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Formalism in “At Cheniere Caminada” and “Athenaise”
Kate Chopin’s short stories, “At Cheniere Caminada” and “Athenaise,” present the tales of two innocents, Tonie and Athenaise, taking a journey. They must leave their homes and wander into foreign lands before returning with a greater understanding of themselves and life. The structure, setting, and images of these two stories symbolize the seeming transformation of the characters.
In structure, the two stories follow a journey motif. In “At Cheniere Caminada,” Tonie begins at home and then travels to Grand Isle then New Orleans before returning to Cheniere Caminada. He cannot return to his home until he has come to terms with the questions that have risen in his life. For Athenaise, her journey also takes her from her married home. The story opens with her at her parent’s home. She is forced to return to Cazeau’s house, but because she does not have the answers to her questions, she cannot stay there. She runs away to New Orleans and only comes back to Cazeau when she finds her answers.
Paralleling the journey of these two is the contrast of city and country. Tonie and Athenaise both live in the country, a place traditionally associated with innocence, a lack of knowledge. In the beginning of both stories, Tonie and Athenaise lack an understanding of love and sexuality. Tonie “had no desire to inflame the hearts of any of the island maidens” ("Cheniere" 315). In Part II, the narrator tells the reader that Tonie had “never felt those premonitory symptoms of love which afflict the greater portion of mankind before they reach the age which he had attained (321). Since the object of his affection, Claire, does not live on Cheniere Caminada, Tonie must travel to Grand Isle to be near her. After he misses the chance to take her as his own when they are alone on his boat (329-30), he leaves Grand Isle, and we next see him in New Orleans, even farther from his home. Only after he hears the news of Claire’s death can he return to Cheniere Caminada because this represents the end of his quest. As he tells his mother, when Claire was alive, he despaired because he had no hope, no life. Now that she is dead, he can hope that they will meet in Heaven where they will be equals (336). He comes back to the country no longer as innocent as before yet more content with his life. This contentment is most clear in his mannerisms. Before his understanding, we see him characterized as ungainly, ill at ease anywhere but on water, frozen by his inability to communicate to anyone but his mother. Now, we see a Tonie who is looser. For the first time, he is happy and the overall impression of him is one of relaxation (334).
For Athenaise, her journey begins in the morning as she runs to her parent’s home, and it ends in the evening, weeks later, when she finally returns to Cazeau’s house for good. During these weeks, she travels to the city where she is isolated from her community and the companionship of family and friends (“Athenaise” 83). And though she has sought freedom, she is more constrained, at least physically, in the city than she ever was at Cazeau’s place (95). However, the very limits on her physical freedom allow her to focus on her inner self. When she realizes she is pregnant, everything clicks inside her. She now understands what her role in life is and can return to Cazeau and the country.
For both Tonie and Athenaise, the journey away from home is important. By surrounding themselves with unfamiliar places and faces, they cannot hide behind routine. When they are faced with their epiphanies, they only have one place to look for answers: within themselves. This is underscored for both in two different ways. For Tonie, the change is more striking when he tries to tell his mother what he has learned. At first, he looks to the water, the place he has always felt the most comfortable, but it doesn’t not “open his thought” (“Cheniere” 335). He then looks to his own hand, that which reflects who he is: rough and almost animalistic yet open now. Only by looking at his hand does he find the words to express how Claire’s death has changed him (335). The open palm is in contrast to the closed fist he shows when Claire gives him her silver bracelet after their boat ride (329). His closed fist represents his closed mind – he could not understand the conflict she caused him. Her death has resolved that conflict, and he can be content with not only who he is but his life.
For Athenaise, the image of emptiness is the consistent problem. Her parents’ home is barren of furniture and more suitable for dancing than living. Cazeau’s home is empty of true communication with her husband except on a sexual level, which frightens her (“Athenaise” 49). She herself is empty of purpose. She does not know what she wants, only that something is missing. Even her social life is empty but for her brother, Monteclin. She feels everyone has abandoned her (62). When she runs away to New Orleans, she loses even that contact. Though she does eventually form a sisterly attachment to Gouvernail, this relationship is surface only on her part for she completely forgets about him once she makes her mind up to return to Cazeau (100). The epiphany that leads her back to Cazeau is her pregnancy. She is “filled” with a purpose now. Perhaps more accurately, she has fewer options. She must adhere to her marriage vows because she is going to be a mother. Her life is simpler now that her choices have been taken away. Tonie and Athenaise only find peace when they have reached a point of no return. Claire’s death means that Tonie does not have to worry about her relationships with men or his lack of appeal. Athenaise’s pregnancy signals the complete loss of innocence. She is now completely a married woman with no hope of annulling or ending her marriage.
However, how “true” is the knowledge both receive? Clues planted along the way in both stories make it unclear how really in touch with themselves these two characters are at the end of their journeys.
