Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

In Possession of the Letter: Kate Chopin's "Her Letters"

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

In Possession of the Letter: Kate Chopin's "Her Letters"

Article excerpt

The scandal surrounding the publication of Kate Chopin's 1899 The Awakening tarnished its author's reputation and "effectively removed the novel from wide circulation and influence for fifty years following its publication." (1) The book was derided by Chopin's contemporaries as "trite and sordid," (2) and the behavior of its heroine, Edna Pontellier, was described by reviewers as "shocking," "sickening," and "selfish." (3) The second half of the twentieth century has witnessed a dramatic reappraisal of the text and of its main character, and a regeneration of Chopin's reputation. In particular, feminist critics such as Elaine Showalter have embraced the text as one which depicts and contests restraints upon female expression and behavior. Showalter asserts for instance that in The Awakening, "Chopin went boldly beyond the work of her precursors in writing about women's longing for sexual and personal emancipation," and thus she characterizes the text as "a revolutionary book." (4)

Given all the attention to and debate surrounding The Awakening, it is particularly interesting to note that, as Peggy Skaggs has observed, Chopin experimented with the same themes of female sexual awakening, adultery, and gender constraints in several of her short stories, including her obscure and brilliant short story "Her Letters," published in Vogue in 1895. (5) Indeed, given the representation of Edna Pontellier as a woman ruled by passion to the extent that she abandons all maternal and social obligations, conforming as it does to the stereotype of the female as irrational and easily swayed by passion, I will argue that "Her Letters" is in fact in many ways a less problematically feminist statement than The Awakening. As in The Awakening, a conflict is structured in "Her Letters" between social expectations that the wife's subordinate her personhood to the needs of her husband and female desire for independence and recognition of sexual and social equality. That is, a contest is structured between possession by another and self-possession. The conclusions of the text are that women, like men, do indeed have sexual needs and desires, and that love, not social or financial status, is the foundation for marriage.

At the same time, "Her Letters" also has a more general and uncanny conclusion that also turns on the double meaning of the term possession, considered both in the sense of ownership and control of property by an individual and in its opposite sense of control of an individual by an entity or idea. While highlighting the desire for self-possession, the disturbing effects of a bundle of letters on first the unnamed wife and then the equally anonymous husband demonstrate the ways in which subjectivity is constructed from without--that is, following psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the ways in which language and culture construct or constitute identity. Indeed, "Her Letters" is a decidedly Lacanian text, one which demonstrates at every turn the manner in which the subject is subject to the signifier. (6) In "Her Letters," the unavoidable conclusion of the text is that neither husband nor wife possess the letters; rather, the letters possess each--and deprive each of life--in turn. The "truth" of each character, the wife and the husband, is figured as that which comes from without.

"Her Letters" opens with an upper-class woman contemplating and preparing to destroy a bundle of letters. She manages to consign six letters to the flames of her fireplace before she is overwhelmed with emotion and unable to proceed further. The letters, to which the woman has a powerful affective attachment, are the only evidence of a passionate extramarital affair. The woman, who is dying from an unspecified disease, had hoped to be able to destroy the letters before her death, rather than let her husband, whom she regards fondly but does not love, discover the letters after her death. …

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