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Kate Chopin as a Vocal Colourist: Vocalscapes in “Beyond the Bayou”

Par Manuel Jobert : Professeur des Universités - Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3
Publié par Clifford Armion le 16/04/2013
Authors sometimes pepper their writings with features of orality. Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, Thomas Hardy or George Bernard Shaw have become household names renowned for this propensity to rely on the vocal medium. Orality, however, is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of possible meanings. In this paper, I shall mainly be concerned with direct speech and the way it represents spoken discourse proper.
Suite à la journée de formation organisée par La Clé des langues, le Rectorat de Lyon et la Société de Stylistique Anglaise à l'ENS le 8 avril 2013, nous avons le plaisir de mettre en ligne un texte de Manuel Jobert précédemment publié dans un ouvrage dirigé par Denis Jamet : Hommage à Malcolm Clay, Lyon : Publication de l’Université Jean Moulin – Lyon 3, 2008. Nous vous invitons également à consulter les présentations des trois intervenants de la formation, Manuel Jobert, Vanina Jobert-Martini et Marie-Agnès Gay, accessibles depuis l'encadré droit de cette page.

Beyond the Bayou – Kate Chopin (text)


Authors sometimes pepper their writings with features of orality. Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, Thomas Hardy or George Bernard Shaw have become household names renowned for this propensity to rely on the vocal medium. Orality, however, is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of possible meanings. In this paper, I shall mainly be concerned with direct speech and the way it represents spoken discourse proper.

The differences between spoken discourse and its written representations have been abundantly studied by linguists and non-linguists. Abercrombie (1965, 04) remarks:

Nobody speaks at all like the characters in any novel, play or film. Life would be intolerable if they did; and novels, plays or films would be intolerable if the characters spoke as people do in life.

Chapman (1994, 1) adds:

Variations in accent, social or regional, and in personal voice quality, are tacitly ignored unless the text requires that they be made specific. Standard spelling neutralises speech and puts the onus on the author to show any special features.

Indeed, aspects of what Leech & Short (1981, 161) call « normal non-fluency » (such as hesitation pauses, false starts, clumsy constructions, overlaps[1] etc.) are usually absent from the fictional representation of speech. These features tend to pass unnoticed in real speech and are therefore not encoded in fiction. Leech & Short (1981, 161) comment:

Altogether, it may be concluded that real conversation is unlikely to be promising material for literary employment, and that it must strike an observer who has an eye on the aesthetic capabilities of language as sloppy, banal, and ill-organised. We come, once more to our familiar conclusion about realism: the author of a literary fiction does not aim at a completely realistic representation of the features of ordinary conversation.

Fictional speech, however, is generally regarded as a close enough representation of real speech and, thanks to the Gricean principle of cooperation, readers agree to play along with the pretence[2]. Once a writer has ironed out the less meaningful features of orality, those that remain are bound to carry important information[3]. They fall into two major categories:

  • phonostylistic features (Léon, 1993), give information on speakers’ physiological characteristics, and on their regional and social backgrounds. These features are relatively permanent and enable listeners to distinguish both groups and individuals. Dialects and idiolects fall into this category.
  • paralinguistic vocal features (Brown, 1990) provide information about speakers’ attitudes and emotions. These features are more volatile. They may be strictly phonetic (giving information about loudness for instance, as in “she shouted”) or they may be purely attitudinal (as in “she retorted”). In this case, the acoustic quality of the utterance has to be inferred. The processing of such information is done naturally by readers who take onboard whatever is suggested by the author, usually unconsciously. Paralinguistic vocal features always represent a deviation from the speaker’s norm: they are thus relative and not absolute. For instance, “she cried” implies that the speaker uses a loudness which is somewhat higher than the loudness s/he usually uses. Finally, paralinguistic vocal features tend to be congruent with kinesics but may contradict the semantic content of the verbal message. In terms of communication, their role is thus of paramount importance.

