A Feministic Study of "Wiser Than a God", A Short Story by Kate Chopin
A popular local colorist during her lifetime, Chopin is now recognized as an important figure in nineteenth-century American fiction and as a major figure in feminist literature. Born on February 8, 1851, in St. Louis, Missouri, she was the daughter of Thomas O’Flaherty, a prominent businessman, and Eliza Faris. Her best known work, The Awakening (1899), depicts a woman’s search for sexual freedom in the repressive society of the American South during the Victorian era.
Throughout her literary career, Kate Chopin, much like her fictional heroines, explored dangerous new ground. She created female characters that test the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women and explore the psychological and societal ramifications of their actions and desires. They are forced to make existential choices based on the few avenues available for them to create and maintain autonomous identities outside of wife and mother in the late nineteenth-century American South. Chopin’s protagonists attempt to physically or spiritually transcend these limitations but often meet with crushing results. Chopin does not guarantee her characters an admirable place within their society, but she portrays them with dignity and sympathy.
Kate Chopin began her writing career strikingly with the creation of a triumphant woman artist-Paula von Stolz-a character who seems to be a projection of the author’s own ambitions. “Wiser than a God,” Chopin’s first story accepted for publication, portrays the resolution of the woman artist with utter confidence. The central conflict of the story involves the dilemma Paula faces when, after the death of her mother, she receives a marriage proposal from George Brainard, a wealthy, attractive man and must choose between a comfortable, conventional marriage and the career as a concert pianist for which she has spent her entire life preparing.
This article aims to study the important feminist notions and concepts such as “marriage”, “Identity” and “Woman Figure” in the story of “Wiser than a God” based on feminist theories from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
Chopin introduces the institution of marriage as a choice rather than an absolute issue in a young woman’s life in an early short story, “Wiser than a God.” The story is prefaced with the ominous Latin proverb “To love and be wise is scarcely granted even to a god” (241). It is clear that in this story, love and wisdom will be mutually exclusive entities and one must choose between the two. Mary E. Papke suggests that in the story, “Chopin draws the mind/body split [….]” (38). The story centers on Paula, a beautiful young woman and extremely gifted pianist. She manages to shun romantic love in order to focus on her dream of a musical career until she meets George. George is very much in love with her and desperately wants to marry her. For the first time in her life she is conflicted about her future.
Paula begins to succumb to George’s affection: “She felt such a comfort in his strong protective nearness” (246). She refuses, however, to marry George, claiming that marriage “doesn’t enter into the purpose of my life” (249) -a shocking revelation. George does not understand Paula’s ambition and passion for her music and the role that it plays in her life. According to Martha J. Cutter, “Perhaps in the end language is simply not important-she succeeds without it. But Paula continually finds her attempts to explain her needs are not heard at all; even her mother tells her not to ‘chatter’ (243). Paula attempts to explain to him how important it is to her and asks him, “Can’t you feel that with me, it courses with the blood through my veins? That it’s something dearer than life, than riches, even than love?”(249). George is taken aback by her fervent declaration and answers, “Paula, listen to me; don’t speak like a mad woman” (249). It is clear that George represents societal views on marriage, and that Paula’s depiction, is based on her sharp realization that she will lose herself if she becomes George’s wife.
Although she does not marry George, Paula’s assertion that, had she married him, she would have been expected to give up her music, is proven correct with the woman he eventually does wed. Although his new wife had been an avid dancer, she “abandoned Virginia break-downs as incompatible with the serious offices of wifehood and matrimony” (250). As much as this woman was expected to give up her love of dancing, Paula would have been expected to give up her music. Here, the author points out the irony of marriage. Instead of the role of wife conveying merely social and familial woman marries, will be the defining and only identity she will have ever again. According to Papke, “Paula [….] chooses to follow the purpose of her life though she be deemed a ‘mad woman’ by George and his type, to position herself in a state of insanity. By the conclusion, it is clear that the author believes Paula to be wiser than a god” (39). Paula, however, does sacrifice deeply. She lives solely by her intellectual, rational side, effectively ignoring the desires of her heart and body.
“Wiser than a God,” Chopin’s first story accepted for publication, portrays the resolution of the woman artist with utter confidence (Toth 2). The initial part of the story brings up some general facts and information about Paula’s character as an artist who adores music.
