Kate Chopin Essay - Chopin, Kate (Short Story Criticism)

Chopin, Kate (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Kate Chopin 1851–-1904

(Born Katherine O'Flaherty) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, diarist, and memoirist.

The following entry presents criticism on Chopin's short fiction from 1988 through 2002. For criticism of Chopin's short fiction published prior to 1988, see SSC, Vol. 8.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

In the mid-1880s Chopin sold most of her property and left Louisiana to live with her mother in St. Louis. Family friends who found her letters entertaining encouraged Chopin to write professionally, and she began composing short stories. After an apprenticeship marked by routine rejections, Chopin began having her stories published in the most popular American periodicals, including America, Vogue, and the Atlantic. Between 1894 and 1897 she published the collections Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, the success of which solidified her growing reputation as an important local colorist. Publishers later rejected a novel and short story collection, A Vocation and a Voice (finally published in 1991), on moral grounds, citing what they considered their unseemly promotion of female self-assertion and sexual liberation. Moreover, the hostile critical and public reaction to her later novel The Awakening largely halted Chopin's career; she had difficulty finding publishers for later works and was ousted from local literary groups. Demoralized, she wrote little during her last years. A cerebral hemorrhage abruptly ended her life at the age of fifty-three.

Major Works of Short Fiction

The stories of Bayou Folk, Chopin's first collection, largely reflect her skills as a local colorist and often center on the passionate loves of the Creoles and Acadians in her adopted Natchitoches Parish. For example, “A Lady of Bayou St. John” portrays a young widow who escapes the sexual demands of a suitor by immersing herself in memories of her dead husband, while “La Belle Zoraïde” chronicles a mulatto slave's descent into madness after her mistress sells her lover and deprives her of their child. In A Night in Acadie Chopin continued to utilize the Louisiana settings that figured in Bayou Folk. However, the romanticism of the earlier collection is replaced by a greater moral ambivalence concerning such issues as female sexuality, personal freedom, and social propriety. In “A Respectable Woman” a happily married woman becomes sexually attracted to Gouvernail, a family friend invited by her husband to visit their home for a week. Disturbed by her feelings, she is relieved when Gouvernail leaves, but as the following summer approaches, she encourages her husband to invite him to visit again. Chopin later expanded upon this essentially amoral perception of adultery in “The Storm,” a story written near the end of her career, which portrays a woman's extramarital affair as a natural impulse devoid of moral significance.

Early reviewers of A Night in Acadie objected to the volume's sensuous themes. Similar concerns were later raised by publishers who rejected Chopin's next volume, A Vocation and a Voice. In these stories Chopin largely abandons local setting to focus upon the psychological complexity of her characters. Tales such as “Two Portraits,” “Lilacs,” and “A Vocation and a Voice” examine contrary states of innocence and experience and ways that society divides rather than unites the two. In “The Story of an Hour,” the best-known work in the collection, Chopin returns to the issue of marriage and selfhood in her portrayal of Mrs. Mallard, a woman who learns that her husband has died in a train accident. Initially overcome by grief, she gradually realizes that his “powerful will” no longer restricts her and that she may live as she wishes. While she joyfully anticipates her newfound freedom, however, her husband returns, the report of his death a mistake, and Mrs. Mallard collapses and dies of heart failure.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Bayou Folk 1894

A Night in Acadie 1897

The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. 2 vols. (novels, short stories, poetry, and essays) 1969

Kate Chopin: The Awakening, and Other Stories (novel and short stories) 1970

The Storm, and Other Stories, with The Awakening (short stories and novel) 1974

The Awakening, and Selected Short Stories of Kate Chopin (novel and short stories) 1976

A Vocation and a Voice 1991

Matter of Prejudice & Other Stories 1992

A Pair of Silk Stockings and Other Stories 1996

At Fault (novel) 1890

The Awakening (novel) 1899

A Kate Chopin Miscellany (letters, essays, diary entries) 1979

Kate Chopin's Private Papers (memoirs) 1998

Criticism

Emily Toth (essay date spring 1988)

SOURCE: Toth, Emily. “Kate Chopin's New Orleans Years.” New Orleans Review 15, no. 1 (spring 1988): 53-60.

[In the following essay, Toth explicates biographical aspects of Chopin's stories set in New Orleans.]

“N. Orleans I liked immensely; it is so clean—so white and green. Although in April, we had profusions of flowers—strawberries and even black berries,” Kate O'Flaherty of St. Louis wrote in her diary for May 8, 1869.1

She had just returned from a two-month trip with her mother, cousin and friends—her first long venture from home. Exactly thirteen months later, Kate O'Flaherty would be marrying Oscar Chopin of Louisiana and...

