“Regret”

regret collage

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REGRET Transcription (.pdf)

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“Regret”

“Regret” was published in the May 1895 issue of The Century between Richard Malcolm Johnston’s “Two Shadowy Rivals” and A.C. Bernheim’s “Political Reform: A Chapter of Mutual Folly. Other notable contributors to this issue included Virginia best-selling author Julia Magruder (and this issue included the first installment of the serialized version of The Princess Sonia, illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson),  and William E. Smythe.

When reading Kate Chopin’s “Regret,” one must keep in mind the differences between motherhood as an institution that robs women of agency, and motherhood as a collection of practices and behaviors. Kate Chopin seems to tread lightly on the line between these two different approaches to motherhood in her short story “Regret,” published in The Century in the May 1895 issue.  Chopin examines the drawbacks of a solitary existence for women when it is an existence chosen without the full consideration of alternative ways of living through her nuanced treatment of the practices associated with motherhood. Mamzelle Aurélie — an aging, self-sufficient woman who is perfectly content to tend to her small farm — is charged with caring for her neighbor’s four small children unexpectedly. Early in the story, the narrator relays the fact that Mamzelle “had never thought of marrying. She had never been in love. At the age of twenty she had received a proposal, which she had promptly declined, and at the age of fifty she had not yet lived to regret it” (Chopin 147). This description of Mamzelle and her choices suggest that Mamzelle is the type of person who makes decisions promptly without fully considering the implications of them — a type of unconsidered living that can easily be mistaken for strength of character, Chopin seems to suggest — and as demonstrated by the word yet, that Mamzelle will indeed live to regret this choice. Throughout the course of the story Mamzelle is integrated into the practice of what can only be termed motherhood, at the moment, through a nuanced aesthetic sensory experience of the social. While Mamzelle is well-versed in the visual aspects of inhabiting the world — an approach commonly associated with literary realism in America during the period — auditory experience is slowly integrated into her perceptions and alters her views on the social order and her place within it. Without awakening to the potential of full sensory experience, and the subsequent reordering of the world that comes along with embodied existence, Chopin seems to suggest that women cannot be complete, autonomous beings in their own right without this consideration. Chopin neither privileges motherhood nor a solitary existence, but instead suggests that neither can be freely chosen without this sensory consideration.

While the story begins as a literary record of a collection of human novelties of sorts from the Louisiana bayou, it quickly becomes an example of the way that literary Realism can subvert the idea of what constitutes normal in a way that photography never could. While photography tends to highlight the external, Chopin’s story concentrates on the internal experiences of Mamzelle Aurélie, in effect forcing the reader to employ both Mamzelle’s visual methods and the supporting character’s auditory stimulation through the use of regional dialect and auditory description. Mamzelle rarely speaks out loud in the story — her awakening is relayed through the narrator for the most part — but the other characters speak in a heavily inflected regional dialect. Mamzelle’s neighbor Odile’s Creole speech is so inflected that it is very difficult to fully understand:

[Y]ou jus’ got to keep those youngsters fo’ me tell I come back. Dieu sait, I would n’ bothea you with ’em if it was any otha way to do! Make ’em mine you, Mamzelle Aurélie; don’ spare ’em. Me, there, I’m half crazy between the chil’ren, and Léon not home, an’ maybe not evenm to fine po’ maman alive encore! (147).

Throughout the story, the children are a flurry of sensorium that serve as the catalyst for Mamzelle’s awakening. They are frequently described by the sounds they make in combination with the visual aspects of their existence, though at first Mamzelle is only attuned to their visual aspects. Upon first seeing them from “her gallery, contemplating,” Mamzelle is disturbed by their presence (147). Throughout the beginning of the story, Mamzelle only notices the visual aspects of the other characters, and the scene or landscape itself. Furthermore, she describes Odile, the mother of the children, in visual terms as well. Her face is “red and disfigured from tears and excitement” due to her mother’s illness, a fact which is unremarkable to Mamzelle; the main concern is the visual presentation of Odile (147). The children are arranged in a certain patch of shade on the porch as well.

Mamzelle is described by the narrator as having a “critical eye” and her orientation to the visual seems to frustrate the narrator (147). At one point, the narrator claims that “little children are not little pigs,” which are an animal that Mamzelle knows how to care for, and the narrator claims that children require care that Mamzelle is “ill prepared to give” (147). The frustration of the narrator is the main vehicle for the critique of visual reasoning alone at the beginning of the story. However, an interesting mixture of sound and smell begin to pervade the narrative once the children are left at Mamzelle’s by their mother: “There was a pleasant odor of pinks in the air, and the sound of negroes’ laughter was coming across the flowering cotton-field” (148). This mixture of laughter and smell is portrayed as on the horizon, something that is approaching, yet it is a pleasant visitor. This visitor is one that Mamzelle is not attuned to, as of yet, but one that the reader is clued in to through this sensory description.

When sound is integrated into Mamzelle’s experience of the children during their stay, it becomes clear that Mamzelle is unaware of the way her own sound can effect (and affect) others. The narrator says that Mamzelle could not have known that Marcélette, one of the girls, “always wept when spoken to in [the] loud and commanding tone of voice” that Mamzelle uses to speak to her (148). Mamzelle begins to adjust the way she interacts with the children after this realization, and she starts to pay attention to their emotive responses rather than simply their external appearances. The narrator relays the fact that “It took [Mamzelle] some days to become accustomed to the laughing, the crying, the chattering that echoed through the house and around it all day long,” but “by the end of two week…she had grown quite used to these things and no longer complained” (148). Mamzelle also grows accustomed to “moist kisses” and the “little one’s warm breath beating her cheek like the fanning of a bird’s wing” (148). She begins to notice the visual aspects of the children in a new light; rather than just having dirty feet, the children’s feet are now described as “tired, dusty, sun-browned feet” that had to be “washed sweet and clean” (148). Mamzelle begins to experience the children and their proximity in a new, favorable way, and this familiarity is mediated by an embodied aesthetic sensory experience.

When the children are finally picked up by their mother, Mamzelle’s newfound regret concerning her self-imposed solitude is aesthetically mediated as well. Now she stood in her gallery both “looking and listening” while the children are driven away in the cart by their mother. Long after she can no longer see them through the blur-gray twilight” that “flung a purple mist across the fields and hid the [children] from her view,” she could still hear their “shrill glad voices” (149). While the shadows creep around Mamzelle’s figure alone in her house, she began to cry “like a man, with sobs that seemed to tear her very soul” (149). While this language could be seen as problematic, I would argue that in the late nineteenth century there was little available language for describing a fully-actualized woman feeling regret associated with her past choices. Perhaps Chopin portrays Mamzelle in this gender fluid way in order to convey this notion in a literary way.

By integrating an embodied, sensory experience into the concept of reason, Chopin’s story “Regret” appears to be about motherhood on the surface, but I would argue is instead concerned with a new relation to reason and choice. In this conceptual framework, it is only by fully integrating the sensory experience of the world that a choice can be considered a fully reasoned one. And by integrating the seemingly rational (reason) and the irrational (an affective relation to the world), Chopin offers up a new model of personal enlightenment for an interested readership at the close of the century. “Regret” is a very productive text for scholars who are interested in such thematic concerns as motherhood, relations mediated through private property, choice, and as always with Kate Chopin, regional dialect. It may also be of interest to those who have theoretical investments in gender studies, embodied cognition, and affect studies.

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