Books & Film 2015 – Week 1
Spring 2015 Books & Film Class
Topic – From Kate Chopin to Swamp People
Held Wednesdays through February 11 at UL Lafayette
Instructor: Dr. Mary Ann Wilson
Notes will be updated each Friday through February 13; comment to join in the discussion.
Last year this class covered the topic of “Faulkner and Flannery,” and this year we’ll be reading the short stories of Louisiana author Kate Chopin (pictured), Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers, Rebecca Wells’ Little Altars Everywhere and discussing clips from TV shows “Swamp People,” “True Detective” and “True Blood.”
Wednesday’s class began with a discussion on marriage, motherhood, sex and desire. Chopin’s stories “Desiree’s Baby,” “A Respectable Woman,” “La Belle Zoraide,” “Athenaise” and “Madame Celestin’s Divorce” all examine these topics in sometimes heartbreaking ways.
All published in the 1890s before Chopin wrote The Awakening — her most famous work — some of these stories appeared in Vogue and The Atlantic Monthly. But the topics of marriage, motherhood and intercourse were not readily discussed in those days. Chopin herself had six children by age 32 and when her husband, Oscar, died she had no way to make a living and support her family.
Chopin had an 18-year-old daughter at the time she wrote “Athenaise,” a story about a young woman who finds herself disillusioned with the intimacy and humdrum of marriage.
It’s jus’ being married that I detes’ an’ despise. I hate being Mrs. Cazeau, an’ would want to be Athenaise Miche again. I can’t stan’ to live with a man; to have him always there; his coats an’ pantaloons hanging in my room; his ugly bare feet—washing them in my tub, befo’ my very eyes, ugh!“
Women in those days were not properly prepared to leave their parents’ homes for marriage, nor were they emotionally equipped to handle childbirth and the raising of children at such a young age. In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier says she would give her life for her children but not herself.
Chopin herself had a happy marriage and loved her children, but she no doubt saw women around her who were floundering in domesticity. The daughter of slave owners in St. Louis, Missouri, Chopin also incorporates the them of race into her work and seems to be sympathetic to slavery and the unspoken social code forced on African Americans at that time.
In “Desiree’s Baby,” Desiree is forced to leave the home of her husband and wanders out into the swamp after he discovers their child is of mixed race. Zoraide in “La Belle Zoraide” isn’t allowed to marry Mezor, the black man she’s fallen in love with, because her mistress wants her to marry a mulatto.
The subject of sex and desire also comes up in these stories, sometimes coded in recognizable symbols of the day like Gouvernail’s smoldering cigar in “A Respectable Woman,” but Chopin doesn’t hold back with Zoraide.
Mezor was as straight as a cypress-tree and as proud looking as a king. His body, bare to the waist, was like a column of ebony and it glistened like oil.“
Her mastery of local color is one of the reasons Chopin’s stories were so popular by readers in the day. Local color was one of the most popular genres at that time (think Mark Twain and Joel Chandler Harris) and Chopin incorporated it all, from the language of Creole patois to miscegenation and the mysterious swamp.
It’s devastating that Chopin’s home in Cloutierville, Louisiana, burned down several years ago, but her stories live on and are just as thought-provoking, funny and sad today as they were in the late 1800s.
Next week we’ll be discussing Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers about the lives of people of color living on Cane River, the area Chopin found herself in after marriage. We’ll also be watching the LPB film “Spirit of Culture: Cane River Creoles.”
We don’t get to Rebecca Wells until February 4, but it will certainly be fascinating to compare Chopin’s depiction of marriage and motherhood to Wells’ dysfunctional, vodka-soaked one in Little Altars Everywhere (and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. An attorney in class who grew up in Wells’ native Alexandria, Louisiana, used to mow her grandmother’s grass, so who knows what stories might emerge this time around.
Next week’s reading: Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers