Le Bal Est Fini, and Everyone Was Happy

Spring 2011
Erin Cunningham

Erin Cunningham is a junior English major at George Washington University. Erin will be pursuing her M.A. in English at George Washington University following graduation. Erin's critical interests include post-modernism and cultural literature.

Through the diminutive and traditional world of local cultures in nineteenth century rural Louisiana, the intermingling of Cajun and Creole cultures manifests in Kate Chopin’s works. In At the ‘Cadien Ball and The Storm, Chopin juxtaposes the restraint on sexuality and gender and the restrictions imposed by religion and class through the cultural constraints of the time. The traditions followed by the respective cultures were naturally confining and prohibitive, expecting observance of traditional roles in sexual expression, marriage and family, and faith. In consideration of these limitations on gender, faith, and class of the local ethnography, At the ‘Cadien Ball and The Storm highlight a southern society bound by strict mores, social customs, and boundaries; in both stories, the “people are described according to the popular stereotype at that time” (Gaudet 78). Despite these confines, the main protagonists of both stories, Calixta, a Cajun woman, and Alcée, a Creole land owner, possess the innate desire that inspire them to temporarily escape society’s authoritarian and restrictive conventions, yet to return within their respective boundaries following the occurrences.

The Cajuns (translated from the French word “les Cadiens”) are of Acadian descent (French immigrants who settled in Canada), and in Chopin’s works are viewed by the Creoles as “rather lazy and not very bright” (Gaudet 78). The Cajuns spoke French, worked as laborers, and maintained the religious practice of Catholicism and many of their traditional old world customs. Similar to the Cajuns, the “French Creoles [were] significant in terms of group size and settlement areas, and [were a] particularly influential [and] expressive culture” (Spitzer 57). Creoles were recognized in Chopin’s rural Louisiana as the upper class.  They are portrayed as “culturally, intellectually, and socially superior” (Gaudet 78) to the Cajuns and are expected to conform to historical social propriety.  For instance, in At the ‘Cadien Ball, after initial insinuations that the Cajun is not a suitable wife for the Creole man, Chopin presents the circumstance of a Creole man revisiting his Cajun lover for sexual interactions, thereby exposing the contradictions apparent within the mores of a restrictive society. The tradition of Creole aristocracy exists, with the Creoles taking their place in society as landowners, and the Cajuns as laborers and workers; the two cultures were not meant to mix, reinforcing the natural social categorization of the period.

The tendencies of nature, while customarily inherent, can also be restricted or imposed by tradition. Nature has the ability to be both beautiful and perilous, and Chopin utilizes this dual-faceted symbolism to illustrate her characters as well as influence their actions.  Chopin’s characters naturally attempt to adjust and to assimilate to their surroundings based on their cultural integration and traditions, while reconciling their internal desire for freedom from imposed social constraints. In At the ‘Cadien Ball, Chopin employs aspects of the natural world to express her character’s temperaments; Clarisse, Alcée’s wife, is described as “dainty as a lily; hardy as a sunflower; slim, tall, graceful, like one of the reeds that grew in the marsh” (Chopin 151). Naturally, to the Creole culture of high society, Clarisse serves as a vision of sophistication and splendor. While Alcée recognizes Clarisse’s physical beauty, similar to the power of “the cyclone… that cut into the rice like fine steel” (Chopin 151), his vigorous emotions for Calixta initiate his decision to attend the ‘Cadien ball. Towards the end of the story, nature also has the ability to change Alcée’s romantic feelings:

Was it last week the cyclone had well-nigh ruined him? The cyclone seemed a huge joke, now. It was he, then, who, an hour ago was kissing little Calixta's ear and whispering nonsense into it. Calixta was like a myth, now. The one, only, great reality in the world was Clarisse standing before him, telling him that she loved him. (Chopin 160)

While Alcée’s emotions for Calixta were naturally powerful and uncontrollable, he recognized that returning to Clarisse was the socially acceptable decision.

