by Jill Kronstadt
In the fall of 1882, Kate Chopin’s husband Oscar lay dying of malaria in Cloutierville, Louisiana, where they had lived for the past three years of a twelve-year marriage. Several months before, Kate had departed for St. Louis soon after her husband returned from a sanatorium, a trip so conspicuously timed that it aroused suspicions of marital trouble. Summoned back to Cloutierville, she returned to find medical and legal bills mounting while her husband succumbed to a series of fevers and finally died.
She was thirty-two years old, with six children and more than $12,000 in debt.
Twelve years later, Chopin, on her way to becoming one of the South’s most popular writers, published her widely-anthologized “The Story of an Hour.” In the story, Louise Mallard, a young wife with a heart condition, learns that her husband has died in a train accident. She mourns briefly and then withdraws to her bedroom, where relief and exaltation overtake her grief:
When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: “free, free, free!” […] Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.
Louise also voices a fundamental tenet of Chopin’s work when she muses, “There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. 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.” Chopin’s focus on individual rather than gender identity distinguishes her from other women writers: as much as from force, as much as from social pressure, oppression can come from the individual choice to live for others rather than oneself.
Thinking of her husband’s face “that had never looked save with love upon her,” Louise – in a moment of profound honesty that still has the power to shock readers – realizes, “And yet she had loved him – sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter!” As the story ends, Louise learns that her husband was not actually on the train that crashed, and she drops dead when she sees him stride through the door, oblivious that there has even been an accident. The cunning final line, “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease – of the joy that kills,” solidifies Mrs. Mallard’s autonomy at the same time it offers a socially sanctioned explanation of her death that readers know to be false.
Over and over, Chopin’s female protagonists extricate themselves from social conventions, especially motherhood and the compromises of marriage. Love and emotional intimacy, the hallmarks of so-called “women’s fiction,” leave only the lightest of fingerprints on Chopin’s narratives. Her characters, in defiance of the idea that women’s desire stems from emotion, regard the love of others as at best bewildering and at worst oppressive. Chopin’s own husband Oscar had a reputation for generosity and steadiness, and Kate fascinated the gossips in Cloutierville with her smoking, gambling, provocatively-cut clothes, solitary nighttime horseback rides, flamboyant strolls with a parasol down the village’s one street, and displays of ankle. By all appearances, Oscar never tried to control Kate, and yet her fiction suggests that she found even well-intentioned love to be a form of entrapment.
Chopin’s diaries suggest that she felt distant from the intensity of attachments that others (especially men) felt for her. At nineteen, Kate (then O’Flaherty) wrote poignantly in her diary of feigning social graces. As excerpted in Emily Toth’s biography, Kate Chopin,
I must tell you [her diary] a discovery I have made – the art of making oneself agreeable in conversation. Strange as it may appear it is not necessary to possess the faculty of speech; dumb persons, provided they be not deaf, can practice it as well as the most voluble. All required of you is to have control over the muscles of your face – to look pleased and chagrined…interested and entertained. Lead your antagonist to talk about himself – he will not enter reluctantly upon the subject I assure you – and twenty to one – he will report you as one of the most entertaining and intelligent persons.
Even in youth, Chopin was conscious of how others constructed her according to their own wishes; and she chafed at the charade in part because she had already become so skilled at orchestrating it. As much as her fictional characters rebel in the name of self-definition and sexual abandon, they maintain their author’s reserve when they enter the realm of emotion.
Oscar’s death offered Chopin, like Louise Mallard (albeit fleetingly), a chance to live as a free woman. Though Chopin was romantically linked to several different men, she never considered remarriage, and she rebuffed any acts of kindness—she declined offers of debt forgiveness from some of Oscar’s creditors—that might compromise her autonomy. Instead, she sold a chunk of his estate, ran his store and plantations herself, and retired the debt within fifteen months of the funeral.