These clues from the very beginning demonstrate the fact that music is merged with Paula’s character and has granted an identity to her. It’s obvious that by music she could display herself, and she could catch the attention of people around – whether in a party, in a society or in a town. These magnificent abilities could support Paula and distinguish her from the girls who lack this talent.
It is worth noticing that from the very first lines of the story, Chopin has also introduced music as a character along with Paula. Music is the soul that lives within Paula’s body. In this way Chopin illustrates both music and Paula as central and significant matters in the tale.
The central conflict of the story involves the dilemma Paula faces when, after the death of her mother, she receives a marriage proposal from George Brainard, a wealthy, attractive man and must choose between a comfortable, conventional marriage and the career as a concert pianist for which she has spent her entire life preparing. Here Gorge’s occurrence makes Paula to think of amity, affection and relation with an opposite sex. Therefore Paula at some moments after becoming familiar with George describes him as a handsome gentleman and compares him to other males that she is in relation; and approves that George is superior to them in look and appearance “He was so unlike any man of her acquaintance…she could at the moment think of no positive point of objection against him”(246). This womanly sensation that inevitably exists in Females’ nature does not make Paula to yield. Paula doesn’t want to sacrifice and annihilate her liberty and her identity that she achieved by hard practice in music. After her Mother’s death she becomes more devoted to music which is the symbol of her true self and her autonomous identity. She prefers the dreamy world, which belongs to art and music, than the real and patriarchal world, which belongs to George and his society. She believes living in moments without music is equal to extinction, annihilation and “deterioration” (248). But George expects that Paula will be willing to give up her musical calling for “the labor of loving” instead (248). He proposes to her, never fully comprehending her devotion to her art or realizing that it could conflict with her devotion to a man. Paula, who admires George, is thrilled at his request but realizes that they must part. She doesn’t allow George to separate her from her autonomous identity; even when she comprehends that George is tempting her, she shushes him up and tells “don’t tempt me further” (249). That’s why when George wants her to answer whether she is marring him or not,
she couldn’t answer him confidently and she asks George to give a one week interval to her to think. George believes that he is the ‘Subject’ and the ‘Absolute’; for him Paula is the ‘Other’ not the ‘Self’ who could have an independent identity that could decide either to get married or to stay single. He couldn’t understand Paula because her character is imperceptible and unclear for him and for his society. When Paula says that marriage has no place and no position in her life, he never understands; because the society that George belongs to is occupied with girls and women who yearn for people like George to propose or marry them; so he says “Paula listen to me; and don’t speak like a mad women”(249).
George suddenly and unexpectedly sees someone different from the girl he had known as Paula begins to talk about the purpose of her life with her “father’s emotional nature aroused in her” (249). Paula makes a passionate defense of her art, something she knows she cannot understand:
What do you know of my life,’ she exclaimed passionately. ‘What can you guess of it? Is music anything more to you than the pleasing distraction of any idle moment? Can’t you feel that with me, it courses with the blood through my veins? That it’s something dearer than life, than riches, even than love?(249)
George’s reply to this-“don’t speak like a mad woman”-betrays his incomprehension and his belief that a woman who gives herself so passionately to artistic pursuit, particularly at-the expense of a potential husband, must be insane. Until now he has known Paula only as the “daughter of the undemonstrative American woman” (249).
Paula’s abilities increase in the absence of a male muse; and her loneliness and seclusion is often itself perceived as a final revolt against the society that has refused to provide her an acceptable space within which to pursue her creative inclinations. Paula’s struggle to attain her full potential as an individual is thus best perceived as deeply related to her efforts to develop her creative abilities, to grow her art, and to discover an affirming place within her world.
In this early story, Kate Chopin explores art as a kind of divine bondage, as suggested in the epigraph, “To love and be wise is scarcely granted even to a God.” Paula does love and feels physically attracted to George but is wise in her decision not to marry him. She is an exceptional woman and has the wisdom to recognize that “the purpose of her life” would be destroyed by marrying him (249). The story, rather than focusing on Paula’s moment of public triumph, shows Paula beset with temptation in her most vulnerable moment. By choosing to become a concert pianist instead of George’s wife, Paula satisfies both her own ambitions and her parents’ and thus keeps a meaningful connection to them even in their death. Seyersted notes that “Wiser Than a God” has certain affinities with de Stael’s Corinne in George’s momentary belief that he can accept a wife who does not live solely for him and his family but that it also shows a pronounced difference in Chopin’s heroine’s ability to resist romantic temptation: “unlike the French heroine… Paula tells her suitor that life is less important to her than the unhampered exertion of what she considers her authentic calling and her true self”(105).
