Originally published in the New Orleans Times-Democrat (December 20, 1896), Lilacs centers on the annual visit of an opera singer, Adrienne Farival, to the Sacré-Coeur convent school she attended in her youth. In the beginning of the story, Adrienne makes a dramatic entrance wearing fashionable clothes and bearing expensive gifts. Despite a cold reception from the mother superior, Adrienne remains in the convent, sharing a room with her childhood friend, now Sister Agathe, and participating in the daily rites. After two weeks of dutiful service, Adrienne returns to her sumptuous apartment in Paris and resumes her life of decadence. She mistreats her servants, pelting one with hothouse roses, and treats her suitors callously. She keeps her yearly retreat a secret, allowing others to believe she is idling at a spa. The next spring when she again smells the lilacs blooming, she makes another pilgrimage to “the haven of peace, where her soul was wont to refresh itself,” but this time, she is refused admittance (365). The mother superior returns the expensive gifts Adrienne has given through the years, causing Adrienne to weep at the rejection. The story ends with Sister Agathe crying in her room as the lilacs that Adrienne has left on the convent steps are swept away.
“Lilacs” has interesting biographical relevance, for Kate Chopin herself was educated at the Sacred Heart Academy in St. Louis, and her best childhood friend later became a nun. Although critics such as Edmund Wilson have detected a “serene amoralism” in her works (592), Chopin was deeply infl uenced by her religious upbringing and returned to the church near the end of her life (Seyersted 185). While “Lilacs” may be interpreted as an indictment of Roman Catholicism, the central focus, as Elmo Howell points out, is not the church but “an individual soul at odds with itself” (106). Adrienne’s tragic dilemma is that she cannot reconcile her worldly existence with her spiritual longing.
Chopin, Kate. “Lilacs.” In The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Howell, Elmo. “Kate Chopin and the Pull of Faith: A Note on ‘Lilacs.’” Southern Studies (Spring 1979): 103–109.
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990. Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.