Kate Chopin Chopin, Kate (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Kate Chopin 1851-1904

(Full name Katherine O'Flaherty Chopin) American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

A popular local colorist during her lifetime, Chopin is best known today for her psychological novel The Awakening, (1899) which depicts a woman's search for spiritual and sexual freedom in the repressive society of late-nineteenth-century America. When The Awakening appeared, critical and public indignation over the novel's frank treatment of guiltless adultery caused Chopin to abandon her literary career, and the novel itself was forgotten for several decades. Since the 1950s, however, serious critical attention has focused on the pioneering psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and artistic integrity of the work.

Biographical Information

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1851, Chopin was the daughter of a prominent businessman and his wife. Her father died when Chopin was four years old, and her childhood was profoundly influenced by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, women descended from French Creole pioneers. Chopin also spent time with her family's Creole and mulatto slaves, whose dialects she mastered, and she read the works of Walter Scott, Edmund Spenser, and other writers who were not represented among the encyclopedias and religious books in the family library. Despite her bookish nature, Chopin was an undistinguished student at the convent school she attended. She graduated at age seventeen and spent two years as a belle of fashionable St. Louis society. In 1870 she married a wealthy Creole cotton magnate, Oscar Chopin, and moved with him to New Orleans. For the next decade, Chopin pursued the demanding social and domestic schedule of a wealthy New Orleans wife, the recollection of which would serve as material for The Awakening. By 1880, however, financial difficulties made it necessary for Chopin's steadily growing family to move to Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish, located in Louisiana's Red River bayou region. There Chopin's husband managed the family plantations until his death in 1883. Afterward Chopin insisted on assuming her husband's managerial responsibilities, which brought her into contact with almost every aspect of the family business and every segment of the community. She was particularly intrigued by the French Acadian, Creole, and mulatto sharecroppers who worked the plantations. The impressions she gathered of these people and of Natchitoches Parish life were later reflected in 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 had found her letters entertaining, encouraged Chopin to write professionally, and she soon began writing short stories. These early works show the influence of her favorite authors, especially the French writers Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, and Molière. At this time Chopin also read the works of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Herbert Spencer in order to keep abreast of trends in scientific thinking, and she began questioning the benefits of certain mores and ethical constraints imposed by society on human nature. After an apprenticeship marked by routine rejections, she published the novel At Fault in 1890. This work displayed many of the shortcomings of a first novel and failed to interest readers. Chopin had also begun to publish short stories in the most popular American periodicals. With the publication of the collections Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), her growing reputation as a skillful local colorist was established. In 1899 Chopin completed her ambitious novel The Awakening, which was received with hostility by critics despite general acknowledgment of Chopin's mature writing skills. Chopin's reputation as a writer was severely damaged by the negative reception of The Awakening; she had difficulties finding publishers for her later works and was ousted from local literary groups. Demoralized, she wrote little during the rest of her life. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1904.

Major Works

The short stories collected in Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie established Chopin as an important writer of local-color fiction. Set primarily near Natchitoches Parish, these tales of Creole and Cajun life are noted for meticulous descriptions of setting, precise dialect, and an objective point of view. Although they sometimes have a slick quality, the stories in Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie attempt honest examinations of sexuality, repression, freedom, and responsibility—themes Chopin was to explore more fully in The Awakening.

The Awakening is considered Chopin's best work as well as a remarkable novel to have been written during the morally uncompromising era of 1890s America. Psychologically realistic, The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a conventional wife and mother who experiences a spiritual epiphany and an awakened sense of independence that change her life. The theme of sexual freedom and the consequences women must face to attain it is supported by sensual imagery that acquires symbolic meaning as the story progresses. This symbolism emphasizes the conflict within Pontellier, who realizes that she can neither exercise her newfound sense of independence nor return to life as it was before her “awakening.” For example, the sexual candor of the Creole community on Grand Isle, the novel's setting, is contrasted with the conventional moral strictures of New Orleans; birds in gilded cages and free-flying birds are juxtaposed; and the protagonist selects for her confidantes both the domesticated, devoted Adele Ratignolle and the passionate Madame Reisz, a lonely and unattractive pianist. The central symbol of the novel, the sea, also provides the framework for the main action. As a symbol, the sea embodies multiple pairs of polarities, the most prominent being that it is the site of both Edna Pontellier's awakening and of her suicide at the end of the narrative.

Critical Reception

After the initial furor over The Awakening had passed, the novel was largely ignored until the 1930s, when Daniel S. Rankin published a study of Chopin's works that included a highly favorable assessment of the book. During the succeeding decades, critical debate surrounding The Awakening has focused on Chopin's view of women's roles in society, the significance of the main character's awakening and her subsequent suicide, and the possibility of parallels between the lives of Chopin and her protagonist. George Arms, for instance, has contended that Chopin was a happily married woman and devoted mother whose emotional life bore no resemblance to that of Edna Pontellier, while Chopin's principal biographer, Per Seyersted, has noted her secretive, individualistic nature and her evident enjoyment of living alone as an independent writer. Priscilla Allen has posited that male critics allow their preconceptions about “good” and “bad” women to influence their interpretations of Chopin's novel, arguing that they too often assume that Edna Pontellier's first priority should have been to her family and not to herself. Like Allen, Seyersted brings a feminist interpretation to The Awakening and points out that the increasing depiction of passionate, independent women in Chopin's other fiction supports the theory that she was in fact concerned about the incompatibility of motherhood and career for women living during the late nineteenth century.

Once considered a minor author of local-color fiction, Chopin is today recognized for her examination of sexuality, individual freedom, and the consequences of one's actions—themes and concerns important to many later American writers. While her psychological examinations of female protagonists have made The Awakening and several of Chopin's stories seminal works in the development of feminist literature, her writings also provide a broad examination of societies that stifle self-expression, illustrating, as Peggy Skaggs has observed, that “having a secure place … is not enough in life; that one's sexual nature is a powerful part of the self, whether feminine or masculine.”

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

At Fault (novel) 1890

Bayou Folk (short stories) 1894

A Night in Acadie (short stories) 1897

The Awakening (novel) 1899

The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. 2 vols. (novels, short stories, poetry, and essays) 1969

The Awakening, and Other Stories (novel and short stories) 1970

The Storm and Other Stories, with The Awakening (novel and short stories) 1974

The Awakening, and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin (novel and short stories) 1976

A Kate Chopin Miscellany (diaries) 1979

A Vocation and A Voice: Stories (short stories) 1991

Matter of Prejudice & Other Stories (short stories) 1992

A Pair of Silk Stockings and Other Stories (short stories) 1996

Emily Toth (essay date fall-winter 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Toth, Emily. “Kate Chopin's The Awakening as Feminist Criticism.” Southern Studies 2, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1991): 231-41.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1976, Toth argues that The Awakening belongs to the didactic feminist tradition of women's literature.]

The title of this essay is bound to annoy some readers. The Awakening's not about “Women's Lib,” they may argue. It's a skillfully written novel, not a tract. It's a work of art, not a polemic. Or—as some critics have claimed—it's not really about women at all, but about the universal, existential human condition, loneliness and alienation.1


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Joyce Dyer (essay date winter 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dyer, Joyce. “Symbolic Setting in Kate Chopin's ‘A Shameful Affair.’” Southern Studies 20, no. 4 (winter 1981): 447-52.

[In the following essay, Dyer discusses the ways in which Chopin's use of setting in “A Shameful Affair” prefigures the symbolism of The Awakening.]

“A Shameful Affair,” written on June 5th and 9th of 1891, represents an exciting thematic prelude to The Awakening. In it Mildred Orme, for a moment in her life at least, trades volumes of Ibsen and Browning for the broad, brawny shoulders of Fred Evelyn, a farmhand. She suffers more from guilt than Edna Pontellier seems to. Nevertheless, she makes discoveries about her...

