By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Kiss’ is a short story by the American writer Kate Chopin (1850-1904), written in a single day (19 September 1894) and published in Vogue magazine the following June. (Chopin was paid just $10 for the story.) ‘The Kiss’ is about a woman who is passionately attracted to one man but who wishes to marry another, who is a millionaire; one day, the man she loves kisses her in full view of the wealthy man she wants to marry.
You can read ‘The Kiss’ here before reading on to our summary and analysis of Chopin’s story below. The story takes around 4-5 minutes to read.
‘The Kiss’: plot summary
A man, Brantain, sits by the fire with Nathalie, an attractive woman, who is stroking a cat in her lap. They are making small talk rather than addressing what is really on their minds. The third-person narrator of the story tells us that Nathalie is aware of Brantain’s love for her, and how eagerly he has sought her attention. He is not attractive, but he is ‘enormously rich’, so Nathalie is considering marrying him for his money.
However, as they are making idle chitchat, the door to the room opens and a man comes in, strides over to where Nathalie is sitting, and bends down to kiss her before she knows what’s happening. Brantain is surprised by this, because he thought Nathalie was interested in him, so he makes his excuses and leaves, clearly embarrassed and offended by what has happened.
Once Brantain has gone, Nathalie chastises the man who had kissed her. His name is Harvy and it is clear that he is the man who really has her heart, but she wants to marry Brantain because he is wealthy while Harvy isn’t. Harvy tells her that he came into the house with Nathalie’s brother, and that was how he was able to barge into the room like that.
At the next social engagement, Nathalie approaches Brantain to try to smooth things over and explain. She tells him that she and Harvy are more like cousins than lovers, and that he is an ‘intimate friend’ of the family. Brantain seems ready to believe this, even though we know there is more to Nathalie and Harvy’s relationship than she is letting on.
The final part of the story takes place at Nathalie’s wedding to Brantain. Harvy approaches the bride and tells her that Brantain has given him permission to kiss her. Nathalie blushes, thinking that Brantain has completely bought her lie about her and Harvy being just good friends. But as she waits for Harvy to kiss him as announced, he goes on to tell her that he has stopped kissing women as ‘it’s dangerous’.
The story ends with Nathalie reasoning that she may have lost Harvy’s love but at least she still has Brantain and his fortune, and ‘a person can’t have everything in this world’.
‘The Kiss’: analysis
Many of Kate Chopin’s stories are about married women, and even if her female protagonists are unmarried, they are defined by this feature of their lives. ‘The Kiss’ is about the courtship leading up to a marriage, and the story might be summed up by the old proverb, ‘you can’t eat your cake and have it too’. The story is about passion and money and how women marrying at this time (the 1890s) often couldn’t expect to get both when they married.
Nathalie does not come across as an especially likeable figure. It’s clear that she likes Harvy and returns his passions, yet when Harvy kisses her in full view of Brantain, she attempts to win Brantain round by lying about the nature of their relationship. In doing this, she arguably betrays both of them, because she is trying to belong both to Harvy and Brantain, neither of whom will truly be able to call her theirs.
But of course, Brantain seems to be at fault too. He is only too ready to believe the lie Nathalie tells him, and even before she has finished explaining, we are told that ‘hope was plainly gaining ascendancy over misery’ in his face.
He may be ‘guileless’, but he seems to overlook the rather unorthodox relationship his bride-to-be has with another man. (After all, the ‘kiss’ of the story’s title was no mere brotherly or cousinly peck on the cheek: it was, we should recall, ‘an ardent, lingering kiss’ which Harvy ‘pressed’ onto her ‘lips’.)
The problem which Chopin is exposing is the problem we encounter in many of her short stories: women are strongly encouraged if not actively forced to get married, and, because financial independence is a far-off dream for most women at this time, they often need to marry a wealthy man to ensure they will be provided for.
Brantain certainly has the money, and Nathalie is not the first woman in such a society finding herself torn between penury with the man she truly loves (or passionately desires, at least) and financial comfort and security with a man she finds vaguely repulsive (did she turn the lights down in the room in that first scene, to ensure that Brantain ‘sat in one of these shadows’ in the room so she wouldn’t have to look at his ‘unattractive’ features too closely?).
However, as so often with a Kate Chopin story, there’s a twist, or at least a complication. For there is no reason why a woman like Nathalie needs to marry a millionaire, as Brantain is.
Marrying a man with property and a steady job is one thing; marrying a man one finds faintly hideous just to get one’s hands on ‘his million’ smacks of money-grubbing or gold-digging. Chopin is reminding us that many women of this period are forced to marry men they don’t love so they don’t starve, but there’s a world of difference – a wealth of difference, we might say – between not starving and dining at the Ritz every night.
What Nathalie really wants, then, is to have her cake (Brantain) and eat it too (Harvy). There is a suggestion that Nathalie comes from a well-to-do family (so is used to the finer things in life) but still needs to marry a man with wealth; Brantain, by contrast, has the money but is too ‘frank’, ‘blustering’, and ill at ease to belong to the same class as Nathalie. He is most probably ‘new money’, a self-made man who is now trying to marry a refined girl and join polite society.
This very short story is steeped in suggestive symbolism: that ‘smouldering fire’ in the opening paragraph hints at both Brantain’s unrequited desire for Nathalie, while also foreshadowing the passionate kiss between Harvy and Nathalie (note how the word ‘ardent’ is used about both men’s admiration for Nathalie; but whereas Harvy plants an ‘ardent’ kiss upon her, Brantain can only ‘keep his eyes fastened … ardently’ upon her.
And talking of foreshadowing, there is some (literal) foreshadowing with all that shadowy ‘obscurity’ (a word which hovers between an abstract and concrete meaning) in the story’s opening paragraphs. If it allows Nathalie to avoid having to gaze on her future husband’s unattractive face, it also allows Brantain to gaze at her with more ‘courage’ than he would otherwise have. But the shadows also partly conceal her features, so he is merely allowing himself to be deceived by shadows and half-truths, much as he will do later in the story.