Kate Chopin's "Cavanelle" and The American Jewess: an impressive synergy.
A little known editor and writer, (3) Sonneschein was a consummate rhetorician. She carefully--and cleverly--selected for inclusion articles, essays, columns, her own fiction and the fiction of others, along with other diverse material, in order to evoke and to complement the overriding concerns of The American Jewess. Sonneschein's singular appreciation--and acceptance--of "Cavanelle" (which had been rejected by six national periodicals before she selected it for publication) reflects a shrewd reading of the way the tale dramatizes self-sacrifice, altruism, and devotion to family, significant preoccupations of her magazine. Additionally, however, the editor no doubt recognized, as critics of "Cavanelle" to date have not, another dimension of the story which made it particularly relevant to a segment of her female readership: the crucial significance of the society woman/narrator who presumes herself to be--yet who is only inconsistently--charitable and wise.
By and large, readers agree that "Cavanelle" portrays a model of selfless devotion to others. As early as 1897, The Post Dispatch lauded the story's "subtle depiction of altruism" (Anonymous 47), while Chopin's first biographer, Daniel Rankin, observed the protagonist's "simple unconscious devotion" and the story's "spiritual quality of ... self-sacrifice" (169). Per Seyersted similarly emphasizes the way Cavanelle "devotes his life to helping needy relatives" (Kate Chopin 77), Peggy Skaggs highlights the protagonist's "deep, fulfilling, humane kind of love" (31), and Barbara Ewell notes the way the story conveys "the value of other-centeredness" (102). (4)
Altruism, devotion to others, self-sacrifice, and the value of other-centeredness are all celebrated, and advocated, in The American Jewess. (5) Profiles of selfless heroes and especially heroines and of philanthropic organizations and their leaders, in essays, editorials, columns, reports, and in fictions, highlight models of benevolence. Sonneschein herself concisely articulated the benefits of such concern for others: "the world would be the gainer if men and women were educated to self-sacrifice, heroism and altruism" ("Improve Education" 16).
The specific focus in "Cavanelle," however, upon a male providing for--and being devoted to--his family (especially to the women in the family) strikes a particular chord with overall attitudes and beliefs concerning gender roles expressed in The American Jewess. While Sonneschein gave her support to all sorts of women, including those who of necessity needed to work outside the home, and similarly supported those who decided not to (or were unable to) marry, she nonetheless firmly believed in the preeminent goal of marriage for women. (6) Ideally, she thought, it should fall primarily to the male--to the father, to the husband, to the brother--to provide for and to devote himself to the support and protection of family members. Following Chopin's story in the inaugural issue of the magazine, in a column titled "The Woman Who Talks," Sonneschein advised youth about gender roles in marriage: "In the matrimonial co-partnership, the duties of each are as clearly defined as in any other business. The man must earn the funds and the women ... at home must ... [see] that the wheels of the household machinery may run without undue friction" (39). Similarly, in a later issue, "In the World of Charity" includes a report of the St. Louis Society of Personal Service that emphatically characterizes the male as the "natural protector" of the family, yet goes further to describe the dire consequences of males abdicating that role, particularly among the less well-off: "deserted oftentimes by their natural protector--the husband and father ... [the mother] can give neither the proper care nor attention to her children, for she must go into the shop or factory and work from daylight to dark to put bread into their starving mouths" (208). Indeed, "Cavanelle" provides a resounding "Yes!" to the question asked by one frustrated essayist writing about the life of women in the magazine: "And the menlo they ever interest themselves enough in women to care to lighten their burdens or be their companions?" (Henry Berkowitz 66).
