December 20, 2012

The lilacs were crushed between them

"Did you ever know, Sister Agathe, that there is nothing which so keenly revives a memory as a perfume—an odor?" So asks Adrienne, the main character in Kate Chopin's short story "Lilacs." Published on December 20, 1896 in the New Orleans Times-Democrat, the tale is unusual for Chopin in that it is not set in Louisiana but, instead, in Paris. Adrienne is an actress/musician/dancer who was apparently raised partially in a convent. Every year, with the first scents of the blooming lilacs, she travels back to that convent to visit for two weeks:

"...the scent of the lilacs at once changed the whole current of my thoughts and my despondency. The boulevard, its noises, its passing throng, vanished from before my senses as completely as if they had been spirited away. [I imagined that] I was standing here with my feet sunk in the green sward as they are now. I could see the sunlight glancing from that old white stone wall, could hear the notes of birds, just as we hear them now, and the humming of insects in the air. And through all I could see and could smell the lilac blossoms, nodding invitingly to me from their thick-leaved branches. It seems to me they are richer than ever this year, Sister Agathe."

Though her trip is apparently an annual tradition, Adrienne never announces her departure in advance, leaving her servant and her employer confused and worried about her sudden absence. Her servant worries about Adrienne's sanity, in fact, suggesting her sudden disappearance is "an attack of lunacy which seizes her once a year."

This visit to the convent shows a fascinating opposition to her usual life. In the busy city, all is chaos and disorder, represented by Chopin by the messy room in which she lives (described as being in an "its accustomed state of picturesque disorder"). The convent, however, is clean, ordered, and far from the bustle of the city. Adrienne meticulously folds her clothes here and carefully drapes them on a chair, unlike her more casual habits at home.

Throughout the story, potential themes of lesbianism are interwoven. Just what is Adrienne's relationship with Sister Agathe? Coming up the road, her gift of freshly-picked lilacs in hand, Adrienne is greeted by Sister Agathe in an enthusiastic embrace, while all the other nuns merely await her from the door:

But Sister Agathe, more daring and impulsive than all, descended the steps and flew across the grass to meet her. What embraces, in which the lilacs were crushed between them! What ardent kisses! What pink flushes of happiness mounting the cheeks of the two women!

The two women share a bed during her visit, and Adrienne admits she is having difficulty sleeping. "The excitement of my arrival—I don't know what—keeps me awake." The "I don't know what" may have been the cause of Adrienne's unceremonious banishment from the convent after that trip. The story closes with both Adrienne and Sister Agathe crying, as the customary gift of lilacs are swept away.

2 comments:

  1. I've just read this short story; having first read Chopin's "The Awakening" around fifteen years ago in high school, and always considering it among my favorite books, I purchased a copy with several short stories at the end, "The Lilacs," among these. Reading and re-reading, I could find no cause for Adrienne to have been turned away from the convent, save for the possibility you've mentioned. But Chopin is too meticulous a writer (even if her meticulousness is masked by sort of a Creole-esque style of sweeping statements and insinuations) to have left out some further clue; I'm sure of it! It is frustrating to me, not being able to find any additional insight into how either betrayal of a relationship between Adrienne and Agathe, or of Adrienne's worldly life, occurred! Thank you for posting your ideas; I'm glad, at least, to find someone who drew similar conclusions to my own.

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  2. Thanks for your comment! You and I are not alone here, and the more I think about it, the more convinced I am. Someone elsewhere made the comment that the French setting should count as a clue. Either way, I love ambiguity and I'm a sucker for not-happy endings. "Lilacs" is my new favorite by Chopin.

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