By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘At the ’Cadian Ball’ is an 1892 short story by the American writer Kate Chopin (1850-1904). The story is about two men and two women and their romantic involvements leading up to, during, and after the event known as the ’Cadian Ball, a social occasion at which young Cajun people try to find marriage suitors.
Although it is regarded as the less artistically successful prequel to her later story, ‘The Storm’ (1898), ‘At the ’Cadian Ball’ – which can be read here – still warrants close analysis. However, before we come to the close analysis, let’s recap the story’s plot.
‘At the ’Cadian Ball’: plot summary
The story begins the third-person narrator telling us that Bobinôt, who is described as ‘big, brown, [and] good-natured’ in the story’s opening sentence, has no intention of going to the ball. He is in love with the ‘Spanish vixen’, a woman named Calixta, and she will be there, but he still thinks he shouldn’t go. He ploughs the cane in the fields as he recalls some vague scandal attached to Calixta at an event in the town of Assumption the previous year – behaviour which the locals shrugged off on account of Calixta’s Spanish blood.
However, that afternoon in the store, Bobinôt hears that Alcée Laballière will be at the ball, and so Bobinôt resolves to go, because he is worried about Alcée’s behaviour if he has a drink and catches sight of Calixta.
The narrative focus then switches to Alcée Laballière, who lives with his mother and her goddaughter, Clarisse, whom Alcée loves. He works hard in the fields, having just planted a lot of rice as an investment. One day he came in from working in the fields and kissed Clarisse passionately, as a declaration of his affections. This shocks her.
A day or two later, a cyclone tears through the rice fields. Alcée grows quiet and withdrawn as a result, while his mother and Clarisse weep together. A few nights later, Clarisse spots Bruce, Alcée’s black servant, waiting with his master’s horse. Alcée then appears, slings some saddlebags over the horse, and rides off. When Clarisse asks Bruce where Alcée is going, the servant is reluctant to tell her at first, but eventually reveals that his master has gone off to the ’Cadian ball.
At the ball, Alcée causes a stir when he arrives. The men present admire his bravery and tenacity after his recent misfortune with the cyclone and his losses in the rice fields. However, Alcée is privately seeking to cause trouble that night, to let off some steam after his recent setbacks. The only one who realises this is Bobinôt.
Bobinôt himself is approached by Calixta, who makes a jokey comment about the clumsy man looking like a ‘cow in the bog’, but Bobinôt is just pleased to have been noticed by Calixta, who is the belle of the ball – although the other women do not always approve of her behaviour.
As the evening develops, Calixta ends up sitting on a bench outside with Alcée, who flirts with her and recollects about their behaviour together at Assumption last year. When they see Bobinôt out looking for them, Alcée asks if Calixta will marry the lumbering labourer, and she says she doesn’t say ‘no’. When his lips brush Calixta’s ear, a black servant arrives and tells Alcée that someone wants to see him. Alcée sends the man away, threatening to break his neck if he disturbs him again.
Then Clarisse arrives, shouting for Alcée, who realises this was the person who had sent the black servant to fetch him. Clarisse tells him something has happened and he must return home with her, so he forgets about Calixta and leaves with Clarisse. Bobinôt then finds Calixta sitting alone and joins her. She tells him that if he wants her to marry him, she doesn’t mind doing so. He is overjoyed by this, and asks if he can kiss her, but she declines. He is nevertheless satisfied that she wants to marry him.
On their way home, Alcée asks Clarisse what has happened at home that made her come and fetch him from the ball. She confesses that she saw him leaving home with the saddlebags and was worried he was going to Assumption and would misbehave again, and Alcée interprets her actions as an act of love. Meanwhile, they hear pistol shots in the distance, but it is simply the guns firing to announce the end of the ball.
‘At the ’Cadian Ball’: analysis
In this story, Kate Chopin presents us with a snapshot of Louisiana society at the end of the nineteenth century. But to understand the social hierarchy presented to us in ‘At the ’Cadian Ball’, it is necessary to know some very specific historical detail.
The Laballières, with their plantation and their servants, are Creoles. This means they are descendants of French settlers in the state of Louisiana. However, Bobinôt and Calixta are Acadians (better known as ‘Cajuns’): descendants of people from Acadia, Nova Scotia, who were driven from Canada to the United States in 1755 when the British routed them. This event is known as the Expulsion of the Acadians or sometimes as the ‘Great Upheaval’. Cajuns were also often known as ‘prairie people’.
This means that Alcée and Clarisse (the woman he really loves, and part of the Laballière family, although they are not related by blood) are of a different social background, and social class, from Bobinôt and Calixta. Chopin’s story offers a fairly conventional romantic plot detailing how the mix-ups and misfirings are corrected so that each person ends up with the ‘right’ mate.
Chopin further suggests the social differences between the two couples by describing their personalities in disparate ways. Bobinôt, the harsh plosive sounds of his name further mark him out as the social underdog, is described as ‘big’ and ‘brown’ (an indication of his tanned skin from working so long in the fields, something most upper-class landowners would avoid) and as ‘dull-looking and clumsy’.
By contrast, Alcée, whose name means ‘strong-willed’, is described as ‘chic’ and having ‘handsome eyes’ befitting someone of his social station. Alcée uses Calixta in order to vent his double frustration – first at the damage done to his rice fields by the cyclone, and second at the perceived rebuff he experienced when he kissed Clarisse.
In terms of their social classes, the characters are paired off with those belonging to the same stratum of the late nineteenth-century society to which they belong. But we are left wondering at the end of ‘At the ’Cadian Ball’ whether they will be happy with their choices. Calixta clearly prefers the handsome and wealthy Alcée to the doting but ‘dull-looking’ (and dull?) Bobinôt, but she marries the latter anyway, even suggesting it to him at the end of the story.
Both Alcée and Calixta are somewhat uneasy in their own societies: Alcée clearly dislikes the upper-class men who visit the Laballière home, with their ‘swaying of fans like women, and dandling about hammocks’; indeed, he entertains fantasies of tossing them all into the levee.
Meanwhile, Calixta, with her Spanish blood and flirtatious ways, is viewed with suspicion and disapproval by many of the women in her own society – or at least, what would be disapproval if they didn’t dismiss her behaviour as a product of her Mediterranean temperament.
Indeed, her response to Alcée when he asks her if she will marry Bobinôt is somewhat ambiguous: ‘I don’t say no, me’ (implying that, if Alcée asked her first, she wouldn’t say no to him?).
Indeed (spoiler alert), in ‘The Storm’, the sequel to ‘At the ’Cadian Ball’ which Kate Chopin would write six years later, in 1898, Calixta and Alcée will have an adulterous affair. Chopin would not publish that story in her lifetime, but it eventually appeared in print in 1969, and can be read here.