Forbidden lust...Illicit sex...Secret adultery. Read all about it...in a story from 1898?
Sounds more like a recent issue of US Magazine then from a now-canonical piece of 19th century literature. But let's face it: the caption writers over at US could stand to learn a few things about how to handle scandal and forbidden desire from a writer like Kate Chopin. The difference is, gossip rags are all about getting hidden truths out into the open, and Chopin's story "The Storm" is totally focused on keeping secret sex…well…secret.
"The Storm," a short story about an extramarital affair in the South, is very sexually explicit, especially for the time it was written, in 1898. Because of that, the story wasn't published during Chopin's lifetime. It would have been completely scandalous. The story didn't come out until almost 70 years later, in 1969 (source). Think about that for a second – it's only been about 40 years since people have even been able to read this story. Before the 1970s, any picture of Chopin's work would have been missing the nuances given to it by this story.
In addition to the complications surrounding its publication, "The Storm" has important connections to at least two of Chopin's other stories. Of course, you could just read "The Storm" by itself and enjoy it on its own merits. But it's worth figuring out what those other connections are.
Several characters from "The Storm" appear in Chopin's earlier piece from 1892, "At the 'Cadian Ball." Read side by side, the two pieces offer a cool comparison, particularly because they share the same set of characters. The earlier story is not as sexually explicit, and it got published soon after Chopin wrote it (source), which helps show us what was acceptable for publication in the 1890s. It also helps us imagine what else Chopin might have written if she had had fewer publication boundaries to contend with.
As many critics have pointed out, "The Storm" also really resonates with Chopin's most famous work, The Awakening. From a literary critic's standpoint, it's super interesting that The Awakening was written just one year after "The Storm." Even though it made it into publication, The Awakening was attacked for being too risqué. Can you imagine what those critics would have made of "The Storm"? If you're intrigued, head over to our "In a Nutshell" section on The Awakening and read about it for yourself – but be sure to come right back. Compare Calixta's life and choices with Edna's, and see if the parallels are all they're cracked up to be.
Why Should I Care?
When you think about love, what worries you? Meeting Mr./Ms. Right? Hooking up with the wrong person? Meeting Mr./Ms. Right after you hook up with the wrong person? Those are all tough things to deal with, but nothing you all can't handle. Compared to 19th century lovers, people today have it easy. Sure couples encounter obstacles all the time, but today we have way more options than the characters in "The Storm" do.
See, Alcée and Calixta are each in unsatisfying marriages, and they still have feelings for each other. Unfortunately, society, propriety, and all that other stuff keep them apart. During "The Storm," Alcée and Calixta finally get to experience the passion they've been cheated of in the past. But that's it. They have an amazing sexual encounter and then are forced to go their separate ways.
There's something tragic in seeing two people experience such pleasure and happiness, all the while knowing that it can't last. Alcée and Calixta both find extreme physical happiness together, which it's clear that they aren't getting in their marriages. Yet after having experienced that pleasure, they have to return to their normal lives. It almost seems cruel. Would it be better not to experience such happiness if it's only fleeting? Or does it seem like Chopin's story is telling us to seize the moment, that a sliver of happiness is better than none at all?
Because of this story's racy and scandalous content, it couldn't be published during Chopin's lifetime. Just as Alcée and Calixta had to keep their affair a secret, Chopin had to keep the story of that affair secret too.