By Ellen Robison

University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author and scholar Reza Aslan argues that “literature offers not just a window into the culture of diverse regions, but also the society, the politics; it’s the only place where we can keep track of ideas.”[1] Though Aslan lives and writes in the 21st century, this understanding of literature as reflective of society is by no means modern itself; it has long been understood that authors’ writing is situated by their social identities—their identifications along race, class, and gender lines—and their locations on the historical and political timeline. Literature can be used to gain insight into the period in which it was written, especially into the facets of society not explored by other sources. Such is the case with the works of 19th-century authors Amalie Skram and Kate Chopin. Both women, hailed as early feminists in their homelands—Norway and the United States, respectively—wrote about similar issues, but the drastically different approaches they took to these topics mirror the complex differences in the cultures in which they wrote. The contrasting ways in which Skram and Chopin address religion and divorce in their short stories “Bøn og anfægtelse” [Prayer and Temptation ] (1885) and “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” (1894) mirror the religious and cultural differences between 19th-century Scandinavia and America and reveal underlying societal complexities.

In order to understand their short stories, it is first important to understand who Amalie Skram and Kate Chopin were as individuals and the context in which they wrote. Amalie Skram was born Berthe Amalie Alver on August 22, 1846, in Bergen, Norway.[2] Though there are no records of Skram’s religious practice, it can be assumed that she was raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Adherence to Evangelical Lutheran Christianity was compulsory, and the Church had a significant role in law and in the courtroom. Accordingly, divorce was legal in Norway only on biblically-recognized grounds: abandonment and infidelity.[3] By the late 19th century, however, divorce proceedings began to liberalize as the women’s movement gained momentum, advocating for an understanding of marriage as a voluntary civil contract and supporting divorce for other reasons, such as abuse.[4] By the 1890s, the number of divorces per year had risen from six or seven to more than fifty.[5] Skram herself was divorced twice: her first marriage ended after thirteen years when Skram suffered a nervous breakdown, attributed in part to her husband’s infidelity.[6] She spent several years in a mental hospital before she was able to divorce him. The dissolution of her second marriage, the one from which she gained the surname Skram, was the result of a further breakdown, this time ascribed to the overwhelming nature of her obligations as a housewife, mother, and author and to the limited acceptance for her published works.[7] Though Skram’s own relationships demonstrate the increasing range of accepted grounds for divorce, religion still played a central role in divorce decisions and proceedings until the passage of the new Norwegian divorce act, which permitted various legal grounds for divorce, in 1909—four years after Skram’s death.[8]

Given Skram’s own experiences with marriage, divorce, and mental illness, it is unsurprising that these themes were featured in much of her writing. Two of her most well-known works, Constance Ring (1885) and Forraadt [Betrayed] (1892) depict the difficulties of women in marriage, and the two autobiographical novels she published in 1895, Professor Hieronimus and På St. Jørgen [At St. Jørgen’s], offer insight into the way she perceived her own treatment at the mental institution in Copenhagen. Because of stories like these, Skram is recognized as an early fixture of the European women’s movement and acknowledged for her “almost boundless compassion for human suffering.”[9] Skram’s short story “Bøn og anfægtelse,” the subject of comparison in this analysis, presents an unhappy marriage complicated by mental illness and subsequently broaches the topic of divorce in a religiously-charged context. It is certain that Skram’s own experiences influenced her writing of this story.

Similarly, Kate Chopin’s “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” invokes clear connections to the author’s life. Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty on February 8, 1850, in St. Louis, Missouri.[10] She was raised in the French and Irish Roman Catholic traditions, and was by all accounts very invested in her faith—she graduated from the Sacred Heart Convent in St. Louis in 1868 and was heavily influenced by the Sacred Heart nuns.[11] Chopin married in 1870 and relocated to her husband’s hometown, New Orleans, which served as the backdrop to most of her stories. Chopin never divorced but was widowed in 1882. Her deceased husband left her about $42,000 in debt—more than $1,040,000 in today’s dollars—and a business to run on her own.[12] Perhaps as a reflection of these burdens, poverty and financial independence are prominent themes in many of Chopin’s short stories. In “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” it is a total lack of financial support that first drives Madame Célestin to pursue the titular divorce.

The culture surrounding divorce in Chopin’s American south was drastically different than in Scandinavia at the same time. The official separation of church and state in America kept religious influence largely out of divorce law, in spite of the efforts of some anti-divorce groups like the Inter-Church Conference on Marriage and Divorce.[13] Divorce in America was instead grounded in legal issues, and when compared to most other countries, divorce was relatively common by the mid- to late-1800s. By 1880, one in sixteen U.S. marriages ended in divorce—the highest rate in the world.[14] It makes sense, then, that this story of divorce initially prioritizes the legal rather than the religious, in spite of Chopin’s own Roman Catholic background. Madame Célestin put it most simply: “The Pope himse’f can’t make me stan’ that any longer, if you say I got the right in the law to sen’ Célestin sailing.”[15] No religious figure, belief, or commandment would stand in the way of her legal right to divorce in late 19th-century America.

