By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Regret’ is a short story by the American writer Kate Chopin (1850-1904). Chopin wrote ‘Regret’ in September 1894 and it originally appeared in Century magazine the following 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.
‘Regret’ is about an unmarried woman, Mamzelle Aurélie, who looks after her neighbour’s children and comes to realise that she deeply regrets never having married and had children of her own. You can read Chopin’s ‘Regret’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Regret’: plot summary
Mamzelle Aurélie is fifty years old and unmarried. She has never considered marriage; indeed, she has never been in love. A man proposed to her when she was twenty but she turned him down. She runs a farm with a number of animals, and she is also religious. But she is quite alone in the world.
One morning, her neighbour, Odile, calls round and asks if Mamzelle Aurélie will look after her four children for her. Odile’s husband is away in Texas, and she needs to visit her mother, who is seriously unwell. Mamzelle Aurélie is not happy about the prospect of caring for somebody else’s children, and she finds it difficult to keep them entertained during the first few days. When she tries to shoo them to bed as she shoos her chickens into the hen-house, the children simply stand there, not understanding.
Mamzelle Aurélie confides to her cook that she would rather manage a dozen plantations than look after four children. She feels as though she is not privy to the special knowledge needed to do the job. However, after two weeks of having the children under her roof, she grows used to it, and stops complaining about having to look after them.
It’s at that point that Odile returns home, and recovers her children. Mamzelle Aurélie notices how still and quiet everything is in her house once the children have done. She starts crying, and barely notices her dog licking her hand.
The title of Chopin’s story says it all: ‘Regret’ is about Aurélie’s realisation that, contrary to what she had previously told herself, she does regret never getting married and having children of her own.
Although she has the animals on her farm and her dog Ponto, the closing sentence of the story suggests that she views these as a poor substitute for human company and for having a family of her own. It is only when she reluctantly has to care for another woman’s children that she comes to recognise what a change a family can make to a house.
Aurélie runs a farm by herself (although it’s worth remembering she has African-American servants who help her tend it), and Chopin begins and ends the story by showing how an unmarried woman like Aurélie has had to adopt the manner – and, indeed, the clothes – of a man in order to assert herself in a world in which women were expected to be wives and mothers.
Aurélie is, to all intents and purposes, the ‘man of the house’, and the opening paragraph of ‘Regret’ informs us that she wears a man’s hat when working on the farm and, when it’s cold, an old blue army overcoat (probably once belonging to a Federal soldier – Pamela Knights, in the Oxford World’s Classics edition to Chopin’s stories, suggests Aurélie may have shot a man during the American Civil War and taken his coat).
And then, at the end of the story, Aurélie is described as crying ‘like a man’. She is back where she was: having played mother for a couple of weeks and had a taste of what her life could have been like, if she had opted for the road not taken, she is back to wearing the trousers (or the army coat) on her farm, but not until she has wept thirty years of regret in deep, powerful sobs.
In ‘Regret’, Kate Chopin uses free indirect speech to give us an insight into Mamzelle Aurélie’s thoughts and feelings. Free indirect speech is a narrative technique whereby the third-person narrator adopts the thoughts and words of one of the story’s characters. Consider this excerpt from towards the end of the story:
The excitement was all over, and they were gone. How still it was when they were gone! Mamzelle Aurlie stood upon the gallery, looking and listening.
That interjection (‘How still it was when they were gone!’) belongs to Mamzelle Aurélie rather than the impersonal third-person narrator, who would not utter such an emotive exclamation. The effect of this is that we get sudden and momentary bursts of Mamzelle Aurélie’s emotions into the more staid and objective narrative provided by that third-person narrator.
Of course, even when we realise that the observation belongs to Mamzelle Aurélie, it is ambiguous. Is it a cry of relief (finally, some peace!) or a lament (she has, after all, grown used to the noise and disorder of having the children around by this point)?
In many ways, it is both: she has been so busy looking after Odile’s children that it is only now they have gone and she has some time to catch her breath (and she finds herself alone again for the first time in two weeks) that she realises what a difference they had made to the place.
And hot on the heels of that comes the perhaps surprising realisation, or epiphany, that she liked having them around and that she is suddenly newly aware of her own solitude – or, more than solitude, her loneliness.
An epiphany is a realisation or revelation experienced by a central character in the story, and is especially common in more impressionistic stories like Chopin’s; indeed, an epiphany often provides a similar function to a plot twist or denouement in a more traditional (i.e., plot-driven) story.
A character comes to realise something about themselves and their own life, and for Mamzelle Aurélie, that realisation is that she regrets not marrying and having children (she did have a willing suitor thirty years before, we learn at the beginning of the story).
The final paragraph of ‘Regret’ is laden with symbolism and meaning. The fact that Aurélie doesn’t rush to clear up the mess the children have left behind them indicates that she wants to keep alive the memory of their time with her; she knows that once she has cleaned and tidied up, all physical traces of the children having been there will have gone.
Meanwhile, the ‘evening shadows’ which are ‘creeping and deepening around her solitary figure’ symbolise her advancing years and the twilight years of old age that lie ahead of her, which she is destined to spend alone. This had already been foreshadowed by the ‘red sunset and the blue-gray twilight’ in the preceding paragraph. And the fact that she doesn’t even notice Ponto, her dog, licking her hand shows that her animals are not, after all, sufficient company for her: only children can make her feel alone.
However, epiphanies in the stories of many modernist short-story writers (others that spring to mind include Anton Chekhov and James Joyce) are sometimes more ambiguous in what they signify. Although Aurélie feels regret at not having a family of her own when Odile and the children have gone, she was only minding Odile’s children temporarily. It’s easy to want something when it’s taken away from us.
But should we really weigh two weeks of (eventual) pleasure in the company of another woman’s children against thirty years of independence and singlehood? There were clearly reasons why Aurélie decided not to accept that earlier marriage proposal, and she may even believe that she now regrets taking such a decision.
But will she still feel the same way the next day, or the following week? She got used to the children being in the house, so this implies she will just as readily grow used to being on her own again. Regrets aren’t always as neat as that. We might regret not doing something one day and then be thankful we didn’t the next.
As so often with her short fiction, Kate Chopin leaves us wondering about the afterlives of her characters once we have finished reading her words.