Until the 1970’s, Kate Chopin (1850–1904) was known best literarily, if at all, as a “local colorist,” primarily for her tales of life in New Orleans and rural Louisiana. Chopin manages in these stories (about twothirds of her total output) to bring to life subtly the settings and personalities of her characters, usually Creoles (descendants of the original French settlers of Louisiana) or Cajuns (or Acadians, the French colonists who were exiled to Louisiana following the British conquest of Nova Scotia). What makes Chopin especially important for modern readers, however, is her insight into human characters and relationships in the context of their societies whether Creole, Cajun, or Anglo-Saxon—and into the social, emotional, and sexual roles of women within those societies.
Chopin’s desire and hope for female independence can be seen in two of her earliest stories, “Wiser Than a God” and “A Point at Issue!” (both 1889). In the first story, the heroine Paula Von Stoltz rejects an offer of marriage in order to begin a successful career as a concert pianist because music is the true sole passion of her life; it is an act that anticipates the actions of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening. In the second story, Eleanor Gail and Charles Faraday enter into a marriage based on reason and equality and pursue their individual careers in separate places. This arrangement works very well for some time, but finally each of the two succumbs to jealousy; in spite of this blemish in their relationship, Chopin’s humorous tone manages to poke fun at traditional attitudes toward marriage as well.
The Story of an Hour
This questioning though humorous attitude is strongly evident in one of Chopin’s most anthologized and best-known tales, “The Story of an Hour” (1894). Mrs. Mallard, a woman suffering from a heart condition, is told that her husband has been killed in a train accident. She is at first deeply sorrowful but soon realizes that even though she had loved and will mourn her husband, his death has set her free: “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.” As Mrs. Mallard descends the stairs, however, the front door is opened by her husband, who had never been on the train. This time her heart gives out, and the cause ironically is given by the doctors as “the joy that kills.”
La Belle Zoraïde
It is in her Louisiana stories, however, that Chopin’s sympathy for female and indeed human longings emerges most fully, subtly blended with a distinct and evocative sense of locale and folkways. “La Belle Zoraïde” (1893) is presented in the form of a folktale being told by a black servant, Manna-Loulou, to her mistress, Madame Delisle (these two characters also are central to the story “A Lady of Bayou St. John,” 1893). The tale itself is the story of a black slave, Zoraïde, who is forbidden by her mistress to marry another slave with whom she has fallen in love because his skin is too black and her mistress intends her for another, more “gentlemanly” servant. In spite of this, and although the slave she loves is sold away, she bears his child and refuses marriage to the other slave. Her mistress falsely tells Zoraïde that her child has been born dead, and the slave descends into madness. Even when her real daughter is finally brought back to her, Zoraïde rejects her, preferring to cling to the bundle of rags that she has fashioned as a surrogate baby. From then on,
She was never known again as la belle Zoraïde, but ever after as Zoraïde la folle, whom no one ever wanted to marry. . . . She lived to be an old woman, whom some people pitied and others laughed at—always clasping her bundle of rags—her ‘piti.’
The indirect narration of this story prevents it from slipping into the melodramatic or the maudlin. Chopin’s ending, presenting the conversation of Manna-Loulou and Madame Delisle in the Creole dialect, pointedly avoids a concluding moral judgment, an avoidance typical of Chopin’s stories. Instead, readers are brought back to the frame for the tale and concentrated upon the charm of the Creole dialect even while they retain pity and sympathy for Zoraïde.
In spite of their southern locale, Chopin’s stories rarely deal with racial relations between whites and blacks. One important exception is “Désirée’s Baby” (1892). Désirée Valmondé, who was originally a foundling, marries Armand Aubigny, a plantation owner who is proud of his aristocratic heritage but very much in love with Désirée. He is at first delighted when she bears him a son, but soon begins to grow cold and distant. Désirée, puzzled at first, soon realizes with horror that her child has Negro blood. Armand, whose love for Désirée has been killed by “the unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name,” turns her out of the house, and she disappears with her child into the bayou, never to be seen again. Later, in a surprise ending reminiscent of Maupassant, Armand is having all reminders of Désirée burned when he discovers a letter from his mother to his father which reveals that his mother had had Negro blood. In this story one sees the continuation of Chopin’s most central theme, the evil that follows when one human being gains power over another and attempts to make that person conform to preset standards or expectations.
As suggested earlier, Chopin finds that power of one person over another is often manifested in the institution of marriage. Yet, as even her earliest stories suggest, she does not always find that marriage necessarily requires that a wife be dominated by her husband, and she demonstrates that both men and women are capable of emotional and spiritual growth.
The possibility for growth is perhaps best seen in the story “Athénaïse” (1895). Athénaïse, an emotionally immature young woman, has married the planter Cazeau, but has found that she is not ready for marriage. She runs back to her family, explaining that she does not hate Cazeau himself:
It’s jus’ being married that I detes’ an’ despise. . . . I can’t stan’ to live with a man; to have him always there; his coats and pantaloons hanging in my room; his ugly bare feet—washing them in my tub, befo’ my very eyes, ugh!
