Nature as a Mood Controlling Device
Nature relates to everyone. For this reason it is one of the most frequently found elements in literature. Nature embodies the human spirit and the human emotional spectrum. In “Nature” Emerson suggests that, “Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance its picture”. Nature has been described as “the world’s body, through which they authors speak in concrete terms their perceptions of themselves and the world” (Harmon 341). Kate Chopin uses nature as a symbol of her characters’ spirits. The moods, emotions and actions of the characters are reflected in their natural surroundings. Three of her works in which nature plays a vital role are “Ripe Figs”, “The Awakening”, and “The Storm”. Nature is liberating, sensual, deceptive, isolating, and cyclic in each of these pieces.
Chopin uses nature as a medium through which to set her characters free. In “Ripe Figs”, Maman Nainaine will only allow Babbette to visit her relatives when the figs ripen. Maman Nainaine associates Babbette’s independence with events in nature. When the figs have matured then Babbette is mature enough to handle the responsibility of a little freedom. Similarly, in “The Awakening” the ocean provides Edna with a sort of freedom. In the beginning of the novella Edna struggles with swimming. “A certain ungovernable dread hung about her in the water, unless there was a hand nearby that might reach out and reassure her” (36).At the same time she is oppressed by her husband and submissive to society’s expectations of her. She is afraid to make it on her own; she feels she needs her husband as support. One evening Edna decides to take a chance and tries to swim alone. Her success gives her a feeling of exultation, ” . . . as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul” ( 36). Simultaneous with her newfound ability to swim comes Edna’s ability to see herself as an independent woman, an entity entirely separate from her husband. The water unfettered her. Likewise, in “The Storm”, the thunderstorm is what keeps Calixta’s husband away from home and what drives Alce into her arms. The wall of water acts as a barrier between Calixta and her husband. She is able to forget her husband and child, her responsibilities, for a short period of time. During the storm she is a passionate, desirable woman. She is no longer just a housewife and mother. Ultimately the rain extricates Calixta from the bonds of her marriage. In all of these texts, nature provides a means of escape. As Emerson once said, “Nature is made to conspire with the spirit to emancipate us” (Emerson 3).
Nature also helps to create sensuous images throughout Chopin’s texts. The description of the development of the figs in “Ripe Figs” has a sensuous nature. The maturation of the figs parallels the blossoming of a girl into a woman. The figs begin “like little hard, green marbles” and become “plump”, “fringed . . . with rich, green leaves”. Babbette is growing together with the figs. Similar imagery is used in The Awakening. “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (The Awakening 17). Swimming in the sea leads Edna to the awakening of her own sensuality. Often when Edna is near the ocean or speaks of the ocean she thinks of her past romantic fantasies. For example, towards the beginning of the story Edna and her friend Adle Ratignolle are sitting on the beach watching the waves while Edna relates the tales of her past love affairs ( 22-24). Just as the sea invoked Edna’s sensuality so does it end it. Edna drowns herself by swimming too far away from shore. The progression of the storm mimics the progression of the love affair between Alce and Calixta. The rain begins softly then builds until “water is beating upon the boards in driving sheetsand the playing of the lightning is incessant” (28). Then almost as quickly as the storm starts, “the rain is over; and the sun is turning the glistening green world into a place of gems” (29). Calixta and Alce make love to the rhythm of the storm. Their encounter is initiated with an embrace, followed by a kiss. Shortly thereafter events happen quickly and forcefully. “The generous abundance of her passion . . . was like a white flame which penetrated and found response in depths of his own sensuousness” (29). After they are finished, they lay peacefully together. She relaxes him by stroking his shoulders with a “soothing rhythm”, a sensuous gesture.
