Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2824
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 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 in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). In Chopin’s novel, attention is...
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