Sonneschein carefully worked material into her magazine which modeled the role of men in caring for women. A case in point is the way in which she included a Natural Science article about apes in the issue in which "Cavanelle" appeared. This item, containing excerpts from Brehm's Life of Animals, would seem at first glance to have little connection to the concerns of the magazine, or to Chopin's tale. Yet the piece provides an example (albeit in the animal world) of male devotion, care, and responsibility to family. Accompanying the excerpt is a full-page illustration showing a peaceful gorilla family in the forest, with the following commentary appended to it:
This picture represents a family of Gorillas ... the baby in the foreground, at the feet of its watchful mother, while the ever-alert father is keeping guard from a perch of strong vines. The mother's face is placid, because she knows the father's ear is never closed and that his mighty arm will protect her and the helpless little one.... It ... portrays in pleasing-measure, the home life of these creatures so greatly resembling Man. Fierce and intractable as is the Gorilla, he is kind to his wife and children, protecting them from all enemies and careful in providing for their comfort. (46)
Cavanelle is anything but "fierce," and it is difficult to imagine him as a brooding, atavistic gorilla. But his devotion to his sister (and later aunt), the way in which he "esteem[s] it a blessed privilege to give [them] those little comforts" (373) provides a parallel to the (popularly conceived) male instinct in the natural world to watch over and to protect the family, providing for its comfort and well-being.
In addition to affirming traditional male and female family roles, The American Jewess advocated strongly for the important place--and influence--of women in society as well, particularly in the areas of education, religion, and charity work. These specific areas of social involvement were conceived to be especially suited to them because of the commonly held nineteenth-century belief that women by nature had a heightened sensitivity and sympathy. (7)
In an article included in The American Jewess which reflects this recurrent perspective, titled "Woman's Part in the Drama of Life," the Reverend Henry Berkowitz admonishes women to "exercise that great capacity with which you have been fitted out by nature ... gentleness, mildness, sympathy, tenderness, patience, confidence, devotion, trust and love are yours more than they ever can be man's" (65). Similarly, Sonneschein herself suggests in an 1896 editorial that
There is one particular province in which women may excel in using their faculties, and that is the province of charity.... She can shape and join growing organizations.... She can use her fine sense to see that the only way practically to help the sick, the suffering, and the poverty-stricken is by personal contact and personal service, and she will give this service with her innate power of devotion to others. (94-95)
There is significant mention here of "growing organizations" which served, by and large, as the vehicle through which women might engage in various types of social action, particularly in charitable work.
Immediately following "Cavanelle," in the issue, the editor included a detailed report on the activities and founding principles of the newly formed National Council of Jewish Women. This group and its activities (as well as the activities of many other such women's organizations for which a major focus was charity) would figure predominantly in the magazine throughout its publication run. A significant proportion of the undertakings of this, the largest Jewish-American women's group at the time, was philanthropic in nature. Hannah Solomon, the president of the organization, who was profiled in the issue, concisely describes a major focus of their activity: "The National Council stands for preventative philanthropy, personal service, and organization in charity"(28).
Considering "Cavanelle" in the light of the supposedly unmatched intuition of woman to the suffering of others adds a significant ironic dimension to the tale. For the unwavering devotion of Cavanelle is juxtaposed with the inconsistent feelings of the society woman/narrator. The result is that the story stands on its ear the doctrine commonly touted in the pages of The American fewess that women are invariably more sensitive--and self-sacrificing--than men.
It is instructive, once again, to refer to the issue in which the story was first published. Immediately preceding the fiction is an extended essay titled "The Position of Woman in America," written by Dr. Adolph Moses. As the discussion comes to a close on the page preceding Chopin's tale, Moses writes:
The general high culture of the American woman acts as a constant stimulative and leavening force on the minds of men. The unbounded esteem in which they are held reacts most beneficially on the behavior of the male population. Their presence curbs rudeness and represses vulgarity. The feelings and manners of the Americans are becoming in the best sense of the word ever more feminine, gentle, generous, pure and sweet.... No eye can foresee the wonders and blessings which the moral superiority of her character ... will bring forth in the future. (20)
Surely Sonneschein, who was single-handedly responsible for the selection and chronology of the pieces included in her magazine, would have noted the considerable irony of having a discussion which asserts the "moral superiority" of women juxtaposed with the ensuing fiction in which it is rather the male who appears to be an overriding influence for good. (8)
The narrator of Chopin's tale, barely discussed heretofore by critics, is the most fully individualized character in the story. The first-person point of view (a comparative rarity in Chopin's works) offers the reader access to many of the narrator's thoughts and feelings as they develop in response to Cavanelle and his unwell sister. Although at times the society woman comes across as a quite genial, pleasant person with a sense of humor, she certainly falls short of the sort of female paragon described in the pages of The American Jewess as without exception "gentle, generous, pure and sweet" (Moses, "Position" 20).
