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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism Kate Chopin (1851-1904)

[2582] Thomas Anshutz, A Rose (1907), courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marguerite and Frank Cosgrove, Jr. Fund, 1993 (1993.324). Photograph © 1994 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Writing at the end of the nineteenth century at the height of the popularity of “local color” fiction, Kate Chopin introduced American readers to a new fictional setting with her evocations of the diverse culture of Cajun and Creole Louisiana. But while much of Chopin’s work falls into the category of regionalism, her stories and especially her novel, The Awakening, are also notable for their introduction of controversial subjects like women’s sexuality, divorce, extramarital sex, and miscegenation.

Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a socially prominent, financially secure family. Her mother, Eliza Faris, descended from French Creole ancestors, and her father, Thomas O’Flaherty, was an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune as a merchant in St. Louis. Chopin learned to speak both French and English in her home and was sent to Catholic school. At the age of nineteen she married Oscar Chopin, a French Creole from a Louisiana planter family. After a glamorous European honeymoon, the couple settled in New Orleans, where Oscar went into business as a cotton broker and Kate became active in the city’s social life. Her fluency in French and southern sympathies ensured that she fit easily into New Orleans society.

When the cotton brokerage business failed in 1879, the Chopins relocated to Natchitoches Parish in rural Louisiana, where they intended to operate one of Oscar’s father’s cotton plantations. But by 1883 Oscar Chopin had died of swamp fever, leaving Kate Chopin a thirty-two-year-old widow with six children to support and limited financial resources. After running the plantation on her own for a year, Chopin returned to St. Louis, where she moved into her mother’s house and began writing poetry and short stories. Drawing on her experiences in New Orleans and Natchitoches, Chopin created realistic depictions of the distinctive customs of the region and captured the cadences and diction of Louisiana speech in her dialogue. By 1893, she had published her first novel, At Fault, and placed stories in such prestigious venues as the Atlantic MonthlyVogue, and Century. In 1894 she published an extremely successful collection of short stories, Bayou Folk, and followed it up with another volume of stories about Louisiana entitled A Night in Acadie.

While her stories have been praised and frequently anthologized since their publication in the 1890s, critics today generally agree that Chopin’s masterpiece is her 1899 novel, The Awakening. Taking up Chopin’s recurring theme of the conflict between social constraints placed on women and their desire for independence, the novel tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a Creole woman who gradually awakens to her own dissatisfaction with her identity as a wife and mother. Focusing on her own needs and desires, Edna daringly flouts social conventions by moving out of her husband’s house and entering into an adulterous affair. Due to its controversial subject matter and its sympathetic portrayal of its unconventional heroine, the novel provoked hostile reviews from critics who dismissed it as “trite and sordid” or even “perverse” and “vulgar.” While Chopin did not completely abandon her writing career in the wake of The Awakening‘s harsh reception, she was upset by the criticism and her literary output diminished. She died five years later of a cerebral hemorrhage. The Awakening sold poorly in its own day and was largely ignored until the mid-twentieth century, when it was recognized as a masterpiece of feminist and realist literature.

Teaching Tips

  • Kate Chopin habitually wrote her stories and novels while sitting in the living room, surrounded by the noise of her busy household and subject to the demands of her six children. She wrote only one or two days a week and composed most of her stories in a single sitting without revision. She said of her own writing, “I am completely at the mercy of unconscious selection. To such an extent is this true, that what is called the polishing up process has always proved disastrous to my work, and I avoid it, preferring the integrity of crudities to artificialities.” Ask students to consider what kinds of aesthetic values underwrite this description of a writer at work. Why was Chopin invested in presenting herself as someone who never revised? Why might she assume that readers would appreciate “crudities” over “artificialities”?
  • Chopin’s original title for The Awakening was “The Solitary Soul.” Ask students which title they prefer. Why might Chopin have changed the title? What different ideas does each title suggest about the novel’s heroine and about her suicide?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How does Edna rebel against social conventions in The Awakening? How does her rebellion begin? Which of her actions seem most shocking to her community?
  2. Context: Examine the nineteenth-century designs for bathing costumes and beach dresses featured in the archive. What kinds of attitudes toward women’s bodies and women’s athletic pursuits do these costumes reveal? How do these images affect your understanding of Edna’s decision to swim naked into the Gulf at the end of The Awakening?
  3. Context: As its subtitle indicates, the short story “The Storm” functions as a sequel to “At the ‘Cadian Ball,” offering a glimpse of the characters’ lives several years after the action of the first story. How do the events of “The Storm” complicate the resolution of “At the ‘Cadian Ball”? How are we meant to understand the final line, “So the storm passed and every one was happy”? Why do you think Chopin never submitted this story for publication?
  4. Exploration: Literary critics disagree about how to interpret the meaning of Edna’s suicide at the end of The Awakening. While some take the ending of the novel as an affirmation of Edna’s strength and independence, others see it as psychologically out of character for Edna or as the pathetic act of a hopeless, defeated woman. How do you understand the ending of the novel? How does Chopin’s representation of suicide resonate with descriptions of suicides or suicide attempts in later feminist American literature (by Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, or Susanna Kaysen, for example)? You might refer to Anne Sexton’s poem to Sylvia Plath, “Sylvia’s Death,” in particular.

Selected Archive Items

[2576] William Merritt Chase, At the Seaside (1892),
courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kate Chopin evokes the symbolic landscape of the sea at the end of The Awakening. Chopin’s protagonist finds considerable oppression in the forced camaraderie of female socialization, but a freeing independence in the solitary ocean.

[2582] Thomas Anshutz, A Rose (1907),
courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove, Jr. Fund, 1993 (1993.324). Photograph © 1994 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Anshutz, a student of painter Thomas Eakins, was known for his unconventional subject matter, but here he uses his photographic clarity to make a fashionable portrait. The pose of the sitter reflects the sense that Anshutz has captured an informal, fleeting moment. It is this same attention to the emotional resonances of daily life that fills Chopin’s The Awakening.

[4101] Anonymous, Kate Chopin house (c. 1883),
courtesy of Northwestern University.
Chopin wrote her stories and novels amidst the hustle and bustle of her living room, frequently interrupted by her six children.

[4106] Anonymous, Kate Chopin with children (c. 1878),
courtesy of Northwestern University.
Photograph of Chopin with four of her six children. Widowed at thirty-two, Chopin wrote poetry, stories, and novels to support her family.

[6094] Anonymous, Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length portrait, standing at edge of ocean in bathing suit, with left hand on boat, facing right (1880),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-120445].
Bathing was a popular fin de siëcle pursuit, whether in the ocean or in mineral springs. Bathing costumes protected women’s modesty.

[8521] Kate Chopin, “Désirée’s Baby” (1893),
courtesy of 4Literature.net.
In this story Chopin addresses the question of miscegenation and the legacy of slavery in the South.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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