Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

Per Seyersted, in his biography on Chopin, noted that after her first two short stories ‘‘A Point at Issue!’’ and ‘‘Wiser than a God’’ had been published in 1889, editors told Chopin that her stories would continue to be published if she could create more traditional female characters. Luckily, Chopin did not listen. Over the next decade, her works would focus on women who struggled to break away from conventional standards. As a result, the public often found Chopin’s work shocking. After the publication of her masterful novel The Awakening in 1899, in which Chopin made her boldest statement on the necessity for personal expression, public outrage eventually resulted in the end of her literary career.

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During the ten years between the publication of her first short stories and her novel, Chopin earned a reputation as an important local writer. Her short story collections Bayou Folk, published in 1894, and A Night in Acadie, which appeared in 1897, gained solid reviews that praised her accurate portraits of bayou life and her concise style. Chopin collected her more radical stories of male-female relationships previously rejected for publication into a third collection, A Vocation and a Voice, but she was unable to find a publisher.

The response to The Awakening was overwhelmingly negative. Many reviewers attacked the character of Edna Pontiellier, including one in Public Opinion who was ‘‘well satisfied’’ by Edna’s fate, and another in the Nation who complained of the ‘‘unpleasantness’’ of his response to the main character. The book was subsequently banned from many libraries due to its controversial and subversive subject matter. One of the few positive reviews, from a critic for the New York Times Book Review, praised Chopin’s artistry in the novel and responded to Edna with ‘‘pity for the most unfortunate of her sex.’’

The public’s anger over the novel effectively ended Chopin’s literary career. As Tonnette Bond Inge notes in her article on Chopin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Chopin ‘‘passed from the literary scene almost entirely unappreciated for her pioneering contributions to American fiction.’’ Yet in the 1930s, a new generation of readers began to appreciate her short stories, and she again earned praise as a describer of local color. In the 1950s, The Awakening began to be recognized as an important literary work. Robert Cantwell, for example, wrote in the Georgia Review of Chopin’s ‘‘heightened sensuous awareness’’ and insisted that the work was ‘‘a great novel.’’

In the 1960s, scholars heralded the complex psychological portraits and sociological themes in Chopin’s fiction. Their reviews, coupled with Per Seyersted’s definitive biography and edited collection of her complete works, established her reputation as one of the twentieth century’s most important authors.

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Essays and Criticism

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