Paula knows herself, and thus is able to avoid the trap that marriage to George would have become for her. Self-knowledge, Chopin implies, is the most important attribute of the woman artist. By listening to her own heart and instincts, Paula turns away an inappropriate mate and gains the possibility of union with a man who is talented in his own right and who is willing to let her pursue her career to its fullest. At the end of the story, Paula is resting “after an extended and remunerative concert tour,” and Max Kunstler, her former harmony teacher, is still following her “with the ever persistent will-the dogged patience that so often wins in the end” (250).
“Wiser than a God” was a triumphant beginning to Chopin’s publishing career. Never again did Chopin present the resolution and success of the woman artist so confidently and without compromise. Paula achieves fame, wealth and love. Paula seems a kind of fantasy for Chopin, an empowering wish-fulfillment, a visualization of what the woman with artistic ambitions might accomplish. This story shows the resolution of the woman artist as Chopin wishes it to be, and it implies that a woman might achieve success and fame without having to give up everything else.
“Wiser than a God” is an example of what Julia Kristeva identifies as “an imaginary story through which she [the woman writer] constitutes an identity” (166). Chopin allows none of her other women artist characters such success, however. This indicates the realization of the autonomous female artist by indicating Paula’s increased awareness of self even within the current restrictions of her society. A woman who wishes to become an artist as well as a self-reliant individual faces a double challenge in the historical context of the story. Paula establishes the possibility that the future female artist will be able to assume a respected place within her society and to maintain productive relationships that support aesthetic creativity.
c. Woman Figure
“Wiser Than a God” contains Chopin’s most outspoken demonstration of the self-sufficient woman. It is the only story she provided with a motto and her one example of what can be considered quite overt feminism, and the picture of the girl who becomes a famous pianist suffers from the strong emphasis. (Per Seyersted 117)
The acceptable role that a patriarchal society defined for a woman is that, a woman is the mistress of the house and she has to obey her husband, and take care of the house and her children. She is only allowed to interfere with the house chores, kitchen and cuisine; as Michael Warton in his article notes that: “Culturally, women are associated with the home, defining it but, crucially not owning it” (106).
In spite of Charles insistence to marry Paula, Paula prefers her solitude and wishes to be at the service of herself rather than others. She never accepts to shoulder the responsibilities of housekeeping and motherhood. She is an emancipated woman who doesn’t care for society’s expectations and regulations. Paula largely answers to Simone de Beauvoir’s definition of the emancipated woman that is, a female who “wants to be active, a taker, and refuses the passivity man means to impose on her”; who insists on the active transcendence of a subject, the pour soi, rather than the passive immanence of an object, the en soi; and who attempts to achieve an existentialist authenticity through making a conscious choice, giving her own laws, realizing her essence, and making herself her own destiny (Seyersted 104).
Ultimately, Paula reaches her goal, that is musical profession; and in her progress she achieves fame, popularity, and independence; the factors that a feminine woman lacks (Simone de Beauvoir’s definition for a feminine woman is: the woman who lets the men decide her destiny). The pride indicated in Paula’s family name does not manifest itself in a haughty attitude toward her admirer; she is soft-spoken compared to the impetuous, youthful George who insists that she is throwing him into “a gulf… of everlasting misery.” But she speaks up when she realizes they are in two different worlds, that he represents the patriarchal view of woman, and she the view of Margaret Fuller that women so inclined should be allowed to leave aside motherhood and domesticity and instead use their wings to soar toward the transcendence of a non biological career. […]George for a moment believes he can accept a wife who lives not solely for him and his children; […], Paula tells her suitor that life is less important to her than the unhampered exertion of what she considers her authentic calling and her true self.( Seyersted 103-5)
In the story we could witness the presence of feminine Victorian woman, like Paula’s mother, who is a wi
dow and a devoted wife. She has bestowed her life for training her child and she never remarried even after years of her husband’s death. George’s wife is the other sample of typical Victorian woman who is ironically mentioned in the last lines of the story; that she was a professional dancer but she “abandoned Virginia break-downs as incompatible with the serious offices of wifehood and matrimony” (250). So Paula, the only emancipated woman in the story, never agrees to play the role of her mother in future and she never accepts to play the role of a submissive wife for George.