Kate Chopin is well known for her rendering of dialects and accents, as many of her stories show, but less attention has been paid to her use of paralinguistic vocal features[4]. These two layers of vocal encoding give her stories an undisputable oral quality and create a vocalscape in which the action is set. These features find an echo in the narrative voice that takes on an oral quality and a rhythm somewhat comparable to that found in poetry. In other words, what is present in the diegesis is, more often than not, reverberated in the narrative.

The overall structure of “Beyond the Bayou” is strikingly simple and follows a linear pattern. Jacqueline, also known as La Folle[5], doggedly remains on her side of the Bayou because of a traumatic experience when she was a child, during the Civil War. P’tit Maître, had appeared in her mother’s cabin, “black with powder and crimson with blood” (55). P’tit Maître is now the owner of Bellissime, the plantation where La Folle works. His son, Chéri and La Folle have developed a close relationship. A shooting accident happens and La Folle is forced to fight her fear and crosses the Bayou to take Chéri back home.

The parallel with Labov’s “oral narratives of personal experience[6]” is striking. It accounts for the folk-tale quality of the story which is alluded to in the evocation of the “wondrous stories of things that always happened ‘yonda, beyon’ de Bayou’” (56), told by La Folle to P’tit Maître’s children. Indeed, the abstract is pretty accurately represented by the title, as the story is actually about La Folle’s crossing the Bayou and, more specifically, its consequences. Indeed, the title refers to the destination, the place of arrival, rather than the actual crossing as such, which is implicitly presented as a necessary but not a central element. The orientation is, as is often the case in 19th century fiction, fairly lengthy and the central characters (La Folle and Chéri) as well as the general backdrop are precisely depicted. The complicating action is, of course, Chéri’s shooting accident and the consequences on La Folle’s behaviour. The result (i.e. the consequence of the preceding action) focuses on the feeling of contentment experienced by La Folle. The absence of a formal coda seems to suggest that the conclusion of the story may not be as straightforward as could be anticipated. However, the very tight structure of the narrative gives a parabolic dimension to the short-story. As for evaluative devices, they are to be found in the change of perspective present at the end, which largely determines the reader’s response to the story. The mise en abyme of story-telling, the very simplicity of the plot with its poignant climax – also reminiscent of Labov’s paradigm – along its well-ordered chronology - unquestionably evoke traditional oral narratives.

1. Vocal colour and linguistic identification

Kate Chopin is often considered as a “local colourist” and although written language is notoriously inadequate to convey the flavour of spoken discourse, she is quite successful in encoding her characters’ phonostyles. At this stage, it is worth stressing that “direct speech in novels is, then, ‘a slanted faithful record’” (Toolan, 1992, 33). Cooper (1994, 27) explains:

Realist representations of dialect speech in literary writing do not work through exact correlation with an actual referent (an actual dialect outside the text), but are perceived as credible because they mobilize codes that are significant to the reader.

With this in mind, it is nevertheless possible to assess the extent of Kate Chopin’s success in drawing the linguistic picture of Louisiana speech. In Louisiana, where the action of “Beyond the Bayou” is set, several linguistic varieties co-exist: French Creole and Cajun, itself influenced by Acadian French, as well as a variety of English. Yat, a New Orleans accent whose name derives from the phrase “Where y’at?”, meaning “How are you?”, is also presented. This accent shares phonetic features with Brooklynese, i.e. New York’s basilect. The linguistic hotchpotch Kate Chopin manages to render is a fairly accurate depiction of the linguistic situation. A comprehensive study of the eye-dialect she encodes is impossible here, but a brief overview of the more salient features she exposes is in order.

The French past of Lousiana is present in the referential world especially through toponymy, proper names and nicknames (the plantation is called Bellissime – French via Latin; Jacqueline is usually referred to as “La Folle”, the boy as “Chéri” and his father as “P’tit Maître”). La Folle uses both a Louisana French Creole of sorts as well as a dialect of English. In the 1891 version of the story, a paragraph, removed from the revised story, reads:

“He used to kiss me so lovingly!” La Folle said to herself in her dialect. (167)