At first, the unnamed society woman is likeable and, at least to a degree, well-meaning. Although she is obviously well-off (9) and is living in a society divided by class, she is not so snobbish that she feels herself above engaging in amiable banter with a "mere" shopkeeper and relating to him in a most friendly way. (10) Moreover, she has enough sense and humility to realize that much in Cavanelle's flattery (for example, "mistaking [her] for the freshest and prettiest girl in New Orleans") is "humbug," yet she appreciates the warmth of his "delightful" and "innocent" personality nonetheless. Indeed, in her everyday dealings with him in his shop, and particularly when he talks to her with such passion about his sister, she senses what she believes to be his essential, even angelic, goodness.
In the spirit of a charitable impulse, and "out of curiosity, and a half-formed design or desire" (370), the narrator takes it upon herself to help Cavanelle and his unfortunate young sister, Mathilde. When the society woman takes an interest in the career of the young girl, thinking it "a great pity that a voice so marvelous ... should not gain ... notice" (370), she heeds the commonplace call to women to fulfill their natural sympathetic capacity, helping the less advantaged through "personal contact and service." Yet, as the woman initiates the visit to the family residence to hear Mathilde sing, the narrator experiences considerable difficulty in sustaining her initial largess.
Perhaps it is the narrator's "descent" into the lower-class neighborhood and the unusual exposure to its home life which brings to the surface some of the less appealing dimensions of the narrator's personality, (11) namely the class and other preoccupations, prejudices and pretensions that the society woman harbors. In the course of the narration of her tale, these become increasingly apparent as she allows her imagination to color her rendition of the thoughts, feelings, and motivations which she attributes to Cavanelle, his sister, and their "help."
The narrator's tone continues through the first part of the tale to be affable, as she notes with some humor Cavanelle's exaggerated eagerness to make sure that she finds her way to his house. Immediately upon entering the home, the narrator remarks upon (still in a good-natured way, to be sure) Cavanelle's stupidity in not realizing that Mathilde is delaying her first encounter with the narrator to "give an appropriate air of ceremony to our meeting." And when the brother arranges to have the refreshments brought in soon thereafter, the narrator gently chides Cavanelle for a "want of savoir vivre in thus introducing the refreshments at so early a stage" of the visit. Of course, the reasons supplied for Mathilde's initial absence, and as well for the later look of "feeble annoyance" on her face, are entirely of the narrator's imagining. In these comments, however, especially in her condescending accusation that Cavanelle lacks "savoir vivre," one can recognize that the society woman's imagination and judgment are affected by her consciousness of social manners and proper etiquette.
The light and humorous tone of these early imaginings is, however, replaced by a less sympathetic one in her rumination about the servant, described as "one of those cheap black women who abound in the French quarter" (371), and her life with Cavanelle and Mathilde:
I pictured her early morning visit to the French market, where picayunes were doled out sparingly, and lagniappes gathered in with avidity. I could see the neatly appointed dinner table; Cavanelle extolling his soup and bouillie in extravagant terms; Mathilde toying with her papabotte or chicken-wing, and pouring herself a demi-verre from her very own half-bottle of St. Julien; Pouponne, as they called her, mumbling and grumbling through habit, and serving them as faithfully as a dog through instinct. I wondered if they knew that Pouponne "played the lottery" with every spare "quarter" gathered from a judicious management of lagniappe. Perhaps they would not have cared, or have minded, either, that she as often consulted the Voodoo priestess around the corner as her father confessor. (371)
What precisely initiates this extravagant speculation? None of the imaginings detailed here--from the visit to the French market through to Pouponne's playing the lottery and consulting a Voodoo priestess--are concretely rooted in any experiences in Cavanelle's house that day. Rather, such scenes derive, it appears, from preconceptions the narrator holds about such "cheap" black servants and lower-class family circles.
