Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Gouvernail, Kate Chopin's Sensitive Bachelor

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Gouvernail, Kate Chopin's Sensitive Bachelor

Article excerpt

Readers who know Chopin's short fiction before 1899 will recognize familiar faces and names in The Awakening. Madame Lebrun, Tonie Bocaze, Madame Antoine, Claire Duvigne, and Gouvernail all appear in Chopin works written prior to her end-of-the-century masterpiece. The reappearance of such characters gives Chopin's southern Louisianan community continuity and credibility. (1) The stories maintain artistic autonomy and yet appear strangely related to one another. And, because we have met these characters before, we frequently see more in what they do and say during the course of the novel than we might otherwise.

For example, we remember "At Cheniere Caminada" immediately and vividly when we encounter Chopin's comment in The Awakening about Tonie Bocaze, a Cheniere Caminada fisherman and sailor: "He was shy, and would not willingly face any woman except his mother." (2) We can hardly keep from smiling. In her 1893 story, Chopin had given us rather specific information about Tonie's "timidity." Underneath his shyness we were shown "the savage instinct of his blood" (p. 314) at work. Claire Duvigne (like Edna and Robert) had hired Tonie and his boat with the red lateen-sail. While out on the sea with her, he engaged in wild sexual fantasies; after their return to shore, "He was stirred by a terrible, an overmastering regret, that he had not clapsed [Claire] in his arms when they were out there alone, and sprung with her into the sea" (p. 315).

However, it is Gouvernail whose past history and characterization become truly significant to the thematic, emotional, and imaginative experience of Chopin's second novel. Gouvernail's appearance in The Awakening is brief: he is merely one of nine guests who have been invited to Edna's twenty-ninth birthday party in Chapter 30. But the reader who knows Gouvernail from "A Respectable Woman" (1894) and "Athenai's" (1895) quickly recognizes the full importance of his attendance at Edna's birthday celebration. Gouvernail's previous understanding of sex, women, and passion, as well as his earlier display of a poetic and deeply profound reticence adds to the significance of his presence at Edna's round mahogany table.

In "A Respectable Woman," Mr. Baroda invites Gouvernail, his former friend from college, to spend several days on the Barodas' plantation. Mrs. Baroda, who rather resents her husband's asking the journalist to visit since she had been looking forward to "undisturbed tete-a-tete" [p. 333] with her husband, forms a mental image of the stranger. She imagines him the socially awkward intellectual whose eccentric reading habits and poor attention to physical well-being have left him with dim vision and a meager form: "She pictured him, tall, slim, cynical; with eyeglasses, and his hands in his pockets" (p. 333). But after he arrives, she discovers how false her preconceptions have been. Gouvernail is neither very tall nor irritatingly cynical. His manner toward the Barodas is gracious and courteous. He immediately treats Mrs. Baroda with inborn respect. Unlike many men, Gouvernail, polite and gentle always, makes no conscious attempt to seek Mrs. Baroda's approval or in any way to impress her.

Gouvernail and his unusual manner soon alarm Mrs. Baroda: he is not what she has expected. Perhaps in some vague way the unpredictability of Gouvernail's nature presents to Mrs. Baroda the possibility that her own behavior may not be fully predictable. She has anticipated a man of ideas, an intellectual somewhat out of touch with common matters and, even, simple sensations. Rather, Gouvernail proves to be a man excited by natural pleasure perhaps even more than by "Ideas." He has already arrived at his philosophy; it consists of an "acquiescence to the existing order--only a desire to be permitted to exist, with now and then a little whiff of genuine life" (p. 335). And "genuine life" for Gouvernail often means sensuous experience. "This is what I call living," (p. …

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