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Running Head: Kate Chopin: The Consequences

Kate Chopin: The Consequences

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American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, diarist, and memoirist. A popular local colorist during her lifetime, Chopin is best known today for her psychological novel The Awakening (1899) and for such often-anthologized short stories as “Désirée's Baby” and “The Story of an Hour.” In these, as in many of her best works, she transcended simple regionalism and portrayed women who seek spiritual and sexual freedom amid the restrictive mores of nineteenth-century Southern society. Chopin is today recognized for her pioneering examination of sexuality, individual freedom, and the consequences of action—themes and concerns important to many contemporary writers.

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Chopin was born to a prominent St. Louis family. Her father died in a train accident when Chopin was four years old, and her childhood was profoundly influenced by her mother and great-grandmother, who descended from French-Creole pioneers. Chopin also spent much time with her family's Creole and mulatto slaves, becoming familiar with their unique dialects. After her graduation from a convent school at the age of seventeen, she spent two years as a belle of fashionable St. Louis society. In 1870 she married Oscar Chopin, a wealthy Creole cotton factor, and moved with him to New Orleans. For the next decade, Chopin pursued the demanding social and domestic schedule of a Southern aristocrat, her recollections of which would later serve as material for her short stories. In 1880, financial difficulties forced Chopin's growing family to move to her father-in-law's home in Cloutierville, a small town in Natchitoches Parish located in Louisiana's Red River bayou region. There, Chopin's husband oversaw and subsequently inherited his father's plantations. Upon his death in 1883, Chopin insisted upon assuming his managerial responsibilities, which brought her into contact with almost every segment of the community, including the French-Acadian, Creole, and mulatto sharecroppers who worked the plantations. The impressions she gathered of these people and Natchitoches Parish life later influenced her fiction.

Although reviewers and readers throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries condemned Chopin's frank treatment of such then-taboo subjects as female sexuality, adultery, and miscegenation, since the 1950s serious critical attention has been focused on her pioneering use of psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and sensual themes. While their psychological examinations of female protagonists have made Chopin's short stories formative works in the historical development of feminist literature, they also provide a broad discussion of a society that denied the value of sensuality and female independence. Once considered merely an author of local color fiction, critics contend that she explored universal thematic concerns in her novels, short stories, and essays. Commentators have noted her influence on later feminist writing and consider her a major American short story writer. (Benfey, Christopher E. G 1997)

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Unlike many of the women who wrote during her time, she did not need to write for money — she had a modest income — but she did find a need to develop, as so many of her heroines do, to satisfy the demands of her “simple, separate person ,” as her admired Walt Whitman might have put it. Her friend Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer — physician, intellectual, agnostic — encouraged her to write. Her first poetic efforts, published locally, attracted little attention. Then she discovered the French short story master Guy de Maupassant.
Kate Chopin admired him as one who both looked into himself and “out upon life through his own being and his own eyes ” and then, directly and simply “ told us what he saw.” Although she did not immediately succeed in following his lead, her steady effort over her short but prolific career was to look directly and to tell her readers what she saw. Her stories appeared in the major magazines of the day — in Century, Atlantic, Vogue — and she gathered them into two collections Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897).
Love and passion, marriage and independence, freedom and restraint — these are themes of her work distinctively realized in story after story. When Edna Pontellier, the heroine of The Awakening announces “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” she is addressing the crucial issue for many of Kate Chopin’s women — the winning of a self, the keeping of it. (Toth, Emily 1990)

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“Free! Free! Free!” is the cry of Louise Mallard of “The Story of an Hour” when she realizes the implications of her husband’s sudden death. Her friends have tried to tell her gently because she has heart trouble, but alone in her room she looks to a future in which she will be “free — body and soul.” (Boynton, Victoria. 1997)