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Joyce Coyne Dyer (essay date summer 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coyne Dyer, Joyce.“A Note on Kate Chopin's ‘The White Eagle.’” Arizona Quarterly 40, no. 2 (summer 1984): 189-92.

[In the following essay, Dyer analyzes the symbolism in Chopin's little-known late story “The White Eagle.”]

Few critics discuss Chopin's fiction written after April 1899—the publication date of The Awakening—with any degree of seriousness. Kenneth Eble writes that her last stories “lack distinction.”1 Per Seyersted regrets the “tame,” uncourageous nature of the bulk of her final manuscripts.2 And Robert Arner observes, “Only a few of her final tales are worth serious discussion.”3...

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Lawrence Thornton (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thornton, Lawrence. “The Awakening: A Political Romance.” In Unbodied Hope: Narcissism and the Modern Model, pp. 63-80. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Thornton examines Edna Pontellier's growing awareness of politics in Creole society in The Awakening.]

          The food of hope
Is meditated action; robbed of this
Her sole support, she languishes and dies.

—Wordsworth, The Excursion


Anyone familiar with The Awakening knows that it echoes characters and events in Madame Bovary, but Chopin's indebtedness to Flaubert stops short of...

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Joyce Coyne Dyer (essay date spring 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coyne Dyer, Joyce. “Techniques of Distancing in the Fiction of Kate Chopin.” Southern Studies 24, no. 1 (spring 1985): 69-81.

[In the following essay, Dyer discusses Chopin's technique of appealing to her readers' prejudices to openly discuss in her short stories topics that were normally considered taboo at the time.]

Chopin often made the prejudice of her Southerners (Creoles and Acadians) the subject of her fiction. Madame Carambeau, for instance, “detested dogs, cats, organ-grinders, white servants and children's noises. She despised Americans, Germans and all people of a different faith from her own.”1 Prejudice often became not only...

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Wayne Batten (essay date fall 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Batten, Wayne. “Illusion and Archetype: The Curious Story of Edna Pontellier.” Southern Literary Journal, 18, no. 1 (fall 1985): 73-88.

[In the following essay, Batten examines Chopin's ambiguity of meaning regarding the notion of illusion in The Awakening.]

Near the end of The Awakening, the protagonist is summoned by her friend Adèle Ratignolle, who is in labor for her fourth child. Although Edna herself has two children, the spectacle of childbirth leaves her shaken, and the kindly Doctor Mandelet insists on walking her home. Both the Doctor and Adèle know that Edna has moved out of her husband's house and possibly returned the attentions of the...

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Martin Simpson (essay date fall 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simpson, Martin. “Chopin's ‘A Shameful Affair.’” Explicator, 45, no. 1 (fall 1986): 59-60.

[In the following essay, Simpson discusses images of nature and society in “A Shameful Affair.”]

Mildred Orme, in Kate Chopin's “A Shameful Affair,” is a socially conventional and sexually repressed young woman who has come to the Kraummer farm to escape the sexual demands that were made on her in civilized, urban society. Chopin uses fertile nature imagery to show Mildred being drawn out of the realm of sheltered social convention and into a natural world that is rich with sensuous physical surroundings. Here Mildred is forced to recognize and struggle...

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Carole Stone (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stone, Carole. “The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Brith and Creativity.” Women's Studies, 13, nos. 1-2 (1986): 23-32.

[In the following essay, Stone views Chopin's birth imagery in The Awakening as symbolic of the birth of Edna Pontellier as an artist.]

When Kate Chopin's The Awakening was published in 1899 critics attacked its depiction of a heroine who sought sexual pleasure outside of marriage and condemned Chopin for “failing to perceive that the relation of a mother to her children is far more important than the gratification of a passion which experience has taught her is … evanescent.”1 But The...

