Kate Chopin's "Lilacs" and the Story of the Annunciation
by Jacqueline Olson Padgett
When the theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza writes that the myth of the Virgin Mary "sanctions a deep psychological and institutional split" (59) among women in the Catholic tradition, she captures what Kate Chopin also captured in her story "Lilacs." There, sisterhood between secular and religious women appears fragmented and nearly impossible. To scrutinize the division, Kate Chopin fashions her story around the portion of the Virgin Mary myth told in St. Luke's gospel of the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus spoken to Mary by the archangel Gabriel. Working with that text, "Lilacs" mocks a tradition prizing virginity and separating the cloistered from the secular. Irony prevails, but so too does the sorrow born of religious restraint and condemnation. From the tension in the Annunciation between the virginal and the non-virginal comes ages of women divided from one another on the basis of chastity and divided internally into spiritual and physical selves.
Chopin's "Lilacs" plays out this division on the grounds of a Sacred Heart convent and in the apartments of a Parisian mondaine to question whether a life almost wholly spiritual or a life almost wholly physical can be anything but the subject of ridicule. The narrator tempts us to enjoy the ridicule only to have us feel more painfully at the story's end the dolorous effects of con strained desire, effects which diminish both nun and secular woman.
As a story that draws so heavily on the details and symbols of the Annunciation story, "Lilacs," we could assume, would want to remind us of Mary's (and, by extension, woman's) salvific role as the vessel chosen by God to ensure humankind's redemption. But "Lilacs" fails to announce the good news for women as it sees too clearly that what was salvific for humankind ended up dividing women within themselves and within the Catholic tradition because of that tradition's insistence on Mary's virginity before and after childbirth. This insistence separated the ideal virginal mother from real women and mothers whose joyously experienced sexuality closed the doors to work within the clerical ministry even until today. The Annunciation story for Kate Chopin is a story told at the expense of women's sexuality and spirituality, full and complementary as they might have been. The notion of a failed annunciation, then, opens "Lilacs": "Mme. Adrienne Farival never announced her coming..." (Chopin, "Lilacs" 131). And as the hope of the annunciation fails, so too the coming of redemption and salvation through women and their sisterhood must fail; annunciation yields to renunciation and ultimately denunciation. Kate Chopin's girlhood parish was that of the Church of the Annunciation with its "large statue of the Virgin Mary" that Emily Toth describes (Chopin 54-55). Whatever hopeful associations the young Kate might have held about the Annunciation seem to give way utterly in the adult world of the convent, a world Chopin in her diary called an undesirable "phantasmagoria" (Toth, Chopin 239).
Annunciations prefigure epiphanies. They blend word and flesh, but they typically emphasize word. Such blending impresses us in medieval religious art on the Annunciation, like the north portal of Würzburg's Marienkapelle, where the artist represents the Virgin Mary receiving word of the conception and conceiving simultaneously, joining concept and conception as it were, through the ear as both aural and genital orifice (Kottwitz 138). Word became flesh without too much flesh getting involved, though plenty of spirit.
Likewise, the stories in the Bible suggest many divisions. Luke's gospel opens with the announcement of the impending birth of John (Lk 1.5-25). Curiously, the angel announces it to the child's father, Zechariah, not to the child's mother and Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth. Thus, we have a male God announcing to a man the birth of a male child who is the answer to the man's prayers. Meaning for the father (Zechariah and God) depends on the birth of the son. John, the text continues, "will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (Lk 1.15; RSV translation; my emphasis). And while we all know that the "even" refers to time (even from conception, in other words), it may also refer ambiguously to the womb as a place of taint, as a holding area normally so removed from higher meaning that it takes a god or at least a man to invest it with meaning. Such ambiguity also gives the oft cherished Biblical idea of deliverance and delivery a certain slant. If the soon-to-be delivered child is to be the deliverance of his people, then the womb belongs to a time of bondage.