It is as though Kate Chopin was fully aware of the difficulty of encoding dialect and was preparing the ground for the ensuing dialogue. Interestingly here, direct speech is presented in Standard English despite what is indicated in the inquit. In most cases, however, to evoke Louisiana English, Kate Chopin resorts to morphophonological encoding (Léon, 1993). More specifically, the dialect presented seems to be a blend of South American English and Yat. Here is a selection of some of the major regional speech pointers used in the story[7]:

- Loss of the velar nasal /N/ in ING forms: “She goin’ be” (57)
- TH Stopping; <th> realised as a stop rather than as a fricative; the opposition/t-θ/ may be lost. It is also the case with the opposition between /d-ð/: “De bayou (56). “Dat’s too big (57).
- Abundant use of elision.
- Non-rhoticity. Unlike General American, South American English tends to be non-rhotic. We find many examples of non-rhoticity both in the mouth of La Folle “I come ax how my po’ li’l” Chéri to, ‘s mo’ning (60) and in the speech of other characters such as Chéri: “One squirrel ain’t a bite. I’ll bring you mo’ ‘an one, La Folle” (57). As Chapman (1994) points out, morphophonological encoding can only be impressionistic and there is no systematic marking of phonostylistic features. However, in this case, this lack of coherence could very well point to the lack of consistency in rhoticity (the lack of what Wells calls “the R-Norm clarity”[8]), also typical of the Southern accent.
- Extreme weakening of unstressed – pretonic or postonic – syllables as in “b’lieve”(59). Here, the written representation is actually closer to the phonetic reality than the orthographic spelling. This phenomenon is generally called compression and is quite common in standard accents. However, the deviant spelling is an attempt to indicate a deviation from the norm and must therefore be interpreted as such.  Similarly, in “bayer” (58), the spelling <er> is used instead of <ou> to indicate a neutral vowel (schwa) rather than a rhotic realisation, despite the spelling.
- Southern speech also exhibits the /ɪ/ /e/ neutralisation straightforwardly encoded with “till” (60) for “tell” and “ef” (59) for “if”.
- “Breaking” is also present in the word “here”, spelt “yair”(60). In monosyllabic words, /ɪ/ tends to be followed by a schwa, thus lengthening the vowel sound[9]. We also note a case of h-dropping here.

The blend of French words and Lousiana speech contributes to giving an accurate idea of the characters’ phonostyles. But these linguistic features are not mere elements of realism. Indeed, the use of French is sometimes to be construed as a sympathy-marker. It is clearly La Folle’s viewpoint that is adopted from the start:

She called him Chéri, and so did every one else because she did. (56)

French is used in moments of tension and intense emotions. This is traditional as Chapman (1994, 61) explains: “Regional speech pointers are often increased when the speaker is under emotional pressure”. Although La Folle generally uses both French and English with Chéri (57), she simply uses French when there is no other issue than to cross the Bayou. The tension felt by La Folle is also suggested by the paralinguistically marked verb “mutter” indicating a fast tempo:

She spoke no more to Chéri, but muttered constantly, “Bon Dieu, ayez pitié La Folle! Bon Dieu, ayez pitié moi!” (58)

In the same way, Chéri uses a dialect similar to La Folle’s when speaking with her. This can be interpreted as what Trudgill (2000) calls “group identification” since, as far as the reader can tell, Chéri’s mother speaks Standard English. The speech attunement or “code switching” he displays with La Folle is the linguistic sign of enhanced complicity beween them.

This linguistic versatility gives a remarkably accurate picture of the community presented and provides clues for the general evaluation of the story. In Kate Chopin’s writing, accent encoding goes well beyond the mere stereotypical presentation of the speech of a given locality: it has a major functional role. Paralinguistic vocal features work similarly. They are emotion markers and appear in clusters in emotionally charged episodes. They therefore enable the reader to follow La Folle’s progression across the Bayou.

2. Paralinguistic vocal features as motion and emotion markers

As stated above, the relationship between La Folle and Chéri is based on complicity. The paralinguistic features used with the many reporting verbs are congruent with this and the vocal registers of the characters are attuned. La Folle is first amused at Chéri’s manly behaviour. His “boasting” (56) and “boasting pompously”(57) is met with words uttered “gaily to him” (56), and La Folle “laughs”(57) at his bragging about his future hunting prowess.