Nature can be soothing and sensuous, but Chopin sometimes has nature take on a deceptive role as well. In “Ripe Figs”, the figs ripened very early according to Maman Nainaine. However, Babette thought that they ripened very late. In The Awakening, whenever Edna visits the ocean she begins to have romantic thoughts. She visits there often with Robert. It is here that she thinks of the possibility of the two of them sharing a life together. In reality this will never happen because Robert understands and ultimately adheres to the Creole ethical code. If she were to think rationally, she would know that she does not have real feelings for Robert and that he will never allow her to leave her husband. She also speaks and thinks of her romantic dreams when she is by the ocean. The sea helps her to forget reality. She confides in Adele about her past infatuations one day while they are sitting on the beach. Edna speaks dreamily of love until Robert comes with her children. They leave the beach and Edna snaps back into reality. The rain in “The Storm” allows Calixta and Alce to have a rendezvous. It deceives them into thinking it is acceptable because they have been allowed the opportunity to forget their responsibilities. The storm is the reason Calixta’s family is away. It aids the couple in their deception of their spouses.
Chopin also uses nature as a means of portraying a sense of isolation. This imagery is less apparent in “Ripe Figs” than in the other two Chopin works. However, Babbette was isolated from everyone save Maman Nainaine until the figs were ripe. The Ocean, in The Awakening, separates Grand Isle from the mainland secluding the guests. The choice of an island as a setting for this story is effective because Edna feels alienated and alone since none of the Creole men or women understands her plight. Just as the ocean separates the island from the mainland, so does Edna’s sensuality estrange her from society. Edna is a white woman in a society completely composed of Creoles. She is isolated because of her race as well. Isolation also plays a role in “The Storm”.The rain is the natural occurrence that separates Calixta from her family. The storm provides the pair their first private visit since Calixta’s marriage. The rain provides a sort of wall, separating Calixta and Arobin from their families and responsibilities. Moreover, Chopin’s use of a storm creates an atmosphere where everything outside of Calixta’s house is foggy and unreal. The rain is described as “obscuring the view of the far-off cabins and enveloping the distant woods in a gray mist” (The Storm 28). Hence, The rain isolates the two and makes their obligations seem unreal and far away.
Chopin uses descriptions of nature still further as an effective way to demonstrate how the cycles that occur in people mimic those in the natural world. In “Ripe Figs”, the fruit must complete its life cycle before Babbette is allowed to visit her relatives. The figs start as “little, hard green marbles” hanging from “tender” leaves (Ripe Figs 3). The ripening of the figs exemplifies the cyclic workings of nature. Youthfulness evolves into maturity. This example applies to humanity as well. Babbette is as tender as the leaves as the story begins and Chopin creates the impression that at the close of the story Babbette’s youthfulness has been replaced with maturity. When this happens, Babbette is seen as “ripe” enough by Maman to be allowed the independence of visiting her relatives. The changing of the seasons in “The Awakening” patterns Edna’s changes within herself. The story starts out in spring/summer when everything is blooming and alive. Life is being renewed after the cold, sterile winter. Edna is reborn in her newly found independence and self-awareness. The story ends in the winter. Everything is bleak and stark. The beach where Edna eventually commits suicide is barren, “no living thing in sight” (Awakening 152). This setting creates a somber, lifeless mood. Edna drowns herself, thus completing the cycle. Life ends in death. Spring ends in winter.
All three of these works deal with women coming into their own. Each protagonist goes through a rite of passage; achieves a higher level of self-understanding. Nature assists these women in crossing the threshold to maturity and understanding. The ripening of the figs helps Babbette understand when she is mature enough to take on some responsibility. The sea allows Edna to realize her own independent and sensuous nature. The rainstorm shows Calixta a passionate side of her self. Chopin effectively compares the passion and vitality of external nature to that of human nature. Nature is a very powerful way to illuminate the human emotional spectrum because everyone has experienced nature and can relate to it. Chopin uses the idea of nature in many ways throughout her writing.As well as allowing women to come to a better understanding of themselves, nature served many other roles. It was emancipating, sensual, deceptive and isolating.