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...
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