Kate Chopin was regarded as one of the most prominent cosmopolitan writers of her era. Not only did she have a fascinating personal life and background, but she also addresses profound issues in her writing, which are relevant in today’s society. Many of her literary works concern matters such as racial segregation and cultural conflicts. When she became acquainted with the Creole community in Louisiana they became the main focus of her stories. Her culture had just undergone and immense social change and this is evidently reflected in her writing. Apart from these subjects, she also concentrated on more specific themes. Two of her short stories, beyond the bayou and a matter of prejudice, explore the themes of crossing physical and mental boundaries and their significance.
Beyond the bayou’ generally evokes an image of mystery and confinement. The bayou itself acts as La Folle’s physical confinement but it also represents a mental boundary. She is physically isolated as the bayou literally separates society from ‘the point where her cabin stood’. The ‘abandoned field’ and the bayou are not exactly too great to physically overcome, but the bayou also has a symbolic significance as it represents her psychological boundary. La Folle has been deeply ‘traumatized’ by the white community and is unable to cross the bayou as she is too afraid to confront the mental torture she might have to endure. In her mind she sees a ‘flaming red’ beyond the bayou; Chopin closely associates this particular colour with La Folle’s initial fear of the bayou. Chopin frequently refers to this colour as it is an underlying theme. Originally, this colour appears during her ‘childhood’ when her master burst into her mother’s cabin, after being ‘pursued’, he is ‘black with powder and crimson with blood’. These are two very strong and vivid colours, they are also symbolic and they reappear when La Folle is crossing the bayou as her fears are brought back to life. For La Folle the world which had ‘looked red turned black’. Here, Chopin is resurrecting La Folle’s phobias. For La Folle, these colours have become synonymous with fear and they resemble her mental fears and suffering.
La Folle has a huge emotional bond to Cheri, who ‘took to her from the first’. It is her love for Cheri that eventually compels her to cross the bayou and overcome her mental barrier. This is evident as we are informed that La Folle doesn’t even cross the bayou when ‘old mis died’ .Love triggers the crossing of this boundary into social acceptance. This is a recurring theme in literature today as it illustrates the fact that genuine love is very consuming. Not only was it love that ‘impelled her forward’, but also how she overcomes fear through desperation. She is overwhelmed with a ‘terrible fear’ and emotional turmoil and so she is driven forward. As she crosses the boundary she is spiritually transformed, this is reflected in the text as there is a dramatic change in the language.
Fear has lost its sting, and she now sees the world for what it really is. She is uplifted and Chopin makes several references to positive colours associated with purity .She sees the bayou as a ‘silver bow’, this contrasts to the beginning where Chopin claims that it is her only ‘mania’. She is awakened; she understands that the bayou is merely a swamp and that it has been holding her back. As she crosses the bayou she is essentially crossing the boundary of isolation to social acknowledgement. As La Folle crosses the bayou, her state of mind is reflected in the language; Chopin employs various literary devices to convey La Folle’s conflicting and contrasting emotions. Chopin uses short and punchy sentences to sustain the intense atmosphere. Chopin describes how La Folle’s heart was beating like a ‘muffled hammer’. Here she uses vivid descriptions and a sense of urgency to display La Folle’s love and dedication to Cheri. Chopin also displays how ‘terrified’ La Folle is when she crosses the bayou, and this shows us the extent of La Folle’s love and dedication.
After love empowers La Folle to cross the bayou she undergoes a spiritual transformation and her senses are aroused. Her cool and calm nature is mirrored in the language as Chopin frequently refers to positive and aesthetically pleasing colour such as the ‘white’, the ‘blue’ and the ‘silver’. These colours are a contrast to the beginning where the only colours mentioned were the ‘red’ and ‘black’. The surroundings are appealing to La Folle’s senses.