Furthermore, despite the narrator's early suggestion that she is "curious to know Mathilde" (370, italics mine), it becomes obvious that she does not wish to encourage an intimate relationship. Indeed, because of the dramatic differences in social status, likely such a personal relationship would have been inconceivable to the woman. At times, it seems that the narrator is interested in the sister only as a type of the underprivileged talent, someone she might hasten toward a professional career and in so doing accrue some social benefit to herself as the young girl's patron. Perhaps her single-minded desire to imagine herself as such a patron of the arts accounts for her delayed recognition that Mathilde has not the capacity, never mind the talent, to sing opera. How else can one account for the woman's continuing to reflect upon the girl's suitability as a performer, commenting, for example, that she "certainly [has] no stage presence," or that the narrator's dreamy (and sentimental) vision of zephyrs that would "gently waft [Mathilde] wherever ... she might want to go" (371) even after the woman has noted that the girl has "so slender a hold upon life that the least tension might snap it" (371).
The narrator's extreme reaction to Mathilde's "unsympathetic voice" is similarly questionable. The society woman is seized "by a creepy chilliness," generated by "disappointment, anger, dismay and various other disagreeable sensations" (371). One might anticipate disappointment on the part of the narrator who, expecting great things from Mathilde, travels to see her sing. But surely empathy and compassion for the poor girl's predicament should have superseded such anger, no matter how highly the society woman regards her valuable time and energy.
The woman's reflections soon after, however, reveal her awareness of the extremity of her response: "disappointment [may have] exaggerated ... simple deficiencies into monstrous defects" (372, italics mine); such afterthoughts serve to remind the reader that the narrator is not a bad person but rather someone whose understanding and sensitivity have become muddled as a result of societal influence.
Indeed, one of the keenest ironies (12) of the story is skillfully developed through the narrator's pretension to knowledge and understanding, no doubt heightened by her sense of herself as a society woman, educated and world aware. Within the first eighteen lines of the story, for example, "know," or some form of the verb, is used five times, as the woman proudly asserts her insight into Cavanelle's true nature. Yet it becomes apparent that she comprehends neither the brother's values nor the underlying motivation of his sacrifice for his sister, for the narrator assumes that the sacrifice is a practical one: "[I]t was because of her voice," the woman writes, "that his coats were worn till they were out of fashion and almost out at the elbows ... for a sister whose voice needed only a little training to rival that of a nightingale, one might do such things without incurring reproach" (369). Fundamentally, the brother's selflessness is motivated not, as she supposes, because of what he regards as his sister's special talent or because of any material benefit that might accrue to him, but because he loves his sister intensely. (13) This is something the narrator in her obtuseness, and contrary to stereotype, only comes to perceive fully with great difficulty toward the end of the story.
In addition, the society woman cannot imagine how the sister's demise can have anything but a liberating affect upon Cavanelle. Thus, once again she indulges her imagination, this time picturing the brother's response to his sister's death:
a moment of agonizing pain; then rest, rest; convalescence; health; happiness! Yes, Mathilde had been dead a year and I was prepared for great changes in Cavanelle. He had lived like a hampered child who does not recognize the restrictions hedging it about, and lives a life of pathetic contentment in the midst of them. But now.... He was, doubtless, regaling himself with the half-bottles of St. Julien ... with, perhaps, an occasional petit souper at Moreau's, and there was no telling what little pleasures beside. Cavanelle would certainly have bought himself a suit of clothes or two of modern fit and finish. I would find him with a brightened eye, a fuller cheek ... perchance even, a waxed moustache! (373)
The idea that death yields but an ephemeral "moment," even if an "agonizing" one, of pain; the envisioned "health" and "happiness" following the death of his beloved sister; the view of Cavanelle's previous lifestyle as "restrictive," "childlike," "pathetic," even in devotion to her whom he loves; the "pleasing picture" of release from a parsimonious life; and the vision of a new man, dandified in modern suits, with "waxed moustache"--so much here is an insensitive misreading of Cavanelle's values and ambitions, of the depth of his sorrow and, more generally, of the irremediable sadness that frequently accompanies the death of a loved one.
