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...
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