Double Duty

Double Duty
A Critical Analysis of
Kate Chopin’s Short Story
Ripe Figs
( read the story )

by Thomas Jay Rush

This is a very short piece of fiction. Ostensibly, it tells the story of a young woman (Babette) and her godmother, whom she calls Maman-Nainaine. The godmother wishes to have the girl visit her aunt down in bayou country. She repeatedly tells the girl that she will be visiting her aunt “when the figs were ripe,” which in South Louisiana is around mid-summer. The girl thinks that is a very long time away because it is only early spring when Maman-Nainaine first says this, but as the wise old woman knows, the time approaches quickly. When the figs finally do ripen the godmother is surprised at how early that have ripened this year. The young woman cannot believe they’ve ripened so late.

The piece is very short. 288 words. There are only three characters, Maman-Nainane, Babette and Babette’s aunt, Tante Frosine, the last of which is only mentioned by reference. What could this story be about?

If the reader looks at the surface of the story he finds that this story is about how the old and the young experience time differently. What seems early to the old woman has taken forever for the young girl. She has been going out into the orchard all summer looking at the fig trees to see if the figs have ripened. She does this because she wishes to go on trip to see her aunt. The young girl was anticipating the trip and could not wait for it to happen. The old women knew better. She knew that the time would pass very quickly – especially for herself, who, being old, would naturally want to savor every moment and feel that any passage of time was going by too quickly.

But, if the reader looks a little deeper, and considers each word in the tiny story carefully, something a little more interesting emerges. I believe that in a short piece like this, with less than 300 words, every word must count. In fact, if the writer can make words count more than once all the better. I think Ms. Chopin has done that with this story.

When describing Babette Ms. Chapin uses words like “danced out to where the fig-trees were,” and “as restless as a hummingbird,” reinforcing the sense that this is a young, sprightly girl. Also, she mentions spring, and “tender shoots” on the fig trees, each of which are evocative of youth.

When describing Maman-Nainane Ms. Chopin uses words like “sat down in her stately way,” and “but that is the way Maman-Nainaine was,” implying that she is set in her way – in short, old.

But there are two short passages that imply to me that what the story is really talking about is Maman-Nainane’s impending death. These are when Ms. Chopin decides to say “her muslin cap standing like an aureole about her white, placid face,” and “I shall look for her at Toussaint – when the chrysanthemums are in bloom.”

In the first quoted passage above the word “aureole” means halo, or a circle of light, referring, I think to the fact that the old woman will soon be joining the angles. In the second passage the word “Toussaint” is a Cajun word referring to an annual holiday that we westerners call “All Saint’s Day,” – that is, Halloween. Additionally, according to Wikipedia, chrysanthemums symbolize death because they usually appear at funerals or on graves.

I love stories like this. This is a very short passage, as I’ve already said, but it provides a good hour’s worth of effort to unravel each and every hidden word and phrase. It is very easy to read this short piece and say something like “Oh, that was nice. About an old woman and a young one and their different way of looking at time’s passage,” but upon deeper reflection it’s actually saying much more than that.

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