The shooting accident is brought about vocally first and the “sharp cry of distress” (57) – when Chéri shoots himself in the leg – threatens to unbalance the vocal harmony previously established. However, the vocal coherence is maintained. Both characters play their parts: Chéri is in pain and La Folle remains in her comforting role. The many paralinguistic features used actually respond to one another thus emphasizing their mutual understanding and the bond between them: “He moaned piteously: – “I’m dead, La Folle! I’m dead! I’m gone!”, “Non, non!” she exclaimed resolutely, as she knelt down beside him. (57)”. Similarly: “Now, with his head upon the woman’s shoulder, he moaned and wept with pain and fright.’Oh, La Folle! La Folle! It hurt so bad! I can’ stan’ it, La Folle!’” (57) is echoed by:“Don’t cry, mon bébé, mon Chéri!“ the woman spoke smoothingly to him as she covered the ground with long strides”. (57). Although the vocal registers have changed, no vocal disruption as such has yet occurred. It is worth stressing that there is congruence here between the paralinguistic and the kinetic registers.

The first vocal disorder occurs when La Folle reaches the bank of the Bayou she refuses to cross. Her first shout for help is presented in direct speech and in French:

Oh, P’tit Maître! P’tit Maître! Venez donc! Au secours! Au secours!” (57)

Narrative reports of speech acts (Leech & Short, 1981) then take over, thereby indicating that what matters is the emotions conveyed through her voice, rather than the actual content of her speech. In linguistic terms, the paralinguistic message overrides the linguistic message proper:

She shouted, she wailed; but whether her voice remained unheard or unheeded, no reply came to her frenzied cries. (58)

The progression (“shouted”, “wailed”, “frenzied cries”) points to a major vocal change. The same is true of Chéri’s words, also presented through narrative reports of speech acts, in a similar fashion:

And all the while, Chéri moaned and wept and entreated to be taken home to his mother. (58)

The overlap between Chéri’s and La Folle’s speech, suggested by “all the while” augment the vocal disruption suggested. Such conversational overlaps are sufficiently rare in fiction, because of the difficulty to render them, to be noticed.

The neutral “No voice responded” (58), which immediately follows, rings as a narrative counterpoint to the newly created vocal din. The fact that both characters should remain unheard reinforces the bond between them while emphasizing their isolation from the rest of the community. The vocal element is clearly foregrounded while it de-humanises the inhabitants living beyond the Bayou as they are at first reduced to absent voices:

She called for each and every one upon the place, and still no answer came. (58)

La Folle’s “vocal scanning” (“each and every”) is in vain. While La Folle’s cries for help are not answered, her motions have an immediate vocal effect on the community. This time, the narrative reports of speech acts are immediately confirmed by direct speech and both are marked paralinguistically:

A child, playing in some weeds, caught sight of her as she neared the quarters. The little one uttered a cry of dismay.
“La Folle! She screamed, in her piercing treble. “La Folle done cross de Bayer!”
Quickly the cry passed down the line of cabins. (58)

The paralinguistic markers are both attitudinal and strictly phonetic. “A cry of dismay” presents both the acoustic reality (“a cry”) and the psychological implications (“dismay”). The interpretation is thus straightforwardly presented to the reader.

As the title suggests, the real subject matter of the story is indeed La Folle’s crossing the Bayou and not Chéri’s shooting accident: it is her extraordinary behaviour that elicits a vocal response (albeit not addressed to her) from the on-lookers. Chéri’s misadventure is promptly relegated outside the narrative proper. After La Folle’s collapse, the only information provided concerns her health. Quite aptly, her recovery is presented through the description of her voice:

The voice was very clear and steady with which she spoke to Tante Lizette, brewing her tisane there in a corner. (59)

The deviant pseudo-cleft structure thematises La Folle’s voice and presents it as her sole defining feature. Her voice counterpoints the preceding episode, the “clamor of voices” (60) that accompanied her crossing the Bayou. As this stage, it is worth noting that the evolution of the narrative voice echoes the changes in the diegetic vocal notations.

