Although there is not much room available in a short story to permit the full development of several characters that might make the story interesting, authors have proven able to offer significant insights into the complex emotions and motivations of a few key characters in a very short space. They are able to do this through careful application of phrase or action. Kate Chopin, for example, uses a very careful balancing act between external and internal events in stories such as “The Storm” to illustrate the far-reaching effects of the submission of spirit and its power once freed. Tillie Olsen, on the other hand, focuses primarily on language as a means of conveying the sense of isolation and suppression felt by Emily in “I Stand Here Ironing” as well as the astounding power discovered when it is released. Both of these stories tell similar tales of women whose inner personality has been suppressed under social expectations and limitations yet who find a means of releasing this inner person with a burst of emotion and energy. By using meaningful language, action and symbols that all convey deeper meaning, these authors are able to tell a woman’s story while also illustrating how women continue to be trapped in worlds not of their own making in spite of advances in society.
Arguably the most significant segment of Chopin’s story “The Storm” is the segment detailing the activities of Calixta and Alcee the afternoon of the storm. Calixta is the main character who is married to a man named Bobinot with whom she has a son. Alcee is a male neighbor who found himself nearest her house when the storm began to break. Alcee asks if he can just stay under an awning, but Calixta insists he come inside. If the awkward actions hadn’t made it plain already, the narration reveals that there was once a passionate relationship shared between these two who are now married to others. Most of the characteristics of this relationship are shown through the impressions of Alcee as he remembers their past on an emotional and reactional level. The involvement of this level of thinking is initiated on their first physical contact, when Calixta jumps at the sudden lightning and thunder, sparking memories of his earlier sensual contact. “In Assumption he had kissed her and kissed and kissed her; until his sense would well nigh fail, and to save her he would resort to a desperate flight. If she was not an immaculate dove in those days, she was still inviolate; a passionate creature whose very defenselessness had made her defense, against which his honor forbade him to prevail” (Chopin, 1898). Although Alcee was attempting to save Calixta’s honor for her own good, his presumptuous flight made it impossible for her to make this choice for herself.
In the same way that Calixta’s story of social constraint is told mostly from the perspective of other characters or an external narrator, Emily’s story of social constraint is told from the perspective of her mother in Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing.” Within this story, a mother figure tells of her impressions of her oldest daughter and the aspects of their life together that has thrown a formidable wall between her beloved child and the rest of the world. As she tells about the life of her troubled child, the mother is also telling about her own life and the constraints that had been placed on her because she had been a young mother abandoned in poverty with a new baby by a man who never cared. “She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who ‘could no longer endure’ (he wrote in his good-bye note) ‘sharing want with us’” (Olsen, 1961). The circumstances of life continued to put distance between mother and child and the little girl was already isolated in her own world by the time she was 7. The stressed and overworked mother, soon adding more and more babies to the family, continued to find it necessary to put her oldest child away in places – with other family members who didn’t care so much about her, with nursery schools that were little better than parking lots for children, and in special hospitals where children were not permitted physical contact with their parents even on the rare permitted visits. All of this naturally had the effect of making Emily feel as if she were little more than dead weight to be endured.
This feeling of abandonment or unimportance is a significant element in subduing the female spirit as is shown in both stories, but it does not fully subdue the individual spirit causing the person to feel strongly unsatisfied with their life. In Chopin’s story, one can presume that it was Alcee’s desertion that caused much of Calixta’s lifetime unhappiness. She spent her life with an unclosed chapter in her life, an inability to express the passion she felt inside and a desire to resolve her remaining love for this man of her youth. Even though she is now trapped in a marriage with Bobinot and she does love their son Bibi, she is always uncertain as to whether marriage with her first love and the passion she had felt for him would have been better than the dull but stable life she shares with her husband. This strain in their marriage is shown in the way that Bobinot worries about finding something that will please Calixta when he realizes that he and Bibi are going to be late and they will be filthy with mud after the storm passes, making extra work for Calixta. While this stress seems to be relatively low grade, not strong enough to cause any real marital discord, it is significant enough for both man and young boy to be concerned about how Calixta will react when they arrive even if circumstances were beyond their control.