Chopin woman differ from the women of sentimental fiction. Chopin makes no suggestion that Mrs. Mallard would not mourn for her husband, a man she loved, a man apparently cut off by a railroad accident in the prime of his life. But she is willing to show how Mrs. Mallard sees her future bright with “a procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely.” When Mallard, alive and healthy returns, she dies," of the joy that kills," so the doctors believe. Chopin makes no further comment. “There should be an eleventh commandment,” she once quoted approvingly, “`Thou Shalt Not Preach’,” and she obeyed that commandment throughout her work. Perhaps it was her unique combination of honesty and objectivity that so incensed the readers of The Awakening that they condemned it so roundly she almost abandoned her writing. Had Chopin not retained her objective tone, had she lectured her readers on the fall of Edna Pontellier, condemned her with sermons and self righteous finger pointing perhaps the response would have been different. Certainly she had explored many controversial ideas before and had questioned the married state in other ways. (Baker, Christopher 1994)

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Chopin had some difficulty placing some her stories from the beginning: Richard Watson Gilder of Century asked for and won revisions in the early part of her career. She could not place her last collection, A Vocation and a Voice. But the publisher who accepted The Awakening is not recorded as objecting to the novel that brought many of her ideas to culmination.

Whether readers understood many of the implied messages in Chopin’s stories, they enjoyed the fine detail of her style, spare in its narrative but shaped by sensual detail of the soft southern nights, of the delights of food and dancing, of flirtation and sexual anticipation. If Calixta, the young Creole beauty, may long for Alcée Laballiere and remember barely controlled desires but then marry Bobinot, the simple country boy, readers could see such behavior as just a bit colorful and perhaps to be expected of warm blooded Latins. But when Edna Pontellier, raised in Presbyterian propriety and a mother of two sons, responds to another Alcée, Chopin, the public thought, had gone too far. “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not” she tells the young man she loves: “I give myself where I choose.”

Twenty-eight, comfortable in a marriage to an older man involved with his business life in New Orleans, Edna has never settled into the selfless maternal mold of the other women who summer at Grand Isle to escape the disease and heat of the city. She begins a journey of self discovery that leads to several awakenings: to her separateness as a “solitary soul,” (the original title Chopin chose for the work), to the pleasures of “swimming far out” in the seductive sensuously appealing sea, to the passions revealed in music, to her own desire to create art, to a romantic attachment to a young man, to living on her own, to sexual desire. Robert, the beloved, honourably removes himself to escape entanglement; Alcée, a recognized womanizer and rake, elicits the sexual response.

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Chopin creates a circle of symbolic characters about her heroine: a devoted wife, an embittered spinster musician, a dour and disapproving father, an understanding doctor, empty headed pleasure seekers. Edna veers between realistic appraisal of her place in the world and romantic longing for Robert, between enjoying the sensual pleasures with Alcée and practically removing herself from her husband’s control. Seldom does the narrative voice intrude, but the author’s control balances the book between two poles.

The lonely and bitter musician Mlle. Reisz both helps Edna entangle herself with Robert and warns her of the sacrifice any artist must make, thus serving both the romantic and the realist of the ever vacillating Edna. Alcée’s seductive embraces answer Edna’s realistic appetite for an animal satisfaction, and Robert’s evasions feed her longing for love in its most sentimental dress.

Edna moves to self realization and to a final awareness that she has awakened to a world in which she has no place. Visions of her children rise up to accuse her. Her answer, in a scene that richly echoes Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” is to return herself naked to the seductive sea — “how strange and awful” — and the memories of childhood, “the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks,” in an act of suicide or transcendence that finishes her search.

“The purport of the story can hardly be described in language fit for publication,” sniffed one reviewer, noting that Chopin had put her “cleverness to a very bad use.” Willa Cather grumbled the hope “that Miss Chopin will devote that flexible iridescent style of hers to a better cause.” One hurled the strongest of complaints: “It out Zolas Zola!”

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Such a violent response to her novel deeply affected Kate Chopin. In a sort of retraction she claimed that she “never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things,” but could do nothing about it, the “play being half over and it was then too late.” Although her friends and some admiring readers wrote to reassure her, she was both surprised and hurt.

Chopin’s health began to fail in the early years of the new century, but she did not quit writing in despair. As Emily Toth’s authoritative biography has shown, the book was never banned, and she continued to be a valued member of St. Louis intellectual society until August of 1904. Intrigued by the world’s fair of 1904, she visited it regularly until one humid day in August when she returned fatigued, suffered what seemed to be a stroke, and died two days later.

