Kate Chopin 1851–-1904
(Born Katherine O'Flaherty) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, diarist, and memoirist.
The following entry presents criticism on Chopin's short fiction from 1988 through 2002. For criticism of Chopin's short fiction published prior to 1988, see SSC, Vol. 8.
A popular local colorist during her lifetime, Chopin is best known today for her psychological novel The Awakening (1899) and for such often-anthologized short stories as “Désirée's Baby” and “The Story of an Hour.” In these, as in many of her best works, she transcended simple regionalism and portrayed women who seek spiritual and sexual freedom amid the restrictive mores of nineteenth-century Southern society. Chopin is today recognized for her pioneering examination of sexuality, individual freedom, and the consequences of action—themes and concerns important to many contemporary writers.
Chopin was born to a prominent St. Louis family. Her father died in a train accident when Chopin was four years old, and her childhood was profoundly influenced by her mother and great-grandmother, who descended from French-Creole pioneers. Chopin also spent much time with her family's Creole and mulatto slaves, becoming familiar with their unique dialects. After her graduation from a convent school at the age of seventeen, she spent two years as a belle of fashionable St. Louis society. In 1870 she married Oscar Chopin, a wealthy Creole cotton factor, and moved with him to New Orleans. For the next decade, Chopin pursued the demanding social and domestic schedule of a Southern aristocrat, her recollections of which would later serve as material for her short stories. In 1880, financial difficulties forced Chopin's growing family to move to her father-in-law's home in Cloutierville, a small town in Natchitoches Parish located in Louisiana's Red River bayou region. There, Chopin's husband oversaw and subsequently inherited his father's plantations. Upon his death in 1883, Chopin insisted upon assuming his managerial responsibilities, which brought her into contact with almost every segment of the community, including the French-Acadian, Creole, and mulatto sharecroppers who worked the plantations. The impressions she gathered of these people and Natchitoches Parish life later influenced her fiction.
In the mid-1880s Chopin sold most of her property and left Louisiana to live with her mother in St. Louis. Family friends who found her letters entertaining encouraged Chopin to write professionally, and she began composing short stories. After an apprenticeship marked by routine rejections, Chopin began having her stories published in the most popular American periodicals, including America, Vogue, and the Atlantic. Between 1894 and 1897 she published the collections Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, the success of which solidified her growing reputation as an important local colorist. Publishers later rejected a novel and short story collection, A Vocation and a Voice (finally published in 1991), on moral grounds, citing what they considered their unseemly promotion of female self-assertion and sexual liberation. Moreover, the hostile critical and public reaction to her later novel The Awakening largely halted Chopin's career; she had difficulty finding publishers for later works and was ousted from local literary groups. Demoralized, she wrote little during her last years. A cerebral hemorrhage abruptly ended her life at the age of fifty-three.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The stories of Bayou Folk, Chopin's first collection, largely reflect her skills as a local colorist and often center on the passionate loves of the Creoles and Acadians in her adopted Natchitoches Parish. For example, “A Lady of Bayou St. John” portrays a young widow who escapes the sexual demands of a suitor by immersing herself in memories of her dead husband, while “La Belle Zoraïde” chronicles a mulatto slave's descent into madness after her mistress sells her lover and deprives her of their child. In A Night in Acadie Chopin continued to utilize the Louisiana settings that figured in Bayou Folk. However, the romanticism of the earlier collection is replaced by a greater moral ambivalence concerning such issues as female sexuality, personal freedom, and social propriety. In “A Respectable Woman” a happily married woman becomes sexually attracted to Gouvernail, a family friend invited by her husband to visit their home for a week. Disturbed by her feelings, she is relieved when Gouvernail leaves, but as the following summer approaches, she encourages her husband to invite him to visit again. Chopin later expanded upon this essentially amoral perception of adultery in “The Storm,” a story written near the end of her career, which portrays a woman's extramarital affair as a natural impulse devoid of moral significance.
Early reviewers of A Night in Acadie objected to the volume's sensuous themes. Similar concerns were later raised by publishers who rejected Chopin's next volume, A Vocation and a Voice. In these stories Chopin largely abandons local setting to focus upon the psychological complexity of her characters. Tales such as “Two Portraits,” “Lilacs,” and “A Vocation and a Voice” examine contrary states of innocence and experience and ways that society divides rather than unites the two. In “The Story of an Hour,” the best-known work in the collection, Chopin returns to the issue of marriage and selfhood in her portrayal of Mrs. Mallard, a woman who learns that her husband has died in a train accident. Initially overcome by grief, she gradually realizes that his “powerful will” no longer restricts her and that she may live as she wishes. While she joyfully anticipates her newfound freedom, however, her husband returns, the report of his death a mistake, and Mrs. Mallard collapses and dies of heart failure.
Although reviewers and readers throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries condemned Chopin's frank treatment of such then-taboo subjects as female sexuality, adultery, and miscegenation, since the 1950s serious critical attention has been focused on her pioneering use of psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and sensual themes. While their psychological examinations of female protagonists have made Chopin's short stories formative works in the historical development of feminist literature, they also provide a broad discussion of a society that denied the value of sensuality and female independence. Once considered merely an author of local color fiction, critics contend that she explored universal thematic concerns in her novels, short stories, and essays. Commentators have noted her influence on later feminist writing and consider her a major American short story writer.