Reader Activation of Boundaries in Kate Chopin's "Beyond the Bayou."
Llewellyn, Dara, Studies in Short Fiction
Boundaries exist everywhere in the worlds created within short stories and within the experience this genre offers the reader. Generally, we use the word "boundary" in the ordinary sense of demarcation, but I would like to suggest that we use it as a "term of art" in the study of short fiction. Without becoming overly technical, we can borrow from the mathematical notion of boundary as both limit and field. As a beginning I will show how these adjusted definitions give us some new leverage on a particular story by Kate Chopin, and on the nature of storyness itself. "Beyond the Bayou" is a rich illustration because it is about boundaries of the usual sort (physical, temporal, psychological) while it foregrounds the boundary conditions of the reader's experience.
Many writers have described a landscape of the mind, a spatial configuration of physical boundaries that metaphorically reveal a character's state(s) of mind. In "Beyond the Bayou," Chopin chooses a marshy, sluggish body of water as the real and symbolic boundary for the storyworld in which her heroine La Folle exists. An introduction to the physical setting comes first in the story, as if an orientation to place were somehow more important than anything else. One might argue that any opening is just to "set the stage," but this cliche obscures the real function of any storyworld threshold, as Susan Lohafer demonstrates in Coming to Terms with the Short Story.(1)
At the very least one can say that Chopin wants the reader to notice the bayou, for it is mentioned not only in the title, but also in the first sentence of the story: "The bayou curved like a crescent around the point of land on which La Folle's cabin stood" (175). That the bayou is intended to be seen--and seen as a boundary--is clear from the way the shape of the bayou encloses the world where the character La Folle fives. Mental mapping is an immediate reader response to the narrator's description at this point. The physicality of the boundary is so clear here that the reader can sketch it.
Chopin strengthens this image of the bayou as a delimiting boundary by adding a growth of woods behind La Folle's cabin, to complete the encirclement of her environs:
Between the stream and the hut lay a big abandoned field. . . . Through
the woods that spread back into unknown regions the woman had drawn
an imaginary line, and past this circle she never stepped. This was her
only form of mania. (175)
Chopin seems to want the reader to "map" this region, as her choice of words suggests: The narrator speaks of "drawing an imaginary line." This physical boundary of the bayou is clearly meant to have a shaping effect--on La Folle's experience, on the reader's experience, and thus on the story itself
The fines between the physical and the psychical boundaries are blurred, however, in this mental mapping. Even as the reader tracks the narrator's description of the physical landscape, so, too, she takes the character's perspective and experiences La Folle's perception of the psychical boundary, the point beyond which La Folle cannot go or beyond which she cannot function because she is terrified of crossing this boundary to her world.(2) The negative impact of this delimiting boundary is figuratively revealed in the barrenness of the enclosed field and by the threatening strangeness of the woods at the back of her cabin.
When considering the story as a spatial construct shaped by the bayou, the reader sees it as no accident that Bellissime, the white master's house, is at the farthest remove from the cabin of La Folle, a former slave, beloved though she is of his children. Here are dialectically opposed landscapes, a patterning frequently used in short stories and, here, helping to create cultural context. The very real physical distance and barrier between the two homesteads represent the also very real social, economic, and racial separations between the characters. …