Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Perversely Reading Kate Chopin's "Fedora"

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Perversely Reading Kate Chopin's "Fedora"

Article excerpt

KATE CHOPIN'S "FEDORA" IS SURELY one of her most interesting and ambiguous stories. Published in 1895, under the pen name "La Tour" and the title "The Falling in Love of Fedora," "Fedora" is a very brief story recounting the experience of its thirty-year-old title character, a rather stem, unmarried woman who is suddenly smitten with a twenty-three-year-old man, Young Malthers. She does not act on this passion but resorts to touching his hat or burying her face in the folds of his coat. When Young Malther's sister is set to arrive for a visit, Fedora insists on driving to the station to meet her. She is delighted with the young woman, who bears a close resemblance to her brother, and after helping her into the carriage, Fedora puts her arm around Miss Malthers, bends down, and presses a "long penetrating kiss upon her mouth." (1) She then quietly picks up the reins and drives her astonished guest home.

A traditional reading of the story has seen Fedora as a repressed old maid whose passion is awakened by a tall, good-looking young man. Unaware of what to do with such passion, she momentarily displaces it onto the sister and then, treating it like the "restive brute" she is driving, firmly takes it back in hand. She will hereafter continue to repress this new-found sensuality. Certainly, this is a possible reading. Chopin does describe Fedora as a woman who is "tall and slim, and carried her head loftily, and wore eyeglasses and a severe expression" (p. 467). Most of the young people "felt as if she were a hundred years old" (p. 467). Conversely, Fedora is uninterested in the young people and their merry-making. She is thus painted in stereotypical spinsterly terms. Her repression is also evident. One day Fedora looks up at Young Malthers and realizes suddenly "that he was a man--in voice, in attitude, in bearing, in every sense--a man" (p. 468); "from that moment on he began to exist for her" (p. 468). Fedora begins experiencing conflicting emotions: "uneasiness, restlessness, expectation" and "inward revolt, astonishment, rapture" (p. 468). Clearly, her reaction to this young man has upset her otherwise uneventful life. At this point she begins to fondle his clothing and insists on going for his sister at the station. When she sees the young woman, who looks so much like the young man, her passion for him rises. Because Miss Malthers resembles her brother so closely and because Fedora's avenues for acting on her desires for the young man are limited in the time in which she lives, the young woman is the recipient of Fedora's outburst of passion. In "The Restive Brute: The Symbolic Presentation of Repression and Sublimation in Kate Chopin's 'Fedora,'" the primary piece of criticism on the story to date, Joyce Dyer suggests that such outbursts will be the extent of Fedora's expression of her sexuality: "[Fedora] may try to caress the clothing of Young Malthers (or of other men) and to press desperate kisses on the mouths of unacceptable surrogates, but in public she will forever stare straightly ahead--'unruffled." (2) Dyer goes on to characterize Fedora as a "perverse, pathetic, desperate woman" (p. 265).

While Dyer ultimately sees Fedora as the classic repressed spinster, she and other critics have recognized what early critic Robert Arner calls the "homosexual overtones of Fedora's actions." (3) All view these "overtones" negatively. For example, Arner calls "The Falling in Love of Fedora" "a tale with strong overtones of sexual decadence manifest in the reticent lesbianism of Fedora" (p. 118), and Richard Arthur Martin, another early critic, deems the story an example of "the twisted paths sexuality can take." (4) More recently, Barbara Ewell, though sympathetic to the story's critique of repression, speaks of Fedora's "immature efforts at desexualization" and sees the kiss merely as an "uncontrollable outbreak of repressed passion," (5) presumably for Young Malthers. Dyer's assessment, however, is the most troubling. …

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