Eight years after Oscar’s death, at age 40, she published her first novel, At Fault. She followed with two collections of stories, Bayou Folk (1894) and the bolder A Night in Acadie (1897), both depicting the lives of ordinary, mostly Creole characters. She created some of the earliest and frankest depictions of female sexual desire, as well as what may still be the boldest assertions of women’s ambivalence toward monogamy and motherhood ever put into print.
Chopin gravitated toward observation and iconoclasm in her writing. Her essay, “How I Stumbled upon Guy de Maupassant,” serves much as a declaration of her own artistic values as it does de Maupassant’s:
Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes; and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw…Someone told me the other day that Maupassant had gone out of fashion. I was not grieved to hear it. He has never seemed to me to belong to the multitude, but rather to the individual.…He does not move us to throw ourselves in the throng…I even like to think that he appeals to me alone.
Chopin’s characters also share de Maupassant’s uninhibited sexuality, which titillated French readers and challenged American ones. In her story, “At the ‘Cadian Ball” (1892), Chopin depicts the aftermath of an illicit tryst between the Creole planter Alcée Laballière and the lower-class Calixta. To save face when Alcée abandons her for his lovesick cousin Clariesse (who lures him home with a lie) Calixta accepts dull “cow in the bog” Bobinôt’s offer of marriage; Alcée, for his part, succumbs to Clarisse’s declaration of love – and, in keeping with Chopin’s cosmology, both main characters’ missteps lead straight to the altar.
The sexual charge between Calixta and Alcée escalates, with Calixta an unambiguously willing participant: “Calixta’s senses were reeling; and they well-nigh left her when she felt Alcée’s lips brush her ear like the touch of a rose.” At the end of the story, Alcée’s desire casually migrates from Calixta to Clarisse: “Calixta was like a myth, now. The one, only great reality in the world was Clarisse standing before him, telling him that she loved him.” Bobinôt’s chaste devotion to Calixta, who is willing to marry him but not to kiss him, reflects what Chopin sees as the foolishness of love without sexual desire.
“The Storm,” the sequel to “At the ‘Cadian Ball,” shows Calixta and Alcée in a far bolder and more morally divisive liaison. Now both married, the lovers reunite during a sudden summer storm while Calixta’s husband Bobinôt is out with their son:
The contact of her warm, palpitating body when he had unthinkingly drawn her into his arms, had aroused all the old-time infatuation and desire for her flesh…the fear in her liquid blue eyes had given place to a drowsy gleam that unconsciously betrayed a sensuous desire…there was nothing for him to do but to gather her lips in a kiss. […] Her lips seemed in a manner free to be tasted, as well as her round, white throat and her whiter breasts. […] Her firm, elastic flesh that was knowing for the first time its birthright, was like a creamy lily that the sun invites to contribute its breath and perfume to the undying life of the world. When he touched her breasts they gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy, inviting his lips. Her mouth was a fountain of delight. And when he possessed her, they seemed to swoon together at the very borderland of life’s mystery. He stayed cushioned upon her, breathless, dazed, enervated, with his heart beating like a hammer upon her.
In 2012, the passage is still sexy; in 1898, when Chopin wrote “The Storm,” even she did not dare try to publish it. When the storm ends, the lovers part with little conversation. Bobinôt returns with their son, and Calixta resumes the role of wife and mother. Alcée writes to Clarisse, who is vacationing in Biloxi, not to hurry back; Clarisse is delighted to extend the separation from her husband. The last line of the story, “So the storm passed and every one was happy,” paints fidelity as a farce and confirms the lack of consequences of Calixta and Alcée’s adultery.
It was Chopin’s masterpiece The Awakening, published in 1899 when she was forty-nine years old, that cemented her place in the American literary tradition. It also wrecked her literary career. The novel sympathetically portrays a wife and mother, Edna Pontellier, who falls in love with a younger man, has a public affair with a notorious womanizer, leaves her husband and children, and finally drowns as an alternative to the paralyzing options left open to her. The novel implies that Edna’s actions stem not from sin, lust, or love, but from a quest to live as her authentic self, even in defiance of her role of wife and mother.