In spite of the authors’ different backgrounds and disparate writing styles (an issue that will be explored later in this article), the comparison between Amalie Skram’s “Bøn og anfægtelse” and Kate Chopin’s “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” is justified because of the similar roles of the authors in their countries’ literary scenes and their matching feminist ideologies. Both women were hailed as early and strong proponents of the women’s movement, setting the trends in their respective countries. They broached topics that were considered scandalous for women to address and received significant negative feedback in their lifetimes. The literary contributions of both Skram and Chopin were only truly appreciated posthumously. Skram’s works, which had all but disappeared from popular culture following her death, were rediscovered and received strong recognition in the 1960s.[16] Likewise, Norwegian literary critic Per Seyersted wrote perhaps the most affirmative review of Chopin’s writing in 1969, 65 years after her death:

[Kate Chopin] broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority, […] she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman’s urge for an existential authenticity.[17]

Though both Skram and Chopin were trailblazers—women pioneers, to borrow Seyersted’s term—the short stories at hand, “Bøn og anfægtelse” and “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” reveal dominant societal ideals. In both stories, the main character, a woman desiring divorce, seeks the advice of members of her community who speak to the widely-held cultural beliefs about religion, law, and divorce. It is the commentary of these community members—and the value placed on that commentary—that really highlights the religious and cultural differences between 19th-century Scandinavia and America, as they represent not the progressive ideas of the authors but rather the more traditional beliefs of the surrounding society.

“Bøn og anfægtelse” and “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” serve for a logical comparison because of their parallel plot structures. When stripped down to the basic points, each short story is about a woman who, following some outrageous behavior of her husband, contemplates a divorce. Each woman seeks out the advice of a prominent figure in her community, and both end up speaking to religious figures who advise they stay in their marriages. Neither woman ends up filing for divorce, and readers are left with the impression that this will be the undoing of them both—though the disastrous ending is much more explicit in Skram’s “Bøn og anfægtelse” than in “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” which is largely open-ended.

An analysis of these short stories would be remiss not to acknowledge the radically different styles in which they were written. Most glaringly, they are of extremely different lengths: “Bøn og anfægtelse” is more than 17,000 words, while “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” is just shy of 1,500. This disparity is explained largely by the heightened level of description in “Bøn og anfægtelse,” particularly in articulating the abuses of the husband and the wife’s thoughts about her marriage. Every scene in “Bøn og anfægtelse” is chronicled carefully for readers. Conversely, “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” is told almost exclusively through conversation between Madame Célestin and her friend, Lawyer Paxton. Everything readers learn about Monsieur Célestin’s character, about Madame Célestin’s conversations with the religious leaders in her town, and about the decision she makes is explained through the dialogue between those two characters. The short story is comprised mostly of these conversations with very little description interlaced; it moves at a much more rapid pace than “Bøn og anfægtelse.”

The language used in the two short stories is quite different as well. Beyond the obvious difference in the languages of the original texts, Skram writes in a much more formal style than does Chopin. Skram’s sophisticated language and solemn tone indicate the story’s serious subject matter from the beginning. The first few lines of text, for example, describe “en sort Himmel, der hang lav og tung ud over Byen”[18] [a black sky that lay low and heavy over the city],[19] setting a scene that is dark and foreboding. Conversely, Chopin’s short story begins with a cheerful conversation between Lawyer Paxton and Madame Célestin as they lean over the fence around her immaculate little garden. Like most of her other works, “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” also incorporates the chaotic, French- and Creole-infused dialect of the impoverished part of Louisiana where her stories take place. This adds to the lively, optimistic tone of the story.

In spite of these differences in narrative style, it is easy to see how the stories are related. A comparison can be made, for example, between the two women’s contemplations of divorce. Elise Holm’s husband in “Bøn og anfægtelse” abuses Elise and their children as he battles his own mental illness. Elise is forced to physically restrain him to prevent him from hurting her or her children: “‘Men Carsten, kjære snille Carsten, kom til dig selv!’ – bad hun med skjælvende Stemme. ‘Du er jo hos mig, her i Sengen din. Der er ingen, som vil gjøre dig noget, ingen, ingen, ingen’” (4)[20] [“But Carsten, dear sweet Carsten, get a hold of yourself!” she asked him with trembling voice. “You’re with me, here in your bed. There is no one who wants to hurt you, no one, no one, no one”]. Unfortunately for Elise, abuse was not grounds for divorce in Norway in the 1880s; she is told that she must stay by her husband’s side and continue to love him. Elise’s pastor tells her that “hun skulde elske sin Mand, tilgive, hvad han havde forbrudt mod hende, ikke bare saadan, at hun ikke længer bar Nag til ham, men saaledes, at hun gav ham hele den forrige Kjærlighed tilbage. Hun skulde tjene, ære og adlyde ham”[21] [“She should love her husband, forgive what wrongs he had committed against her, not only in such a way that she should no longer carry resentment towards him, but love him in the way she had originally. She should serve, honor, and obey him” (90)].[22] This is the end of the conversation; without biblically-accepted grounds for divorce, the pastor insists that Elise has no reason to pursue it further.

