from Chautauqua Site: http://www.gp-chautauqua.org/html/Kate_chopin.html
“Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer; than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s Life.” Kate Chopin, 1899
JANE BAIL HOWARD on Kate Chopin A Woman Far Ahead of Her Time“[I write about] human existence in its subtle, complex true meaning, stripped of the veil of convention.”When she published The Awakening in 1899, Kate Chopin startled her public with a frank portrayal of a woman’s social, sexual, and spiritual awakening.
Because it told its particular truth without judgment or censure, the disapproving public reception of it clouded the end of a career that brought to a wider public an area of the growing nation that was unfamiliar to many Americans — Louisiana with its Acadians and Creoles, its freed slaves, its swamps and bayous, its part continental, part southern culture. During little more than a decade Kate Chopin had published in national and regional magazines and in two successful collections tales of New Orleans and the Cane River country where she spent all twelve years of her marriage.
The nation in 1899 had seen vast changes in the American way of life and action. But the idea of a true autonomy for women, or, more astounding yet — a single sexual standard for men and women — was too much to imagine. Kate Chopin’s presentation of the awakening of her heroine, Edna Pontellier, her unblinking recognition that respectable women did indeed have sexual feelings proved too strong for many who read her novel.
Early influences . . .
Born in 1850 to an Irish-French family in St. Louis, she grew up in a household of women. Her father, Thomas O’Flaherty had immigrated from Ireland and made a fortune in business. He married Eliza Faris when she was barely sixteen, according to the custom of her family. The comfortable household included Eliza’s widowed mother and grandmother and other relatives as well. From these women young Catherine learned both French and female endurance. Mme. Victoire Verdon Charleville, her great grandmother, told tales of her own grandmother who had run a ferry service on the Mississippi, and entertained the young girl with lively stories of women who dared — and seldom remarried.
A young voracious reader . . .
Catherine at five had already begun school at the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart when her father died in a spectacular railroad disaster during the ceremonial opening of the Gasconade Bridge, and although it was years before she returned to the academy, she was a reader and a writer from the start. As a boarder at the convent she experienced both the pleasures and restraints of a Catholic girl’s education. A voracious reader, she consumed books in both French and English, learned German and science, literature and music, formed lasting friendships, and during the Civil War, acquired a local reputation by tearing down a Union flag from the O’Flaherty home.
A bright and energetic young woman, full of fun and fond of people, she did enjoy the balls and the parties that became part of her life in St. Louis society, but her writings reveal that she missed her “dear reading and writing,” and she complained of the need to spend her time with men whose only talent “is in their feet. ”
Kate’s life . . .
Her life events are easily told: at 20 she married Oscar Chopin, son of an established Creole family, six years her senior, a man who had spent the years of the war in France and had met Kate in St. Louis where he had gone to look for a suitable position. She was sure he was “the right man,” and a enjoyed a three month European honeymoon. In New Orleans, Oscar became a cotton broker and Kate became a mother — five times in New Orleans before failing cotton crops drove Oscar to move his young family to the extensive Chopin properties in northwestern Louisiana. There she delivered her last child and only daughter; there she joined the extended Chopin family for all sorts lively activities. Cloutierville was a small village where French was the dominant tongue ( as it remained until World War I) and the community included black and white, Cajun and Creole, a great melange of characters who fascinated Kate.
There was time for visiting back and forth and time, with the servants to help out, for a daily horseback ride — once she was rumored to have leaped astride her husband’s horse, a bold leap indeed for a woman — and she helped out in his store, ministered to the community. In New Orleans she had already defied a number of conventions without any complaint from the agreeable Oscar: she smoked, she walked about the city alone, explored the area by streetcar. She continued her unconventional practices in the new home. When Oscar died of swamp fever in 1882, grieved as she was, like Therese Lafirme in her first novel, she turned herself to action, managing the plantations, running the store, perhaps enjoying the attentions of a married neighbor until she returned to St. Louis in 1884.
Chopin did not need to write for money . . .
Unlike many of the women who wrote during her time, she did not need to write for money — she had a modest income — but she did find a need to develop, as so many of her heroines do, to satisfy the demands of her “simple, separate person ,” as her admired Walt Whitman might have put it. Her friend Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer — physician, intellectual, agnostic — encouraged her to write. Her first poetic efforts, published locally, attracted little attention. Then she discovered the French short story master Guy de Maupassant.
Telling readers what she saw . . .
Kate Chopin admired him as one who both looked into himself and “out upon life through his own being and his own eyes ” and then, directly and simply “ told us what he saw.” Although she did not immediately succeed in following his lead, her steady effort over her short but prolific career was to look directly and to tell her readers what she saw. Her stories appeared in the major magazines of the day — in Century, Atlantic, Vogue — and she gathered them into two collections Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897).
