When Kate Chopin began to publish, local-color writing, which came into being after the Civil War and crested in the 1880’s, had already been established. Bret Harte and Mark Twain had created a special ambience for their fiction in the American West, Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman had drawn their characters in the context of a New England world in decline, and the Creole culture of New Orleans and the plantation region beyond it had been depicted by George Washington Cable, Grace King, and Ruth McEnery Stuart.
A late arriver to the scene, Chopin was at first, as her stories show, uncertain even of her locale. At Fault, her first novel, was a breakthrough for her in the sense that she found her rural Louisiana “region.” The novel is set in the present, a setting that is important to its sphere of action. Place-du-Bois, the plantation, represents conservative, traditional values that are challenged by new, emergent ones. David Hosmer, from St. Louis, obtains lumber rights on Place-du-Bois, and with him comes conflict. At Fault deals with divorce, but beyond that, it addresses the contradictions of nature and convention. Place-du-Bois seems at times idyllic, but it is shadowed by the cruelties of its slaveholding past, abuses created by too rigidly held assumptions. St. Louis is almost the opposite, a world as much without form as Hosmer’s pretty young wife, who goes to pieces there and again at Place-du-Bois.
A problem novel, At Fault looks skeptically at nature but also at received convention. Intelligent and well thought out, it raises a question that will appear again in The Awakening: Is the individual responsible to others or to him- or herself? The characters in At Fault tend to be merely vehicles for ideas, but in the short stories Chopin wrote after the novel, her ability to create characters with emotional richness becomes apparent. If At Fault suggests the symmetrical social novels of William Dean Howells, Bayou Folk gives the impression of southern folk writing brought to a high degree of perfection. The dominant theme in this collection is the universality of illusion, while the stories in A Night in Acadie prepare for The Awakening, in which a married woman, her self-assertion stifled in a conventional marriage, is awakened to the sensuous and erotic life.
Comparable in kind to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), The Awakening is Chopin’s most elaborate orchestration of the theme of bondage and illusion. Dramatic in form, intensely focused, it makes use of imagery and symbolism to an extent never before evident in Chopin’s work. The boldness of her possession of theme in The Awakening is wholly remarkable. Her earliest effort in the novel, At Fault, asks if the individual is responsible to others or to him- or herself, a question that is raised again in The Awakening. At Fault, however, deals with its characters conventionally, on the surface only, while in The Awakening Chopin captures the deep, inner life of Edna Pontellier and projects it powerfully onto a world of convention.
In writing At Fault , Chopin drew on her familiarity with two regions, St. Louis and the plantation country north of New Orleans. The hero, David Hosmer, comes to Louisiana from St. Louis, like Chopin herself, and at least one segment of the novel is set in St. Louis. The heroine, Thérèse Lafirme, proprietress of Place-du-Bois, is similar to Chopin—a widow at thirty who carries on the management of her late husband’s property. Moreover, her plantation of four thousand acres is of the same size...
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as and seems suggested by that of Chopin’s father-in-law, who had purchased it from the notorious Robert McAlpine, the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Simon Legree inUncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). In Chopin’s novel, attention is called specifically to McAlpine, the former owner of the property, whose ghost is said to walk abroad at night in expiation of his cruel deeds.
Apart from its two settings, At Fault does not seem autobiographical. It has the form of a problem novel, reminiscent of the novels of Howells, to whom Chopin sent a copy of the work when it was published. As in certain of Howells’s novels, a discussion takes place at one point that frames the conflict that the characters’ lives illustrate. In this case it is the conflict between nature and convention, religious and social precept versus the data of actual experience. Thérèse Lafirme, although a warm and attractive woman, is accustomed to thinking about human affairs abstractly. When she learns that David Hosmer, who owns a sawmill on her property, is divorced from his young wife, a weak and susceptible woman who drinks, she admonishes him to return to his wife and fulfill his marriage pledge to stand by and redeem her. Hosmer admires Thérèse to such an extent that, against his own judgment, and most reluctantly, he returns to St. Louis and remarries Fanny Larimore. They then return to the plantation to live, and in due course history repeats itself. Despite Hosmer’s dutiful attentions and her acceptance into the small social world of Place-du-Bois, Fanny begins to drink and to behave unreasonably. Near the end of the novel, having become jealous of Thérèse, Fanny ventures out in a storm and, despite Hosmer’s attempt to rescue her, dies in a river flood.