3. An appeased narrative voice

La Folle’s crossing the Bayou appears to be a sort of shock therapy preceded by shouts and cries and culminating in her physical collapse. This shock annihilates the effect of her first traumatic experience when P’tit Maître was injured and her crossing the Bayou may stand for a symbolic death and re-birth. Quite tellingly, La Folle does not look at the world around her during the rescue episode and the point of view adopted is an external one:

Instinct seemed to guide her. When the pathway spread clear and smooth enough before her, she again closed her eyes tightly against the sight of that unkown and terrifying world. (58)

Conversely, when she comes back to enquire about Chéri’s health, all her senses are alert: “She gazed across the country”(60); the birds are heard “singing their matins” (60); “she moved slowly and with delight over the springy turf, that was delicious beneath her tread” (60) and she smells “the perfumes that were assailing her senses with memories from a time far gone” (60). As these private verbs indicate, she has clearly become the centre of perception. She has also, literally, regained her lost senses.

This shift from total lack of perception to acute and pleasurable perception is part of a network of binary oppositions upon which the entire plot hinges. The first discursive evidence of this dichotomy appears very early with the phrase “yonda, beyon’ de bayou” (56), which foregrounds the distal dimension by repeating the deictic “yon”. Similarly, in the first version of the story, the French is almost systematically translated into English, for the better understanding of the English-speaking readership, which creates a double-voiced narrative:

“Oh, P’tit Maître! P’tit Maître! Venez donc! Come! Come! Au secours! Help! Help! Au secours!” (169)

Compared with the revised version:

“Oh, P’tit Maître! P’tit Maître! Venez donc! Au secours! Au secours!” (57)

The objective correlative of these oppositions is of course the Bayou, which is a spatial, temporal as well as psychological divide[10]. Indeed, La Folle failed to cross the Bayou at the death of “Old Mis’” (55) when she stood on the bank “wailing and lamenting” (55). The second attempt, which leaves her unconscious, is to save Chéri. A similar binary structure is used: “She shouted; she wailed” (58). Both binary structures carry paralinguistic information. The third attempt, when she comes back to enquire about Chéri’s health, is vocally neutral as if all the binary tensions, whose symptoms were expressed vocally, had now vanished.

Mimetically, at the end of the story, the binary rhythm is replaced by a ternary sequence, which dissipates the tensions at the poetic level. This narrative resolution is brought about through the repetition of “there” which clearly posits the reality of things and contrasts with La Folle’s “morbid fancy” (55):

There they were, stealing up to her from the thousand blue violets that peeped out from green, luxuriant beds. There they were, showering down from the big waxen bells of the magnolias far above her head, and from the big jessamine clumps around her.
There were roses, too, without number. (60)

The two thematised place adverbials (“there”) seem to emphasize the importance of the spatial anchoring whereas the “existential ‘there’” indicates that the sense of place has now been taken onboard by La Folle. This passage could not be more different from the animal-like description of La Folle when she rescues Chéri:

She turned her distorted face upon them. Her eyes were bloodshot and the saliva had gathered in a white foam on her black lips. (58)

Similarly, the binary rhythm already present in the alliteration of the title “Beyond the Bayou”, is cancelled in the final lines of the story:

A look of wonder and deep content crept into her face as she watched for the first time the sun rise upon the new, the beautiful world beyond the Bayou. (60)

This final harmony, however, has to be qualified: La Folle’s last encounter with Chéri’s mother is in fact based on vocal deception:

Quickly and cleverly she dissembled the astonishment she felt at seeing La Folle.
“Ah, La Folle! Is it you, so early?” (60)

Chéri’s mother checks her surprise at seeing La Folle and shifts her astonishment from “you” to the time adverbial “so early”. What could be construed as a tactful move is in fact the sign that the world order has not really changed. This suggests that the true divide is and remains the “imaginary line” (55) between the Blacks and the Whites. Quite tellingly, La Folle does not cross the threshold and she waits for Chéri’s awakening on “the topmost stairs of the veranda” (60). If thresholds and stairs may read as symbols of transition and evolution, the process is clearly not fully completed at the end of the story. Perrin-Chenour (2003, 27) explains:

La fin cependant est ambiguë, car la glorification de la beauté de la plantation ne semble pas suggérer une véritable redistribution des rôles. Elle peut au contraire se lire comme la justification de l’ordre antérieur, les esclaves, complémentaires de maîtres, participant à la création d’un monde harmonieux, esthétiquement parfait, mais appelé à disparaître sans leur contribution.