The unapologetic adultery in the novel was condemned, but what still stuns readers is Edna’s repudiation of motherhood. Unflinchingly, Chopin documents Edna’s “uneven, impulsive” attitude towards her children (“She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them”), and finally her unforgettable and unsettling confession: “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.” Edna realizes that her lover, Robert, is only one in a series of infatuations, and that even love – fleeting as it is – cannot give her herself. At the end of the novel, swimming so far from shore that she cannot return, she drowns.
When The Awakening was published, the novel attracted such searing condemnation that Chopin herself wrote a brief letter to Book News, claiming, “I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company [of the other characters].” Her publisher canceled a contract for another volume of stories (eventually published by Penguin Classics, but not until 1991), and she published only a handful of other stories before her death in 1904, at age 54. In The Awakening, Edna’s lover Robert declares, “There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as an oar upon the water.” For the sixty-five years following her death, it appeared that Chopin might be one of them.
Although Chopin became one of the icons of the women’s movement, from an early age she was more interested in individual liberty than in social justice. For all her rejection of mental enslavement, she never questioned actual slavery: both her and her husband’s families owned slaves, her fictional portrayals of blacks are superficial and stereotypical, and though the school she attended was a short walk from a slave pen, she never visited, nor did she read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin when it appeared.
Similarly, even though Chopin surrounded herself with activists, she refrained from public comment (and, at least on the basis of her surviving papers, private comment as well) on the social movements of her time. Several classmates in St. Louis fought for women’s suffrage, but Chopin remained, according to her son Felix, “a lone wolf”; and in her story, “A Point at Issue!” she mocks an activist for being “looked upon as slightly erratic, owing to a timid leaning in the direction of Women’s Suffrage” and for wearing “garments of mysterious shape, which, while stamping their wearer with the distinction of a quasi-emancipation, defeated the ultimate purpose of their construction by inflicting a personal discomfort.” While Chopin’s work dealt with issues of miscegenation, domestic abuse, alcoholism, death in childbirth, patronizing male attitudes toward women, and soul-killing marriages, she did not seem to value collective action as a remedy for social problems. Louise, Calixta, and Edna all discover that the paths to triumph lie within their own skins. Death, for Louise and Edna, serves as the ultimate daring escape rather than a Victorian penalty for disobedience. Chopin’s heroines don’t try to change society; they simply opt out.
Rescued from obscurity in 1969, when her work was rediscovered by the late University of Oslo professor of American Literature Per Seyersted, Chopin’s searing version of femininity drew a receptive audience in the wake of the legalization of the birth control pill and the ensuing sexual revolution. Even so, the biography page of the Kate Chopin International Society takes care not to characterize her as a feminist writer. Her characters are revolutionary because they are so thoroughly apolitical; her body of work exhibits the value she placed on realism, accurate observation, and reliance on self. These values cannot particularly be linked to gender.
And yet, the female protagonist Chopin gave us was a new kind of revolutionary – driven by pursuit of her self, fulfilled by sexual desire and not security or romance; who moved forward without waiting for the solidarity of kindred spirits, whose transgressive definition of femininity challenges writers and readers alike: in short, the new woman Chopin gave us was a woman like herself.
Jill Kronstadt is an associate professor at Montgomery College in Germantown, MD and an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. Her work has appeared in New South, Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, Every Day Fiction, The Northern Virginia Review, and Ink Well Mag. She was a 2011 finalist and 2012 honorable mention for Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and Very Short Fiction awards, respectively. She has a blog at http://www.virtualpaperballs.wordpress.com.
Photo of Chopin House post-fire of 2008 via flickr/jkguin
Kate Chopin image via flickr/juliejordanscott
Photo of Chopin’s house in Cloutierville by Jean Carter, courtesy Cane River National Heritage Area via katechopin.org