illustrated portrait of American author Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

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In what respects does Kate Chopin’s fiction typify literary naturalism?

Chopin’s short stories have often been classified as “local color” fiction. Choose several stories from Bayou Folk and cite settings and characters that exemplify local color.

Examine the sensory detail in one Chopin short story or one chapter from a novel and explain how it enhances the effect of the whole.

What were Edna Pontellier’s marital expectations beforehand, and how did they change in the course of The Awakening?

With careful attention to the details in the final chapter of The Awakening, determine whether Edna’s suicide should be interpreted as an act of despair or liberationor should it be regarded in yet another light?

Other Literary Forms

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In addition to the short stories which brought her some fame as a writer during her own lifetime, Kate Chopin published two novels, At Fault (1890) and The Awakening (1899), the latter of which was either ignored or condemned because of its theme of adultery and frank depiction of a woman’s sexual urges. Chopin also wrote a few reviews and casual essays and a number of undistinguished poems.

Achievements

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Kate Chopin’s short stories, published in contemporary popular magazines, won her fame as a local colorist with a good ear for dialect and as a writer concerned with women’s issues (sexuality, equality, independence). After the publication of The Awakening in 1899, however, her popularity waned, in part because of the furor over the open treatment of adultery and sex in the novel. She wrote few stories after 1900, and her work was largely neglected until the rediscovery of The Awakening by feminist critics. Criticism of that novel and new biographies have spurred a new interest in her Creole short stories, which have been analyzed in detail in terms of their regionalism and their treatment of gender. Influenced by Guy de Maupassant, she did not exert any literary influence on later short-story writers, at least until the rediscovery of The Awakening.

Other literary forms

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In addition to her novels, Kate Chopin (SHO-pan) wrote nearly fifty poems, approximately one hundred stories and vignettes, and a small amount of literary criticism. Her poems are slight, and no serious claims can be made for them. Her criticism also tends to be modest, but it is often revealing. In one piece written in 1896, for example, she discloses that she discovered Guy de Maupassant eight years earlier—that is, when she first began to write. There is every indication that Maupassant remained one of her most important models in the short-story form. In another essay, she pays tribute to Mary Wilkins Freeman, the New England local colorist whose depiction of repressed passion in women was probably an influence on Chopin’s own work. Elsewhere, Chopin seems to distinguish between her own writing and that of the so-called local-color school. She is critical of Hamlin Garland for his concern with social problems, “which alone does not insure the survival of a work of art,” and she finds the horizons of the Indiana local-color writers too narrow. The subject of genuine fiction is not regional quaintness, she remarks, but “human existence in its subtle, complexmeaning, stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it.” Like Thomas Huxley, much read in her circle, she finds no moral purpose in nature, and in her fiction she frequently implies the relativity of morals and received standards.

Chopin’s most important work, apart from her novels, lies in the short story. It was for her short stories that she was chiefly known in her time. Her earliest stories are unexceptional, but within only a few years she was...

(This entire section contains 361 words.)

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producing impressive work, including a fine series of stories set in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. Many of these mature stories are included in the two volumes published during her lifetime—Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). All of her stories and sketches were made available with the 1969 publication of The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Had she never written The Awakening, these stories alone, the best of which are inimitable and gemlike, would ensure Chopin a place among the notable writers of the 1890’s.

Achievements

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Kate Chopin’s reputation today rests primarily on three books: her two short-story collections, Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, and her mature novel, The Awakening. Bayou Folk collects most of her fiction of the early 1890’s set in Natchitoches (pronounced NAK-uh-tahsh) Parish. The characters it generally portrays, although belonging to different social levels, are Creole, Acadian (Cajun), or African American. In many cases they are poor. Not all of the stories in Bayou Folk are perfectly achieved, for when Chopin departs from realism into more fanciful writing she loses her power, but three of the stories in this volume—“Beyond the Bayou,” “Désirée’s Baby,” and “Madame Célestin’s Divorce”—are among her most famous and most frequently anthologized.

A Night in Acadie collects Chopin’s stories from the middle and late 1890’s. In many of the stories, theprotagonists come to sudden recognitions that alter their sense of the world; Chopin’s recurring theme is the awakening of a spirit that, through a certain set of circumstances, is liberated into conscious life. Passion is often the agent of liberation; whereas in the fiction of William Dean Howells, for example, characters frequently meet and fall putatively in love, in Chopin’s fiction they do so from the inmost springs of their being. There is nothing putative or factitious about Chopin’s characters who are brought to the point of love or desire. A Night in Acadie differs from Bayou Folk somewhat in the greater emphasis it gives to the erotic drives of its characters.

Chopin’s authority in this aspect of experience, along with her concern with the interaction of the deeply inward on the outward life, sets her work apart from other local-color writing of the time. In her early novel At Fault, she had not as yet begun to probe deeply into the psychology of her characters. David Hosmer and Thérèse Lafirme are drawn too much at the surface level to sustain the kind of writing that Chopin does best. After she had developed her art in her stories, however, she was able to bring her psychological concerns to perfection in The Awakening, her greatest work. Chopin’s achievement was somewhat narrowly bounded, without the scope of the fiction of manners that occupied Howells and Henry James, but in Bayou Folk, A Night in Acadie, and The Awakening, Chopin gave to American letters works of enduring interest—the interest not so much of local color as of a strikingly sensuous psychological realism.

