Kate Chopin American Literature Analysis
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2455
In the late nineteenth century, when Chopin came of age as a writer, the prevailing attitude was that a woman’s proper sphere was in the home and that her purpose in life should be to nurture and encourage her husband and her children. She was to be, as Chopin termed it in The Awakening, “a mother woman.” Such definitions reveal the dependent, relational nature of woman’s status in nineteenth century America: With no individual identity, a woman was notable only in relation to another—a father, a husband, or a child. Such restrictions were not only socially condoned but also legally enforced, as women, in spite of suffrage movements, did not have the right to the vote and thus were allowed no effective voice in political or civic matters. Against this background of oppression, Chopin chose to air these issues in her fiction and to challenge the validity of such assumptions about “true womanhood.”
Chopin understood that if a woman was always seen in the context of another, relationships became the central issue of her life and, consequently, of her identity. Thus Chopin’s fiction consistently explores interactions between men and women in their daily lives. Many authors of this period were exploring similar issues. In McTeague (1899), for example, Frank Norris studied the consequences for a marriage when the possibility of great wealth is interjected between the wife and husband.
Chopin’s fiction, like Norris’s, is often described as realistic or naturalistic; however, she was interested not in the exceptional situation but in the consequences of everyday interactions between spouses. Further, she extended her analysis of relationships to include the exchanges, intimate as well as public, between men and women who were not married and, perhaps most radically, to the interactions among women that enforced or negated women’s traditional role in society.
Chopin explored these themes of social conflict throughout her writing career, beginning with her earliest published short stories, such as “A Point at Issue” and “Wiser than a God.” Both stories, published in 1889, concern a woman’s sense of stifled existence in a marriage; the women were required to subordinate their lives to those of their husbands. In the latter story, the protagonist decides to risk the insecurity of pursuing a career in music rather than opt for the social and financial security of marriage. She achieves success both in her artistry and in her personal life when she becomes a renowned pianist and develops a love relationship with her music instructor. As Chopin continued to explore the complexities of relationships between the sexes, however, she moved away from such romantic reconciliations and began to depict the incongruity for women of attaining public and private happiness in a culture that did not condone a woman’s sense of individuality.
It would be erroneous to suggest that Chopin’s themes related only to gender; she was equally concerned with racial relationships in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. In her regional fiction, she realistically portrayed the diversity of American peoples and integrated Creole and Cajun lives and dialects into her literature. Many of her short stories were set in the Louisiana bayou country in which she had lived for so many years; the stories’ realistic details and vivid descriptive passages suggest the keenness of her observations of the people and customs of that region.
These stories also acknowledge the class structures within groups as well as within American society as a whole: She depicts enslaved blacks and upper-class whites, impoverished Acadians and aristocratic Creoles. As Chopin’s stories spread far beyond the local periodicals in which she first published to magazines with national circulations, her readers were allowed to explore vicariously a seemingly alien region but at the same time were exposed to the universal human dilemmas that her characters confronted.
As Chopin recognized, the maltreatment of minority peoples and the disparate economic and legal status of many Americans, and all women, were political issues. Although women did not have the power to enact legislation or elect their representatives, they were not spared the consequences of political machinations. Chopin recognized that one way in which women could comment politically, however, was through art. Thus, many of her women characters seek careers in the arts—especially in music and painting—and, certainly, her own career as an artist stood as testament to women’s ability to combine intellectual and artistic activism.
In one of Chopin’s most frequently anthologized short stories, “Désirée’s Baby,” she brings together many of her themes: miscegenation, women’s restricted lives, the injustice of social codes. Désirée is happy in her married life; after the birth of her child, however, her husband suspects that she has hidden from him that fact that she has some “black blood” in her. The tragic consequences of miscegenation are rendered through Désirée’s decision to drown herself and her child, an act that symbolizes the limited options for women who found themselves without male support (emotional as well as financial) and with no means to establish their own independence. As with many of Chopin’s best short stories, this work’s central, provocative concept would be brought to its culmination in the tragic conclusion to The Awakening.
Because of the controversial nature of Chopin’s themes, especially as they culminated in the publication of The Awakening, her work was largely ignored for many years. She was relegated to the status of a “local color” short-story writer, and she received limited critical consideration at best. However, when Per Seyersted published the two-volume Complete Works of Kate Chopin in 1969, a new era in Chopin scholarship began. Her works have been analyzed in terms of the influence of American and French writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Guy de Maupassant.
Chopin’s ability to work within numerous genres (essay, poetry, short story, and novel) and numerous literary modes (romanticism, realism, and naturalism) attest her original and influential artistry. With the advent in the 1970’s of feminist critical interest in Chopin’s writings, her work began to receive deserved attention for its feminist ideals and cultural critiques of patriarchal American society. She is recognized as a major literary artist whose psychological and sociopolitical insights have helped to reshape an understanding of her writings—and of the society within which they were created.
First published: 1899
Type of work: Novel
In the repressive world of the nineteenth century United States, a woman awakens to a sense of herself but can find no socially acceptable means of self-fulfillment.
The Awakening begins with a seemingly insignificant event: Léonce Pontellier is disturbed while trying to read the newspaper. As Chopin reveals, however, this incident reflects the patriarchal structure of most late nineteenth century American marriages in which the entire family’s activities are inordinately structured around the husband’s wishes and moods, no matter how trivial.
The summer resort of Grand Isle is a setting that allows Léonce’s wife, Edna, to confront her dissatisfactions with her marriage. Further, she can explore first her awakened sexuality through the attentions of Robert LeBrun and then the subsequent desires for an alternative lifestyle that this awakening creates. While they are at Grand Isle, Léonce has no objections to Robert’s flirtations; indeed, he seems indifferent to the developing intimacy between Edna and Robert. When the family returns to New Orleans, Léonce assumes that Edna will return to the duties of a supportive wife.
