Tag Archives: classics

The Irresistible Short Stories of Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin, (sho-pan), was a master short story writer. She was a natural who, like most women of her time, had no formal training in the craft of writing. Equipped with just a French, Catholic school education in St. Louis and many interesting experiences in French Louisiana, Chopin taught herself to write with only her natural talent and the influences of Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola and Walt Whitman, her favorite contemporary writers.

But Chopin developed an alluring style all her own. Indeed, the shortest of her numerous stories seem to end too quickly; many of these shorter works are about three pages long in hardcover – ending often with the milieu of a very personal, spiritual revelation. Thus, the reader wants more of the story and more of the characters; they linger, like music, creating a delicious surround-sound of Chopin’s writing-voice.

Her characters are vivid with life and personality, namely that of the Cajun and Creole people of French populated Louisiana; although, this locale is not always obvious. An Egyptian Cigarette, told in the first person, is a tale, which could take place almost anywhere, about a woman who smokes an exotic cigarette given to her by an architect friend who travels. Chopin renders sweet, sumptuous details – as in the very box containing the cigarettes: covered with glazed, yellow paper – you want to touch the paper and feel its crinkly texture – and to hold between your fingers the tobacco of the same golden color.

The woman gets high from the cigarette and has a disturbing “dream” told in intricate, burning detail. Her induced vision seems to reveal the promise of more hidden encounters, yet she snatches up the remaining cigarettes.

I walked to the window and spread my palms wide. The light breeze caught up the golden threads and bore them writhing and dancing far out among the maple leaves.

Chopin is not bogged down by scene-changes; she shifts from one event, or timeframe, to the next as easily as gliding out of a room. Plots and characters vary, so that one story will be verdant with Southern vernacular while the next will ring with Ivy-League pomp and English suspense.

When you meet Pauline this morning she will be charming; she will be quite the most attractive woman in the room and the only one worthy of your attention…

So begins, A Mental Suggestion, a short, suspenseful love-story – about nine pages long in hardcover. The main character is a young professor of psychology, Don Graham, whose primary, scientific interest is in mental suggestion. Chopin’s setting is rife with lush maple trees, green lawns and sprawling tennis clubs. Graham decides to test his mental suggestion theories on two of his friends who have no interest in each other, and the professor’s experiment works brilliantly, causing the couple to fall in love and thereby giving Graham a huge ego boost. But, when his friends decide to get married, the professor worries and obsesses over how long his ‘spell’ will last. So he resolves to break the spell in order to test their love.

This is where Chopin’s skills of suspense come in. Like an all-powerful god or Cupid, Graham works his counter-mental suggestions in the cozy living room of his friend, Faverham, the newly wed husband – as rain dashes the window outside.

…the two forces, love, and the imperative suggestion had waged a short, fierce conflict within the man’s subconsciousness, and love had triumphed.

Hence, for once, Chopin allows love to overcome the dark intimation of doubt.

Desiree’s Baby might be the most well known of Chopin’s short stories, having been in the literary canon of most high school and college English curriculums. It is a brief, exquisitely told tale concerning the country’s racial past, particularly in the South. Beauty pervades Chopin’s story in these lush, Southern surroundings and in the lovely, innocent Desiree. However, the ugliness of racism becomes the driving theme, and the final loathsome truth of slavery and deep seeded racism arrives at the very end of the story.

The Storm is one of Chopin’s more erotic short stories. Like her novel, The Awakening, which was criticized and rejected by society at the time, The Storm is filled with the secret desires of married women and men who are in a turmoil of feelings that can’t be expressed verbally. These stories are delightfully rich with a colorful mixture of people and languages: the Patios, a fusion of either Spanish or French plus the dialect of the region; Creole people who were born in Louisiana but were of French or French-Canadian ancestry; the blacks and Indians of Louisiana and always the presence of children.

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Goddess Season

fog in park

In the short story, “Demeter” by Maile Meloy, the writer draws parallels between a modern-day woman named Demeter and the ancient goddess of the harvest in Greek mythology. “The Rape of Persephone,” one of the most sorrowful tales in mythology, is the story of a young girl torn from her mother, Demeter, by a great, colossal fiend – Pluto, the king of hell. In some of the mythical versions, Persephone is a maiden and in other versions she is a goddess in her own right – the goddess of spring.

As the myth is told, Persephone was picking flowers in a vast, summery field among her friends, when Pluto, the king of the underworld, snatched her up and brought her down to Hades to be his wife and his queen.

Terrified,

In tears, the goddess called her mother, called

Her comrades too, but oftenest her mother;

And, as she’d torn the shoulder of her dress,

The folds slipped down and out the flowers fell,

And she, in innocent simplicity,

Grieved in her girlish heart for their loss too.*

The myth, while portraying Pluto as a monster, also allows for the fact that Venus, the goddess of love, had arranged for the coupling by instructing Cupid to shoot Pluto in the heart with an arrow that had Persephone’s name on it.