Bibliography

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Beer, Janet. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1997. This book includes three chapters on Chopin’s short fiction. In one, Beer argues that Chopin’s Louisiana is postcolonial rather than postbellum; in another, she discusses how erotic desire expresses the lives of women; and in the third, she examines the authorial voice in Chopin’s short-story fables.

Bonner, Thomas, Jr. The Kate Chopin Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Alphabetically arranged guide provides information on the more than nine hundred characters and more than two hundred places that affect the courses of Chopin’s stories. Also includes a selection of her translations of pieces by Guy de Maupassant and one by Adrien Vely. Supplemented by interesting period maps and a useful bibliographic essay.

Boren, Lynda S., and Sara de Saussure Davis, eds. Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992. Collection of essays presents extensive discussion of The Awakening, with several contributors also addressing such stories as “Charlie,” “After the Winter,” and “At Cheniere Caminada.” Other topics include a comparison of Chopin with playwright Henrik Ibsen in terms of domestic confinement and discussion of Chopin’s work from a Marxist point of view.

Brown, Pearl L. “Awakened Men in Kate Chopin’s Creole Stories.” ATQ, n.s. 13, no. 1 (March, 1999). Argues that in Chopin’s Creole stories, in intimate moments women discover inner selves buried beneath socially imposed ones and men discover subjective selves buried beneath public personas.

Erickson, Jon. “Fairytale Features in Kate Chopin’s ‘Désirée’s Baby’: A Case Study in Genre Cross-Reference.” In Modes of Narrative, edited by Reingard M. Nischik and Barbara Korte. Würzburg: Königshausen and Neumann, 1990. Shows how Chopin’s story conflicts with the expectations set up by the fairy-tale genre on which it is based; for example, the prince turns out to be the villain. Argues that the ending of the story is justified, for in the fairy tale the mystery of origin must be solved and the villain must be punished.

Hackett, Joyce. “The Reawakening.” Harper’s Magazine 307, no. 1841 (October, 2003). Lengthy review of the Chopin collection Complete Novels and Stories (2002) provides an overview of Chopin’s life and career and offers analysis and commentary on The Awakening, which Hackett describes as “the book that both culminated Chopin’s career and ended it.”

Koloski, Bernard. Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996. Discusses Chopin’s short stories in the context of her bilingual and bicultural imagination; provides readings of her most important stories, examines her three volumes of stories, and comments on her children’s stories. Also includes excerpts from Chopin’s literary criticism and brief discussions by other critics of her most familiar stories.

Petry, Alice Hall, ed. Critical Essays on Kate Chopin. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996. Comprehensive collection of essays on Chopin reprints early evaluations of the author’s life and works as well as more modern scholarly analyses. Begins with a substantial introduction by the editor and includes original essays by such notable scholars as Linda Wagner-Martin and Heather Kirk Thomas.

Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. 1969. Reprint. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Provides invaluable information about the New Orleans of the 1870’s while examining Chopin’s life, views, and work. Devotes substantial discussion not only to The Awakening but also to Chopin’s many short stories. Seyersted views Chopin as a transitional literary figure, a link between George Sand and Simone de Beauvoir.

Seyersted, Per, and Emily Toth, eds. A Kate Chopin Miscellany. Natchitoches, La.: Northwestern State University Press, 1979. This volume contains some previously unpublished stories, some poems, two of Chopin’s diaries, Chopin’s letters and those written to her, and a translation of Cyrille Arnavon’s introduction to a 1953 edition of The Awakening. Contains also an excellent annotated bibliography, arranged chronologically, of Chopin scholarship from 1890 to 1979, and several photographs of Chopin’s family.

Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Overview of Chopin’s life and work includes a brief biographical chapter and discussion of the author’s work in terms of the theme of the search for identity. Includes a chronology and a select bibliography.

Streater, Kathleen M. “Adèle Ratignolle: Kate Chopin’s Feminist at Home in The Awakening.” Midwest Quarterly 48, no. 3 (Spring, 2007): 406-416. Presents analysis of the character Adèle Ratignolle, arguing that she is a less radical feminist than Edna Pontellier but is admirable because of her feminine virtue and ideals of motherhood. Maintains that Ratignolle, whom Chopin portrays as a sexually confident woman as well as a mother, defied the sexist stereotypes of the period.

Taylor, Helen. Gender, Race, and Religion in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Chapter on Chopin is divided between the novels and the short stories, some of which are given extensive feminist readings. Focuses on Chopin as a local colorist who uses regional and historical themes to explore gender issues. Offers invaluable discussion of Chopin’s literary influences, particularly Guy de Maupassant, and the intellectual climate of the time.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow, 1990. Definitive biography is a thoroughly documented, exhaustive work, an excellent starting point for Chopin research. Covers not only Chopin’s life but also her literary works, discussing many of the short stories in considerable detail and addressing the alleged banning of The Awakening. Includes a bibliography of Chopin’s work and a helpful chronology of her life.

Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. Using newly discovered manuscripts, letters, and diaries of Chopin, Toth examines the source of Chopin’s ambition and passion for her art, arguing that she worked much harder at her craft than previously thought.

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