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Once considered merely an author of local color fiction, Kate Chopin is recognized today for the originality of a point of view that defies a conventional American male perspective. In a way that her contemporaries could—or would—not, Chopin unabashedly addresses the complex conflicts between female sexuality and social expectations. While Chopin’s psychological examinations of female protagonists are formative works in the historical development of feminist literature, they also provide insight into a society that oftentimes denied the value of female independence.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Creole Girl in St. Louis Society
Chopin, originally Kate O’Flaherty, was born in 1851 to a prominent St. Louis family. Her father died in a train accident when Chopin was four years old, and her childhood was most profoundly influenced by her mother and great-grandmother, who were descendents of French-Creole pioneers. Chopin’s great-grandmother cultivated in the young girl a love for storytelling, an interest in the intimate details about such historical figures as the earliest settlers of the Louisiana Territory, and, most importantly, a nonjudgmental intellectual curiosity about life. Chopin also spent a great deal of time with her family’s Creole and mixed-race slaves, familiarizing herself with their unique dialects. After a nondescript education at a convent school, she graduated at age seventeen and spent two years as a belle of fashionable St. Louis society. Even as she reveled in the St. Louis social scene, Chopin became increasingly aware of the superficialities of high society. In 1870, she married Oscar Chopin, a wealthy Creole businessman.
Gathering Material from Her Life
For the next decade, Chopin lived according to the demanding social and domestic schedule of a Southern aristocrat and mother of six, her recollections of which would later serve as material for her short stories. In 1880, financial difficulties forced Chopin’s family to move to Natchitoches Parish, located in Louisiana’s Red River bayou region. There, as her husband oversaw his father’s plantations, Chopin became involved with the Creole community. Even though they were a people who considered themselves different from Anglo-Americans and maintained cultural traditions passed down from their French and Spanish ancestors, Creole society accepted Chopin, admiring her friendly nature and intellect. During her years in Natchitoches Parish, Chopin noted the role of women in Creole society. Men dominated the households and expected their women to provide them with well-kept homes and many children to carry on the family name. While the Creole men caroused, their women pursued music, art, and conversation. Such refined women enhanced their husbands’ social status. These observations would prove to be of monumental importance to Chopin when writing The Awakening.
After her husband’s death in 1883, Chopin sold most of her property and left Louisiana to live with her mother in St. Louis. At this time of transition, Chopin began reading the works of Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley in order to keep abreast of trends in scientific thinking, ideas that led her to question ethical restraints and socially imposed mores. Inspired by these thinkers and encouraged to write professionally by family and friends who found her letters entertaining, Chopin began composing short stories. Though her first piece, a poem entitled ”If It Might Be” (1889), was published immediately, Chopin then endured a long period of routine rejections when submitting short fiction to various publications. Eventually, though, Chopin’s stories were seen in many popular American periodicals, including Vogue and The Atlantic. When these stories were collected in Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), Cho pin began to receive national attention as a local color writer. Financially independent and encouraged by her success, Chopin turned to longer works.
The Women’s Movement
The 1800s saw a change in the status of women in the United States. As early as 1848, women gathered in New York State to address issues of equality, thereby laying the groundwork for the women’s rights movement. During Chopin’s lifetime, women’s groups continued to organize to educate women about social and political issues and to allow a forum for women’s discussions. While women did not gain the right to vote until 1920, these pioneering efforts created a voice in society that would not be quieted. Despite these changes, however, Chopin’s next efforts, a novel and a short story collection, were rejected by publishers on moral grounds because the stories promoted female self-assertion and sexual liberation.
Undaunted, Chopin completed The Awakening (1899), the story of a conventional wife and mother who, after gaining spiritual freedom through an extramarital affair, commits suicide when she realizes that she cannot reconcile her newfound self to society’s moral restrictions. In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier, realizing that her life could consist of more than living in her husband’s shadow and stifling her own desires and dreams, embodies the need for independence that women during the 1800s began recognizing in themselves. Without a doubt, Edna’s actions reflect not only the times, but also the emotions felt by many women who sought personal freedom, including Chopin herself.
A Backlash Awakened
Now regarded as Chopin’s masterpiece, The Awakening provoked outrage among critics and readers upon publication. The novel was banned in St. Louis and elsewhere, and Chopin was excluded from local literary groups. As a result of the hostile reception to the novel and difficulties with publishers, Chopin wrote very little at the end of her life. Five years after the publication of The Awakening, Chopin died of a stroke in St. Louis on August 22,1904.
