There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar upon the water. Kate Chopin
In the 1960s, Kate Chopin’s grandson discovered some of the writer’s personal papers including a 1894 diary entitled “Impressions” written in a school copybook with a rat hole gnawed in the middle. The diary is full of her observations regarding, most of all, the impressions she had of others.
Kate Chopin (1851-1904), was born and raised in Missouri. She was just a little girl when her father lost his life when the train he was travelling on crossed a bridge that collapsed. So Kate was raised in a household full of women who believed in living life “clearly and fearlessly”.
During the Civil War, Kate lived in St. Louis, a town split between Unioners and Confederates. At the age of 19, Kate met the wealthy plantation owner, Oscar Chopin. They married and moved to New Orleans where, at that time, married women were considered the legal property of their husbands. But that didn’t keep Kate from smoking cigars, wearing boisterous clothes, and wildly riding her horse around town. After her husband died leaving her in debt, she moved back to St. Louis to live with her mom. But shortly afterwards,her mom died leaving Kate feeling overwhelmed and depressed. So her doctor suggested writing as a form of therapy. And this was the beginning of her literary career. Almost 40 years old, Kate began writing poems and short stories when the responsibilites of being a mother permitted.
Kate was impressed by Impressionism. She looked at Monet’s water lilies and thought “Oh, to be able to paint in color than in words”. Like the oils in an Impressionist painting, perception and impression blend together and that’s what Kate wanted to do, to.
When Edgar Degas stayed in New Orleans in 1872, he became acquainted with Kate. During one of their many conversations, he told her about the Morisot sisters, both painters. Berthe, a victim of her love for Edouard Manet, continued to paint but Edma stopped when she married and regretted it for the rest of her life. This inspired Kate’s short story “The Awakening,” a story about a woman’s desire to be herself and the conflict this causes for herself and others. Kate was influenced, too, by Mary Cassatt, Impressionist painter involved with Degas whose “Modern Women” mural created much scandal.
Kate wanted to write honestly and with no regard for conventional standards. She wrote about women and their semi-slave status, psychic traumas, and sexuality. The patriarchs were not happy and her worked repressed. They could keep Kate from being published but they couldn’t stop her from keeping a diary.
Excerpts from “Impressions” (May 1894):
-Kate goes to her publisher’s office. An old gentleman is reading an excessively long poem about the army. He asks if there’s a possibility it can be published but is given a negative response. So the man stands up, bows, and gives a brief apology before leaving. Kate learns that the elderly poet was an anarchist and wrote: “Fancy an anarchist armed with no more serious a bomb than a poem which he carries into the offices of publishers there to accomplish its deadly work.”
-another day in May “I have no leaning towards a parrot. I think them detestable birds with their blinking stupid eyes and heavy clumsy motions…it made me positively ill today when I had gone to pass a few hours with Blanche, to be forced to divide her society and attention with her own parrot and a neighbor’s which she had borrowed….but on the other hand, she gave me delicious homegrown strawberries (the first) for luncheon.”
–22 May “I have finished a story of 4800 words and called it ‘Lilacs.’ I cannot recall what suggested it. If the story had been written after my visit of last Sunday to the convent, I would not have to seek the impulse far. Those nuns seem to retain or gain a certain beauty with their advancing years which we women in the world are strangers to. The unchanging form of their garments through years and years seems to impart a distinct character to their bodily movements.”
First impressions are a point of departure for interacting with others. They give us a means of making quick evaluations. For example, to see if the person in front of us is friend or foe. But the person in front of us does the same.
My impression of you talks with your impression of me.
We are not always the same person. Society is not homogeneous so we are always modifying the role we play and the impression we give.
Even the impression we have of ourselves fluctuates and sometimes we perform even for ourselves. Sometimes we wear masks even when we are alone.
Like Kate Chopin, we can use our diary to record the impressions we have of the world around us. Because perception is not static and often flickers like the light in an impressionist painting.
Toth, Emily and Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin’s Private Papers.
Goffman, Erving. The Presentations of Self in Everyday Life.