She can feel the ‘delicious grasses’ beneath her feet. She can hear the ‘singing’ birds; she can smell the assortment of ‘perfumes’ and she displays confidence and defiance when she sits on the ‘front steps’. All of this is a result of La Folle crossing her mental boundary and the writer is trying to emphasise how La Folle is physically and mentally free and how her fears have vanished. This means that she now has the capacity to admire the beautiful surroundings and enjoy life as her fears are not restricting her anymore. Her sensory awakening is enacted in the imagery used. There is a visible change in the language, mood and tone after La Folle crosses the bayou. Everything is appealing to her senses. Chopin employs various techniques to convey the calm and peaceful tone. She uses words such as ‘relish’, ‘exultation’ and ‘content’. Furthermore, she uses long sentences to build up a powerful imagery. The image of freedom is projected when she walks with ‘long strides’ in the open fields. Her sense of solitude and confinement turns into liberation.
A matter of prejudice considers the crossing of familial, cultural and social boundaries. It addresses cultural issues which deal with social confusion. Madame Carambeau is physically separated from society. Like beyond the bayou, Madame’s physical isolation mirrors her cultural isolation .Her house resembles a fortress as it not only has ‘a formidable row of spikes’ but also an impenetrable ‘board fence’. This suggests that Madame is undeniably trying to emphasise the point of keeping people out. She confines herself in her house as she does not want to mingle with other cultures.
She stays in the ‘French quarter’ as she fears that other cultures will threaten to ‘invade’ her old traditions which she has so fiercely upheld. This story contrasts to beyond the bayou as the tone is slightly softer. Moreover, Madame’s physical isolation has entirely been self made, but La Folle’s isolation is the result of fear. Chopin stresses how Madame wants to preserve the French heritage and how she ‘despised other faiths’, ‘white servants’, and the ‘Americans’ and ‘Germans’. She fears them as they are unknown or unfamiliar to her. Madame is a perfect example of a woman with a stubborn will who refuses to accept to change. During this period when slavery was abolished there was an influx of people from various races and Madame feared that they would directly alter her way of life, and she was afraid of this. Madame was essentially afraid of change.
Madame’s physical boundary represents her invisible cultural boundary. Madame is compelled to cross this boundary and is forced to acknowledge other existing cultures in her own society. Like in Beyond the Bayou, both protagonists are empowered by love which enables them to overcome their fear or prejudice and it triggers them to cross the boundary. Madame realises that the child is sick as she observed that the girl’s cheeks ‘were very hot and flushed’. As Madame cares for the American child, she is able to overcome her prejudice as she feels sympathy for the child. The little girl’s ‘tone of voice, her ‘little body’ and her other physical aspects ‘had sunk through the crust of Madame’s prejudice’. She realised that an American child could be just as adorable as a French one, and this made her see the flaw in her ideologies. As she enters the American part of town she crosses a physical boundary, a cultural boundary and a familial boundary. She crosses the familial boundary by reuniting with her son, and she crosses the cultural boundary by acknowledging the co existing cultures and accepting them.
There is an immense contrast between the American quarter of town and the French quarter. In both stories there is a significant change in language, tone and imagery after the crossing of the boundary. In Beyond the Bayou, the beauty of the surroundings is used to indicate La Folle’s spiritual awakening. Here however, Chopin projects the image of reconciliation and the transformation of Madame, from a stubborn and ignorant lady, to a reformed and socially accepting person. This idea is enacted in the imagery used. Chopin vividly describes how the American houses were ‘the most beautiful’ and how they had taken on ‘splendid growth’. Chopin makes several references to ‘blooming flowers’ and to ‘modern’ and ‘handsome’ houses. This calm and soothing atmosphere reflects Madame’s state of mind as it is trying to imply that she is now at peace with herself. Chopin also employs various words to convey Madame’s transformation. She uses words such as ‘delicious’, ‘soft’ and ‘mild’ to convey the ‘pleasant’ air.
The transformation of La Folle is sudden, this contrasts to Madame as her’s is in steps. When La Folle crosses the boundary the language is dramatic and urgent, once she has cleared the bayou she suffers a symbolic death and rebirth. Madame’s transformation on the other hand, is more gradual. It is not her desperation that drives her but her own resolute will. She reunites with her son and accepts American culture. This is evident as she visits ‘an American church’.
In Beyond the Bayou and a Matter of Prejudice, both protagonists cross a psychological boundary. They cross from isolation (physical and mental) to acceptance. Both protagonists are symbolically reborn and it is evident that both are content with the situations as they chose to cross their boundaries again out of choice. Their physical confinements reflect their ignorant minds that try to protect them from change and the unknown.