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Patricia S. Yaeger (essay date spring 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Yaeger, Patricia S. “‘A Language Which Nobody Understood’: Emancipatory Strategies in The AwakeningNovel 20, no. 3 (spring 1987): 197-219.

[In the following essay, Yaeger argues that language, not sexual liberation, is the element that makes The Awakening a “transgressive” novel.]

Despite the academy's growing commitment to producing and publishing feminist interpretations of literary texts, insofar as feminist critics read Kate Chopin's The Awakening as a novel about sexual liberation, we read it with our patriarchal biases intact. Of course The Awakening's final scene is breath-taking; Edna Pontellier transcends her...

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Anna Shannon Elfenbein (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Elfenbein, Anna Shannon. “Kate Chopin's The Awakening: An Assault on American Racial and Sexual Mythology.” Southern Studies, 26, no. 4 (1987): 304-12.

[In the following essay, Elfenbein contends that Chopin challenged American racist and sexist notions about sexuality in The Awakening.]

Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) shocked its nineteenth-century readers by presenting without comment the adultery of Edna Pontellier, a wealthy, white American wife and mother adrift in Creole society. The shock was so great that the novel went unread for almost sixty years. Recent critics have tended to blame the literary double standard, which prohibited...

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Barbara C. Ewell (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ewell, Barbara C. “The Awakening in a Course on Women in Literature.” In Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening, edited by Bernard Koloski, pp. 86-93. The Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

[In the following essay, Ewell explains her approach to teaching The Awakening.]

The Awakening may be the quintessential text for a course in women's studies. Greeted with polite dismay at its publication in 1899, revived and hailed as a lost classic sixty years later on the crest of the most recent women's movement, the novel offers a paradigmatic tale of a woman's abortive struggle toward selfhood in an oppressive, uncomprehending...

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Cristina Giorcelli (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Giorcelli, Cristina. “Edna's Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging.” In New Essays on The Awakening, edited by Wendy Martin, pp. 109-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Giorcelli argues the Chopin's ambiguities in The Awakening support both her own and her protagonist's “cyclical view of existence.”]

The human being who has a soul does not obey anyone but the universe,”1 wrote the French poet Gabriel Germain. Readers of Kate Chopin's The Awakening keep asking themselves whether the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, abandoning herself to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the...

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Elaine Showalter (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book.” In New Essays on The Awakening, edited by Wendy Martin, pp. 33-57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Showalter examines the ways in which Chopin defied the female literary tradition with The Awakening.]

“Whatever we may do or attempt, despite the embrace and transports of love, the hunger of the lips, we are always alone. I have dragged you out into the night in the vain hope of a moment's escape from the horrible solitude which overpowers me. But what is the use! I speak and you answer me, and still each of us is alone; side...

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Nancy Walker (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Walker, Nancy. “The Historical and Cultural Setting.” In Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening, edited by Bernard Koloski, pp. 67-72. The Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

[In the following essay, Walker explores ways to incorporate Chopin's New Orleans Creole setting into classroom discussion of The Awakening.]

One dimension of Kate Chopin's The Awakening likely to be overlooked in the classroom is the richness of the historical and cultural background against which the novel takes place. New Orleans Creole culture in the late nineteenth century constituted a world unto itself—a set of traditions, mores, and customs unlike any...

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Margit Stange (essay date July 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stange, Margit. “Personal Property: Exchange Value and the Female Self in The Awakening.Genders, no. 5 (July 1989): 106-19.

[In the following essay, Stange discusses representations of the female self in The Awakening.]

In the beginning of The Awakening, New Orleans stockbroker Leonce Pontellier, staying with his wife, Edna, at an exclusive Creole family resort, surveys Edna as she walks up from the beach in the company of her summer flirtation, Robert Lebrun. “‘You are burnt beyond recognition’ [Leonce says], looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.”1...