Similar to her use of nature in At the ‘Cadien Ball, Chopin writes of concurrently raging storms in The Storm. As naturally occurring as the storm happening outside, Calixta and Alcée’s encounter arises responsively to their intrinsic craving to escape from societal limitations and to follow their natural yearnings: “[Alcée] expressed an intention to remain outside, but it was soon apparent that he might as well have been out in the open: the water beat in upon the boards in driving sheets, and he went inside, closing the door after him” (Chopin 532). Chopin associates the temperament and vigor of the storm to the forces of human nature and to the desire between Calixta and Alcée to break free of their cultural restrictions; while it is socially unacceptable for a Creole man to engage romantically or sexually with a Cajun woman, Alcée’s passion is too dynamic to impede. Despite their initial hesitation of being in the house together, Calixta and Alcée crave to escape the confining nature of society’s limits. As the intensity of the outside storm increases, the awareness of sexual tensions between them builds. Calixta and Alcée seem to find refuge in each other from the storm that has built up inside each one of them, similar to the refuge Alcée has found in Calixta’s home from the actual storm. The force and power of the storms externally, as well as the internal strength of human nature, thrust these lovers together; their minds and bodies disregard the cultural restraints they are forced to oblige.

Chopin emphasizes the restriction on Clarisse and Calixta as females, highlighting the repression of women’s sexuality during the nineteenth century, regardless of culture. In a time period defined by male dominance, female domestication, and the austerity of marriage vows, Chopin presents characters that attempt to deviate from the conventional and socially acceptable norms; “Chopin’s attack on the ‘moral conventionalities’ about marriage, motherhood, and sex made her an exception in American literature at the turn of the century […] in her treatments of women” (Hebert-Leiter 74). While Alcée refers to his wife as “his beautiful kinswoman” (Chopin 151), Clarisse’s position as a Creole wife appears trivial; her role is equivalent to nothing more than the socially acceptable partner dictated by tradition and convention rather than defined by desire and affection. She is accountable for entertaining visitors (symbolizing the decadent society she belongs to), for routinely reciting her prayers in the evening, and, most importantly, and for being naïve in trusting her husband, despite her knowledge of his past with Calixta in the town Assumption: “Clarisse had never suspected that it might be Alcee’s custom to sally forth from the plantation secretly, and at such an hour; for it was nearly midnight” (Chopin 152). Clarisse becomes the symbol for the oppression Creole wives faced, serving only as an attractive face at her husband’s side. In The Storm, Calixta’s character as a Cajun housewife is exposed. As the storm outside develops, Calixta is innocently home alone sewing: “She sat at a side window sewing furiously on a sewing machine […] she felt very warm and often stopped to mop her face on which the perspiration gathered in beads” (Chopin 531). Throughout the story, Calixta is seen performing household chores such as doing laundry and cooking: “Calixta was preparing supper. She had set the table and was dripping coffee at the hearth” (Chopin 534). Despite Calixta’s feminine responsibilities as a Cajun wife, she becomes illusory. From the outside, Calixta appears bound to her family through maternal and matrimonial devotion. However, Calixta’s instinctual craving to escape the restrictions established by her gender and class lead her to commit adultery. Although Calixta and Clarisse experience different feelings of confinement as females in their separate cultures, the endings of At the ‘Cadien Ball and The Storm leave both women with no consequences of Calita and Alcee’s indiscretions.

Despite their differing Cajun and Creole heritages, both women are symbolized by the recurrence of the color white, epitomizing the purity all women of the time period were meant to maintain. While Clarisse is described as physically white with her “white feet” (Chopin 153), Calixta “remains non-Anglo-Protestant and only ambiguously white” (Hebert-Leiter 74). Although Calixta is seen wearing a “white dress” (Chopin 155) at the ball, her description in At the ‘Cadien Ball “‘suggests the stereo-typed imagery frequently associated with racially and therefore sexually stigmatized women’ because she is a ‘darker’ character due to her Spanish blood” (Hebert-Leiter 74): “Calixta’s slender foot had never touched Cuban soil; but her mother’s had, and the Spanish was in her blood all the same” (Chopin 74). Later in The Storm, Calixta’s character as a Cajun woman is further revealed, and the white imagery continues. Calixta is described as having a “round, white throat and… whiter breasts” (Chopin 533) and illustrated “as white as the couch she lay upon” (Chopin 533). Although Clarisse and Calixta belong to different cultures and societies, Chopin chooses to utilize repeated imagery of the color white to emphasize female subjugation.