Banned or not, The Awakening disappeared from public view; Chopin was only vaguely remembered as a talented local colorist. Her stories merited small but lasting mention in histories of literature until the fifties when critics in the United States and in France recognized her talent and revived interest in it.

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New generations, sensitive to women’s needs, accepting of woman’s sexuality, have welcomed the book; critics have made it one of the most widely discussed. Now, almost forty years after its revival, it has entered the canon, regularly appears on college reading lists, has inspired movies, and will soon be an opera.

Almost a century after, America has fully awakened to Kate Chopin’s novel and paid the respect due to a woman who had been so far ahead of her time. She would have enjoyed the attention.

In an interview on the PBS website for Kate Chopin says,

"I think she was much more interested in the excitement, the civilization that came in her circle of intellectual friends. That was freedom, the freedom to explore ideas. Kate was neither a feminist nor a suffragist, she said so. She was nonetheless a woman who took women extremely seriously. She never doubted women's ability to be strong. She came from a long line of strong women whom she loved and respected, the great-grandmother, grandmother, mother affiliation. She had strong women friends including intellectual women. Her lack of interest in feminism and suffrage did not have to do with a lack of confidence in women nor did it have a lack to do with a lack of any desire for freedom. She simply had a different understanding of freedom. She saw freedom as much more a matter of spirit, soul, character of living your life within the constraints that the world makes [or] you’re God offers you, because all of us do live within constraints. There's no indication that for example she regretted her marriage, or regretted being a mother" (pbs).

She was known instead as a Southern regionalist writer. "The Story of an Hour" was published by Vogue magazine in 1884, but was initially rejected by both Vogue and Century Magazines. The story was published after her Bayou Folk gave her international fame. This story was then rather rediscovered in the 1960s with the rise of feminism and has been used as a feminist story, or at least one that talks of roles of women inside marriage. (Thomas, Heather Kirk. 1990)

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In Kate Chopin's short story "The Storm", an extremely passionate wife and mother faces her past love and is left in an awkward situation which could potentially cause detriment for her family. The storm that actually takes place during this story serves as the key symbolic element throughout the entire text, as it also helps to tell the story in a representational manner.

The Storm” made the moral issues unimportant to the reader due to the passion. You have done a good job developing your thesis and you have supported your main points with specific examples from the text. In Kate Chopin’s’ short story, she presents sexuality and passion through the imagery of the storm. The reader can picture a huge cow bloated with milk primed for milking. The Storm,” the author was presenting human sexuality with passion and strength when the constraints of society are set aside.

Kate Chopin was a widow and the mother of six when she began her writing career. Her stories of the Cajun, Creole, and African-American cultures of Louisiana were well received by a polite public. But the publication of The Awakening in 1899 caused her audience to turn on her with harsh attacks both on her work and her character. Join Anne Howard as she presents the life and tumultuous career of one of the acknowledged masters of American literature.

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She published her first short story, "A Point at Issue!" in the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch" on October 27, 1889 and a few months later, "Philadelphia Musical Journal" published "Wiser Than God." Her first novel, "At Fault" is published in September 1890 at her own expense. Around this same time, she became a charter member of the Wednesday Club, which was founded by Charlotte Stearns Eliot, T.S Eliot's mother. She eventually resigned from the club and satirized it in her later works. She continued writing and publishing more stories in magazines and newspapers such as "Vogue," "Youth's Companion," and "Harper's Young People," but it wasn't until March 1894 when Houghton Mifflin published "Bayou Folk" that Kate became nationally known as a short story writer. She published a second volume of short stories, "A Night in Acadie," in November 1897.