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Ellen Peel (essay date June 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Peel, Ellen. “Semiotic Subversion in ‘Désirée's Baby.’” American Literature 62, no. 2 (June 1990): 223-37.

[In the following essay, Peel provides a semiotic and political interpretation of “Désirée's Baby.”]


At first “Désirée's Baby,” published in 1893 by Kate Chopin, seems no more than a poignant little story with a clever twist at the end.1 Yet that does not fully explain why the tale is widely anthologized, why it haunts readers with the feeling that, the more it is observed, the more facets it will show. In “Désirée's Baby” Chopin, best known as the author of The Awakening, has created...

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Douglas Radcliff-Umstead (essay date summer 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Radcliff, Douglas. “Literature of Deliverance: Images of Nature in The Awakening.Southern Studies 1, no. 2 (summer 1990): 127-47.

[In the following essay, Radcliff-Umstead explores the sociopolitical aspects of The Awakening as illustrated by Chopin's nature imagery.]

Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening belongs to the nineteenth-century tradition of “literature of images” where description of nature relates to and advances the narrative's major themes and characterizations. The American novel shares with the works of authors like Chateaubriand, Balzac, Flaubert and Charlotte Bronte a similar emphasis on natural description as a...

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Manfred Malzahn (essay date spring 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Malzahn, Manfred. “The Strange Demise of Edna Pontellier.” Southern Literary Journal 23, no. 2 (spring 1991): 31-9.

[In the following essay, Malzahn examines the narrative of The Awakening for an explanation of Edna's motives for committing suicide.]

For a long time, critics have been puzzled by the self-inflicted death of Edna Pontellier, the heroine of Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899). At the end of her process of awakening, which begins with a summer infatuation and leads to a breakaway from the family home and from the role of wife and mother, Edna is not a victorious New Woman, leading an independent life of spiritual and sensual...

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Catherine Morgan-Proux (essay date winter 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morgan-Proux, Catherine. “Athena of Goose? Kate Chopin's Ironical Treatment of Motherhood in ‘Athénaïse.’” Southern Studies 4, no. 4 (winter 1993): 625-40.

[In the following essay, Morgan-Proux argues that Chopin's apparent glorification of childbirth and motherhood in the story “Athénaïse” is ironic.]

When Edna Pontellier leaves the childbirth scene in the penultimate chapter of The Awakening, stunned by the “scene of torture” that she has just witnessed, Doctor Mandelet articulates her thoughts: “Youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race.”(996)1 He...

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Dieter Schulz (essay date spring 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schulz, Dieter. “Notes toward a fin-de-siècle Reading of Kate Chopin's The Awakening.American Literary Realism 25, no. 3 (spring 1993): 69-76.

[In the following essay, Schulz explores similarities between The Awakening and other works written at the end of the nineteenth century.]

The ending of Chopin's The Awakening signals Edna Pontellier's failure to resolve the conflict between her urge toward self-realization and the constricting conventions of society. Most critics, as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has remarked, treat the novel “as a problem novel that cries out for a ‘solution.’”1 They see Edna's conflict in...

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Jack Branscomb (essay date spring 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Branscomb, Jack. “Chopin's ‘Ripe Figs.’” The Explicator 52, no. 3 (spring 1994): 165-66.

[In the following essay, Branscomb discusses the importance of time in “Ripe Figs.”]

Kate Chopin's “Ripe Figs” (1:199), though one of the most interesting pieces in A Night in Acadie (1897), has received relatively little critical comment, possibly because of its brevity (under three hundred words) and its apparent simplicity. In the only extended treatment the story has received, Elaine Gardiner calls it “barely … a sketch” (379), although she effectively makes the case for its charm and its importance among Chopin's works. Like others who...

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David Steiling (essay date spring 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Steiling, David. “Multi-Cultural Aesthetic in Kate Chopin's ‘A Gentleman of Bayou Teche.’” The Mississippi Quarterly 47, no. 2 (spring 1994): 197-101.