While femininity and sexual oppression through ethnocentricity and social convention is exposed, religious convention is also revealed. In both stories, a previous encounter in the town of Assumption leads to a variety of suppositions. In At the ‘Cadien Ball, Chopin “alludes to Calixta’s activities on a visit to her uncle in Assumption, a place-name that has ambiguous, symbolic suggestiveness” (Elfenbein 135).  In Christianity, Assumption refers to the feast that celebrates the ascendance of the Virgin Mary, both body and spirit, to heaven (New Advent). The reference to Assumption may be accepted from Chopin as a reference to the solemnity of femininity, respect for motherhood, and the grace of a woman untouched by sin.  In contradiction, Chopin’s character, Calixta, is breaking free of sexual restraint, leading to the death of her inhibitions and culminating in her sin of adultery. Following Calixta’s visit to Assumption, many speculations surface, the most scandalous being an intimate relationship between Calixta and Alcée Laballiere. When Alcée revisits Calixta in The Storm, he recalls their past association in Assumption upon their embrace:

He looked down into her eyes and there was nothing for him to do but to gather her lips in a kiss. It reminded him of Assumption. “Do you remember- in Assumption, Calixta?” he asked in a low voice broken by passion. Oh! She remembered; for in Assumption he had kissed her and kissed and kissed her; until his sense would well nigh fail, and to save her he would resort to a desperate flight. (Chopin 533)

While Assumption can be defined religiously, it can also insinuate taking something for granted, which both Alcée and Calixta did with their marriages when they engaged each other sexually; spousal and marital considerations seemed inconsequential and they allowed passion to permeate the rational. Calixta commits adultery, a mortal sin under the sixth commandment. However, she remains possessive of her family. Calixta has committed a grave injustice against God and her husband, but is feeling conflicted by her traditional role and religious beliefs versus the natural desire that she feels. In Alcée’s presence, she grabs Bibi’s Sunday clothes sacramentally, hoping to protect her family, although she cannot protect herself, from the indiscretion which she is about to commit: “Out on the small front gallery she had hung Bobinot’s Sunday clothes to dry and she hastened out to gather them before the rain fell… his voice and her own startled her as if from a trance, and she seized Bobinot’s vest” (Chopin 531). The mention of her husband and child’s clothes shows the violation Calixta feels knowing she is going to commit adultery, a carnal sin of the Catholic faith. Following Alcée’s exit, Calixta chooses to ignore her sin and to continue in her traditional socially acceptable role. When Bobinot and Bibi return home, Calixta has prepared them dinner: “Bobinot and Bibi began to relax and enjoy themselves, and when the three seated themselves at table they laughed much and so loud that anyone might have heard them as far away as Laballiere’s” (Chopin 534). Although the story concludes with the characters seemingly happy and conforming to social traditions, the reference to Alcée while Calixta and her family are at the dinner table implies that while Alcée may not be physically present, Calixta’s desire for him and their indiscretion lingers in her conscience.