Edna has awakened, however tentatively, to the excitement of personal liberty, and she discovers within herself a growing desire to control her own life. She has within her social circle two role models for women’s lives: the beautiful Madame Ratignolle, “a faultless Madonna,” who dedicates her life to her husband and children and who is, therefore, honored by everyone in the community; and Mademoiselle Reisz, a single woman who has dedicated her life to her music but who, therefore, is distinctly a social outcast and whose life seems stale and isolated. Not surprisingly, neither choice appeals to Edna’s growing excitement about the prospect of personal freedom.
Each woman counsels Edna on the decisions she is about to make: Madame Ratignolle asserts that Edna must place her children’s needs before her own. Mademoiselle Reisz, though cautiously encouraging Edna, also notes that an artist must possess a courageous soul; she adds, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” Each woman’s advice represents societal truths. If Edna chooses to remain a traditional woman, the needs of her children and her husband must come before her own. If she seeks new avenues of self-fulfillment, however, she must recognize that she will be confronting tempest-like winds of controversy that will lead to social banishment.
At first, Edna believes that she can reject traditional wisdom and weather the brunt of conventional reactions. In spite of warnings, she becomes involved with the infamous Alcée Arobin, and she eventually moves into a home of her own. Yet, as the designation for her new residence—the pigeon house—suggests, Edna has not escaped the trappings of her marriage; she has only exchanged them for an illusion of freedom. Although she begins to paint and finds some success in selling her creations, Edna discovers that independence and art alone cannot fulfill her. Her sexuality has been awakened, and she does not want to confine herself to the sterility of an existence like Mademoiselle Reisz’s.
If Edna’s awareness of options for women has changed, society’s perspective has not. Edna finds herself unable to escape the numerous demands and desires of her old and new lives: Though she is able to leave her husband, she cannot escape her maternal status, and her new independence is quickly separating her from old friends without affording her new support systems. She is unable to attain success as an artist and at the same time satisfy the sensual self that she has discovered. In the face of these irreconcilable realities, Edna returns to Grand Isle.
The conclusion of The Awakening has created interpretive controversies since its first publication and remains a point of debate among scholars. Some critics see Edna’s final swim out into the ocean as one more instance of her capricious behavior; they believe that her death is an accident. Most critics, however, recognize Edna’s act as a conscious recognition of the inescapable limitations of her life that continue to stifle her creative and sensual endeavors. That Chopin intended the ending to be ambiguous is indicated in the shifting allusions that surround Edna’s final act: a broken-winged bird falls to the water, suggesting that Edna has been unable to withstand the social prejudices about which Mademoiselle Reisz had warned her.
As Edna contemplates her movement into the water, however, she removes all of her clothing, freeing herself of the symbols of society and suggesting that it is her awakened self that is preserved in this final act. By forcing the reader to consider these shifting perspectives, Chopin also forces the reader to confront the causes behind Edna’s inability to find personal fulfillment; the oppressive nature of nineteenth century America is symbolized in the waves that wash over Edna as she enters the water. It is only by swimming far beyond the boundaries of the shore that she finally escapes and finds freedom. The tragedy is that this is the only kind of freedom a woman such as Edna could find in her society.
“The Story of an Hour”
First published: 1894 (collected in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 1969)
Type of work: Short story
A woman with heart trouble dies—not when she hears of her husband’s death but when she discovers that he is still alive.
In “The Story of an Hour,” the fact that Mrs. Mallard is “afflicted with a heart trouble” becomes an ironic reality, for Mrs. Mallard’s “heart trouble” in the beginning of the story is that she feels emotionally thwarted in her marriage. When her husband is believed to have been killed in a train accident, her friends notify her cautiously, assuming she will be devastated. The news, however, brings her tears of release rather than of grief. She is enlivened by her new situation and symbolically insists that all the doors of the house be opened. When Brently Mallard suddenly returns home, however, Mrs. Mallard’s death is both literal and symbolic—in one hour, her freedom has been won and lost. For Chopin, Mrs. Mallard represents the numerous women who silently bear the feelings of being trapped in unhappy marriages but whose escapes could be ephemeral at best.
First published: 1969 (collected in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 1969)
Type of work: Short story
A married woman spontaneously commits adultery, then reacts not with shame but with joy at her sexual awakening and continued love for her husband.
Written only six months after the publication of The Awakening, “The Storm” continues Chopin’s confrontation with the theme of women’s sexuality and the complexities of the married state. In this five-part short story, the narrative structure allows Chopin to present varying perspectives on a single situation as a means of suggesting that “reality” is, at best, relative. The situation is simple enough: Calixta’s husband, Bobinôt, and son, Bibi, are in town when a storm hits. Alone at home, Calixta is about to shut the windows and doors against the rain when her former lover, Alcée Laballière, rides into the yard seeking shelter. While the storm rages, Calixta and Alcée renew their passionate feelings for each other; their desire finally leads them into having sex. When the storm abates, Alcée departs, and Calixta welcomes her family back home. The story concludes, “So the storm passed and every one was happy.”
Like all of Chopin’s best fiction, “The Storm” does not offer pat moral truisms; indeed, the shocking element of this story’s conclusion is that the retribution one might expect for the act of adultery never comes. In section 2, the crucial love scene is played out against ironic allusions to Christian symbolism: the Assumption, an immaculate dove, a lily, and the passion. Chopin offers a moral tale in which a woman’s sexual experience is not condemned but celebrated and in which she uses that experience not to abandon her family but to accept them with a renewed sense of commitment. Unlike The Awakening, “The Storm” allows a woman to gain personal fulfillment and to remain happily married. As in most naturalistic fiction, morality—like reality—is relative.