Running parallel to this main plot is a subplot in which Hosmer’s sister Melicent feels a romantic attraction to Thérèse’s impetuous young nephew Grégoire but decides on the most theoretical grounds that he would not be suitable for a husband. When he becomes involved in a marginal homicide, she condemns him utterly, literally abandoning him. He then returns to Texas, where he goes from bad to worse and is eventually killed in a lawless town. At the end, a year after these events, Hosmer and Thérèse marry and find the happiness they had very nearly lost through Thérèse’s preconceptions. It is clear to her that Fanny never could have been redeemed, and that her plan to “save” her had brought suffering to all parties concerned—to Hosmer, herself, and to Fanny as well. Left open, however, is the question of Melicent’s responsibility to Grégoire, whom she had been too quick to “judge.” At Fault appears to end happily, but in some ways it is pessimistic in its view of nature and convention.
At Fault shows a questioning intelligence and has an architectural competence, but it is still apprenticeship work. The St. Louis setting, especially in comparison to the southern one, is pallid, and the characters encountered there are lifeless. Fanny’s associates in St. Louis include Mrs. Lorenzo (Belle) Worthington, who has dyed blond hair, and Mrs. Jack (Lou) Dawson, who has an expressionless face and “meaningless blue eyes set to a good humored readiness for laughter.” These lady idlers, Belle and Lou, are stick figures. Although given stronger individuality, the more important characters also tend to be typed. Grégoire is typed by his vulnerability and impetuousness, just as Melicent is drawn to type as an immature girl who does not know her mind. The plot of At Fault is perhaps too symmetrical, too predictable in its outcome, with the irredeemability of Fanny Larimore a foregone conclusion. Moreover, in attempting to add emotional richness to the work, Chopin sometimes resorts to melodramatic occurrences, such as Joçint’s setting fire to the mill, his death at the hands of Grégoire, the death of Joçint’s father, the death of Grégoire, and the scene in which Fanny perishes in the storm. At Fault is essentially a realistic novel but resorts at times to romantic or melodramaticconventions. If Chopin fails to bring her novel to life, she does at times create suggestive characters such as Aunt Belindy, Thérèse’s cook, who asks pointedly, “Whar you gwine live if you don’ live in de worl’?” A tonal richness is also evident in the drawing of Thérèse Lafirme. Thérèse is not allowed in this work to be fully “herself,” but she points the way to Chopin’s later successes in fiction, the women Chopin creates from the soul.
In The Awakening, Chopin achieved her largest exploration of feminine consciousness. Edna Pontellier, the heroine, is always at the center of the novel, and nothing occurs that does not in some way bear on her thoughts or developing sense of her situation. As a character who rejects her socially prescribed roles of wife and mother, Edna has a certain affinity with the “New Woman,” much discussed in the 1890’s, but her special modeling and the type of her experience suggest a French influence. Before beginning the novel, Chopin translated eight of Guy de Maupassant’s stories. Two of these tales, “Solitude” and “Suicide,” share with The Awakening the theme of illusion in erotic desire and the inescapability of the solitary self. Another, “Reveil,” anticipates Chopin’s novel in some incidents of its plot. At the same time, The Awakening seems to have been influenced by Madame Bovary. Certain parallels can be noticed in the experiences of the two heroines—their repudiation of their husbands, estrangement, and eventual suicides. More important, Flaubert’s craftsmanship informs the whole manner of Chopin’s novel—its directness, lucidity, and economy of means; its steady use of incident and detail as leitmotif. The novel also draws on a large fin de siècle background concerned with a hunger for the exotic and the voluptuous, a yearning for the absolute. From these diverse influences, Chopin shapes a work that is strikingly, even startlingly, her own.
The opening third section of The Awakening, the chapter set at Grand Isle, is particularly impressive. Here one meets Edna Pontellier, the young wife of a well-to-do Creole negociant and mother of two small boys. Mrs. Pontellier, an “American” woman originally from Kentucky, is still not quite accustomed to the sensuous openness of this Creole summer colony. She walks on the beach under a white parasol with handsome young Robert Lebrun, who befriends married Creole women in a way that is harmless, since his attentions are regarded as a social pleasantry, nothing more. In the background are two young lovers and, not far behind them, keeping pace, a mysterious woman dressed in black who tells her beads. Edna Pontellier and Robert Lebrun have just returned from a midday swim in the ocean, an act undertaken on impulse and perhaps not entirely prudent, in view of the extreme heat of that hour and the scorching glare of the sun. When Edna rejoins her husband, he finds her “burnt beyond recognition.” Léonce Pontellier is a responsible husband who gives his wife no cause for complaint, but his mind runs frequently on business and he is dull. He is inclined to regard his wife as “property,” but by this summer on Grand Isle she has begun to come to self-awareness, to recognize how she is suppressed by her role as a “mother-woman.” Emboldened by her unconventional midday swim, she goes out swimming alone that night, and with reckless exhilaration longs to go “further out than any woman had ever swum before.” She quickly tires, however, and is fortunate to have the strength to return to the safety of the shore. When she returns to their house, she does not go inside to join her husband but drowses alone in a porch hammock, lost in a long moonlit reverie that has the voluptuous effulgence of the sea.