In “At Cheniere Caminada,” Chopin often uses images of flying creatures and the seasons to parallel Tonie’s state. The story opens in the dry, blistering heat of mid-Summer with a “lazy, scorching breeze" (315). At church, people are pestered by mosquitoes. The only birds present are the ribbons on the girls’ hats which seem to flap like wings (315). Nature is dried up and stinging, like Tonie’s conception of love and sexuality. When he travels to Grand Isle the next day, we see a different, milder setting. Winds are now “soft velvety gusts” and the “day is bright and beautiful” (321). Tonie sees doves flying to water oaks. Doves traditionally represent either divine guidance or physical love. At this point in his journey, Tonie does not know if Claire is an angel or a woman, so the double meaning of the doves is appropriate. The water oaks conjure images of cool, lush scenery in contrast to the barrenness of Cheniere Caminada. When Tonie and Claire part for the last time in the short story, Claire fades into the mist and is like “a blotch against the fading sky” (329). This signals an end to the beautiful weather, and indeed, when Part 4 opens a few lines later, the narrator tells us it is January. Here, Tonie is not only the farthest from home (he is in New Orleans), but he is also the farthest from his salvation. He is frozen just as the earth is. Only when he hears of Claire’s death is he released from the paralysis he has been in. However, Chopin inserts four small details that make us question how much he has learned. The first things he hears is the coarse laughter of women passing (333), which seems a devolution of his character. This better exemplifies his attitude to women at the beginning of the story, so what has he really learned about love and sex? In the very next sentence, he hears a bird singing, but it isn’t a lark, which is traditionally the herald of morning and new beginnings. He hears a mockingbird (333). This implies that what he sees and hears is an illusion or a travesty. And at the end of the story, he rises to light the fire for his mother’s oven which is described as open-mouthed under a lemon tree (337). The gaping maw of an oven seems ominous, especially when paired with the lemon tree: something that smells divine but is bitter in taste. The final images then of his mother crying as she watches him walk to the oven seem to suggest that Tonie still does not understand love.
For Athenaise, the clues that she has not really found contentment are in the many references to marriage as a trap. Monteclin refers to her marriage as a Gordian knot (“Athenaise” 51). She has an “instinctive realization of the futility of rebellion against a social and sacred institution” (52). Her disgust with Cazeau seems grounded in a loss of her identity and space. She wants to be Athenaise Miche again, and she does not want his dirty, manly presence surrounding her (50). She cannot simply resign herself to marriage like Cazeau who believes what’s done is done (60). People fault her for complaining about her marriage because Cazeau hasn’t harmed her physically. They seem unable to understand the mental and spiritual conflict within her, hoping that marriage will develop her as a woman like it should (56-57). Though she seems immature in many places, she is mature enough to realize that living with “a soul full of bitterness and revolt” would be worse (66). These sentiments remain consistent throughout the story. Athenaise never makes up her mind, living in a no man’s land, until she discovers she is pregnant. At this point, she really has no other choice but to return to Cazeau. She cannot remain on her own for she has no money. With a baby, finding work would be more difficult than it had proven up to that point (95). Trying to get a divorce had been hard enough before, but she could certainly not attain one with a baby on the way. With any other acceptable choice taken from her, she must completely convince herself that she is happy. If she cannot, then her life would still be “full of bitterness and revolt.” Now she rejects Monteclin, even reproaching him (97). She can no longer hold on to that rebellious, free spirit of before and now must settle down. She is now all that a wife should be: soft, eager, passionate, caring. Everything she sees is ripe and fecund, from the lush countryside to the sound of a baby crying (104). However, the fact that she returns to Cazeau at night rather than in the day seems to indicate secrecy. Chopin describes the night as “dark and warm and still” (104), indicating stagnation rather than growth and enlightenment. At the end, both Tonie and Athenaise seem to have crafted an illusion they can live with rather than face the truth, and perhaps that’s what we all do to survive.
For modern audiences, the journey’s these two characters take are recognizable. We all grapple with love and sexuality, with change and enlightenment. However, the resolutions to the stories seem predicated more on constraint than freedom. Tonie’s delight in Claire’s death seems morbid and sinister. Our standards of true love would rather find Claire alive and happy than dead. Tonie’s attitude is more controlling and in the mode of a Petrarch or Sidney sonnet sequence: if I can’t have her, then she is better off dead. Athenaise’s dilemma is also more difficult for us to find satisfaction with. Modern women often have trouble understanding the complete lack of options women like Athenaise had. She seems flighty and shallow to us, but she could merely be a survivor doing what she has to in order to maintain her sanity. Neither story gives us a positive look at love and marriage. Both show how complex and difficult it is and was. The many images and motifs Chopin weaves throughout the stories indicate that though the characters seem to find happiness, this happiness is only an illusion masking bitter disappointment. At the end of the journey, sometimes we have to lie to ourselves so we can return to any semblance of normal life; sometimes compromise is the only salvation.
“At Cheniere Caminada.” A Night in
Acadie: Electronic Edition. A Digitized Library of Southern
Literature: Beginnings to 1920. 7 Oct. 2007.
---. “Athenaise.”A Night in
Acadie: Electronic Edition. A Digitized Library of Southern
Literature: Beginnings to 1920. 7 Oct. 2007.