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Roslyn Reso Foy (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Foy, Roslyn Reso. “Chopin's ‘Désirée's Baby’.” The Explicator 49, no. 4 (summer 1991): 222-23.

[In the following essay, Foy asserts that “Désirée's Baby” is an exploration of the dark side of the protagonist's personality.]

In Kate Chopin's “Désirée's Baby,” Armand's ruthlessness is more psychologically complicated than it appears on first reading. His cruelty toward the slaves, and ultimately toward his wife and child, is not simply a product of nineteenth-century racism. The story transcends its social implications to explore the dark side of personality.

Armand is a man who must deal with a demanding social climate,...

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Anne M. Blythe (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Blythe, Anne M. “Kate Chopin's ‘Charlie’.” In Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, edited by Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis, pp. 207-15. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Blythe counters the prevailing Freudian interpretation of “Charlie” and asserts that it “be read as an exceptionally strong and forthright story of the growth into womanhood of a young girl of unusually fine qualities and potential.”]

Kate Chopin's story “Charlie”—written in 1900, the year following the publication of The Awakening, but not published until 1969—has been almost completely neglected by...

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Nancy S. Ellis (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Ellis, Nancy S. “Insistent Refrains and Self-Discovery: Accompanied Awakenings in Three Stories by Kate Chopin.” In Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou, edited by Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis, pp. 216-29. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1992.

[In the following essay, Ellis delineates the role of music in “After the Winter,” “At Cheniere Caminada,” and “A Vocation and a Voice.”]

In The Awakening, Mlle. Reisz's piano music triggers Edna Pontellier's first emotional arousing: “The very first chords … sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier's spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist at...

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Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Shurbutt, Sylvia Bailey. “The Can River Characters and Revisionist Mythmaking in the Work of Kate Chopin.” The Southern Literary Journal 25, no. 2 (spring 1993): 14-23.

[In the following essay, Shurbutt maintains that in her fiction Chopin “revises accepted myths about duty, marriage, and sexuality in order to achieve a more realistic understanding of the human condition.”]

One of the threads weaving its way through the writing of women from Amelia Lanier to Virginia Woolf is the attempt to recast into a more palatable form traditional Western myth with its patriarchial point of view—a point of view which molds our realities, fixes our values, and...

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Martha J. Cutter (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Cutter, Martha J. “Losing the Battle but Winning the War: Resistance to Patriarchal Discourse in Kate Chopin's Short Fiction.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 11, no. 1 (1994): 17-36.

[In the following essay, Cutter traces the development of Chopin's resistance to patriarchal authority as evinced in her short fiction.]

In “‘A Language Which Nobody Understood’: Emancipatory Strategies in The Awakening,” Patricia S. Yaeger argues that The Awakening describes “a frightening antagonism between a feminine subject and the objectifying world of discourse she inhabits” (211).1 This antagonistic relationship also is...

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Suzanne D. Green (essay date fall-winter 1994)

SOURCE: Green, Suzanne D. “Fear, Freedom, and the Perils of Ethnicity: Otherness in Kate Chopin's ‘Beyond the Bayou’ and Zora Neale Hurston's ‘Sweat’.” Southern Studies 5, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1994): 105-24.

[In the following essay, Green finds parallels in the portrayal of marginalized women in “Beyond the Bayou” and Zora Neale Hurston's “Sweat.”]

In the short fiction of Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston, we often see women—particularly women of color—portrayed as a microcosm of society in which we are to view them not only as individuals, but as symbolic representations of the universal problems that women face. Within the microcosm that...

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Sandra Gunning (essay date autumn 1995)

SOURCE: Gunning, Sandra. “Kate Chopin's Local Color Fiction and the Politics of White Supremacy.” Arizona Quarterly 52, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 61-86.

[In the following essay, Gunning examines issues of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and male aggression in “In Sabine,” “La Belle Zoraïde,” and “A No-Account Creole.”]

In Kate Chopin's 1894 local color story “A No-Account Creole,” Euphrasie Manton charts a course to economic and romantic happiness with Wallace Offdean, the New Orleans businessman whose company holds the mortgage on a local plantation in Manton's native Natchitoches parish. But while Chopin seemed to have originally conceived her...

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Lawrence I. Berkove (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Berkove, Lawrence I. “‘Acting Like Fools’: The Ill-Fated Romances of ‘At the 'Cadian Ball’ and ‘The Storm’.” In Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, edited by Alice Hall Petry, pp. 184-96. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, Berkove elucidates Chopin's attitude toward adultery and morality as evinced through her stories “At the 'Cadian Ball” and “The Storm.”]