Although gender and religious oppression may have instinctively inspired Calixta and Alcée to sin, the restrictions they faced due to their social status may have also motivated their affair. One overt concern regarding ethnicity and social status in At the ‘Cadien Ball and The Storm is the pervasiveness of a “popular assumption of the higher classes regarding lower class white and black promiscuousness” (Hebert-Leiter 76). A wealthy landowner and Creole, Alcée Laballiere is presented with formality and affluence: “That was the year Alcée Laballière put nine hundred acres in rice. It was putting a good deal of money into the ground, but the returns promised to be glorious" (Chopin 150). Alcee’s social status makes his attendance at the ball to be uncommon and startling, and his “presence at the ball caused a flutter even among the men” (Chopin 154) and “they felt it took a brave homme to stand a blow like that philosophically” (Chopin 155). By attending the ball, Alcée is degrading himself to the social status of the Cajuns. The ‘Cadien ball, clad with fiddles, clumsy men, and Cajuns, presents the signifiers of the ‘Cadien culture: “Any one who is white may go to a 'Cadien ball, but he must pay for his lemonade, his coffee and chicken gumbo. And he must behave himself like a 'Cadien’” (Chopin 154). Despite the class differences between himself and Calixta, Alcée sexually longs for Calixta: “They were acting like fools. He had attempted to take a little gold ring from her finger; just for the fun of it… he pretended that it was a very difficult matter to open it. Then he kept the hand in his” (Chopin 156). While Alcée is sexually and romantically yearning for Calixta, Clarisse’s surprise presence at the ball reminds him of his marriage and social status, temporarily leaving Calixta as a distant memory.

Disregarding his position as a Creole landowner, Alcée chooses to revisit Calixta. In the beginning of The Storm, Calixta is from a noticeably lower class than Alcée in literary form; Alcée is given a last name, signifying the importance of a surname in high society. As their conversation progresses, the differences in Calixta and Alcée’s dialect and description present a class divide.  Prior to their illicit contact, Chopin writes: “‘May I come and wait on your gallery till the storm is over, Calixta?’ [Alcée] asked.’ Calixta replied, ‘Come ‘long in, M’sieur Alcée’” (Chopin 532). Alcée formulates grammatically and socially correct sentences as an educated Creole, while Calixta speaks in ‘Cadien slang. Their dialect reflects their social status, determined by their culture and ethnicity. Despite the traditions of society, Alcée serves as an escape route to a life Calixta has never known and Calixta functions as a diversion for Alcée’s repressed sexual wanting; the ending of the storm “offers a critique of social norms by creating a space outside of marriage where desire can and does prevail” (Hebert-Leiter, 75). Alcée and Calixta’s encounter accomplishes their natural intuitions to break from the limitations imposed by social cues.

Throughout At the Cadien Ball and The Storm, Kate Chopin juxtaposes the energy, fervor, and splendor of nature, similar to the danger and beauty of the natural instinct of romance and passion. The aesthetic descriptions and detail, in combination with the powerful imagery, provides a vivid and explicit depiction of one’s natural desire to break free from society’s imposed boundaries. Alcée and Calixta’s innate instincts to defy the gender, religious, and class margins set forth by their cultures support Chopin’s idea that passion, like nature, is both powerful and inevitably zealous. At the ‘Cadien Ball, Chopin allows Alcée to enter the proscribed to relieve his sexual emotions for Calixta. While he is unsuccessful, Chopin highlights the restrictions he feels in Creole society, defined by wealth, land, and success. As time progresses, The Storm emphasizes Calixta’s womanly oppression as a Cajun housewife, as well as Alcée’s lingering want for her. The metaphor of the storm and the sexual encounter between Calixta and Alcée had the same force; both storms left their physical worlds superficially unchanged, but somehow emotionally refreshed and awakened. As the ball and storms end, the tension that exists in both Calixta and Alcee’s lives and marriages is temporarily relieved, and so “le bal est fini” (Chopin 160) and “everyone was happy” (Chopin 534).

Works Cited

"CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Index for A." NEW ADVENT: Home. Web. 18 Nov. 2010. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/a.htm>.

Chopin, Kate. "At the 'Cadien Ball." Short Stories of America. Ed. Robert L. Ramsay. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1921. 149-60. Print.

Chopin, Kate. "The Storm." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. By Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. 531-34. Print.

Elfenbein, Anna Shannon. Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable, Grace King, Kate Chopin. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1989. Print.

Gaudet, Marcia. "The Image of the Cajun in Literature." The Journal of Popular Culture 23.1 (1989): 77-88. Print.

Spitzer, Nicholas R. "Monde Creole: The Cultural World of French Louisiana Creoles and the Creolization of World Cultures." Journal of American Folklore 116.459 (2003): 57-72. Print.