It is not until the final short paragraph of the story, after learning that Cavanelle has not altered his lifestyle as she had expected, and after a variety of typically patronizing comments about his "little menage" and his "fatuity" (373-74), that the society woman finally revises her "estimate" of the man. Seated in a streetcar on her way home, she seems to come to a deeper and truer understanding of the spiritual nature of Cavanelle's temperament and of its unique value. It is fitting that the narrator does not (or more likely is unable to) describe in any detail the thought processes involved in her change of heart. For throughout the story, she has been unable to explain fully why she feels as she does. In this instance, her final comments about Cavanelle's being an angel (14) neatly echo the comment at the end of the first paragraph. (15) The narrator, ultimately, has come back to her intuitive--and truer--understanding of the shopkeeper.
"Cavanelle" was by no means the only such ironic portrait of woman's need of sensitivity and charity in The American Jewess, though assuredly in its complex tone and characterization, Chopin's tale stands out among the polemical essays, editorials, and even fictions typical of the publication. While Sonneschein's magazine by and large characterized women as empathetic and sensitive, contributors nonetheless recognized that self-perceived class distinctions and other prejudices could interfere with "natural" instinct, leading to the sort of obtuseness and lack of compassion shown by the narrator. In an essay appearing in May of 1898, for example, titled "Is America Becoming a Monarchical Nation?," snobbishness and other "aristocratic proclivities" (78) are termed a "sign of degeneracy" (80) in America. Indeed, Sonneschein's own fiction, "A Fin de Siecle Meeting," which portrays the shocking insensitivity and lack of empathy on the part of "ultra-patrician" (212) women at a meeting of a philanthropic group, goes a long way toward evoking the insidiousness of class-consciousness and snobbery, and the resulting distortions they cause.
Rosa Sonneschein expressed to her readership her "gratification and just pride" (47) at publishing "Cavanelle," along with a portrait of its author, in the inaugural issue of The American Jewess. Furthermore, she described Kate Chopin as "one of the most interesting and unique writers of the fin de siecle" (48), cited the praise of four different reviews of Chopin's writing, and catalogued a lengthy list of the prestigious magazines in which her fiction had been published. There is little doubt, then, that Sonneschein wished to capitalize on Chopin's renown to increase the circulation--and reputation--of her magazine. But regardless of the fame of its author, "Cavanelle," was a remarkably fine choice for inclusion in The American Jewess.
The title character's self-sacrifice meshes perfectly with the sort of altruism which was consistently a focus of the magazine. Particularly in its portrayal of Cavanelle as a protector and supporter of his family, the tale enforced some of the gender roles touted in The American Jewess. And through its ironic characterization of the society woman/narrator, the story conveys a warning to readers about the distortions of class pretension, and so undermines stereotypes of women as invariably sensitive and sympathetic.
Toward the end of Chopin's story, the author introduces what might be interpreted as a symbol of the title character's selfless devotion: the "mousseline de laine" which is spread out on the counter before the narrator. As the society woman has failed to "permit herself" (374) to appreciate the "beauty and texture in design" of the item immediately before her, so has she failed to appreciate the sublimity of Cavanelle's unwavering devotion to his sister and aunt. Indeed, we might apply the conception of such "beauty and texture in design," both to "Cavanelle" itself, in which Chopin so deftly uses a first person, ironic point of view to characterize the complex thoughts and feelings of the society woman/narrator and, as well, to the way Rosa Sonneschein calculated the impressive fit between Chopin's story and the magazine in which it was first published.
American Jewess Project. April 2006. University of Michigan. May 2006 <http://www.hti.umich.edu/a/amjewess/>.
Anonymous. "Among the New Books." Critical Essays on Kate Chopin. Ed. Alice Hall Petry. New York: G.K. Hall, 1996. 46-8.
Arner, Robert. "Kate Chopin." Louisiana Studies 14 (1975): 11-139.
Berkowitz, Reverend Henry. "Woman's Part in the Drama of Life." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 1.2 (1895): 63-66.
Berkowitz, Sandra J. "Rosa Fassel Sonneschein." Woman Public Speakers in the United States 1800-1925. Ed. Karolyn Kors Campbell. New York: Greenwood P, 1993. 182-94.
Berggren, Paula S. "'A Lost Soul': Work Without Hope in The A wakening." Regionalism and the Female Imagination 3.1 (1977): 1-7.
