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Authors of short stories are limited in their ability to convey deep ideas and meaning within their work by the short length of their work. However, by making careful use of literary devices such as symbolism and metaphor, these authors can insert as much meaning into a very short story as they can into a full-length novel. One such author is Kate Chopin, who wrote during a changing time in the world when the Victorian ideals of the past were just beginning to change into the more modern ideals of the future. In her works, Chopin frequently makes use of nature as a means of conveying her intentions. In stories such as “The Storm”, “The Story of an Hour” and “Ripe Figs”, Chopin is able to convey a greater sense of what her characters are feeling and the passage of time through natural imagery.
Chopin uses nature to illustrate the emotions of her main character in “The Storm.” Calixta is a passionate woman forced to comply with the restrictions of a Victorian lifestyle and is feeling the pressure of it. Within the first few sentences of the story, the storm is described as “somber clouds that were rolling with sinister intention from the west, accompanied by a sullen, threatening roar” (Chopin, 1898).
She works this hard around the house to try to keep her passionate nature in check. As the storm outside builds, Calixta “sat at a side window sewing furiously on a sewing machine … she felt very warm and often stopped to mop her face on which the perspiration gathered in beads” (Chopin, 1898). But the building storm won’t be ignored anymore and finally breaks over her house one day when her husband and son are gone and an equally passionate man, the man she wanted to be with when she was younger, is riding by her home. As she sees Alcee Labalierre ride in at the gate, as she stands there with her husband’s Sunday coat in her arms, the raindrops begin to fall.
These falling raindrops can be seen as her expression of grief at what she cannot be. Her building frustration as a result of her constrained passion is expressed in the flash of lightning that sends her jumping backward into Alcee’s arms and the storm peaks as the two of them finally give expression to their desire. The lightning becomes the conflict inside her and the beating of the rain on her roof is the beating of her heart as she finally expresses her passion with Alcee.
Louise in “The Story of an Hour” finds her freedom in her sudden interest in the world outside her window. Like Calixta, it was a world she rarely considered because of her necessarily being constrained within the Victorian concepts that the woman should remain in the home. That her marriage was a relatively enforced concession to the social requirements of the time is evidenced in her thoughts as she considers the loss of her husband. “And yet she had loved him – sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter?” (Chopin, 1897: 3).
When she learns of her husband’s death, Louise, the protagonist in Chopin’s story, immediately breaks down in grief as she is expected to do proving that she has convinced herself to remain completely in line, body, and soul, with the cultural expectations of her time. “She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone … She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her, as a child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams” (Chopin, 1897: 2).
As she looks out her window, though, all the natural signs of spring outside begin to reveal to her what that role might be and she loses her fear of it as she becomes capable of naming it. Having accepted that she is free as the birds, the realization that her husband is still alive and healthy, thus placing her back within the confined role of the housewife, is more than her system can bear.
In “Ripe Figs”, nature is used by the main character as a means of marking time without the use of a calendar, in a more natural way. Maman-Nianiane averts her daughter’s impatience to travel to her cousins’ house by telling her she will travel when the figs are ripe. The bulk of the story is concerned with Babette’s subsequent watching of the fig trees as they progress through the various stages of maturation and production of fruit. “Every day Babette danced out to where the fig trees were in a long line against the fence. She walked slowly beneath them, carefully peering between the gnarled, spreading branches. But each time she came disconsolate away again” (Chopin, 2007). The day that they’re finally ripe, she presents her mother with a plateful of them and is informed that her mother will find her “when the chrysanthemums are in bloom” in Toussaint.
Throughout her short stories, Chopin makes heavy use of nature to tell the story. By linking her characters with the forces of nature, she provides them with universal attributes and extends the character’s description far further than would have been possible within the short space of the story. Calixta’s passion is explored to a much greater degree as it affects the people around her, Louise’s heart is revealed as she experiences the world outside her window and Babette is able to track the passage of time simply by watching the development of the fig trees. Through this natural connection, Chopin expands her characters into the greater realm of society, enabling her readers to more closely identify with them and learning much more about these same characters’ inner natures.
Chopin, Kate. “Ripe Figs.” 2007. Web.
Chopin, Kate. “The Storm.” 1898. Web.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” (1897). Printed in Mercury Reader. Melanie Rubens. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.