Herbert S. Stone & Company published her most famous work, "The Awakening," in 1899. Many have believed that her book was banned due to its "controversial" topics dealing with women, marriage, sexual desire, and suicide. According to Emily Toth, the book was never banned, but it did receive negative reviews. The following year, Herbert S. Stone and Company reversed its decision to publish a third collection of short stories. Kate did not write much afterwards because no one would buy her stories. Her last published story was "Polly" in 1902. Two years later, Kate collapses at the St. Louis World's Fair and dies two days later from complications of a stroke. (www.wiu.edu/users/mfwc/wiu/chopin.html)

After her death, her writings were ignored until 1932 when Daniel Rankin published "Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories," the first biography on Kate, but his text presents a very limited view and showed her only as a local colorist. It wasn't until 1969 when Per Seyersted published "Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography," which sparked a new age of Chopin readers. Ten years later, he and Emily Toth publish a collection of Kate's letters and journal entries called A "Kate Chopin Miscellany". Both Seyersted and Toth have taken a great interest in the writer and have provided the world more access to Chopin's life and work. In 1990, Toth published one of the most comprehensive biographies on Chopin and a year later, she published Kate's third volume of short stories, "A Vocation and A Voice," the volume Herbert S. Stone and Company refused to publish. In the past two years, Toth and Seyersted have released another text titled "Kate Chopin's Private Papers" and Toth published another biography, "Unveiling Kate Chopin". Both books include journal entries, manuscripts, and other information discovered in the past 10 years.

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Chopin's feminism certainly is a major theme, but an instructor must be careful not to overstate it. Chopin seems to have believed that men and women alike have great difficulty reconciling their need to live as discrete individuals with their need to live in close relationship with a mate; these conflicting needs lie at the center of her work.

Since Chopin's works contain clear elements of romanticism, transcendentalism, realism, naturalism, existentialism, and feminism, her stories can help students understand these literary modes and the directions in which American literature has developed during the last century and a half. Chopin's style offers opportunities to point out the virtues of conciseness; strong, clear imagery; symbolism; understatement; humor; and irony. (Kornansky, Linda Ann 1994)

American writer Kate Chopin is undoubtedly better known and revered by readers and critics today than she ever was in her own lifetime. Known for her gift for elegant, clear prose as well as her vivid local-color depictions of culture in New Orleans, Louisiana and the oppressive nature of the era's treatment of women, Chopin has since her death and the rediscovery (if it could even be called that) of her works in the 1960s been hailed as a woman and author well ahead of her time. While living and working as a devoted wife and mother, Chopin managed to maintain her own literary salon and begin a writing career. For more than a decade following her first published story in 1889, she carefully depicted the manners, customs, speech, and surroundings of Louisiana's Creole and Cajun residents. Her attention to detail and careful storytelling (as well as her interesting body of poetry and criticism work) began to catch critical eyes and receive praise, but her later turns to more controversial subjects (like the oppression of women) soon led her into trouble.

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As Chopin's later stories, such as "The Story of an Hour," began to emphasize women's need for independence and frankly (although by no means explicitly) address their sexual passion, editors became less receptive to her work. Chopin was forced to publish a novel, At Fault, in 1890 at her own expense. After several publishers rejected her second novel, she destroyed the manuscript, feeling deepening alienation and rejection from society. The Awakening (1899), the novel many now consider to be her masterpiece, attracted a storm of negative criticism for its dead-on depiction of Edna Pontellier's rejection of motherhood and traditional social values and interest in social and sexual freedom. Publication of her third collection of stories, A Vocation and a Voice, was suspended, and the collection was not published in any form until 1991. As a result of the negative criticism and social ostracism that followed The Awakening, Chopin produced few additional writings, and over the next half-century her work became obscure. (Showalter, Elaine. 1991)

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Benfey, Christopher E. G. Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson: UP Mississippi, 1999.

Baker, Christopher. "Chopin's `The Storm'." Explicator 52 (Summer 1994): 225-6.

Boynton, Victoria. "Kate Chopin (1850-1904)." In Denise D. Knight and Emmanuel S. Nelson (eds.), Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood, 1997. 50-60.

Thomas, Heather Kirk. "'Development of the Literary West': An Undiscovered Kate Chopin Essay." American Literary Realism, 1870-1910. 22.2 (Winter 1990): 69-75.

Kornansky, Linda Ann. "Women Writers of American Literary Naturalism, 1892-1932." Diss. Tulane U, 1994.


Seyersted, Per. Contents and Introduction. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. By Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 7-11 and 21-33.

Showalter, Elaine. Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

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