Heirlooms of the Modernist Mantelpiece: Chopin’s Athέnaϊse as Pre-imagist Fiction

Kate Chopin - AthέnaϊseThe often overlooked short story Athέnaϊse by Kate Chopin utilizes an image-heavy descriptive technique that stresses the cleanness of decision and severity of a woman’s still life. Chopin’s fictional method associates with modernist attitudes through both the execution of her prose and an emerging worldview of a free female; however, chronology is seldom as unhelpful for an attic-cleansing comparison as it is with placing her work against the efforts of early 20th century innovators, as Chopin is not entirely outside, nor adequately inside the scope of the movements that were only beginning to coalesce towards the end of her life. Her unique manner of constructing images solicits a historical contextualization of her style because the ripples from both her work and era are enduring.

The vital medium gaining its footing in the 1840’s (eleven years before Chopin’s birth) was photography – a raw but manageable science just beginning to stretch its imagination. Individuals developing the technology had yet to create a convenient way to provide the public an ability to capture images on their own, and the devoted enthusiasts – who stubbornly embraced the clumsiness of the apparatus and chemical rigmarole of development – were not sincere artists wielding the new medium as an extension of their dreams; they were exploring, fiddling, and seeking mechanical improvement because progress naturally demanded it.

Practicality will always be an ongoing noun.

The steady advancements of the science and the incredible potential it held stuffed an unlit fuse into all aspects of the Victorian world; the population surely looked on with fascination, eager to touch the discoveries which trapped existence in some unthinkably odd way. By 1900 a mass-market solution was achieved and finally practical photography was realized, but it is in understanding the process of the new technology’s cultural acceptance that makes Chopin an early literary adopter.

By 1920 literature had become obsessed with the absolute Image. Ezra Pound’s development of the poetic flavor Imagism shows a resolute affection for the minutiae of photographic succinctness, and the modern literary canon begins to channel this theoretical approach. William Carlos Williams (WCW) constructed the infamous “Red Wheelbarrow,” and female poets like H.D., Marianne Moore, Amy Lowell, and Mina Loy all owe a portion of their poetic eye to Pound’s tutelage; however – these influential authors are barely coming of age when photography is made practical. By the time they are men and women, everyone has the opportunity to carry a camera if he or she so desires. It is natural they should write as they do because their world is becoming saturated with the potential of film. Using a photographic frame of reference as a benchmark, it is interesting then to think about Chopin writing during the time when the seeds of photography are not yet blooming, as an exploration of her proximity in relation to this developing technology.

Functionally, Chopin pens a series of portraits within her story, choosing diction carefully and focusing on image studies to explain character affinities, responsibilities and epiphanies all while creating metaphor; thus, there is an economy present in Chopin’s text very much kindred with the Imagist poets and thus with photography.

She begins Athέnaϊse with a glimpse into the female character’s departure, but we quickly realize that we are traveling with the mind’s eye of her husband, as he imagines his wife “resting only too content in the bosom of her family,” and enjoying her separation from him (353). If this illustration is unpacked, we are left with a portrait of a family hugging one individual, and a very shrewd metonymic look at what will become modernist writing. The “resting” inside of the collective “bosom” is a lean bit of text which displays Athέnaϊse’s sense of peace (“content”), her sense of momentarily resolved stress regarding Cazeau (“resting”), and her kin’s (“family”) willingness to embrace (“bosom”) her, regardless of whatever she has undergone. The inclusion of “only too” before “content” evokes scorn from Cazeau. Why not simply write “resting content in the bosom of her family?” Including the “only too” reminds us that we are still in Cazeau’s narrative, and provides the reader with a very brief departure from characterizing Athέnaϊse to hint at her husband’s frustration, all through the idea of her comparative removal from him.

In Chopin’s portrayal of old Felicite, we find a pithy manner of description similar to how WCW’s “Red Wheelbarrow” goes about accomplishing a scene’s modification. When Williams writes “so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens” we are only allowed to establish what exists as a curtain is slowly raised in front of the image because, of course, so much depends on whatever is coming next. The scene is there: it is complete; the picture has been taken and has been developed: we simply cannot see it before the author removes its veil. Chopin also constructs something similar in dramatic revelation, closer perhaps to a dioramic image, but manages it with a similar artifice to that of Williams.

As Cazeau “[eats] his supper alone, by the light of a single coal-oil lamp that but faintly [illuminates a] big room, with its bare floor and huge rafters, and its heavy pieces of furniture that [loom] dimly in the gloom of the apartment… Felicite, ministering to his wants, [hovers] about the table like a little, bent, restless shadow” (353). The image is dense, and manages to do several things at once. Metaphorically and regarding Chopin’s characters, it depicts Cazeau living in the dark. The warmth of the bosom of Athέnaϊse’s family is foreign to him, and he is alienated from love by the unsympathetic murkiness of his environment. The companionship he is provided is expressed as professional and cold, with Felicite’s small talk about “the unchristian-like behavior of his wife” imparting an obvious sop, and we sense Chopin having a bit of cutting fun while writing Felicite’s dialogue (354). Felicite is also “ministering to [Cazeau’s] wants” out of servitude; she is holding a position Athέnaϊse will not occupy and is providing Cazeau the type of company that makes the “dull, insistent pain” of missing an absent party all the more aching (354).

The syntactical value of the passage works as a modernist primer outside of dramatic context, and we may disregard characterization and plot arch to appreciate it as a freestanding thing. Chopin leaves her scene immersed in darkness instead of covering it with the curtain of an ongoing sentence like WCW, and instead uses a literary dimmer to steadily turn up the light. We are first given the tiny flame of the lamp on the table that “but faintly [illuminates] the big room,” and as Chopin causes the narration to grow brighter, readers establish the floor and ceiling, and finally the forms of some furniture. Because the pieces are characterized as “[looming dimly],” we feel as if the author is trying to capture the nature of Cazaeu’s air. Chopin is not directly describing the man himself – nor is she showing a full modernist adherence to the thing in itself – yet she is suggesting at a style to arrive down the literary timeline. The final image of the paragraph is most like that which WCW provides, as Chopin describes the figure of old Felicite as one that “hovered,” as if a “little, bent, restless shadow” were flickering through the room as projected by the lamp – but the image is one of Felicite in herself. There is a continual modification here that is pulled along by a string of adjectives, and if the lines had been given to Pound, he would probably reorganize and pare them into something like:

Little Felicite hovers, a bent restless shadow.

Chopin repeats this pattern of direct poetic imagery several times in “Athέnaϊse,” but notably alludes to the very philosophy embraced by the imagists in the recollection of a “great solitary oak-tree, with its seemingly immutable outlines that had been a landmark for ages – or was it the odor of the elderberry stealing up from the gully to the south? or what was it that brought vividly back to Cazeau, by some association of ideas, a scene of many years ago?” (360).

The goal of imagist poetry was to distill the thing in itself down to an understanding of its very essence of being, which is what Chopin is having Cazeau experience through memory. He is searching for an image or series of images to parallel Athέnaϊse’s departure with his strong emotional “impression” that is “for some reason hideous” enough to haunt him until the acquisition of the correct memory (Black Gabe’s escape) and its merger into a metaphysical antithesis (reacquiring Athέnaϊse) “dispels it” altogether (360).

Chopin is seemingly attempting the same photographic merger of emotion as the modernists, but is doing so through the medium of the short story. It is frustrating to look at her as having missed the canonical bus when so much of her work is based in a poetic subtlety that finds an audience a mere 20 years after her death.


Chopin, Kate. Complete Novels & Stories. New York, NY: Library of America, 2002. 353-385.

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