“Beyond the Bayou” swarms with direct and indirect references to voices. These are indeed elements of realism but their functional role is of paramount importance as they highlight episodes of tension and provide a perspective for the reader. The narrative voice duplicates the diegetic harmony in a final epiphany-like moment of contemplation.

Kate Chopin’s short-stories are rich in terms of accent and dialect encoding. What is impressive is the way the author manages to avoid a stereotypical presentation of local speech. Her presentation is a sympathetic one without being condescending or humorous. In other words, she avoids the “sense of alienation” inherent in accent or dialect encoding that Toolan (1992, 34) talks about. Through the manipulation of point of view, the reader is led to adopt La Folle’s perspective and to empathize with her. As Bell (1988, 216) comments:

[Kate Chopin] resented being identified with such local-color storytellers as George Washington Cable, who also wrote about Louisiana. In the best of her stories the regional peculiarities provide the enriching texture, but her true interest lay beyond that, in the human drama.

Because of its scope, this presentation can only be tentative in its conclusions. Some follow-up work should be carried out on accent encoding in Kate Chopin’s stories at large in terms of plot unfolding and evaluation. What is certain, however, is that diegetic and narrative voices are not on a different plane but form a continuum that places orality at the centre of the author’s style. Finally, a minute study of orality in the short-story turns out to be a most efficient way of exposing the deeper forces at work behind a deceptively simple narration.


[1] Leech & Short (1981, 161) explain: “They are non-fluent in the sense that they fall short of an ‘ideal’ delivery, and yet they are normal in the sense that they occur habitually in speech”.

[2] Toolan (1992, 34) confirms: “There are criteria and conventions underpinning speech transcriptions, just as such factors underpin literary representations of speech, and one of the most fundamental assumptions we make in reading direct speech is that, barring peripheral and inessential details (stumblings, repetitions, fractured and incomplete sentences), all the detail of a character’s actual speech that is relevant to proper uptake of that character or the novel’s theme will, in fact, be represented. It may be argued that a Gricean spirit of relevancy and sufficiency guides the construction of fictional direct-speech”.

[3] Things are sometimes more complicated as Leech & Short (1981, 165) explain: “Since features of non-fluency are normally overlooked by participants in real life conversation, they can be omitted from fictional conversation without impairing the realistic effect. But even these ‘errors’ can be communicative, in the sense that they may indicate something of the speaker’s character or state of mind”.

[4] See Jobert (2002) for the use of paralinguistic vocal features in fiction.

[5] See also Maupassant’s “La Folle”in Contes de la bécasse.

[6] See Toolan (2001) for a presentation of Labov’s approach in a literary perspective.

[7] This presentation is based on Wells (1992). A rigorous phonetic description of Louisiana English at the end of the 19th century (i.e. when the story is set) would require a contemporary description of this accent. However, this presentation being based on a fictional text (which only retains the most obvious features), such linguistic minutiae did not appear necessary.

[8] Wells (1982, 543) explains: « A high degree of education was associated with either a very high or a very low r-score, low education with intermediate score; thus it was consistency (‘R-norm clarity’) rather than r-score as such which was linked to social position ».

[9] The question of breaking in Southern speech is particularly intricate. For a brief presentation see Wells (1982: 535-6).

[10] In this respect, the use of colours throughout the short-story would deserve a separate study.


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Pour citer cette ressource :

Manuel Jobert, "Kate Chopin as a Vocal Colourist: Vocalscapes in “Beyond the Bayou” ", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), avril 2013. Consulté le 15/12/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/langue/stylistique/kate-chopin-as-a-vocal-colourist-vocalscapes-in-beyond-the-bayou