Love and passion, marriage and independence, freedom and restraint — these are themes of her work distinctively realized in story after story. When Edna Pontellier, the heroine of The Awakening announces “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” she is addressing the crucial issue for many of Kate Chopin’s women — the winning of a self, the keeping of it.
“Free! Free! Free!” is the cry of Louise Mallard of “The Story of an Hour” when she realizes the implications of her husband’s sudden death. Her friends have tried to tell her gently because she has heart trouble, but alone in her room she looks to a future in which she will be “free — body and soul.”
Chopin presents women different from those of sentimental fiction . . .
So does the Chopin woman differ from the women of sentimental fiction. Chopin makes no suggestion that Mrs. Mallard would not mourn for her husband, a man she loved, a man apparently cut off by a railroad accident in the prime of his life. But she is willing to show how Mrs. Mallard sees her future bright with “a procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely.” When Mallard, alive and healthy returns, she dies," of the joy that kills," so the doctors believe. Chopin makes no further comment. “There should be an eleventh commandment,” she once quoted approvingly, “`Thou Shalt Not Preach’,” and she obeyed that commandment throughout her work. Perhaps it was her unique combination of honesty and objectivity that so incensed the readers of The Awakening that they condemned it so roundly she almost abandoned her writing. Had Chopin not retained her objective tone, had she lectured her readers on the fall of Edna Pontellier, condemned her with sermons and self righteous finger pointing perhaps the response would have been different. Certainly she had explored many controversial ideas before and had questioned the married state in other ways.
Chopin dared to write of the private needs of women . . .
In a period only slowly awakening to the public needs of women — education, the vote, rights to her own property and her own children — Chopin dared to write of private needs that the period tried to deny existed. Marriage, said Chopin’s world, was the goal of every woman’s life, service to her husband and her children her her duties, passionlessness and submission her assumed virtues, selflessness her daily practice, self sacrifice her pleasure. Women who value and accept that world appear in Chopin’s work, as do women who only partially challenge the secondary position of women and who would never seek more independence than what they could enjoy in their husbands’ homes. But it is the woman who demands her own direction and chooses her own freedom that interests Chopin most.
The short happy life of Mrs. Mallard precludes Chopin paying any attention to consequences of a woman’s freedom, a serious issue in The Awakening. Some of Chopin’s women make a complete break from the ties of love and affection that bind their contemporaries: “The Maid of St. Phillippe,” freed of responsibility by her father’s death, leaves the pioneer settlements altogether for the freedom of the forest and life with the Cherokee. Yet another woman, devoted to music and firm in her goals for a musical career, chooses in “Wiser Than a God” to leave the ties of the heart behind for a career.
Chopin’s wives a varied sort . . .
Because her view of marriage is a complex one, Chopin’s wives are a varied sort, some of them as contented and devoted to the home shrine as Adele Ratignolle, the mother-woman; others question the ties of marriage lightly or seriously. In ‘’Athénaïse’’ a restless young woman marries Cazeau, an older neighbor, only to find herself appalled by the intimacy of marriage:“ It’s jus’ being married that I detes’ and despise. . . I can’t stand to live with a man, to have him always there; his coats an’ pantaloons hanging in my room; his ugly bare feet — washing them in my tub befo’ my very eyes, ugh!”But her running away to New Orleans, her mild flirtation with a willing gentleman count for little when she discovers that she is pregnant. As important as recognizing her pregnancy is Athénaïse’s discovery at her return that she finally truly desires her husband.
In much the same way, “Madame Celestin’s Divorce” becomes a means for a young wife to flirt with a sympathetic lawyer and to contemplate a separation in spite of the Catholic ban — until her traveling husband returns, and her blushes suggest how she has forgiven all. “A Visit to Avoyelles” presents Doudouce, a man determined to save his former sweetheart from an abusive husband and the burdens of a hard life, who finds his rescue unwelcome, his Mentine loyal to her husband even in her misery. Just as the heroine of Chopin’s first novel, At Fault, errs in attempting to direct the life of the man who cares for her, Doudouce has sought unsuccessfully to move Mentine; she has accepted her bad marriage and seeks no solace. Perhaps it is no surprise that Chopin also wrote an account “In Sabine” in which a similar effort rescues “’Tite Reine” (Little Queen), but Chopin refuses to comment on the fate of the returned woman.
Chopin takes on divorce directly . . .
At Fault, privately printed and soon forgotten, had taken on the question of divorce forthrightly and, though marred by melodrama and an engineered ending, implicitly pled for the reality of the end of love and the foolishness of meddling in the life decisions of others. Such meddling and manipulating, Chopin attests in “La Belle Zoraïde,” may destroy its objects.
