Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Entertaining houseguests—particularly houseguests one doesn’t know well—can always be a bit unpredictable. In “A Respectable Woman,” the protagonist, Mrs. Baroda, is called upon to entertain just such a guest—a former college friend of her husband’s by the name of Gouvernail. She has heard a great deal about him during the course of her marriage, and is rather surprised when they finally meet, because he is nothing at all like the person her husband has described.
As Chopin describes Mrs. Baroda’s reactions to Gouvernail, it sounds very much as if she doesn’t like him: “She could discover in him none of those brilliant and promising traits which Gaston, her husband, had often assured her that he possessed. On the contrary, he sat rather mute and receptive before her chatty eagerness to make him feel at home and in face of Gaston’s frank and wordy hospitality. His manner was as courteous toward her as the most exacting woman could require; but he made no direct appeal to her approval or even esteem.”
Yet she is tremendously attracted to him. The depth of the attraction actually terrifies her, because she is a respectable woman with a nice husband and a good home, and she is certainly not accustomed to feeling these sorts of emotions. But the tone of Gouvernail’s voice when he does speak is seductive even though he clearly isn’t trying to seduce her, and as he sits down beside her in the garden on a particularly beautiful, romantic night, she is filled with the most unaccountable passion: “She wanted to reach out her hand in the darkness and touch him with the sensitive tips of her fingers upon the face or the lips. She wanted to draw close to him and whisper against his cheek—she did not care what—as she might have done if she had not been a respectable woman. The stronger the impulse grew to bring herself near him, the further, in fact, did she draw away from him. As soon as she could do so without an appearance of too great rudeness, she rose and left him there alone.”
The key to her distress, although Chopin never really puts this into words, is the fact that Mrs. Baroda does not feel these emotions when she is around Mr. Baroda at all, and apparently she never has. She dimly realizes what they mean, and what her innermost soul is telling her to do about them, but this completely flies in the face of the life she leads and the type of woman she has been raised to be. For many months, whenever her husband requests that Gouvernail come again, she refuses outright, because he has completely disrupted her world. Prior to meeting him, she was content with the companionship that her relationship with her husband offered; now she is not.
Strangely, however, after a summer has passed, Mrs. Baroda herself suggests having Gouvernail return. Her husband is thrilled that she has gotten over her animosity toward his old friend. But we know that her feelings for him were not animosity—quite the opposite. Are we to conclude from this that she has learned to conquer her passions, and that she can now deal with Gouvernail as if he didn’t attract her at all?
No, quite the opposite. Mrs. Baroda’s final, teasing words on the subject are, “I have overcome everything! you will see. This time I shall be very nice to him.” Clearly she intends to indulge the fantasies about Gouvernail which she has apparently harbored in secret all summer, and she seems determined to turn them into more than fantasies.
If “A Respectable Woman” had been written as a typical Victorian story, Mrs. Baroda would have kept Gouvernail at a distance to preserve her marriage. But that is not what happens. Chopin’s women are not content to have their lives molded and shaped into the forms men design; they are not willing to accept traditions and rules which run counter to the innermost drives of their hearts. Mrs. Baroda decides that having a rich and full emotional life is more important than being a respectable woman.
All four Chopin stories reviewed on Storybites.com can be found in the collection The Awakening: And Other Stories.
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“The Awakening” and “A Respectable Woman” are available as a Kindle download from Amazon here.
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