Meloy’s short story brilliantly translates the sorrow of the Persephone myth into an everyday tale of relationships and divorce, linking the modern world to the myth of antiquity. Here, Demeter’s daughter, Perry is fourteen, perhaps a couple of years older than her mythological counterpart. And her real name is Elizabeth, an intimation of the name-confusion in the Roman vs. the Greek. For example, Persephone and Demeter in the Greek version are named Proserpine and Ceres in the Roman.

As a somewhat sporty, straight-forward and logical girl, Perry hardly mimics the nature-loving, flower child who, rather anemic, rises from the dead every spring, like Persephone – and Perry is spared from actually being abducted, but she fits well into the narrative of a young girl torn between two worlds. In her parents’ divorce-settlement, Perry is to live with her father for half the year and her mother the other half, a harrowing division of the year.

Meloy begins:

When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days start getting longer.** 

This correlation with the annual division of the seasons stands out as the most telling, connecting theme. In Meloy, Perry disappears into her father’s house: The dark interior of the house engulfed her. The screen door slammed shut.

Meloy sprinkles her story generously with such tropes that hearken to the original tale. Perry refuses to eat Demeter’s ultra-healthy, organic food: It’s not real food! I will not eat millet! she shouts – a nod to Persephone’s seven pomegranate seeds. Perry’s parents, Demeter and Hank, are at opposite extremes, just as the goddess of grain, who gives life and vitality to the earth vs. the king of hell, who lives in a dark, cold land underground.

mv stream

Hank is a scuba diver, and though he is not really a hateful character, death clings to his preoccupation with the extreme. The premise of plunging underwater or swimming works well in Meloy as both symbols of death and transformation – two key ideas that fill the Greek myths.

While Hank’s scuba diving conjures death in Meloy’s story; for instance, their friend, Duncan – Demeter’s lover – drowns on a scuba diving expedition lead by Hank, conversely, Meloy uses swimming as a platform for transformation and healing with Demeter. Just as Arethusa transformed into a beautiful, streaming pool in Ovid, the modern Demeter transforms as she swims in the local swimming pool:

It was her favorite moment of swimming, the passage from dry to wet, her skin shedding tiny bubbles of air as she kicked. It felt as if the world were washing off her. She was starting over, newborn.**

Among many brilliant references to the gods, the celestial-constellations, lightening bolts and “thundersnow,” Meloy supplies her Demeter with plenty of similarities to the character of Demeter in the ancient myth. Both women are the quintessential earth mother; one can imagine each of them cultivating the earth, barefoot – long, wavy hair billowing in the flower-scented air. At her most subtle and brilliant moments, Meloy brings the two together in spirit:

As soon as she knew she was pregnant, Demeter had stopped smoking pot. She started meeting the black-coated Hutterites in their truck to buy chickens and eggs. She bought vegetables at the farmers’ market from the Hmong refugees, who coaxed green shoots from the ground so much earlier in the year than anyone else. She ordered milk from the dairy and made baked eggs and cream with Hmong chives. She didn’t worry about getting fat – she was supposed to get fat.** 

The goddess Demeter can be inserted into this scenario of natural, culinary, food preparation with these nomadic, pastoral peoples. As well, both Demeters bear powerful feelings and emotions: the tormented, inner thoughts of the modern Demeter often match the violent responses of the sometimes angry, ancient mother-goddess.  And, of course, they both suffer with the tragedy of separation – the consequence of their unbreakable ties to a young daughter.

Meloy’s story is a tale of grief and loss, just as sorrowful as the original mythological tale. Demeter’s feelings emerge in waves over the separation with Perry as much as for the death of Duncan. And the writer brings us ever closer to Demeter’s loss, by degrees, to the culminating moment in the pool when Demeter tries to imagine, while swimming, what Duncan may have felt as he drowned. Then, the whole universe seems to react to Demeter’s slight flirtation with drowning. Annie, the lifeguard who also happens to be Duncan’s eighteen-year-old daughter by his marriage, becomes the sentry amidst all of nature’s omnipresence – blowing her whistle and clamoring down the ladder.

pool storm

And as in the Greek, Meloy ends with a measure of justice – but with an almost joyful portion of hope. Scenes in which Demeter frolics in the snow with the teenagers, after the summer snowstorm of mythic proportions, symbolize a christening or a blessing of eternal hope – perhaps even Duncan’s blessing. The complications and challenges within a lifetime have brought Demeter to middle age, yet Annie represents the next generation, and she does so with a sense of anticipation. Annie includes and accepts Demeter where Perry, her own daughter, had always shunned and marginalized. Yet, Annie also lightly ridicules her own mother – such is the way of mother/daughter relationships in the modern world.

Meloy renders a beautiful ending worthy of the goddess who promotes the continuation of all life. Whether you are a mother, a daughter, and/or a lover of mythology, you will love and appreciate this story.

