By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Respectable Woman’ is a short story by the American writer Kate Chopin (1850-1904). Chopin wrote ‘A Respectable Woman’ in 1894 and it originally appeared in Vogue magazine that year, before being reprinted in her 1897 collection A Night in Acadie. This collection met with some hostile reviews, with one critic objecting to the ‘unnecessary coarseness’ of some of the subject-matter.
‘A Respectable Woman’ is about a woman whose husband invites his old college friend to stay with them on their plantation. Despite being certain she will dislike the man, she discovers that she is strangely attracted to him and grows confused about her feelings. You can read ‘A Respectable Woman’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Chopin’s story below. (The story takes around ten minutes to read.)
‘A Respectable Woman’: plot summary
Mrs Baroda learns that her husband Gaston has invited his old friend, Gouvernail, to come and stay with them on their plantation. She had been looking forward to some time with Gaston on their own. When Gouvernail arrives, she is disappointed to find him reserved and rather uninteresting: nothing like the way her husband had described him.
When she confronts her husband about their guest, she learns that Gouvernail plans to stay with them for another week. So she tells Gaston that she is going to leave them alone and go and stay with her aunt until their guest has left. She has never felt so confused, and knows that she needs to get away from home.
As she sits outside on a bench, Gouvernail appears, smoking a cigar. Gaston has sent him out with a white scarf for her to wear around her neck; Mrs Baroda takes the scarf from Gouvernail but doesn’t put it on. He joins her on the bench and quotes poetry to the night.
Mrs Baroda realises that his earlier reserve was down to his varying moods, and he is now clearly in a talkative mood. He tells her about his college days with her husband and starts to get philosophical about life.
Mrs Baroda feels drawn to him, wanting to reach out and touch his face and whisper against him, in ways that she would have done so, had she not been a respectable woman. But because she is married and has her reputation to uphold, she finds herself moving away from him instead. As soon as she can do so with politeness, she makes her excuses and leaves Gouvernail alone on the bench.
Although she wishes to tell Gaston about her strange feelings towards Gouvernail, she doesn’t, knowing it would not be sensible for a respectable woman to share such thoughts with her husband. The next morning, her husband wakes to discover she has already left the house to travel into the city. She doesn’t come back home until Gouvernail has left.
Gaston suggests that Gouvernail visit them again the following summer, but Mrs Baroda strongly opposes such a suggestion. However, before the end of the year, she goes back on this and proposes that Gaston invite Gouvernail to stay with them again, much to her husband’s delight.
Gaston assumes that his wife has overcome her dislike for Gouvernail and is overjoyed and surprised. The story ends with Mrs Baroda kissing her husband and declaring, ‘I have overcome everything! you will see. This time I shall be very nice to him.’
‘A Respectable Woman’: analysis
Like many of Kate Chopin’s stories, ‘A Respectable Woman’ sounds an ambiguous note. How should we analyse the ending of the story? What does Mrs Baroda mean by declaring that she has ‘overcome everything’?
Does she mean that she has overcome her confused and inappropriate feelings towards her husband’s friend and plans to be a good hostess (and loyal wife) to him when he comes to visit them again? Or does she mean she has overcome her opposition to touching Gouvernail and whispering against his face, and now intends to pursue an affair with him? How ‘nice’ does she intend to be towards him when he next visits?
The fact that we cannot answer these questions with an unambiguous, clear-cut answer is precisely the point. Even before she has met Gouvernail, Mrs Baroda is sure she will not like him, perhaps because, as a self-described ‘respectable woman’, this is her first line of defence in ensuring she doesn’t become tempted by other men. If she has already decided she dislikes them, she will be able to resist any possibility of straying from her husband.
However, in the case of Gouvernail such a plan is clearly bound to fail. She finds herself drawn to him, partly because she is intrigued by his initial reticence, which she originally interprets as a natural reserve. When he opens up to her on the bench, after bringing her a scarf, she is clearly attracted to him as he recites poetry to the night and talks about a ‘whiff of genuine life, such as he was breathing now’.
These last words are themselves ambiguous. Do they belong to the story’s third-person narrator? Or are they an example of free indirect speech, whereby the third-person narrator adopts the thoughts and words of one of the story’s characters?
And if so, is the narrator paraphrasing what Gouvernail actually says to Mrs Baroda (e.g., ‘I want a little whiff of genuine life, such as I am breathing now’), or are they what Mrs Baroda is internally adding to his own words (i.e., his very existence is suggesting the prospect of truly living to her, hence her desire to reach out and touch him and live in the moment)?
Such open-endedness reinforces Mrs Baroda’s own inner confusion: she is clearly attracted to her husband’s friend but knows that, as a ‘respectable woman’, it would be improper and adulterous to reach out and touch him inappropriately, even if he shares her attraction. She is caught between natural desire and societal expectation and restraint.
Names in Chopin’s story are laden with meaning. Note that we never learn Mrs Baroda’s first name: she is always referred to by her married name, in a way that Gaston, her husband, is not. Gouvernail is from the French for ‘steersman’, which may either suggest his role as someone leading the married Mrs Baroda astray or as someone leading her back to her sense of self: after she has been tempted by him and has learnt she can resist temptation, she can reaffirm her status as ‘a respectable woman’.
Gaston similarly points two ways: the name is thought to be related to the word ‘guest’, but can also mean ‘host’ as well as ‘stranger’: is Gaston hosting Gouvernail in his own home or is he becoming the stranger, or third wheel, in the menage a trois that Mrs Baroda wants to instigate?
Although the ambiguity of the story’s ending is deliberate, perhaps the more likely explanation of Mrs Baroda’s change of heart is that she has indeed learnt to overcome her temptation (rather than her objections to committing adultery with Gouvernail), and now she no longer feels afraid of her own desire, because she knows she can be around Gouvernail and control her feelings. She remains ‘a respectable woman’, and perhaps even more so now she has been taken to the edge of temptation and resisted the urge to reach out and stroke its face.