Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2074
Until the 1970’s, Kate Chopin was known best literarily, if at all, as a “local colorist,” primarily for her tales of life in New Orleans and rural Louisiana. Chopin manages in these stories (about two-thirds of her total output) to bring to life subtly the settings and personalities of her characters, usually Creoles (descendants of the original French settlers of Louisiana) or Cajuns (or Acadians, the French colonists who were exiled to Louisiana following the British conquest of Nova Scotia). What makes Chopin especially important for modern readers, however, is her insight into human characters and relationships in the context of their societies whether Creole, Cajun, or Anglo-Saxon—and into the social, emotional, and sexual roles of women within those societies.
Chopin’s desire and hope for female independence can be seen in two of her earliest stories, “Wiser Than a God” and “A Point at Issue!” (both 1889). In the first story, the heroine Paula Von Stoltz rejects an offer of marriage in order to begin a successful career as a concert pianist because music is the true sole passion of her life; it is an act which anticipates the actions of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening. In the second story, Eleanor Gail and Charles Faraday enter into a marriage based on reason and equality and pursue their individual careers in separate places. This arrangement works very well for some time, but finally each of the two succumbs to jealousy; in spite of this blemish in their relationship, Chopin’s humorous tone manages to poke fun at traditional attitudes toward marriage as well.
“The Story of an Hour”
This questioning though humorous attitude is strongly evident in one of Chopin’s most anthologized and best-known tales, “The Story of an Hour” (1894). Mrs. Mallard, a woman suffering from a heart condition, is told that her husband has been killed in a train accident. She is at first deeply sorrowful, but soon realizes that even though she had loved and will mourn her husband, his death has set her free: “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.” As Mrs. Mallard descends the stairs, however, the front door is opened by her husband, who had never been on the train. This time her heart gives out and the cause ironically is given by the doctors as “the joy that kills.”
“La Belle Zoraïde”
It is in her Louisiana stories, however, that Chopin’s sympathy for female and indeed human longings emerges most fully, subtly blended with a distinct and evocative sense of locale and folkways. “La Belle Zoraïde” (1893) is presented in the form of a folktale being told by a black servant, Manna-Loulou, to her mistress, Madame Delisle (these two characters also are central to the story “A Lady of Bayou St. John,” 1893). The tale itself is the story of a black slave, Zoraïde, who is forbidden by her mistress to marry another slave with whom she has fallen in love because his skin is too black and her mistress intends her for another, more “gentlemanly” servant. In spite of this, and although the slave she loves is sold away, she bears his child and refuses marriage to the other slave. Her mistress falsely tells Zoraïde that her child has been born dead, and the slave descends into madness. Even when her real daughter is finally brought back to her, Zoraïde rejects her, preferring to cling to the bundle of rags which she has fashioned as a surrogate baby. From then on,She was never known again as la belle Zoraïde, but ever after as Zoraïde la folle, whom no one ever wanted to marry. She lived to be an old woman, whom some people pitied and others laughed at—always clasping her bundle of...
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- Critical Essays