” (222). The one exception to this pattern of female journey toward submission occurs in “Azelie,” in which a plantation overseer, ’Polyte, abandons his job and home in order to follow the young Azelie and her family—a conclusion in many ways anticipating the road travelled by Byron Bunch and his muse, Lena Grove.

Such movement on the road toward comic reconciliation or [re-]construction of family or community typifies many of the tales in Chopin’s collections. In “The Lillies” Mr. Billy crosses a lane which had formerly divided him from his neighbors but now serves as a passageway to tardy apologies and a first visit. At the conclusion of “A Matter of Prejudice,” Madame Carambeau orders her coachman to drive to the American church for Christmas mass and then through the American section, where she is reunited with her son and his family. In three other tales, such travel toward, not away from, community is preceded by a vision of a sanctified landscape. In “After the Winter,” M’sieur Michel returns from the War to find his wife “with thoughts that roam and grow wanton with roaming” (225). The road had led him away from home and family; when he returns, his family has taken to the road. However, at the end of the story, Michel pursues a different road to town, a road on which he encounters a river which “gleamed in the moonlight that was flooding the land” (230), a reunion with a former friend, and his final vision in which “[A]ll the land was radiant except the hill far off that ws in black shadow against the sky” (232). La Folle, “a large, gaunt black woman” in “Beyond the Bayou” for years had refused to cross the bayou . However, in order to bring the beloved ten-year old son of plantation owner back from woods to home after he has accidentally shot self in the leg, she must cross the bayou; finally “she watched for the first time the sun rise upon the new, the beautiful world beyond bayou” (60). The title character in “Tante Cat’rinette” fears the loss of her condemned home if she leaves. However, upon hearing word of the illness of Miss Kitty, Tante Cat’rinette’s walks through the streets of the city, “almost effacing herself . . . one of the fantastic, maddening shadows . . . . But once in the Grand Ecore road that lay through the pine wood, she felt secure and free to move” (339). After she leaves Miss Kitty, Tante Cat’rinette intends to return before day break to her home. Another roadside epiphany interrupts her plans: “In the profound darkness, the deep stillness of the night that comes before dawn, she was walking through the woods, on her way back to town . . . . A sudden turn, and Tante Cat’rinette stood facing the river . . . . she stood in face of a heavenly revelation” (341-42). Like La Folle and Michel, Tante Cat’rinette foresakes the open road and returns to family and obligation.

Chopin’s fictions thus question the validity of the male fantasy of travel on the open road. “Tramping” is suspect in the Cajun universe; Chopin’s characters, both male and female, may briefly light off for the territory, but they seldom escape the boundaries of their world. More typically these characters return home, perhaps defeated, perhaps reconciled, but very seldom liberated by the experience of the road.

The road then is significant in Chopin’s texts but in four very particular ways: 1) particular to her fictional world of Creole, Cajun, and Acadian culture; 2) to the historical moment of the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction South; 3) to the geographic landscape of the bayou and woods; and 4) to gendered society in which roles and possibilities are differentiated and circumscribed. If we assume such particularities characterize most fiction, then we have a set of theoretical considerations for the study of other roads in other lands. We also have a model for analyzing the significance of roads as a network of psycho-sexual, political, and imaginative relationships. When we consider the significance of the road, we chart progress and direction through the topography of desire.

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a collection of annotated links to web sites on Kate Chopin