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Kate Chopin's Short Stories Summary and Analysis

by Kate Chopin

"A Respectable Woman"

Mrs. Baroda is somewhat disappointed to learn that her husband's friend Gouvernail is planning to spend a week or two at their plantation, since they had been busy all winter, and she had planned a period of rest and conversation with her husband Gaston Baroda. She has never met Gouvernail, although she knows that he and her husband had been friends in college and that he is now a journalist. She pictures him as a tall, slim, cynical man and did not like the mental image, but when she meets the slim but neither tall nor cynical Gouvernail, she finds that she actually likes him.

Mrs. Baroda cannot discern why she likes Gouvernail, since she does not see all of the positive traits described by Gaston. He does not seem brilliant, but he does seem quiet and courteous in response to her eagerness to welcome him and her husband's hospitality. He makes no particular attempt to impress her otherwise, and he enjoys sitting on the portico and listening to Gaston describe sugar planting, although he does not like to fish or hunt.

Although Gouvernail puzzles Mrs. Baroda, he is lovable and inoffensive. She leaves him alone with her husband at first but soon begins to accompany him on walks as she attempts to overcome his reticence. Her husband tells her that he will stay for another week and asks why she does not wish him to stay. She responds that she would prefer him to be more demanding, which amuses Gaston.

Gaston tells Mrs. Baroda that Gouvernail does not expect a commotion over his presence and that he simply wishes for a break from his busy life, although she declares that she expected him to be more interesting. Later that night, she sits by herself on a bench, feeling confused and wanting to leave the plantation for a while, having told her husband that she might go to the city in the morning and stay with her aunt. While she sits, Gouvernail sees her and sits next to her, not knowing her displeasure at his presence.

Gouvernail hands her a scarf on Gaston's behalf and murmurs about the night, and his silence disappears as he becomes talkative for the first time. He speaks to her of the old days and of his desire for a peaceful existence. She does not listen to his words so much as his voice, and she thinks of drawing him closer, although she resists because she is "a respectable woman." Eventually, she leaves, and Gouvernail remains behind, finishing his address to the night.

Mrs. Baroda wants to tell Gaston of her strange folly, but she realizes sensibly that she must handle this feeling by herself. The next morning, she leaves for the city and does not return until Gouvernail departs. Gaston wants Gouvernail to return the next summer, but she refuses. She later changes her mind, delighting her husband, who tells her that Gouvernail did not deserve her dislike. She kisses her husband and tells him that she has "overcome everything" and that she will now treat him more nicely.

Analysis

In "A Respectable Woman," Kate Chopin delves into the psychology of Mrs. Baroda, a wealthy woman with a loving husband who faces temptation in the person of Gouvernail, a polite, unassuming visitor to the Baroda plantation. Like the heroine of "A Pair of Silk Stockings," Mrs. Baroda is enticed early in the story with the prospect of a change from a quieter, more ordinary life, but whereas Mrs. Sommers gives in to her desires with relative ease and begins spending her extra money after limited deliberation, Mrs. Baroda does not instantly recognize what she really wants and eventually struggles with the self-imposed limitations of her identity as "a respectable woman."

Nevertheless, just as the narrative implies that she has found the strength to triumph over her emotions, Mrs. Baroda approaches her husband and offers a sweetly ambiguous statement that reopens the question of her intent to act upon her emotions. She tells him, "I have overcome everything! You will see. This time I shall be very nice to him." At first glance, this statement seems to suggest that Mrs. Baroda has regained control of her emotions. Overcoming "everything" seems to mean that she has overcome not only her displeasure about Gouvernail, but also her unrespectable romantic feelings. However, because she modulates her announcement with the insinuation that she will be “very nice” to him on his next visit, she may mean that after overcoming her doubts and her mental restrictions, she has decided to sate her desires in favor of having an affair. Chopin purposely leaves the meaning of this declaration unclear, but knowing what we know about her understanding attitude toward female sexual independence in The Awakening and in her short story "The Kiss," we might infer that Chopin is entertaining the idea that Mrs. Baroda will resist the ethical standards of her society and discover more about her needs and available choices as a woman.

Thus, depending on whether we read Mrs. Baroda's final decision as a repression of her desires or as a plan to pursue fulfillment of her emotions, our interpretation of Mrs. Baroda's character development can take one of two radically different paths. In the first case, we can view Mrs. Baroda as a woman who has never before faced any true emotional tests in her comfortable life as the mistress of her plantation. In this account of the story, Mrs. Baroda then undergoes a mental conflict within herself, and the climax of the story occurs at her decision to leave Gouvernail and take the train to the city--while she reminds herself that she is a respectable woman. She does not choose to see Gouvernail again until, some months later, she determines that she has defeated her baser emotions, and her assurance to Gaston Baroda indicates that she will feel free to treat Gouvernail with more courtesy, since she is no longer attracted to him.

Although this possible interpretation of "A Respectable Woman" would provide an interesting study of a character who discovers the strength of her will, the second main interpretation of the story is in many ways more interesting in its implications. In the alternative analysis, Mrs. Baroda effectively makes the same manner of choice as little Mrs. Sommers of "A Pair of Silk Stockings" and decides to indulge herself when Gouvernail visits. She faces a similar conflict within herself, but she comes to realize that she considers her individual identity as a woman to be more important than her social identity as a respectable woman. The fact that she initially does not understand her troubled feelings about Gouvernail suggests that she has never felt the same spark with her husband, although like the husband in Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," Gaston appears to be a kindly and worthy man. By choosing to invite Gouvernail for a second visit, she shows that she has developed a new comprehension and appreciation of herself, and in possibly having an affair, she hopes to find what has previously been missing in her life.

A related issue besides that of female sexuality in "A Respectable Woman" is that of female independence. Mrs. Baroda is like Louise Mallard of "The Story of an Hour" in that her marriage, while pleasant, has limited her experiences in a way that Chopin deems unacceptable. Indeed, traditional, respectable marriage in Mrs. Baroda’s milieu does not permit affairs. Just as Louise Mallard realizes upon the news of her husband's death that life as a widow is the same as a life of freedom, Mrs. Baroda makes a smaller but equally significant decision in choosing to ignore the sexual and emotional bonds of marriage in order to expand her horizons. As in the case of La Folle, the protagonist in "Beyond the Bayou," many of Chopin's female heroines triumph by challenging, transgressing, or overcoming boundaries, and Mrs. Baroda is no exception. Her boundaries are implemented through the social idea of respectability.

Notably, Chopin never introduces Mrs. Baroda's first name, suggesting that she has previously identified herself in terms of her attachment to her husband, but it may be that her future affair will allow her to reclaim a stronger individual identity and sense of self.

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