This same sense of impending danger just beneath the surface of the subsumed individual personality is found in Olsen’s story, but it takes a decidedly 20th century approach. Rather than being expressed as a general sense of unease felt by the other characters that share her life, the danger in Emily is brought forward with the use of a presumed counselor working to help the young girl escape from the bounds of her life. This character is never explicitly identified, but is keenly interested in working out the mental blocks that keep this girl from achieving her full potential. Without much introduction, this character makes a statement to the narrator of the story: “I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and whom I’m deeply interested in helping” (Olsen, 1961). As the mother tells the story of the girl’s life, realizing the many ways in which she had failed or seemed to fail her daughter and the ways in which they couldn’t seem to make any real connection, it becomes clear that there have been problems with her. She has had health problems and withdrawal symptoms throughout her life that her mother never suspected or suspected but didn’t know how to deal with. There seems to be a volatile element to her character as well which is revealed toward the end of the story when Emily herself finally makes an appearance. “This is one of her communicative nights and she tells me everything and nothing as she fixes herself a plate of food out of the icebox” (Olsen, 1961). There is an absence of the tension that builds up in Chopin’s story, but this is perhaps because Emily has already found a means of releasing her inner self at the time the story takes place while Calixta is in the process of discovering her release for the first, and perhaps the last, time.
Calixta finally experiences a sense of freedom and self-expression as she and Alcee spend the duration of the storm exploring their long-suspended passions for each other. For each character, there is a sense that they are feeling something more profound than anything they have ever experienced before. Even as they are each admitting to themselves that they are not likely to ever feel this way again, they revel in the experience of the moment, attempting to allow every nuance of the experience to settle into their pores. “Her firm elastic flesh that was knowing for the first time its birthright, was like a creamy lily that the sun invites to contribute its breath and perfume to the undying life of the world. The generous abundance of her passion, without guile or trickery, was like a white flame which penetrated and found response in depths of his own sensuous nature that had never yet been reached” (Chopin, 1898). Chopin connects the blinding white flash of the lightning outside to the blinding whiteness of Calixta’s skin as she is seen in this passionate embrace in order to symbolize the tremendous power of the emotional moment. Throughout the story, Chopin uses the storm outside to reflect the inner emotional state of her character, illustrating how even when subsumed under expectation and duty, the storm of the inner spirit can have far-reaching effects upon others. As the storm spends itself and passes into the distance, Calixta and Alcee are also spent and begin to separate. Like the fresh-washed fields outside, though, the hurts of the past have been washed away and Calixta’s world is fresh and new, ready for her to make a new start.
This discovery of release is also found in Olsen’s story as the suppressed character of Emily finds her own means of expression through her comedy. “Sometimes, to make me laugh, or out of her despair, she would imitate happenings at school. I think I said once: ‘Why don’t you do something like this in the school amateur show’” (Olsen, 1961). Taking her mother’s advice, Emily did perform for the school, only letting her mother know after she had achieved some success and received accolades from everyone. Her excited report reveals the degree to which this experience affected her and helped her to see something valuable in herself that she never thought she possessed. Through this medium, she was able to escape her mundane reality for a while and discover something amazing within her that still served to isolate her, but in a way that was all the more freeing because she could do more of what she wanted to do. This exploration of another part of her character through comedy is discovered by her mother in attending one of Emily’s shows. “The first one we went to, I only recognized her that first moment when thin, shy, she almost drowned herself into the curtains. Then: was this Emily? The control, the command, the convulsing and deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, the stamping audience, unwilling to let this rare and precious laughter out of their lives” (Olsen, 1961). Although the mother acknowledges that her daughter will likely not ever be everything she was capable of being, she realizes that her daughter has found a way to find herself and she has enough to still be something, still have enough.
Through this comparison, it is possible to see greater hope for future women as compared to women of the past. They are all still dealing with the same struggle to balance individual personality and needs with the expected or imposed social constraints that are placed upon them as what has been experienced in the past. However, as it becomes realized that these subsumed emotions can have a profound effect on everyone who shares a relationship with anyone who shares a relationship with these women, it is also realized that women need a means of personal expression and finding freedom as well. This becomes more likely in the modern era as women find increasingly more chances to explore and express themselves as seen in Emily as compared to Calixta who is permitted only one indiscrete act that must satisfy her for the rest of her life. Through these stories, Chopin and Olsen and authors like them illustrate the unnatural and oppressed state of women as a result of social constraints and urge change for a happier and less explosive society overall.
Chopin, Kate. “The Storm.” (1898). 2009. Web.
Olsen, Tillie. “I Stand Here Ironing.” (1961). 2009. Web.