And the one who hears the annunciation of John's birth, old Zechariah, is dumb in response (or in his failure to respond). Small wonder the angel decided to try the second annunciation in Luke's gospel on a woman! Nor is Zechariah's dumbness an isolated response. We read of it again in Ellen Gilcrest's "Drunk with Love" in the words of the plastic surgeon, Dr. Johnson:
They have photographed men everywhere including some very remote tribes in New Guinea, being presented with the fact that a conception has taken place and they uniformly begin to joke about the matter, many going into this sort of uncontrolled smiling laughing state. (8)
Luke Haverty, sitting in for St. Luke, I suppose, in Gilcrest's novel on The Annunciation, more intelligently announces a coming birth to the mother, to Amanda her self, "the gray-blue virgin" (279). She wears, as too many of Gilcrest's characters do, blue and white, "the virgin's colors" (279), in fond evocation perhaps of the Farival twins in The Awakening (just how these Farival twins might be related to Adrienne Farival of "Lilacs" is unclear), similarly clad in blue and white and forever repeating their piano lessons after "having been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin at their baptism" (Chopin, Awakening 69).
St. Luke's report on the annunciation to Mary (Lk 1.26-38) leaves us with many divisions: God's certain plan for Mary alongside Mary's confusion, God's will and Mary's surrender, Mary's virginity and her pregnancy, the power of the Holy Spirit and the lowliness of the maiden whom he will "overshadow" (Lk 1.35). Nothing in Mary's apparent actions brings about the conception of Jesus. She does not choose but is chosen; the overshadowing, intrusive power of a male God requires this role of Mary beyond her will and her sexuality. She is chosen as womb and passively responds as a servant, not as one who shares in power.
Ironic divisions mark Kate Chopin's use of the matter of the Annunciation in "Lilacs" and other works, notably in The Awakening. There, Chopin's turning of the matter of the annunciation on end occurs clearly in the description of Edna's birthday dinner:
But as she sat there amid her guests, she felt the old ennui overtaking her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of violation. It was something which announced itself; a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed. There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable. (145, my emphasis)
What was hope in the Biblical Annunciation is here hopelessness and ennui; the intrusion from the outside is not of divine benevolence, but of obsession and of discord; the heavenly wind heralding the presence of the Spirit and of God's messenger is here a chill breath from a hellish place; and the desire for union with the beloved, so much the matter of spirituality and of the Virgin Mary's surrender to God's will, proves here unattainable and forebodes death. The annunciation to Edna that summons "into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one" is the same annunciation, followed by the same sad hopelessness, that the nuns in "Lilacs" know in the springtime when they look for "the coming of those they love" (131).
Chopin's "Lilacs" turns directly to the story of the Annunciation and its implications for women. The story's Adrienne Farival, Parisian actress/singer, yields each spring to the desire awakened in her by the smell of lilacs. That smell drives her to return with a generous gift to her girlhood convent school. There she lives in community with the sisters and enjoys particularly the companionship of Sister Agathe. Two weeks then go by and Adrienne returns to her rather frivolous life in Paris.
Reminders of the Annunciation shape this story in its consideration of the division between religious and secular women, between the spiritual and Sister Agathe hear the Angelus bell together as they walk, and together they recite the prayer commemorating the Annunciation to Mary:
At the sound both women instinctively sank to their knees, signing themselves with the sign of the cross. And Sister Agathe repeated the customary invocation, Adrienne responding in musical tones: 'The Angel of the lord declared unto Mary,/ And she conceived by the Holy Ghost--./ (137)
That spiritual and prayerful bond between the women gives way immediately to the night-time preparations for bed and all the sensuous and sensual details of that common ritual. The sacred and the sensual commingle in a scene of barely restrained desire. Emily Toth argues that in "Lilacs" Chopin had not yet had the "radical thought that nuns had not truly surrendered their earthly desires and human passions" (Intro xx). "Lilacs," though, does portray an emerging sensuality, earthly desire, and passion in the two women and in their relationship with each other. We witness Adrienne's "subtle and naive pleasure" in preparing for the "spotless bed" (virginal, unstained, should we say?) in the equally immaculate white room (137). Likewise, Sister Agathe indulges a secret pleasure (138) in watching Adrienne and her schoolgirl habits (and Chopin the humorist obviously intends the pun). As an aid to the sleepless Adrienne, Agathe proposes a Hail Mary and prays that the Holy Virgin will guard her (138). Emily Toth's biography of Kate Chopin relates the delightful story of a woman who may well have been something of a model for the character of Sister Agathe, alongside Kitty Garesche,1 to be sure (Chopin 75). That woman was Kate's beloved teacher, Mary Philomena O'Meara, at the school with the tall lilac bushes (Toth, Chopin 84), the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis. In her lonely childhood, the future nun "sometimes took a statue of the Virgin Mary to bed with her for companionship" (Toth, Chopin 75). Here in "Lilacs" Sister Agathe sends Adrienne off to sleep with the same companionship.