The titular character of “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” has a rather different reason for divorce, one that actually might be condoned by Elise’s Lutheran pastor: abandonment. At the opening of the short story, Madame Célestin had not seen her husband for months; he had “practically deserted” her and was no longer supporting her financially.[23] There is also an allusion to past instances of abuse (“a man that drinks—w’at can you expec’?”[24]), but this does not seem to be Madame Célestin’s primary grievance. Either way, the recommendations Madame Célestin receives from the lawyer are concerned more with her well-being than with the biblical grounds for her unhappiness; Lawyer Paxton states, “Really, madame, it’s more than human nature—women’s nature—should be called upon to endure.”[25] Paxton further suggests that Madame Célestin would be “a foolish woman to endure it longer” while “the divorce court is there to offer […] redress.”[26] This secularized interpretation of divorce paints it as an ideal option, rather than a last resort or non-option as within the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Of course, both Elise Holm and Madame Célestin receive the input of other parties as well. Elise speaks with a doctor who suggests she have her husband committed. She does not heed this advice, choosing to believe instead that her burdens are a test from God:

Jeg skal sige Dem, det er en Sag mellem Gud og mig, ja De kan gjerne se medlidende ud, det forstaar De Dem ikke paa, men jeg har i alle disse Aar bedt og tigget Gud hver eneste Dag om, at han skulde helbrede min Mand, ikke for min Skyld, for jeg fortjente ikke bedre, men for at han kunde faa Tid til at omvende sig og hans Sjæl bli reddet. […] Han vil bare prøve min Tro, og derfor vil jeg være taalmodig og bie paa hans Time.[27]

(I shall tell you, it is a matter between God and me. Yes, you may look compassionate, but you do not understand. I have prayed and begged God every single day that he should heal my husband, not for my sake, for I deserved no better, but that he might have time to repent and save his soul. […] He just wants to try my faith, and therefore I will be patient and pray in his time.)

Conversely, Madame Célestin speaks with a priest and a bishop (at the advice of her mother, who hopes it will change her mind about the divorce) but ignores all attempts to dissuade her from leaving Monsieur Célestin. She places her own experiences above their admonishments that “it is the duty of a Catholic to stan’ everything till the las’ extreme,” arguing that the religious leaders “don’t know w’at it is to be married to a man like Célestin, an’ have to endu’ that conduc’” as she has had to.[28]

The advice Elise and Madame Célestin receive and their reactions to the advice demonstrate the differences in the cultures in which they live. Elise speaks with both a Lutheran pastor and a doctor and chooses to follow the pastor’s word, though the doctor would be arguably a more objective source. Elise is part of a society, which chooses religion over reason, and she must follow suit—though this choice has calamitous effects for Elise, her husband, and her children. Across the Atlantic Ocean and less than a decade later, Madame Célestin values the word of the lawyer over that of a priest and a bishop, thus choosing legal objectivity—reason—over religion. This decision was made possible for Madame Célestin by the relative secularity of the culture in which she lived. Though there are still members of her southern, Roman Catholic community that disapprove of her decision—“Certainly, to be sure; that’s to be expected, madame, in this community of Creoles”[29]—the culture of divorce in late 19th-century America was relatively well-established. It makes sense that Madame Célestin was not deterred by religious warnings.

In the end, neither woman actually gets a divorce. Elise, having followed religious teachings, opted to stay with her husband and is widowed when her husband takes his own life. Madame Célestin, despite her resolve to leave Monsieur Célestin, chooses to give him another chance when he returns home abruptly and promises her “on his word an’ honor he’s going to turn ova a new leaf.”[30] Readers are likely to be as skeptical of this as Lawyer Paxton is in the short story, and it does not take much creativity to imagine a timeline in which Monsieur Célestin again lets down his wife. Perhaps a divorce is still in Madame Célestin’s future.

Regardless of the stories’ endings, “Bøn og anfægtelse” and “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” serve an important role in demonstrating the realities of life when and where they were written. It is simple enough to determine the laws that governed divorce practices in the final decades of the 19th century, but it is more difficult to understand the effects of those laws and the ways they impacted and were influenced by other prominent institutions. When Skram wrote “Bøn og anfægtelse,” she had already been divorced once, yet she chose to write the story of a woman so restricted by religious barriers that she was unable to leave an abusive marriage. In spite of a growing women’s movement, this storyline was the reality for many of the women in Skram’s society. Historical records do not tell their story, but writers can—so Skram did.

