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  Issue Date: 10 / 2017  
 

Kate Chopin: Early Feminist



Mike Timko
 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

        Few readers today would know the name Katherine O’Flaherty, but many might remember Kate Chopin, the name adopted by the author of The Awakening. While she might not be widely recognized today, she experienced a revival in the latter part of the twentieth century because of her concerns with women’s issues, especially their freedom from societal (particularly masculine) mandates. In her novels and short stories she focused on what clearly are feminist themes, especially, as one critic has put it, “the restrictive and oppressive roles of women in Victorian society.” Some of her reviewers were critical of her themes and accused her of lacking “good taste.” A disappointed critic wrote” one more clever writer gone wrong.” Other critics, however, viewed her work favorably, one reviewer in her hometown of St. Louis claiming: “A St. Louis Woman Who Has Turned Fame Into Literature.”
       
        In some ways her novels and short stories reflect her own life. She was born in St. Louis in 1850. Her father was Irish, her mother French, and it is the latter that is prominent in her own work. She experienced a difficult life as a child. Her father was killed in a railroad accident when she was five years old, and her brother, a Confederate soldier, was captured by Union soldiers and died of typhoid fever. In 1870 she married Oscar Chopin of Louisiana, son of a Frenchman; their wedding trip took them to Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and New York. They then went to Europe, touring Germany, Switzerland, and France.
       
       Returning to the United States the couple settled in New Orleans, a city from which Chopin drew much of the material for her writing. In 1882 her husband died of malaria; as one biographer wrote: “Kate became a widow at age thirty-two, with the responsibility of raising six children. She never remarried.” Another biographer described her as a “remarkable, charming person. Not very tall, inclined to be plump, and quite pretty, she had thick, wavy brown hair that grayed prematurely, and direct, sparking brown eyes. Her friends remembered most her quiet manner and quick Irish wit. … She enjoyed laughter, music, and dancing, but especially intellectual talk, and she could express her own considered opinions with surprising directness.” It was during these years that she began to write the stories which brought her some fame.
       
       She died in 1904.
       
        In 1890 her first novel, At Fault, was published privately. The main character is a Catholic widow in love with a divorced man. Like Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, she is unable to reconcile her inner desires and the demands of the world around her. The Awakening was published in 1899, and the novel partly reflects the life that Chopin experienced in Louisiana. While living there the Chopin family would vacation on Grand Isle, a Creole resort in the Gulf of Mexico. The novel also features the matter that comprises much of Chopin’s fiction, especially her concern with women’s issues. It clearly reflects a comment she once made regarding her writing: a desire to “describe human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it.” The Awakening does exactly that.
       
        The plot of The Awakening focuses on the heroine’s gradually coming to the realization that she will never break through the conventional standards that control her life. She, Edna Ponttellier, is married, has children, and seems to be living the normal life of a happily married woman. As the novel proceeds, however, we discover that she is really terribly unhappy, unable to meet the demands of conventional society. Her husband, we learn early in the novel, expects her to be a good “housewife” and “mother,” a woman who knows her filial duties.
       
       The novel focuses on Edna’s frustration in two particular ways. First, Chopin shows the relations between Edna and her husband. In the first few pages of the novel the readers watch the interplay between Edna and her husband. First he scolds her for bathing in such heat. “You are burnt beyond recognition,” he tells her, “looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered much damage.” He then yawns, stretches himself, and tells Edna he is going off to play some billiards. She asks him if he is coming back for dinner; he tells her he does not know. In the following scene he returns home late and is disturbed by her not paying enough attention to him. “He thought it very discouraging,” we read, “that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.” He then tells her that one of their children has a fever and she should look at him. “He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not the mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?”
       
       Chopin then illuminates Edna’s dilemma: “In short,” she writes, “Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman.” This, we soon learn, is Edna’s real problem, and Chopin is able to show it clearly by having two other contrasting characters in the novel reveal Edna’s difficulty. Edna’s close friend, Adele Ratignolle, exemplifies a mother-woman; she has been married seven years and every two years has a baby. In contrast to Adele is Mademoiselle Reiz, who is not a mother-woman. She is more like Edna, a mysterious figure who helps illuminate Edna’s yearnings. After playing some pieces on the piano Mademoiselle Reiz pats Edna on her shoulder. “Well, how did you like my music?” she asks Edna. Edna, so moved, is unable to answer and “presses the hand of the pianist convulsively.” The pianist recognizes Edna’s agitation and tears, and tells Edna, “You are the only one worth playing for. Those others? Bah,”

       
       Chopin also illustrates Edna’s emotional dilemma by portraying her relationship with two men other than her husband: Robert Lebrun and Alcee Arobin. With the first she has a Platonic affair; with the second a physical one. She really loves Robert, but, unlike Alcee, he cannot bring himself to destroy her reputation. Instead, he decides to leave her so that he will not be tempted to shame her.
       
       Chopin’s artistry is illustrated clearly by the manner in which she depicts Edna’s gradual giving in to her romantic side and the way she has Edna’s story end. Throughout the novel we are told of Edna’s gradual inability to be a mother-woman. From time to time we listen to Edna’s lament over her inability to cope with her current life. At one point she writes: “Edna began to feel like one who awakens out of a dream, a delicate, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul.” At another time, when Robert is going away for a time, she reacts: “For the first time she recognized anew the symptoms of infatuation which she had felt as a child…. The past was nothing to her…The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate.” Another time we read: “She wanted something to happen – something, anything; she did not know what. Perhaps the most illuminating sign of her desire to awaken is her decision to leave her home and, echoing Virginia Woolf, move to a room of her own. When asked by Mademoiselle why she is doing so, she replies: “I’m tired looking after that big house. It never seemed like mine, anyway.” Mademoiselle, who knows Edna well, replies: “That is not your true reason. … They are your husband’s.”
       
       Kate Chopin is able, finally, to reveal clearly Edna’s real reason for ending her life in the way she does by having her heroine metaphorically and actually drown and enter a new life. Early in the novel Chopin has a scene in which Edna, who has been learning to swim, suddenly realizes she is able to do so without fear. Chopin writes: “That night she was like the tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. … A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant support had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” Edna now thinks: “How easy it is….It is nothing,” she said aloud; “why did I not discover before that it was nothing”
       
       This is exactly the same feeling she has later, at the climax of the novel. Robert has left her and she feels abandoned: “Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted.” She walks down to the sea: “How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world it had never known.” She swims out and remembers the night she swam far out and feared she would not be able to get back to shore. This time, however, “she did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end.” Suddenly, however, we read: “it was too late, the shore was behind her, and her strength was gone.” Edna has finally awakened.
       
       Why did it take so long for Kate Chopin to be recognized? Why is she not as well known as she should be today? In his biography (1969) of the author Per Seyersted asserts that she broke new ground in American literature. He added, “She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardly fathom today, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life…. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom.” One can only nod in agreement.


Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (City University of New York). His major interests are 19th-cetury literature and drama. He has published and lectured widely on both scholarly and popular subjects and is currently one of the editors of Dickens Studies Annual . He has published many articles on various subjects in The World & I over the past years.
 
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