Since its long-delayed publication in 1969, “The Storm” has generally been read as Kate Chopin's protest at the narrow and unnatural morality of turn-of-the-century America. The story's startling last sentence in particular has been taken to be her boldly...

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Heather Kirk Thomas (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Thomas, Heather Kirk. “‘The House of Sylvie’ in Kate Chopin's ‘Athénaïse’.” In Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, edited by Alice Hall Petry, pp. 207-17. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, Thomas explores Sylvie's narrative function in “Athénaïse.”]

The imagination that produces work which bears and invites rereadings, which motions to future readings as well as contemporary ones, implies a shareable world and an endlessly flexible language.

—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark1

Per Seyersted, perhaps Kate Chopin's most...

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Elizabeth Ann Wolf (essay date winter-spring 1997)

SOURCE: Wolf, Elizabeth Ann. “The Politics of Rhetorical Strategy: Kate Chopin's ‘La Belle Zoraïde’.” Southern Studies 8, nos. 1 & 2 (winter-spring 1997): 43-51.

[In the following essay, Wolf contends that Chopin's indirect rhetorical strategy functions to attack prevailing myths of racial superiority and Southern womanhood in “La Belle Zoraïde.”]

The large body of Kate Chopin's fiction was written in the 1890s, during a critical transition in the history of the social and legal classification of Creole identity in Louisiana1. This point does not assume its full significance, however, until it is considered in the context of Louisiana's...

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Pearl L. Brown (essay date March 1999)

SOURCE: Brown, Pearl L. “Awakened Men in Kate Chopin's Creole Stories.” American Transcendental Quarterly 13, no. 1 (March 1999): 69-82.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses Chopin's depiction of men who experience liberation from cultural restrictions in their relationships with women.]

Much has been written about Kate Chopin's defiant women. Not only Edna Pontellier, the rebellious heroine in The Awakening, but also the independent-minded women in her Creole stories have received extensive commentary. However, very little has been written about Chopin's defiant men, some of whom have experiences that parallel those of the women. Just as a woman in an...

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Lawrence I. Berkove (essay date winter 2000)

SOURCE: Berkove, Lawrence I. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin's ‘The Story of an Hour’.” American Literary Realism 32, no. 2 (winter 2000): 152-58.

[In the following essay, Berkove views the character of Louise Mallard in “The Story of an Hour” as “an immature egotist and a victim of her own extreme self-assertion.”]

Kate Chopin's thousand-word short story, “The Story of an Hour,” has understandably become a favorite selection for collections of short stories as well as for anthologies of American literature. Few other stories say so much in so few words. There has been, moreover, virtual critical agreement on what the story says: its heroine...

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John A. Staunton (essay date autumn 2000)

SOURCE: Staunton, John A. “Kate Chopin's ‘One Story’: Casting a Shadowy Glance on the Ethics of Regionalism.” Studies in American Fiction 28, no. 2 (autumn 2000): 203-34.

[In the following essay, Staunton considers Chopin's attitude toward regionalism and local color fiction and discusses her short fiction as regionalist writing.]

In Kate Chopin's first two critical essays, both written in 1894, the same year her first collection of short fiction, Bayou Folk, was published, the St. Louis-born writer—who was best known for her Louisiana fictions—demonstrates the ambivalence with which many nineteenth-century American authors approached terms like...

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Andrew Crosland (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Crosland, Andrew. “Kate Chopin's ‘Lilacs’ and the Myth of Persephone.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 14, no. 1 (winter 2001): 31-4.

[In the following essay, Crosland explores Chopin's use of the Persephone myth in her story “Lilacs.”]

The myth of Persephone provides a framework for Kate Chopin's 1894 story “Lilacs,” a tale of ambiguous good and evil subtly defined through mythological allusion. Chopin's use of myth in her other writing, the prominence of mythology in the literary magazines of her day, her familiarity with authors who employed it, and evidence in the story itself all argue for her reliance on it...

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Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. “In Possession of the Letter: Kate Chopin's ‘Her Letters’.” Studies in American Fiction 30, no. 1 (spring 2002): 45-62.

[In the following essay, Weinstock contrasts the treatment of female sexuality in Chopin's “Her Letters” and The Awakening.]

The scandal surrounding the publication of Kate Chopin's 1899 The Awakening tarnished its author's reputation and “effectively removed the novel from wide circulation and influence for fifty years following its publication.”1 The book was derided by Chopin's contemporaries as “trite and sordid,”2 and the behavior of its heroine, Edna Pontellier,...

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