Beneath the platitudes of a privileged secular life -- the annoying manners of domestic workers, the noise of city streets, the demands of career -- which Adrienne voices and beneath the platitudes of religious life -- the orderly habits, the performance of good works, the reliance on prayer -- lies the carefully hidden world of desire. Chopin mocks the surface details of women's lives when lived without acknowledgement of desire, both spiritual and physical, whether inside or outside the convent.
Chopin shows both convent and secular worlds to be worlds of rituals so removed from meaning as to be able to bury physical and spiritual longing and satisfaction. So, the convent denizens say Hail Mary's to put themselves to sleep and pass their hours putting up sacred images and statues and adorning them on feast days with costly decorations like the necklace Adrienne offered as one of her annual gifts. The character of Sophie, Adrienne's maid in Paris, is a vehicle Chopin uses to highlight the vanity of both worlds. For Sophie is a secular version of the sisters. Just as they have "white-capped heads" (132), so Sophie stands before Adrienne with "her white starched cap quivering with each emphatic motion of her grizzled head" (139). Sophie's endless chatter is a "litany" (141) the likes of which the sisters might even have recited. And the "bottle of Château Yquem and a biscuit" (141) that Adrienne asks Sophie to serve may well be a profanation of the Eucharist the nuns receive daily.
Both worlds indeed seem profane, vacuous, mindless in mutual illumination. All that may render them worthy, even holy, is an integration of spiritual and physical desire and a sanctioned expression thereof The Virgin Mary myth has served to divide women from such harmony, and in "Lilacs" it serves the same function, carefully disrupting the integrated self, parting the spiritual and physical selves. Agathe and Adrienne live at those two poles, one devoted to spirituality, the other to the seemingly carnal and venal life of the stage in Paris.
Attention to a polarity between the woman in the convent and the actress recall Sylvie by Gerard de Nerval. The parallels suggest that Chopin may have known Nerval's novella. The narrator in Sylvie divides women's selves into bodiless spirits and spiritually dead bodies. He sees the character Adrienne only as the "esprit" (608) she plays in a village festival or as "fantôme" (597), as a transfigured being, transfigured at least beyond her body. He toys, importantly here as we read "Lilacs," with the confusion of actress and nun, realizing his love for Aurélie the actress has its origin in his love for Adrienne, a woman exiled to religious life by her family. He puzzles over the confusion, as he brings the two women together in his mind: "Aimer une religieuse sous la forme d'une actrice!...et si c' était la même" (597). In contrast, the narrator sees Sylvie only as body, initially indifferent to concerns of the intellect and the spirit. His vision eventually integrates the two selves.
Together at the convent on Adrienne's annual visits, Agathe and Adrienne test the possible union of their disparate lives. So both nun and secular woman appear to await a birth of a new sisterhood, uniting women divided by an institution: the nuns are "expectant" (132) and Adrienne herself as a "rounded" figure (131).
The rigid lines separating the secular and the religious may yet yield to the hope of an attainable union with the beloved. Established borders, at least in "Lilacs," do get crossed. The reader and the nuns awaiting Adrienne first see her "crossing the beautiful lawn that sloped up to the convent" (131, my emphasis). And the nuns transgress boundaries in kind:
Sister Agathe, more daring and impulsive than all, descended the steps and flew across the grass to meet her [Adrienne]. What embraces, in which the lilacs were crushed between them! What ardent kisses! What pink flushes of happiness mounting the cheeks of the two women! (132)
Mother Superior exercises more control: her "dignity would not permit her to so much as step outside the door of her private apartments" (132). In contrast to this character's severe restraint, again and again Chopin insists that borders be challenged and crossed. So Agathe and Adrienne linger "long upon the foot-bridge that spanned the narrow stream which divided the convent grounds from the meadow beyond" (137). The borders are the institutional ones between the secular and the religious, the erotic ones between woman and woman, the psychological ones within each of us between the physical and the spiritual. Both nun and woman the stage strain at the limits.
