by John Tinnell
In remediating Kate Chopin’s story, the creator of this video describes her objective in terms of interpretive guidance: “I tried to force the reader down one specific path of meaning” (Cross). The video plays upon readers’ familiarity with Chopin’s story; appreciating the video’s subtleties requires us to watch it, revisit Chopin’s story, and then watch the video again. Theoretically speaking, we might understand this video—and the assignment it responds to—as an exercise in what Gregory Ulmer calls “post-criticism.” Put briefly, post-criticism entails a “change in the relation of a critical text to its object;” post-criticism often incorporates collage and montage as devices for performing interpretations or staging critical insights (Ulmer 83).
“The Story of an Hour” is famously ambiguous. Like other canonical short short stories, such as Hemingway’s elusive “Hills Like White Elephants,” literary critics have spent decades debating the meaning of some curious line of dialogue or an oddly symbolic description of the landscape. Now, as a work of post-criticism, the video showcased here does not explicate Chopin’s story “from above.” Rather, the video maker works with Chopin’s passages—as well as the imagery and sounds they evoke—in order to shape readers’ engagements with the story. The process involves acts of selection, emphasis, addition, and subtraction. Instructor and student both highlight the critical role of text formatting and animation speeds in their reflections on the video. These interventions certainly command the viewer’s attention and add a layer of affect to the text they manipulate—I thought the two non-linear animations were especially effective in directing readers’ understanding of specific sentences. What I found most significant, however, were the creator’s basic (less flashy) decisions concerning which passages to include from Chopin’s story, and which passages to discard.
For example, consider the video’s treatment of the story’s longest scene, in which the protagonist, Mrs. Mallard (Chopin never tells her first name, for good thematic reasons), sits alone in her room, immediately after her initial outburst in response to the news of husband’s alleged death. The text of this scene accounts for roughly seventy percent of the story’s total word count; the video judiciously admits about one-third of the passages describing this scene. In the video, the protagonist’s entry into her room is stripped of all context; the moment occurs in a vacuum, an existential void. Over a black background, the only text that appears lacks any concrete reference: “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it…reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents…” Then we hear a bird chirping, and the next two slides accompany the narration of the protagonist’s revelation with images, a bird and a tree branch, each of which appear distant, distorted, or otherwise unreal. These images evidently come from the passages that never appear in the video, but they are transplanted rather decisively from the narrator’s rich and textured catalogue of the protagonist’s perceptions: trees “aquiver with Spring,” the “delicious breath of rain,” “notes of a distant song,” “patches of blue sky.” All of these environmental sensations seem to initiate and support the “suspension of intelligent thought,” which comes over the protagonist, and suddenly overwhelms her, when the shook of her husband’s death gives way to the shook of her own liberation. Moreover, the meditative pace of the video’s animation in this segment seems at odds with the willful progression of Chopin’s sentences during the middle of the story—the series of leaps from one image to the next and the phrases describing the protagonist: “her pulses beat fast,” “coursing blood,” “she did not stop to ask.” Hence, the video’s comparatively mute, deadpan re-presentation of this process of transformation provokes a different reading. The video seems to question the enthusiasm of the narrator’s text—perhaps its validity, or its significance. For me, the laugh that punctuates the end of the scene, in the video, further codes the protagonist’s “liberation” as a trivial event, when all things are considered.
Whereas Chopin’s text delivers flowery descriptions evoking the infinite richness of momentary existence, the excitement of personal renewal, and the ephemeral promise of freedom; the video insists on the fact of Mrs. Millard’s death, and on the void that apparently consumed much of her life. Chopin dazzles us with the protagonist’s imagined future—the video leaves us to imagine her past.
Ulmer, Gregory L. “The Object of Post-Criticism.” Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. London: Pluto Press, 1985. pp. 83-110.