At the same time, the more flexible laws and rapidly rising divorce rate in the United States led many to believe that the practice had achieved relative national acceptance. Chopin wrote a short story that revealed the opposite. Though divorce may have had legal backing, individuals seeking divorce may still struggle with a lack of support from family and community members, especially in religious areas. Once again, this offers a perspective not provided by mere marriage statistics or historical accounts. Chopin fills in gaps in the understanding of American divorce history in much the same way as Skram does for Norway.

By providing more well-rounded looks at the complex and inter-locking cultures of religion and divorce in the 19th century, Skram’s and Chopin’s short stories offer insight into facets of society not explored by other historical sources. They are sterling examples of Reza Aslan’s concept of the literary window into culture, society, and law by demonstrating the intersection of all three. Though “Bøn og anfægtelse” and “Madame Célestin’s Divorce” are not among their respective authors’ most well-known works, they should not be overlooked; they provide invaluable windows into history, their importance emphasized all the more through their analysis, comparison, and appreciation.



Aslan, Reza. “Reza Aslan on Religion Today.” Interview by Sahil Badruddin. Radio Public. December 14, 2018.!92c30.

Bergstrøm, Ida. “Until Infidelity, Disappearance or Impotence Do Us Part – the History of Divorce in Norway.” Kilden. May 16, 2017.

“Biography.” Accessed November 24, 2018. N.d.

Chopin, Kate. “Madame Célestin’s Divorce.” In Bayou Folk, 163–69. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894.

Clark, Charles S. “Marriage and Divorce.” CQ Researcher 6.18 (1996): 409–32.

Houe, Poul. “Amalie Skram.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Last modified March 8, 2018. N.d.

Sandström, Glenn, and Ólöf Garðarsdóttir. 2017. “Long-Term Perspectives on Divorce in the Nordic Countries – Introduction.” Scandinavian Journal of History 43 (1): 1–17.

Amalie Skram, “Bøn Og Anfægtelse.” Tilskueren, 3 (1886): 345–87.

Skram, Amalie. “Prayer and Doubt.” In Sex and the Modern Breakthrough, 83–92. Translated by Susan Brantly. Madison: WITS, 2004.



[1] Reza Aslan, “Reza Aslan on Religion Today,” interview by Sahil Badruddin, Radio Public, December 14, 2018,!92c30.

[2] Poul Houe, “Amalie Skram,” March 8, 2018,

[3] Ida Irene Bergstrøm, “Until Infidelity, Disappearance or Impotence Do Us Part – the History of Divorce in Norway,” May 16, 2017,

[4] Glenn Sandström and Ólöf Garðarsdóttir, “Long-Term Perspectives on Divorce in the Nordic Countries – Introduction,” Scandinavian Journal of History 43, no.1 (2017): 1–17, doi:10.1080/03468755.2017.1384661.

[5] Bergstrøm, “History of Divorce in Norway.”

[6] Houe, “Amalie Skram.”

[7] Houe, “Amalie Skram.”

[8] Bergstrøm, “History of Divorce in Norway.”

[9] Houe, “Amalie Skram.”

[10] “Biography,”, November 24, 2018,

[11] “Biography,”

[12] “Biography,”

[13] Charles S. Clark, “Marriage and Divorce,” CQ Researcher 6, no. 18 (1996): 409–32,

[14] Clark, “Marriage and Divorce,” 422.

[15] Kate Chopin, “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” in Bayou Folk, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1894), 163–69.

[16] Houe, “Amalie Skram.”

[17] “Biography,”

[18] Amalie Skram, “Bøn Og Anfægtelse,” in Tilskueren 3 (1886), 345

[19] Unless otherwise noted, all translations are the work of the author.

[20] Skram, Bøn Og Anfægtelse, 349.

[21] Skram, Bøn Og Anfægtelse, 372.

[22] Amalie Skram, “Prayer and Doubt” in Sex and the Modern Breakthrough trans. Susan Brantly (Madison: WITS, 2004), 83–92. This translation of “Bøn og anfægtelse” is taken from Susan Brantly’s Sex and the Modern Breakthrough, which includes only excerpts from Amalie Skram’s short story

[23] Chopin, “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” 165.

[24] Chopin, “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” 165.

[25] Chopin, “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” 164.

[26] Chopin, “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” 165.

[27] Skram, Bøn Og Anfægtelse, 377.

[28] Chopin, “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” 167.

[29] Chopin, “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” 165.

[30] Chopin, “Madame Célestin’s Divorce,” 169.