A Respectable Woman by Kate Chopin
In A Respectable Woman by Kate Chopin we have the theme of perception, appearance, identity, desire and freedom. Taken from her A Night in Acadie collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Chopin is exploring the theme of perception. Prior to meeting Gouvernail, Mrs Baroda imagines him to be ‘tall, slim, cynical; with eye-glasses, and his hands in his pockets.’ Chopin also tells the reader that Mrs Baroda was sure that, prior to meeting Gouvernail, she would not like him. These perceptions are important as the reader discovers that when Mrs Baroda does meet Gouvernail, he is not as she had imagined, the reader learning that Mrs Baroda does in fact like him. The theme of perception is further explored when Chopin tells the reader that Mrs Baroda while sitting beside Gouvernail on the bench wanted to touch Gouvernail’s face but because she was ‘a respectable woman’, hesitated and resisted. Mrs Baroda’s perception of what a respectable woman is (in society) may be important as it also plays on the theme of appearance. Mrs Baroda is aware that should she touch Gouvernail’s face society would consider or look upon her actions as being inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour for a married woman.
The incident on the bench with Gouvernail is also significant for another reason as it is through this incident that the Chopin is introducing the theme of desire. Mrs Baroda appears to be attracted to Gouvernail however she is able to resist her urges to touch Gouvernail’s face due to her belief that she is a respectable woman (and possibly out of fear of what society may think of her). However as the story progresses the reader will discover that Mrs Baroda does in fact follow her desires (with the possibility of an affair with Gouvernail). Symbolically Gouvernail’s name may also be important as Gouvernail is the French for the word ‘rudder’ which is part of the steering mechanism of a boat or ship. It is possible that symbolically Chopin is suggesting that Gouvernail (the character) will play a role in steering (or guiding) Mrs Gouvernail towards a new identity, which may not include Gaston.
It is also through Mrs Baroda’s perception of what a respectable woman is that Chopin appears to be exploring the theme of identity and freedom. Mrs Baroda appears to be restricted to society’s opinion of what a respectable woman may be. It is possible that by writing the story Chopin is exploring commonly held societal beliefs on the role of a woman. By allowing Mrs Baroda to have feelings (or desires) for a man who is not her husband it is possible that Chopin is suggesting that Mrs Baroda may not necessarily be happy in her marriage and if anything may be confined or trapped inside her marriage to Gaston. It may also be a case that Chopin is disregarding the institute of marriage suggesting that it hampers a woman’s freedom and that a woman may not necessarily be defined by who she is married to.
The fact that Mrs Baroda, leaves her home to visit her mother while Gouvernail is staying may also be important. It is possible that Mrs Gouvernail no longer wishes to be around Gouvernail because of her own desires for him. Desires that she is aware are outside societal norms. It may be a case that Mrs Baroda is aware (while Gouvernail is staying in the house) that by following her desires she will only ostracise herself from society and may no longer be viewed upon as a respectable woman. The fact that Mrs Baroda doesn’t act on her desires while Gouvernail is staying at the house may also suggest that societal opinion (towards Mrs Baroda) is more important to Mrs Baroda than how she feels.
Though some critics suggest that the ending of the story is ambiguous, Chopin does appear to be further exploring the theme of desire and freedom. Despite her previous stance on Gouvernail and not wishing for him to visit again, Mrs Baroda changes her mind telling Gaston ‘I have overcome everything! You will see. This time I shall be very nice to him (Gouvernail).’ The fact that Mrs Baroda tells Gaston that ‘I have overcome everything’ may be important as Chopin may be suggesting that Mrs Baroda has not only changed her opinion towards Gouvernail but it is also possible that she is no longer confined (or restricted) to society’s perception of what a respectable woman is. It is possible that by ending the story as she does, Chopin may be suggesting that Mrs Baroda has found freedom outside of societal norms. By also telling Gaston that ‘I shall be very nice to him (Gouvernail)’ the reader suspects that Mrs Baroda has not only overcome her own (and societies) perception of what a respectable woman is but she may also be ready to pursue a relationship (or affair) with Gouvernail.