Works in Literary Context
While her early works especially show the influence of her favorite authors, French writers Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, and Moliere, Chopin soon found a voice of her own, one shaped by a time in history when women’s roles were changing. Set in Louisiana, most of Chopin’s fiction focuses on the themes of class relations, relationships between men and women, and feminine sexuality. Her stories portray characters as diverse as Southern belles, Arcadians and Creoles, mulattos and blacks. Even when audiences attempted to censure her work, Chopin challenged the confining boundaries on women set by society, inspiring generations of female writers who followed her.
In Chopin’s best works, she transcends simple regionalism and portrays women who seek spiritual and sexual freedom amid the restrictive mores of nineteenth-century Southern society. By examining such issues as female sexuality, personal identity, and social propriety, Chopin allows women to awaken to life and, ultimately, to themselves. Scholar Bert Bender observes that Chopin’s protagonists ”transcend their socially
limited selves by awakening to and affirming impulses that are unacceptable by convention. Unburdened of restricting social conventions … [they] experience the suffering and loneliness, as well as the joy, of their free dom.” Though Chopin’s characters undergo a figurative awakening, its effects literally change their lives.
Obvious from its title, The Awakening unequivocally addresses psychological growth. The theme of awakening is evident in the life of Edna Pontellier, a conventional wife and mother who experiences a spiritual epiphany and an awakened sense of independence that alters her course of life forever. Passionate arousal—whether physical, intellectual or emotional—and the consequences one must face to attain it is supported by sensual imagery that acquires symbolic meanings as the story progresses. This symbolism emphasizes the conflict within Edna, who realizes that she can neither exercise her new-found sense of independence nor return to life as it was before her spiritual awakening. The sea, the novel’s central symbol, provides the framework for the narrative’s main action, as it is the site of both Edna’s awakening and suicide.
Works in Critical Context
Though Chopin’s editors tolerated her daring themes and characters’ actions, audiences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries condemned Chopin’s frank treatment of such subjects as female sexuality, adultery, and miscegenation (sexual relations between people of different races); consequently, her work fell into neglect. Around the middle of the twentieth century, however, scholars began to take note of Chopin’s forthright depictions of race, class, gender, and regional identity. A great deal of critical attention has focused on Chopin’s pioneering use of psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and sensual themes, and in more recent years, Chopin and her work have become favored subjects among women critics. No matter the critical perspective from which it is examined, Chopin’s work, like that of any great writer, transcends specifics of time and place and holds relevance for readers regardless of gender or nationality.
When The Awakening appeared in 1899, the literary world was not ready for the realism of Chopin’s novel. It was received with indignation, resulting in an overwhelmingly negative dismissal of the novel. Most critics deemed Chopin a pornographer and pro claimed The Awakening to be immoral and perverse, going so far as to say they were satisfied by the head strong protagonist’s suicide. American novelist Willa Cather was among the legion of readers who denounced The Awakening, complaining that Chopin had wasted herself on a ”trite and sordid” theme.
Of course, The Awakening was not entirely without supporters. A few reviewers in 1899 praised Chopin’s skill in exploring her subject, while others felt sympathy for Edna instead of contempt. Ignored for more decades, The Awakening was rediscovered in the 1950s, when it became celebrated for its open treatment of a woman’s search for self-knowledge. By 1952, literary historian Van
Wyck Brooks had acknowledged The Awakening as an undeservedly slighted work. He called the book ”one novel of the nineties in the South that should have been remembered, one small perfect book that mattered more than the whole life of many a prolific writer,” and he commended the novel for its ”naturalness and grace.” Critics Robert Cantwell and Kenneth Eble echoed Brooks’s comments in the mid-1950s, proclaiming The Awakening insightful as well as evocative, uninhibited as well as beautifully written. In 1969, Chopin biographer Per Seyersted asserted that in The Awakening, Chopin ”was the first woman writer in America to accept sex with its profound repercussions as a legitimate subject of serious fiction,” an opinion shared by Chopin scholars today.
- Brooks, Van Wyck. The Confident Years, 1885-1915. New York: Dutton, 1952. Cather, Willa. The World and the Parish, Volume II: Willa
- Cather’s Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902. Edited by William M. Curtin. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
- Diamond, Arlyn, and Lee R. Edwards. The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
- Jones, Anne Goodwyn. Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
- Rankin, Daniel. Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories. Philadelphia.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932.
- Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
- Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.
- Bender, Bart. ”Kate Chopin’s Lyrical Short Stories.” Studies in Short Fiction (Summer 1974): vol. XI, no. 3, pp. 257-266.
- Cantwell, Robert. ”The Awakening by Kate Chopin.” The Georgia Review (1956): 489-494.
- Eble, Kenneth. ”A Forgotten Novel: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” Western Humanities Review 10 (1956): 261-269.
- KateChopin.org. Kate Chopin International Society. Retrieved September 18, 2008, from http://www. katechopin.org.
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