When the day of her [Adrienne's] departure came, sister Agathe was not satisfied to say good-bye at the portal as the others did. She walked down the drive beside the creeping old cabriolet, chattering her pleasant last words. And then she stood -- it was as far as she might go -- at the edge of the road, waving good-bye in response to the fluttering of Adrienne's handkerchief. (138-39)
A year later, on her way to the final visit, Adrienne anticipates happily "the warmth and tenderness" of Sister Agathe's embrace (144). But in the end, borders are closed, heavy keys in great locks denying entrance to Adrienne and sealing off forever the lives and love of the two women on orders from the Mother Superior.
Signs at the convent obviously had portended ill for bonds between women: a picture of the Sacré Coeur had replaced that of Catherine of Siena; St. Joseph's mantle had fresh paint making the neglected Virgin Mary's statue seem "dingy" (132). And the distinctly non-maternal Mother Superior in her closeted dignity remained rigid, unaffectionate, cold, and hidden behind the masks of learning and convention.
In Kate Chopin's work, hope for links between secular and religious women does exist. Agathe and Adrienne's love for each other grew despite the poor environment: their physical gestures of affection were genuine and tender. Nonetheless, they evoked the Mother Superior's denunciation2 of Adrienne and her piacular gifts, leaving to Adrienne the physical life, to Agathe cloistered spirituality, to both rejection, loss, and sorrow. Elmo Howell sees the grief at the end as the expression of the loss of two worlds, the sensual and the spiritual, that are "not compatible" (108). And, in a similar commentary on the ending, Helen Taylor writes that
the story ... underlines the irreconcilable differences between the two opposing social constructions of femininity and female erotic feeling, while allowing the images of weeping nun and scattered lilac blossoms to suggest a more diffuse and incontainable notion of desire. (154)
The secular and the religious women are left with an unhealed division, a sense of shame, and the need for expiation we find in Tennyson's Guinevere as the abbess who transmutes her carnality into spirituality. Wholeness and well-being, redemption and salvation: these are the promise of the Annunciation. In "Lilacs" Kate Chopin questions whether such a promise is available to women separated from each other on the basis of chastity.
1 I remember especially the poem "To the Friend of My Youth: To Kitty," in which Kate Chopin links her soul to Kitty's in a "mystic garland.../Of scented lilac and the new blown rose" (Works 735, my emphasis).
2 Thomas Bonner, Jr., is right in arguing against Per Seyersted's reading: "Per Seyersted notes that Adrienne's dismissal occurred because news of her exotic life as an opera singer in Paris reached the Mother Superior. It is more likely that she perceived the change in Sister Agathe" (283). Peggy Skaggs (42) and Barbara Ewell (91), however, also argue that the denunciation results from the Mother Superior's discovery of the kind of life Mme. Farival leads in Paris. Barbara Ewell emphasizes Adrienne's "childish character" (91), "duplicity" (91), and "irresponsibility" (92).
-------- The Completed Works of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.
-------- "Lilacs." A Vocation and a Voice. Ed. Emily Toth. NY: Penguin, 1991. 131-46.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. "Feminist Theology as a Critical Theology of liberation." Churches in Struggle: Liberation Theologies and Social Change in North American. Ed. William K. Tabb. NY: Monthly Review Press, 1986. 46-66.
-------- "Drunk with Love." Drunk with Love: A Book of Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986. 3-25.
-------- Kate Chopin. NY: Morrow, 1990.
JACQUELINE OLSEN PADGETT teaches at Trinity College, Washington.
Copyright 1994, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Padgett, Jacqueline, Olsen. (1994). "Kate Chopin's "Lilacs" and the Story of the Annunciation. WILLA, Volume III, 19-22.