[In the following essay, Steiling discusses Chopin's use of irony to address regional and ethnic stereotypes in “A Gentleman of Bayou Teche.”]

“A Gentleman of Bayou Teche” by Kate Chopin is seldom read and has attracted virtually no critical attention, but the subject and design of this sketch amply demonstrate that its author understood how subcultures can be particularly sensitive to the way they are perceived and recorded by outsiders. This sketch shows that Chopin had thoughtfully considered...

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Heather Kirk Thomas (essay date spring 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kirk Thomas, Heather. “Kate Chopin's Scribbling Women and the American Literary Marketplace.” Studies in American Fiction 23, no. 1 (spring 1995): 19-34.

[In the following essay, Thomas examines works in which Chopin satirized the life and career of the typical nineteenth-century American woman fiction writer.]

“I want the book to succeed,” Kate Chopin wrote in an 1894 diary entry about her short story collection, Bayou Folk. Five years later—despite disappointing reviews of her novel, The Awakening—she nonetheless queried her publisher, Herbert Stone, “What are the prospects for the book?”1 Chopin's private and public...

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Barbara Claire Freeman (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Freeman, Barbara Claire. “The Awakening: Waking Up at the End of the Line.” In The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women's Fiction, pp. 13-39. Berkley: University of California Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Freeman explores the notion of the sublime in The Awakening.]

The sublime does not so properly persuade us, as it ravishes and transports us, and produces in us a certain Admiration, mingled with Astonishment and with Surprize, which is quite another thing than the barely pleasing, or the barely persuading: that it gives a noble Vigour to a Discourse, an invincible Force, which commits a pleasing Rape upon the...

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Cynthia Griffin Wolff (essay date spring 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Griffin Wolff, Cynthia. “Un-Utterable Longing: The Discourse of Feminine Sexuality in The Awakening.Studies in American Fiction 24, no. 1 (spring 1996): 3-23.

[In the following essay, Wolff examines The Awakening in terms of nineteenth-century medical discourse on female sexuality.]

Because novelists are particular about beginnings, we should notice that The Awakening opens with two things: sumptuous sensory images and an outpouring of babble—words that resemble ordinary speech, but which really have meaning for no one, not even the speaker.

A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside...

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Dara Llewellyn (essay date spring 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Llewellyn, Dara. “Reader Activation of Boundaries in Kate Chopin's ‘Beyond the Bayou.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 255-62.

[In the following essay, Llewellyn examines Chopin's symbolic use of the physical setting of “Beyond the Bayou.”]

Boundaries exist everywhere in the worlds created within short stories and within the experience this genre offers the reader. Generally, we use the word “boundary” in the ordinary sense of demarcation, but I would like to suggest that we use it as a “term of art” in the study of short fiction. Without becoming overly technical, we can borrow from the mathematical notion of boundary as...

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Walter Taylor and Jo Ann B. Fineman (essay date fall 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, Walter and Fineman, Jo Ann. “Kate Chopin: Pre-Freudian Freudian.” Southern Literary Journal 29, no. 1 (fall 1996): 35-45.

[In the following essay, Taylor and Fineman examine psychoanalytic elements in The Awakening.]

As Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier sits contemplating the sea in The Awakening (1899), her friend Adèle Ratignolle asks a simple question: “Of whom—of what are you thinking?” The question evokes a complex response. Edna replies that she was thinking of a day during her Kentucky childhood when she was walking through a meadow; to a “very little girl” that meadow “seemed as big as the ocean.” And she remembers that she...

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Sandra Gunning (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gunning, Sandra. “Rethinking White Female Silences: Kate Chopin's Local Color Fiction and the Politics of White Supremacy.” In Race, Rape, and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890-1912, pp. 108-35. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Gunning analyzes Chopin's works for evidence of her views on racial violence and stereotypes.]

Harris & Page of course wrote from a different standpoint;—that of the white gentleman as I write from the standpoint of a white lady.

