A Matter of Behavior: A Semantic Analysis of Five Kate Chopin Stories

By Mayer, Gary H. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, January 2010 | Go to article overview

A Matter of Behavior: A Semantic Analysis of Five Kate Chopin Stories


Mayer, Gary H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Though various interpretations of Kate Chopin's short stories have been suggested, no one, to my knowledge, has analyzed her work using the principles, ideas, concepts, etc., of general semantics (GS)--how language, thought, and action are interrelated. By studying Chopin within the context of GS, one, perhaps, will gain a greater appreciation for and a better understanding of her stories. Indeed, Chopin speaks loudly and clearly to modern readers in "The Story of an Hour," "Desiree's Baby." "Beyond the Bayou," "Ma'ame Pelagie," and "A Matter of Prejudice."

Both "The Story of an Hour" and "Desiree's Baby" illustrate the dangers of making assumptions--or, to use the language of GS, the observation-inference confusion (Haney 1973, 211). An inference is nothing more than a guess, an assumption. Indeed, making inferences ordinarily does not get us into trouble, and it would be virtually impossible to get through a day without assuming. For example, we assume a mailed letter will reach its destination, a deposited check will be credited to our account, and the ceiling above us will not come crashing down. Unfortunately, making some inferences can have serious consequences. From time to time we read about a person who pointed at someone what he/she thought was an unloaded gun and pulled the trigger. The results literally were deadly. In both "The Story of an Hour" and "Desiree's Baby" inferences lead to tragedy.

Chopin tells us in the first sentence of "The Story of an Hour" that Louise Mallard's husband has died. We then learn he was killed in an accident and that Richards, a friend, "had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard's name leading the list of 'killed'" (352). The careful Richards, wanting to make certain the report is correct, waits for another telegram. Only then is he ready to break the news.

When Louise hears the report, she cries and goes to her room to be alone, behavior certainly expected of a new widow. Then she realizes she has a newfound freedom: "There would be no one to live for during these coming years; she would live for herself" (353). She is ecstatic.

Josephine, her sister, also makes the observation-inference confusion when "kneeling before the closed door with her lips to the keyhole" (354), she mistakes Louise's ecstatic behavior for sickness. Louise at first tells her to leave, then opens the door. The two descend stairs to the first floor, only to hear a key opening the front door. When Mallard, who had been nowhere near the accident, appears, Louise dies "of heart disease--of joy that kills" (354).

Chopin, however, warns the reader in the first sentence that the situation is not completely rosy because Louise "was afflicted with a heart trouble" (352): a physical problem but also, perhaps, a less-than-perfect marriage, for "she had loved him--sometimes. Often she had not" (353). Louise's joy, it may be argued, is her thought of being single, not the realization that her husband is alive.

Even though each character--Richards, Louise, and Josephine--makes the observation-inference confusion, each has no reason to believe she/he is assuming: Richards waits for a second telegram, Louise has no reason to doubt Richards, and Josephine believes Louise is grieving over her husband's death. Indeed, we often do not realize we are assuming, and some assumptions are excusable. (Interestingly enough, Chopin's Civil War story "The Locket" deals with a young woman who also receives a report that her love interest has died. But unlike Louise, she is elated when she learns he is alive.)

In "Desiree's Baby," Chopin depicts Armand Aubigny as a cruel, arrogant man who, likely, would never admit he was wrong. He is merciless with his slaves and his wife, and in marrying Desiree, "he could give her one of the oldest and proudest [names] in Louisiana" (241). In essence, Armand demonstrates a semantic error called allness, which occurs whenever a person "assumes that what he says or 'knows' is absolute, definitive, complete, certain, all-inclusive, positive, final" (Haney 1973, 299).

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