September 18, 2013

Unexpected Chopin: shuddering, shrinking, shriveling

Vogue magazine's issue for September 18, 1895 included the short story "The Unexpected" by Kate Chopin (one of several by the author in that magazine in the 1890s). The short sketch opens with the separation of Randall and Dorothea, an engaged young couple in an unspecified place in the northern United States. Randall was ill, and doctors told him to go South. "The parting was bitter," Chopin writes, and their final moments together were spent in a passionate embrace.

Randall would be away for less than a month and the two exchanged letters daily. After a time, however, his illness worsened and his letters became less frequent. His return was delayed and delayed again. "All this was torture to the impatient Dorothea," though her parents would not allow her to travel to be by his side.

When his physicians tell him he would need to spend the winter in the South, he refused to let another day pass without seeing his love Dorothea. He forewarns her, however, that the illness has left him changed. When he arrives, they embrace and kiss — just as they had done before he parted from her. Now, however, Dorothea no longer recognizes the man she agreed to marry: " What hideous transformation had he undergone, or what devilish transformation was she undergoing in contemplating him?" She feels a physical change in herself as well, "something within her seemed to be shuddering, shrinking, shriveling together." Chopin explains: "She felt as if it was her heart; but it was only her love."

Dorothea realizes she no longer loves this man who has now become so sick. She does not say so, however, and listens to his proposal that they get married immediately and return to the South together. In case he dies, he wants her to have all his wealth. A coughing fit, however, calls his physician to take him away and rest. As soon as he leaves, so does Dorothea:

She sped along the familiar roadway, seemingly borne on by some force other than mechanical — some unwonted energy — a stubborn impulse that lighted her eyes, set her cheeks aflame, bent her supple body to one purpose — that was, swiftest flight.

The story ends with Dorothea lost and alone in an unrecognized place deep within uncivilized nature, where she finally answers (to herself) the answer to Randall's proposal: "Never!" The story offers a cynical view of youthful idealism in beauty, love, and marriage. The reader is left to wonder if Dorothea will ever marry at all, and if Randall ever receives her message.

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