When Cazeau arrives to bring her back, however, she finds that she has to go with him. As the couple rides home, they pass an oak tree which Cazeau recalls was where his father had once apprehended a runaway slave: “The whole impression was for some reason hideous, and to dispel it Cazeau spurred his horse to a swift gallop.”
Despite Cazeau’s attempt to make up and live with Athénaïse at least as friends, she remains bitter and unhappy and finally runs away again, aided by her romantic and rather foolish brother Montéclin. Cazeau, a sensitive and proud man, refuses to go after her again as though she too were a runaway slave: “For the companionship of no woman on earth would he again undergo the humiliating sensation of baseness that had overtaken him in passing the old oak-tree in the fallow meadow.”
Athénaïse takes refuge in a boarding house in New Orleans where she becomes friendly with Mr. Gouvernail, a newspaper editor. Gouvernail hopes to make Athénaïse his lover, but he refrains from forcing himself on her: “When the time came that she wanted him . . . he felt he would have a right to her. So long as she did not want him, he had no right to her,—no more than her husband had.” Gouvernail, though, never gets his chance; Athénaïse has previously been described as someone who does not yet know her own mind, and such knowledge will not come through rational analysis but “as the song to the bird, the perfume and color to the flower.” This knowledge does come to her when she discovers that she is pregnant. As she thinks of Cazeau, “the first purely sensuous tremor of her life swept over her. . . . Her whole passionate nature was aroused as if by a miracle.” Thus, Athénaïse returns to reconciliation and happiness with her husband.
Chopin’s story illustrates that happiness in a relationship can come only with maturity and with mutual respect. Cazeau realizes that he cannot force his wife to love him, and Athénaïse finally knows what she wants when she awakens to an awareness of her own sexuality. If Cazeau has to learn to restrain himself, though, Mr. Gouvernail learns the need to take more initiative as well; not having declared his love for Athénaïse, he suffers when she goes back home. The tone of the entire story is subtly balanced between poignancy and humor, allowing one to see the characters’ flaws while remaining sympathetic with each of them.
The importance of physical passion and of sexual self-awareness which can be found in “Athénaïse” can also be found in many of Chopin’s stories and is one of the characteristics that make her writing so far ahead of its time. It is this theme that, as the title suggests, is central to her novel The Awakening and which was partly responsible for the scandal which that novel provoked. Chopin’s insistence not merely on the fact of women’s sexual desires but also on the propriety and healthiness of those desires in some ways anticipates the writings of D. H. Lawrence, but without Lawrence’s insistence on the importance of male dominance.
Sexual fulfillment outside of marriage without moral judgments can be found in “The Storm,” written in 1898, just before The Awakening, but not published until 1969. The story concerns four characters from an earlier tale, “At the ’Cadian Ball” (1892). In that earlier story, a young woman, Clarisse, rides out in the night to the ’Cadian Ball to declare her love for the planter Alcée Laballière. Alcée is at the ball with an old girlfriend of his, Calixta, a woman of Spanish descent. Clarisse claims Alcée, and Calixta agrees to marry Bobinôt, a man who has been in love with her for some time.
“The Storm” is set several years later. Calixta and Bobinôt have had a child, and Alcée and Clarisse have been happily married. One day, while Bobinôt and his son are out on an errand, a huge storm breaks out. Alcée takes refuge at Calixta’s house, and the old passion between the two is rekindled; as the storm breaks about them in mounting intensity, the two make love, Calixta’s body “knowing for the first time its birthright.” Although the stormmirrors the physical passion of the couple, neither it nor the passion itself is destructive. Where one would expect some retribution for this infidelity in a story, the results are only beneficial: Calixta, physically fulfilled, happily welcomes back her returning husband and son; Alcée writes to Clarisse, off visiting relatives, that he does not need her back right away; and Clarisse, enjoying “the first free breath since her marriage,” is content to stay where she is for the time. Chopin’s ending seems audacious: “So the storm passed and every one was happy.”
Although written about a century ago, Chopin’s stories seem very modern in many ways. Her concern with women’s place in society and in marriage, her refusal to mix guilt with sexuality, and her narrative stance of sympathetic detachment make her as relevant to modern readers as her marked ability to convey character and setting simply yet completely. In the little more than a decade in which she produced most of her work, her command of her art grew ever stronger, as did her willingness to deal with controversial subjects. It is unfortunate that this career was cut so short by the reaction to The Awakening and her early death; but it is fortunate that Chopin left the writing that she did and that it has been preserved.
Other major works
Novels: At Fault, 1890; The Awakening, 1899.
Miscellaneous: The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 1969 (2 volumes; Per Seyersted, editor).
Nonfiction: Kate Chopin’s Private Papers, 1998.
Bonner, Thomas, Jr. The Kate Chopin Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Boren, Lynda S., and Sara de Saussure Davis, eds. Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Brown, Pearl L. “Awakened Men in Kate Chopin’s Creole Stories.” ATQ, n.s. 13, no. 1 (March, 1999).
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.
Koloski, Bernard. Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Petry, Alice Hall, ed. Critical Essays on Kate Chopin. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow, 1990.
____________. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.