—Grace King

In any discussion of late-nineteenth-century American...

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Andrew Delbanco (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Delbanco, Andrew. “Was Kate Chopin a Feminist?” In Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now, pp. 113-32. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

[In the following essay, Delbanco explains why he believes Chopin's works deserve a place among the classics of American literature.]

It seems a long time ago that teachers could distribute without embarrassment The Lifetime Reading Plan or some such guide to literacy and expect students to measure their progress toward adulthood by the number of checks beside the titles read. There is a certain comfort in the authority of lists. But since we may never again have such lists, the idea of the...

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Barbara C. Ewell (essay date summer 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ewell, Barbara C. “Unlinking Race and Gender: The Awakening as a Southern Novel.” Southern Quarterly 37, no. 3-4 (summer 1999): 30-37.

[In the following essay, Ewell argues that both The Awakening and Chopin were heavily shaped by the tradition of Southern American literature.]

We do not typically think of The Awakening as a southern novel, which (set in Louisiana and dealing with many Reconstruction issues, such as the post-war role of women and life in the upper classes) it certainly is. At the same time, we do customarily regard Kate Chopin as a southern writer—despite the fact that she was from St. Louis (albeit in a family of...

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William Nelles (essay date fall 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nelles, William. “Edna Pontellier's Revolt against Nature.” American Literary Realism 32, no. 1 (fall 1999): 43-50.

[In the following essay, Nelles argues that Edna's suicide at the conclusion of The Awakening is the result of her realization that she is pregnant.]

Virtually every critic (and certainly every classroom teacher) of The Awakening has felt compelled to address the problematic ending of the novel. The ending appears to be ambiguous in the strict sense, leaving the reader with only two opposed and mutually incompatible interpretive options. In Patricia Hopkins Lattin's formulation, “As she swims into deeper water, Edna is herself...

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Martha J. Cutter (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cutter, Martha J. “The Search for a Feminine Voice in the Works of Kate Chopin.” In Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing, 1850-1930, pp. 87-109. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

[In the following essay, Cutter explores the differences in Chopin's portrayal of women in her short stories from that in The Awakening.]

When Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening was published in 1899, it was condemned as vulgar, morbid, and unwholesome. The book was allegedly banned from some libraries, and Chopin was ousted from social clubs. She eventually lost the contract for her next collection of fiction, A Vocation and a...

(The entire section is 11641 words.)

Kate McCullough (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McCullough, Kate. “Kate Chopin and (Stretching) the Limits of Local Color Fiction.” In Regions of Identity: The Construction of America in Women's Fiction, 1885-1914, pp. 185-226. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, McCullough attempts to show how Chopin both challenged and reinforced the status quo of Southern regional writing.]

Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material … let fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they are … let it show the different interests in their true proportions … let it not put on fine literary airs; let it...

(The entire section is 21224 words.)

Lawrence L. Berkove (essay date winter 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berkove, Lawrence L. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin's ‘The Story of an Hour.’” American Literary Realism 32, no. 2 (winter 2000): 152-58.

[In the following essay, Berkove contends that Chopin's narration of “The Story of an Hour” is ironic rather than straightforward.]

Kate Chopin's thousand-word short story, “The Story of an Hour,” has understandably become a favorite selection for collections of short stories as well as for anthologies of American literature. Few other stories say so much in so few words. There has been, moreover, virtual critical agreement on what the story says: its heroine dies, ironically and tragically, just as she...

(The entire section is 3253 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Green, Suzanne Disheroon, and Caudle, David J., eds. Kate Chopin: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Works. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 274 p.

Comprehensive survey of criticism on Chopin published between 1976 and 1998, including annotated entries for books, essays, dissertations, biographical studies, and bibliographical works.


Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990, 528 p.

Biography that questions long-held views on Chopin's life and writing; includes appendices, photographs, and a select bibliography.


(The entire section is 625 words.)