Bonner, Thomas Jr. The Kate Chopin Companion. Westport: Greenwood P, 1988.
Chopin, Kate. "Cavanelle." The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 369-374.
de Montaign, Countess. "Is America Becoming a Monarchical Nation?" American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 7.1 (1898): 78-80.
Dyer, Joyce Coyne. "Techniques of Distancing in the Fiction of Kate Chopin." Southern Studies 24.2 (1985): 69-81.
Ewell, Barbara C. Kate Chopin. New York: Ungar, 1986.
Herman, Felicia. "From Priestess to Hostess: Sisterhoods of Personal Service in New York City, 1887-1936." Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives. Ed. Pamela Nadell and Jonathan Sarna. Brandeis UP: Hanover, 2001. 148-181.
"In the World of Charity." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 1.4 (1895): 204-210.
Moses, Dr. Adolf. "The Position of Woman in America." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 1.1 (1895): 15-20.
--. "The Love of Truth Finds Itself in Finding Good Everywhere." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 2.3 (1895): 135.
"Music and Art." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 1.1 (1895): 36-37.
Rankin, Daniel. Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1932.
Rocks, James E. "Kate Chopin's Ironic Vision." Louisiana Review 1.2 (1972): 110-20.
"Searchlight on Woman." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 2.2 (1895): 101.
Seyersted, Per, ed. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 369-74.
--. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Sate UP, 1969.
Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
Solomon, Hannah. "Report of the National Council of Jewish Women." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 1.1 (1895): 29-31.
Sonneschein, Rosa. "Editorial." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 4.2 (1896): 94-95.
--. "Editor's Desk." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 1.1 (1895): 47-51.
--. "A Fin de Siecle Meeting." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 6.5 (1898): 209-13.
--. "Improve Education." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 9.5 (1899): 16.
--. "The Woman Who Talks." American Jewess Project. The American Jewess 1.1 (1895): 39.
Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow, 1990.
--. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.
Walker, Nancy. Kate Chopin: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
(1) This description began appearing at the top of each title page of the magazine in October of 1896, and was commonly used in advertising material.
(2) Rosa Sonneschein felt that distinctions of religious affiliation were insignificant in the context of philanthropy. In an editorial in the issue in which "Cavanelle" appeared, the editor wrote: "From the parliament of creeds has sprung the parliament of deeds. Metaphysical questions may yet divide the disciples of various faiths, but they are destined to be forgotten in ... philanthropic endeavors ..." ("Editor's Desk" 49). See also note 6.
(3) Unfortunately, there is a dearth of information about this intriguing--and talented--woman. Sonneschein lived from 1847-1932, singled-handedly founding and (through forty of forty-six issues) editing The American Jewess, which at its height had a circulation of 32,000. There is no extended biography of her to date, nor much in the way of a discussion of her work. For the best available commentary, see Sandra J. Berkowitz.
(4) Robert Arner suggests that "the theme of self-sacrifice for the sake of love" (75) is present not only in "Cavanelle," but more generally in Chopin's work; Paula S. Berggren also highlights the importance in Chopin's fiction of "devotion to something outside the physical self" (1).
(5) Sonneschein's magazine characteristically included discussions of philanthropy among non-Jews as well as Jews. Adolf Moses, for example, emphasizes the common humanity of believers of all faiths, suggesting that: "There is as much tenderness, mutual kindness, self-sacrifice and devotion in Christian homes as in Jewish homes.... The sweetness of their mercy diffuses itself through the life of all mankind and makes the existence of us all richer and godlier" ("The Love of Truth" 135). Surely these words, appearing later in the same year in which Chopin's story was published, would have resonated with the "sweetness" of Cavanelle's sacrifice for his sister and aunt.
(6) Sandra Berkowitz suggests that The American Jewess "developed lines of argument that balanced traditionally feminine and more contemporary feminist interests. Thus, in its unique way, [the magazine] espoused a kind of social feminism that emphasizes the values and experiences of women" (187).
(7) Felicia Herman, discussing nineteenth-century conceptions of the "natural sympathy and tact of woman," writes: "The increasingly large and hegemonic Protestant middle class of nineteenth-century America expected its women to be ... pious, pure, submissive, and domestic ... also inherently charitable. The association of religion with charity was a natural one for 19th century Americans" (150). "Cavanelle" challenges stereotypes conveyed not only in The American Jewess but in society at large.