As the novel proceeds, it becomes clear that Edna has begun to fall in love with Lebrun, who decides suddenly to go to Mexico, following which the Pontelliers themselves return to their well-appointed home in New Orleans. There Edna begins to behave erratically, defying her husband and leading as much as possible an independent existence. After moving to a small house nearby by herself, she has an affair with a young roué, Alcée Arobin. Lebrun returns from Mexico about the same time, and, although he is in love with Edna, he does not dare to overstep convention with a married woman and mother of two. Trapped once again within her socially prescribed role, Edna returns to the seashore and goes swimming alone, surrendering her life to the sea.
In its own time, The Awakening was criticized both for its subject matter and for its point of view. Reviewers repeatedly remarked that the erotic content of the novel was disturbing and distasteful, and that Chopin had not only failed to censure Edna’s “morbid” awakening but also had treated it sympathetically. The reviewers failed to take into account the subtlety and ambiguity of the novel’s vision, for if Chopin enters deeply into Edna’s consciousness, she also stands outside it with a severe objectivity. A close examination of The Awakening reveals that the heroine has been involved in illusion from the beginning. Edna sometimes meditates, for example, on the self-realization that has been blunted by her roles as wife and mother, but in her rejection of her responsibilities she constantly tends toward vagueness rather than clarity.
The imagery of the sea expresses Edna’s longing to reach a state in which she feels her own identity and where she feels passionately alive. The “voice” of the sea, beckoning Edna, is constantly in the background of the work. “The voice of the sea,” Chopin writes, “speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” In this “enfolding,” however, Edna discovers her own solitude and loses herself in “mazes of inward contemplation.” In Moby Dick (1851), Herman Melville contrasts the land and the sea, the one convention bound, the other “open” and boldly, defiantly speculative, but Edna is no thinker; she is a dreamer who, in standing apart from conditioned circumstance, can only embrace the rhapsodic death lullaby of the sea. At the end of her life, she returns to her childhood, when, in protest against the aridness of her Presbyterian father’s Sunday devotions, she had wandered aimlessly in a field of tall meadow grass that made her think of the sea.
Edna had married her Catholic husband despite her father’s objection—or rather, one thinks, because of his objection. Later, discovering the limitations that her life with her husband imposes on her, she rebels once again, grasping at the illusion of an idealized Robert Lebrun. Edna’s habit of idealization goes far back in her past. As a girl, she had fallen in love with a Confederate officer whom she had glimpsed, a noble figure belonging to a doomed cause, and also with a picture of a “tragedian.” The last lines of the novel, as Edna’s consciousness ends, are as follows: “The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.” Her consciousness at the end thus reverts back to its beginning, forming a circle from which she cannot escape. The final irony of The Awakening, however, is that even though Edna is drawn as an illusionist, her protest is not quite meaningless. Never before in a novel published in the United States was the issue of a woman’s suppressed erotic nature and need for self-definition, apart from the received roles of wife and mother, raised so forcefully. The Awakening is a work in which the feminist protest of the present is memorably imagined.
In the mid-1950’s, Van Wyck Brooks described The Awakening as a “small perfect book that mattered more than the whole life work of many a prolific writer.” In truth, The Awakening is not quite “perfect.” Chopin loses some of her power when she moves from Grand Isle to New Orleans. The guests at her dinner party, characters with names such as Mrs. Highcamp and Miss Mayblunt, are two-dimensional and wooden, and at times the symbolic connotations of incidents seem too unvaried. The Awakening, certainly, would be embarrassed by comparison with a large, panoramic novel of marital infidelity such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886). Within its limits, however, it reveals work of the finest craftsmanship, and it is a novel that continues to linger in the reader’s consciousness well after it has been read.
Chopin was not prolific; all but a few of her best stories are contained in Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, and she produced only one mature novel, but these volumes have the mark of genuine quality. Lyric and objective at once, deeply humane and yet constantly attentive to illusion in her characters’ perceptions of reality, these volumes reveal Chopin as a psychological realist of magical empathy, a writer having the greatness of delicacy.