Historical Context

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Realism became a popular form of painting, especially in works by Gustave Courbet, and literature in the mid nineteenth century. Writers involved in this movement, such as Gustave Flaubert, turned away from what they considered the artificiality of romanticism to a focus on the occurrences of everyday, contemporary life. They rejected the idealism and celebration of the imagination typical of romantic novels and instead took a serious look at believable characters and their often problematic interactions with society. To accomplish this goal, realist novelists focused on the commonplace and eliminated the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism of romantic novelists.

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The realist movement in America included a conscious turning away from the structure and content of the works of the American Renaissance. Writers like Samuel Clemens discarded the traditional optimism and idealism of Thoreau and Emerson and the romantic forms and subject matter of Hawthorne and Poe. Instead, they chronicled the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult social problems, like the restrictive conventions under which nineteenth-century women suffered. Writers who embraced realism used settings and plot details that reflected their characters’ daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.

Naturalism is a literary movement that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, America, and England. Writers included in this group, like Stephen Crane, Emile Zola, and Theodore Dreiser, expressed in their works a biological and/or environmental determinism that prevented their characters from exercising their free will and controlling their fates. Crane often focused on the social and economic factors that overpowered his characters. Zola’s and Dreiser’s work include this type of environmental determinism coupled with an exploration of the influences of heredity in their portraits of the animalistic nature of men and women engaged in the endless and brutal struggle for survival.

Literary critics have found elements of realism and naturalism in Kate Chopin’s depiction of the difficult struggle women at the turn of the last century faced as they tried to establish a clear sense of self. The realistic struggles in her fiction raise complex questions about how much influence women have over their destinies.

The New Woman
At the close of the nineteenth century, feminist thinkers began to engage in a rigorous investigation of female identity as it related to all aspects of a woman’s life. Any woman who questioned traditional female roles was tagged a ‘‘New Woman,’’ a term attributed to novelist Sarah Grand, whose 1894 article in the North American Review identified an emergent group of women, influenced by J. S. Mill and other champions of individualism, who supported and campaigned for women’s rights. A dialogue resulted among these women that incorporated radical as well as conservative points of view.

The most radical thinkers in this group declared the institution of marriage to be a form of slavery and demanded its abolition. They rejected the notion that motherhood should be the ultimate goal of all women. The more conservative feminists of this age considered marriage and motherhood acceptable roles only if guidelines were set in order to prevent a woman from assuming an inferior position to her husband in any area of their life together. This group felt that a woman granted equality in marriage would serve as an exemplary role model for her children by encouraging the development of an independent spirit. Chopin’s works enter into this dialogue, exploring a woman’s place in traditional and nontraditional marital unions.

Literary Style

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In her article for Modern American Women Writers, Wai-chee Dimock notes Chopin’s impressionistic style in many of her works including The Awakening. She argues that ‘‘things are transitory in her writings—nothing is fixed, irrevocable, or predetermined.’’ As a result, Dimock insists, ‘‘there is no last word in Chopin. Light and shadows play in her fiction; moods come and go. Nothing stands still, and everything could have been otherwise.’’ Chopin uses this technique in ‘‘A Point at Issue!’’ when she focuses on Eleanor’s experiences in Paris. The impressionistic vision she supplies never allows the reader to determine the causes of Eleanor’s despair or what motivates her to leave Paris. Her relationship with the artist who paints her portrait is also left vague. As a result, readers are unable to judge her actions, which was most likely Chopin’s intention. Chopin’s narrators rarely comment on characters’ behavior, which effectively redirects the readers’ attention not to motivation, but to consequences. This stylistic device becomes an appropriate method to employ in her investigations of how morality can become merely a social, not ethical, construct.

Chopin symbolizes the conflicts Charles and Eleanor will face in their marriage when, at the beginning of the story, she describes their wedding announcement in the local paper. The announcement is ‘‘modestly wedged in between’’ an offer to mail the paper to subscribers who will be ‘‘leaving home for the summer months’’ and ‘‘an equally somber-clad notice’’ of a local company’s ‘‘large and varied assortment of marble and granite monuments.’’ Charles, in fact, will be one of the subscribers who will be out of town when he visits his wife in Paris during the summer months. The reference to gravestones suggests the inevitable death of independence that Eleanor will face by the end of the story.