(8) Thomas Bonner dissents from the commonly held view of Cavanelle's untainted goodness, suggesting that his "seemingly selfless nature has a dark psychological aspect" (30). If there is, indeed, some compulsive motive underlying his unwavering service, Chopin does not specifically reveal the nature of it. Is Cavanelle's behavior in itself enough to indict him with a "dark" compulsion and, further, to undermine the sense of his beneficial service to his sister and aunt? Not in my view. Undoubtedly, Mathilde and Aunt Felicie are the better for Cavanelle's attentions. The "petits soins" he brings to his ailing sister and to "the declining years" of his aunt, which include the likes of "doctors visits and little jaunts across the lake," surely make their lives more enjoyable (and bearable). From the narrator's perspective, Cavanelle's life may be "prosaic," but he seems content in his service to his family. All this is not to say that one cannot imagine a different sort of individual (in a different sort of predicament) who might devote himself to others and yet might more apparently serve himself as well. In Chopin's tale "Ozeme's Holiday," for example, written just a month or so after "Cavanelle," Ozeme selflessly gives up his holiday to help an old woman pick her cotton. Yet it is clear in that tale (from his costly outfit, for example) that the protagonist enjoys doting on himself as well as on others. No doubt there are many types of Samaritans. To her credit, Chopin resists stereotypes, developing in each fiction a unique personality and situation.
(9) The "Music and Art" section of the inaugural issue in which "Cavanelle" appears includes an indication of the expense and something of the atmosphere of the opera she attends:
In the summary of entertainment.... Grand Opera takes the first rank. Notwithstanding commercial depression or financial stringency, and the fact that it is a decidedly expensive luxury, the organization is a magnificent one ... the great auditorium has been filled night after night with audiences ... in all of the bright array of superb dressing, scintillating with the luster of gems, radiant in beautiful colors ... (36-37)
(10) Chopin wrote several tales about the snobbishness of society women. The protagonists of "Miss McEnders" and "A Matter of Prejudice" are so snobbish that it is difficult to conceive of Georgie McEnders or Madame Carambeau as similarly encouraging a genial relationship with a shopkeeper.
(11) Outside the "entourage with which [she] was accustomed to associate" Cavanelle, the narrator appears to lose her previous sense of the man (and perhaps with it her charitable impulse toward him and his sister). Thus, when she sees him waiting for her at the door of his home, she is struck with the peculiar sensation that: "he was ... seeming ... not himself."
(12) Joyce Dyer suggests that "the [first-person] narrator is often treated with mild or intense irony" (78), while James Rocks locates irony more generally in Chopin's "depiction of any person whose belief or action becomes selfish" (114).
(13) Peggy Skaggs suggests that the narrator understands Cavanelle's motivations part way through the story, when she realizes that "love is blind" (31). But such "understanding" is belied by the society woman's ensuing critical thoughts and comments when she returns to visit Cavanelle after an absence of two years.
(14) "Angel" may have an ironic resonance in the context of Sonneschein's magazine, which more commonly applied the description to self-sacrificing women rather than to men. A representative example: "A little of the angel / Joined to qualities more human / Makes a most delightful mixture, / And we call the product woman" ("Searchlight on Women" 101).
(15) Barbara Ewell notes: "Though her assessment of Cavanelle is identically phrased at beginning and end of her account, its meaning is deepened by these intervening reflections" (102). While I certainly agree that there is a sense in which her understanding is "deepened" by her experience, it is certainly not as a result of any serf-conscious reflection. The narrator's lack of self-awareness, even after the fact, is consistently reflected in her narration. For example, she describes her initial "half-formed design" (370) to help Cavanelle; the curious way Pouponne's presence "in some unaccountable manner affected her" (p.371); expresses her inability to understand: "strange that [she] did not think of it before" (372); struggles to explain her feelings: "Perhaps my disappointment ... (372); and admits lapses of memory: "I cannot recall" and "heaven ozzly knows" (372, italics mine).
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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