Lafcadio Hearn, “Chita” (1889)

In the age of ecology and our current environmental problematic it is impossible to read lines like this without imagining Lafcadio Heran as prophetic.  “How often she herself had wondered–wondered at the multiform changes of each swell as it came in — transformation of tint, of shape, of motion, that seemed to betoken a life infinitely more subtle than the strange cold life of lizards and of fishes, — and sinister, and spectral.  Then they all appeared to move in order, — according to one law of impulse: — each had its own voice, yet all sang one and the same everlasting song.   Vaguely, as she watched them and listened to them, there cam to her the idea of a unity of will in their motion, a unity of menace in their utterance–the idea of one monstrous and complex life!  The sea lived: it could crawl backward and forward; it could speak! — it only feigned deafness and sightlessness for some malevolent end.  Thenceforth she feared to find herself along with it.” (130)  The ocean as a malevolent and destructive force that easily overpowers humanity and its feeble designs is the major theme of Chita, Hearn’s novel considering the impact of a Louisiana hurricane.  The handful of humans who populate the novel are largely passive in the face of nature’s devastation.  It is not so much revenge, as we might find in 21st retellings of such stories, shaped by concerns about climate change and the human impact on nature.  Instead, nature is closer to the Lovercraftian gods, indifferent to human concerns with a purpose and consciousness of its own.

chita

The story begins with a long description of the lands and waters of the lower Mississippi, from New Orleans to “the islands.”  This description takes up around 1/5 of the short novel.  We immediately realize that the author is not concerns with humanity.  As the description unfolds we are introduced to the hurricane.  The human impact on the islands is limited.  “There are no telegraph lines, no telephones.” (88) Humans resort to hope and the divine for they have no technology that can salvage their homes, boats, and lives.

As we learn more of the human world, we discover that it is deeply divided by class.  A “great hall” is hosting a dance of “pleasure-seekers” when the hurricane hits.  Of course, nature respects no class boundaries and the dance hall party is broken up with the same indifference as is the homes of the impoverished locals.  It does however create an equalization of status that the poor scavengers can take advantage of.  “And swift in the wakr of gull and frigate-bird the Wreckers come, the Spoilers of the dead, — savages skimmers of the sea, — hurricane-riders wont to spread their canvas-pionions in the face of storm; Sicilian and Carsican outlaws, Manila-men from the marshes, deserters from many navies, Lascars, marooners, refugees of the hundred nationalities, — fishers and shrimpers by name, smugglers by opportunity. . . There is plunder for all — birds and men.” (95-96)  Hearn seems to lump these working poor into the same category as nature, indifferent and moving in with the same consciousness as scavanger birds, but we know better.  Nature may not be capable of consciousness of revenge, but the exploited and embittered underclass certainly are.  When the facade of civilization breaks down and equalizers power, so that those with a piece of paper declaring their wealth, and therefore power over others, find that that paper has no more worth than any other ink stained parchment, the revenge will be had.

One rich character, assumed lost on the storm, returns to find that he was forgotten with little pomp or concern.  Hearn writes: “Seldom, indeed, does it happen taht a man in the prime of youth, in the possession of wealth, habituated to comforts and elegance of life, discovers in one brief week how minute his true relation to the human aggregate, — how insignificant his part as one living atom of the social organism.” (117)  We cannot help but notice that this parallels the fate of all the humans in the delta, discovering that they are insignificant in the face of Nature.

The plot from this point focuses on the discovery, by a young religious woman named Carmen, of a young orphan who is given the name Conchita (Chita).  There is a moment of triumph over the indifferent Nature when Chita learns to overcome her fear of the water and takes up the skill of swimming.  Through this the ocean goes from being something to fear to something that gives life.  Chita becomes the means for Hearn to carry the story in a circular fashion back to the pristine state before the hurricane.  “Thou primordial Sea, the awfulness of whose antiquity hath stricken all mythology dumb; — thou most wrinkled living Sea, the millions of whose years outnumber even the multitude of thy hoary motions; — thou omniform and most mysterious Sea, mother of the monsters and the gods, — whence thine eternal youth?  Still do thy waters hold the infinite thrill of that Spirit which brooded above their face in the Beginning! — still is thy quickening breath an elixir unto them that flee to thee for life.”   (133)

Nature is not done with the characters.  In the final pages of this short novel we learn of an epidemic disease racing through the delta.  We are left with the same feeling of helplessness that we started with.  Hearn ends the novel with Carmen calling out for aid from God.

I have quoted extensively from Chita because the novel really should be read as an literary experience rather than for its plot.  The argument, is summarized in the books epigraph by Emerson “But Nature whistled with all her winds, Did as she pleased, and went her way.” (73)  We could read it as a warning or as a rebuff to the late 19th century optimism in human progress.  Hearn sets the novel in a place where the major gains of the 19th century were not evident, but yet some of its greatest sins (slavery and inequality) were deeply rooted.

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