The Beaton family becomes another important symbol in the story. Mr. and Mrs. Beaton typify the traditional marriage: he holds an important teaching position at a university, engaging his mind and his talents while his wife concerns herself exclusively with the operations of the household. While her sister Margaret has joined a radical feminist movement, Kitty Beaton turns her attentions to more conventional activities, ‘‘keeping the household under her capricious command.’’ Her combination of youthful vigor and traditional role-playing obviously attracts Charles, whose conservative slant emerges more noticeably by the end of the story.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Cantwell, Robert, Review of The Awakening, in Georgia Review, Winter 1956.

Dimock, Wai-chee, ‘‘Kate Chopin,’’ in Modern American Women Writers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991, pp. 63–78.

Inge, Tonette Bond, ‘‘Kate Chopin,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 78: American Short-Story Writers, 1880–1910, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 90–110.

Review of ‘‘A Point at Issue!,’’ in the Nation, August 3, 1899.

Review of ‘‘A Point at Issue!,’’ in the New York Times Book Review, June 24, 1899.

Review of ‘‘A Point at Issue!,’’ in Public Opinion, June 22, 1899.

Seyersted, Per, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Solomon, Barbara H., ‘‘Introduction,’’ in The Awakening and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin, Signet, 1976.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, ‘‘Kate Chopin,’’ in American Writers, Supplement I, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979, pp. 200–26.

Further Reading
de Saussure Davis, Sara, ‘‘Kate Chopin,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 12: American Realists and Naturalists, edited by Donald Pizer, Gale Research, 1982, pp. 59–71. Davis places Chopin in the realist tradition and discusses how the ‘‘unconventional’’ heroine in ‘‘A Point at Issue!’’ relates to those in her other works.

Rocks, James E., ‘‘Kate Chopin’s Ironic Vision,’’ in Louisiana Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1972, pp. 110–20. Rocks analyzes Chopin’s use of irony in several of her works.

Skaggs, Peggy, ‘‘Chapter 6: ‘Miscellaneous Works,’’’ in Kate Chopin, Twayne’s United States Author Series Online, G. K. Hall, 1999. Skaggs compares ‘‘A Point at Issue!’’ to ‘‘Wiser than a God.’’

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, ‘‘Kate Chopin,’’ in American Writers, Supplement I, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979, pp. 200–26. Wolff provides an overview of Chopin’s work, including a negative assessment of ‘‘A Point at Issue!,’’ claiming the story to be ‘‘too neatly constructed, symmetrical, and sterile.’’

Compare and Contrast

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Late Nineteenth Century: In 1888, the International Council of Women is founded to mobilize support for the woman’s suffrage movement.

Today: Women have made major gains in their fight for equality. Discrimination against women is now against the law.

Late Nineteenth Century: A new term, the ‘‘New Woman’’ comes to describe women who challenge traditional notions of a woman’s place, especially the privileged role of wife and mother. These challenges are seen as a threat to the fabric of the American family.

Today: Women have the opportunity to work inside or outside the home or both. However, those who choose to have children and a career face difficult time management choices due to inflexible work and promotion schedules.

Late Nineteenth Century: Feminist Victoria Woodhull embarks on a lecture tour in 1871, espousing a free love philosophy, which reflects the women’s movement’s growing willingness to discuss sexual issues.

Today: Women have the freedom to engage in premarital sex and to have children out of wedlock. The issue of single parenting caused a furor in the early 1990s when then Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the television character Murphy Brown for deciding not to marry her baby’s father. Today, however, single parenting has become more widely accepted.

Media Adaptations

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Penguin Audiobooks has published an excellent cassette tape of The Awakening and Selected Stories (June 1996), performed by Joanna Adler, which includes readings of ‘‘The Storm’’ and ‘‘Story of an Hour,’’ two of Chopin’s most anthologized stories.

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