Kate Chopin (1850-1904): Tragic Doyenne of the American Short Story

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Kate Chopin’s short stories shocked people with their honesty and she fell out of favour until she was re-discovered in the 1950s. Image by Infrogmation.

A series of disappointments, and ultimately, a tragedy, led Kate Chopin to explore and to excel at writing in the short story form. She was born Katherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri. Kate excelled in her education, attending a boarding school, The Sacred Heart Academy, in St. Louis.

Sadly, young  Kate outlived all her siblings. Her two little sisters died in infancy, and her two half-brothers, from her father’s first marriage, died in their 20s. She lived during the Civil War, and her family were slave-holders who supported the South.

She married her husband, Oscar Chopin, a 25-year-old cotton-grower in 1870, and, according to Neal Wyatt in the Kate Chopin Biography, “He was French Catholic in background, as was Kate. By all accounts he adored his wife, admired her independence and intelligence and ‘allowed’ her unheard-of freedom.”

Then tragedy struck, explains Wyatt, and Oscar Chopin died in 1882 on his plantation of swamp fever. His widow struggled financially, with their seven children to support, so Kate Chopin went to live with her mother in St. Louis. Shortly after, her mother also died. Naturally, these multiple tragedies had a devastating effect on the young widow.

Writing as Therapy

Grief-stricken, Kate Chopin took up writing as a therapy prescribed by her doctor and eventually produced her finest novel, “The Awakening” in 1899, which americanliterature.com described in the article “Kate Chopin” as follows:


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“…a hauntingly prescient tale of a woman unfulfilled by the mundane yet highly celebrated ‘feminine role’ and her painful realization that the constraints of her gender blocked her ability to seek a more fulfilling life.”

Despite the modern-day acclaim for the novel, it was not acknowledged or appreciated at the time, and received fiercely negative literary criticism. Chopin was also rejected by the St. Louis Fine Arts Club, which deeply hurt her. Her fine novel was ahead of its time and society was not ready for such raw honesty.

When Fiction Mirrors Life

The glossy women’s magazine, Vogue as well as other magazines, published many of Chopin’s stories between 1892 and 1897. She has the ability to entice the reader into believing that what she is reading is, actually, about life that’s entirely normal, but instead it is all a “set-up” and, as she heightens our expectations, we find, suddenly, we are wrong. Chopin’s stories explore how gender impacts the lives of the women of her time. She is now regarded as being one of the first and finest feminist short story writers.

The Story of an Hour

Much of her writing is autobiographical, sometimes closely mirroring her own life experiences, for example, her short story, “The Story of an Hour,” which begins:

“Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.” 

Devastated, the woman weeps wildly, goes to her room and something strange occurs. Mrs. Mallard gazed out of the window at the sky, and at the patches of blue that showed through. This was a process of dawning, unsettling realization, “…but she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the colours that filled the air.” She was “free, free, free.” She had not stopped loving her husband, continued to feel sad and loving, yet she yearned, emotionally for “…a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely.” But life sometimes plays cruel tricks.

Kissing birds

Kate Chopin’s stories usually contain a surprise – and “The Kiss” is no exception, as we are, metaphorically, “led up the garden path.” Image by chasnz.

As “The Story of an Hour” draws to an end, Mrs Mallard confronts an even bigger shock that has extraordinary consequences.

The Kiss

Kate Chopin’s female characters can be feisty and self-serving as well as victims of a patriarchal society. Even so, “The Kiss” is a story of a woman, albeit an ambitious one, who lived in a society dominated by men. A beautiful gold-digger, Nathalie, plays a devious game between two lovers.

Chopin is the doyenne of the small, but telling detail: “They were talking of indifferent things which plainly were not the things that occupied their thoughts.”

Through wit and guile, Nathalie tempts fate in the direction which would serve her best. She uses every feminine wile to get her way, and yet, in the end, there is a charm in the stoical way she accepts the outcome of her failed attempt to play a winning hand.

A Pair of Silk Stockings

The stories can be deeply sensual. In “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” Mrs. Sommers has a sum of money. We are not told how she came by it – that is not important. What she should do with it is what is important: an investment, some shoes for her daughter, shirt-waists for her sons.

“An all-gone limp feeling had come over her and she rested her hand aimlessly upon the counter. She wore no gloves. By degrees she grew aware that her hand had encountered something very soothing, very pleasant to touch. She looked down to see that her hand lay upon a pile of silk stockings… she went on feeling the soft, sheeny luxurious things – with both hands now, holding them up to see them glisten, and to feel them glide serpent-like through her fingers.”

No wonder she forgets about her daughter’s shoes, her sons’ shirt-waists. No wonder she purchases soft leather gloves and lunch in a real restaurant. We empathise with her self-centredness. “How good was the touch of the raw silk to her flesh.”

Kate Chopin – a Confrontation with Hypocrisy

Chopin’s first novel was At Fault published in 1890, followed by two collections of short stories, Bayou Folk in 1894 and A Night in Acadia in 1897. She was never afraid to be contentious in her commitment to truth and honesty, even though this trait made her unpopular and the butt of vulgar accusation.

Crowe-Slaves_Waiting_for_Sale_-_Richmond,_Virginia

Kate Chopin came from a background of slavery where such scenes as depicted in this painting were common. “Slaves Waiting for Sale,” Richmond, Virginia. Painting by Eyre Crowe (1824-1910). Image courtesy of Андрей Романенко.

For example in her short story, “Desiree’s Baby,” she tackles the inflammatory issue of race, specifically of mixed race, and those of cruel judgement and prejudice. Desiree and  her little baby, suspected of being a quadroon, endure rejection from the husband and father, Armand.

His former, intense love of his family are as nothing in the light of his conviction that the baby’s mixed blood meant that Desiree was not pure white and therefore not fit to be his wife.

Until, at last, he makes a shocking discovery while reading through his mother’s letters to his father: “But above all,” she wrote, “night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.”

But it is too late to save Desiree and her baby.

Chopin’s Place in the Literary Canon

Kate Chopin’s ability to cut through hypocrisy and confront, head-on, the worst – and the best – in human nature, in language that conveys her message and her mission with precision and beauty makes Kate Chopin one of the greatest names in the literary canon. These qualities, combined with the richness of the French, Spanish and Creole references that sprang from the roots of her Louisiana upbringing, give her the edgy, highly individual voice, that continues to move us to the present day.

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© Copyright 2015 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

Comments

  1. Ellen Thomas says

    Needless to say, your article is a good read and very effective – I’m going to have to buy some Kate Chopin now. I grew up reading works mostly from the Victorian era to the 1930s, led in by Steinbeck’s The Red Pony (I was 8 – I loved horses so I was just buying a horse story – little did I know the impact it would have on me). The Brontes, Austen, James, Wilder, Maughm, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway, all the classics and not so classic – they were an important part of my life. And yet I’d never heard of Kate Chopin, and from the excerpts alone I can see what I’ve missed. Her style is early Southern – she has that poignant subtlety and graceful choice of words.

    I’m so glad to have read this because I love discovering new inventory for my passions.

  2. Janet Cameron says

    I think you have it in a nutshell, Ellen, “poignant subtlety and graceful choice of words.” I came to Kate Chopin quite late in life, having read her while taking my BA in Lit as a very mature student. Her work is still fresh to me today, a true test of time.

    I am so glad you enjoyed the article and hope you will get much pleasure from exploring the richness of Chopin;s work.

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