One of several stories set before the war, this tale recounts the life of a beautiful mulatta, pampered by a mistress who wishes to marry her to another light-skinned servant. But Zoraïde has seen the handsome Mézor dance the bamboula in Congo Square, “his body, bare to the waist, like a column of ebony,” and she begs her mistress for the right to marry him. “Since I am not white, let me have one from out of my own race whom my heart has chosen.” Refused that right, Zoraïde who “could not have helped loving him,” bears his child. Her mistress, longing to have her pretty servant back again, sends the child away. Zoraïde sinks into madness. Chopin’s readers understood in the view of their day that of course the mixed blood Zoraïde might yield to desire, but not “A Respectable Woman,” in the story of that name. Mrs. Baroda is at first baffled at her interested response to the charming house guest, Gouvernail, but comes to realize her own desire and to look forward to his return. Little is said, much is implied, but the story stops short of explicit description of the anticipated second visit.
Publishers not eager to accept Chopin . . .
Chopin had some difficulty placing some her stories from the beginning: Richard Watson Gilder of Century asked for and won revisions in the early part of her career. She could not place her last collection, A Vocation and a Voice. But the publisher who accepted The Awakening is not recorded as objecting to the novel that brought many of her ideas to culmination.
Whether readers understood many of the implied messages in Chopin’s stories, they enjoyed the fine detail of her style, spare in its narrative but shaped by sensual detail of the soft southern nights, of the delights of food and dancing, of flirtation and sexual anticipation. If Calixta, the young Creole beauty, may long for Alcée Laballiere and remember barely controlled desires but then marry Bobinot, the simple country boy, readers could see such behavior as just a bit colorful and perhaps to be expected of warm blooded Latins. But when Edna Pontellier, raised in Presbyterian propriety and a mother of two sons, responds to another Alcée, Chopin, the public thought, had gone too far. “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not” she tells the young man she loves: “I give myself where I choose. ”
Twenty-eight, comfortable in a marriage to an older man involved with his business life in New Orleans, Edna has never settled into the selfless maternal mold of the other women who summer at Grand Isle to escape the disease and heat of the city. She begins a journey of self discovery that leads to several awakenings: to her separateness as a “solitary soul,” (the original title Chopin chose for the work), to the pleasures of “swimming far out” in the seductive sensuously appealing sea, to the passions revealed in music, to her own desire to create art, to a romantic attachment to a young man, to living on her own, to sexual desire. Robert, the beloved, honorably removes himself to escape entanglement; Alcée, a recognized womanizer and rake, elicits the sexual response.
Chopin creates a circle of symbolic characters about her heroine: a devoted wife, an embittered spinster musician, a dour and disapproving father, an understanding doctor, empty headed pleasure seekers. Edna veers between realistic appraisal of her place in the world and romantic longing for Robert, between enjoying the sensual pleasures with Alcée and practically removing herself from her husband’s control. Seldom does the narrative voice intrude, but the author’s control balances the book between two poles.
The lonely and bitter musician Mlle. Reisz both helps Edna entangle herself with Robert and warns her of the sacrifice any artist must make, thus serving both the romantic and the realist of the ever vacillating Edna. Alcée’s seductive embraces answer Edna’s realistic appetite for an animal satisfaction, and Robert’s evasions feed her longing for love in its most sentimental dress.
Edna moves to self realization and to a final awareness that she has awakened to a world in which she has no place. Visions of her children rise up to accuse her. Her answer, in a scene that richly echoes Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” is to return herself naked to the seductive sea — “how strange and awful” — and the memories of childhood , “the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks,” in an act of suicide or transcendence that finishes her search.
“The purport of the story can hardly be described in language fit for publication,” sniffed one reviewer, noting that Chopin had put her “cleverness to a very bad use.” Willa Cather grumbled the hope “that Miss Chopin will devote that flexible iridescent style of hers to a better cause.” One hurled the strongest of complaints: “It out Zolas Zola!”
Such a violent response to her novel deeply affected Kate Chopin. In a sort of retraction she claimed that she “never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things,” but could do nothing about it, the “play being half over and it was then too late.” Although her friends and some admiring readers wrote to reassure her, she was both surprised and hurt.
Chopin’s health began to fail in the early years of the new century, but she did not quit writing in despair. As Emily Toth’s authoritative biography has shown, the book was never banned, and she continued to be a valued member of St. Louis intellectual society until August of 1904. Intrigued by the world’s fair of 1904, she visited it regularly until one humid day in August when she returned fatigued, suffered what seemed to be a stroke, and died two days later.
Banned or not, The Awakening disappeared from public view; Chopin was only vaguely remembered as a talented local colorist. Her stories merited small but lasting mention in histories of literature until the fifties when critics in the United States and in France recognized her talent and revived interest in it.
New generations, sensitive to women’s needs, accepting of woman’s sexuality, have welcomed the book; critics have made it one of the most widely discussed. Now, almost forty years after its revival, it has entered the canon, regularly appears on college reading lists, has inspired movies, and will soon be an opera.
Almost a century after, America has fully awakened to Kate Chopin’s novel and paid the respect due to a woman who had been so far ahead of her time. She would have enjoyed the attention.