* Metamorphoses by Ovid, Translated by A.D. Melville.  Book V, The Rape of Proserpine.

** “Demeter,” by Maile Meloy, appeared in The New Yorker, November 19th, 2012.

Perseus and Andromeda

The Greek myth, “Perseus and Andromeda,” is one of the rare happy ending tales in the mythology cannon. I like to think that Perseus and Andromeda’s romantic ending, or beginning, is a reward for each having endured harsh circumstances through early life.

Before they finally meet, Perseus and Andromeda both have suffered imprisonment, family betrayal and banishment. Add to this: outrageous encounters with monsters, and between the two protagonists they have racked up enough travesty to earn a happily-ever-after marriage.

Of course, this balance of justice is hardly a guaranteed credo of the ancient Greeks. More often, human beings, and even half-gods, will suffer until they die or are transformed. It is the way of the Greek gods to maintain control over living beings. Yet, the people of the ancient era created the gods in their own image as a way of identifying with the beauty of the human form rather than the mythical beast-deities of the pre-Greek era.

Perseus was the son of the beautiful princess, Danae, and the god, Zeus, who visited Danae in the form of a golden rain and so impregnated her with a child, Perseus. But the mother and child are soon locked up in a great chest and sent out to sea, at the hands of a paranoid king. So, Danae and Perseus, mother and son, brave this outrage together inside the dark, wooden chest as it is heaved about by the wind and the waves:

In that strange boat Danae sat with her little son. The daylight faded and she was alone on the sea.

Zeus must have been watching out for them from afar, because the chest is finally caught by a wave that delivers the mother and son safely to a friendly island. From here, they are looked after by a benevolent, farming couple until Perseus becomes a young man and sets out on his own to meet his destiny of heroic adventures.

Three times he saw the icy Bears, three times
The Crab’s long claws…

As he is part-god and part-human, Perseus meets every challenge with divine assistance. And it is within these ordeals that Ovid used his writerly craft to translate bizarre tropes whilst the ancient story sweeps the reader along, as in a fairy tale.

As if Medusa were not creepy enough, with her mane of writhing snakes, the twin sisters, who live in “A stronghold safe below the mountain mass/ Of icy Atlas,” share one eye, which they pass back and forth to each other in order to see. This is truly brilliant imagery! Anyone who has ever know twins, (or if you are a twin), has noticed the peculiar and uncanny insight that passes between these twofold siblings.

Ovid is filled with many such fantastic passages. But of course, Perseus forges through every episode with the ingenuity and speed of Mercury. By the time Perseus has finally destroyed Medusa and transformed Atlas into a mountain, (see The Hero Perseus), our hero is pumped and ready to rescue Andromeda from the sea monster.

Then Perseus laced
His feet again with plumes on either side,
And girded on his curving sword and clove
With beating ankle-wings the flowing air.

Meanwhile, Andromeda, the beautiful and innocent damsel who is chained to a rock in the sea, suffers a curse placed upon her by the naiads, who were angry with Andromeda’s conceited mother. So, Andromeda is actually suffering the sins of her mother – another incomprehensible but frequent punishment.

In Andromeda’s very compromising position: totally nude, chained to a rock with her hands and ankles tied while being threatened by a grotesque sea monster, as her parents stand on the shore watching, Perseus falls in love at first sight:

Love, before he knew,
Kindled; he gazed entranced; and overcome
By loveliness so exquisite, so rare,
Almost forgot to hover in the air.

Perseus, by trickery and stealth, kills the sea monster. First, however, he makes a long, impassioned speech to Andromeda and the spectators on the shore. There is just enough time for him to finish his long speech before the sea monster attacks Andromeda: this ludicrous scene might be a sign of Ovid’s humor. He was Roman, after-all, and the Romans liked to make speeches.

In the next scene, of surreal poetics, Perseus uses his own shadow on the water to lure the sea monster away from Andromeda. What follows is a pretty brutal killing involving lots of stabbing and blood:

The beast belched purple blood,
Sea spume and blood together.

Then,

Cheers filled the shore and echoed round the halls
Of heaven.

A wedding celebration of lovely adornment and festivities follows, wherein the sea nymphs play with Medusa’s head and set it upon wet seaweed on the sand and watch the seaweed turn to coral. Another supernatural setting, and hence, the Ovidian mythology of coral!

Other tales with happy endings include: Baucis and Philemon, Iphis, Pygmalion, and Ceyx and Alcyone.

Excerpts from The Metamorphoses, book IV, by Ovid, translated by A.D. Melville.

Picture credit: In the above tapestry, Perseus rescues Andromeda from a sea monster. The depiction takes place on the Bay of Jaffa in Palestine: Perseus & Andromeda. The Miraculous Draught of Fishes Tapestry by Pieter Coecke van Aelst. Vatican Museum of Rome. C.1516-1519