Kate Chopin's Short Stories

The Historical Context of Kate Chopin's Short Stories

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In order to create the worlds in which her characters reside, Kate Chopin drew frequently upon the experiences of her own life in the southern United States during the latter half of the nineteenth century. As a result, many of her stories feature antebellum plantation life and issues of class, race, and gender as they were interpreted by her society. Since Chopin so frequently examines issues of freedom and autonomy, she often depicts characters who find themselves at odds with their societal norms. In addition, prior to gaining recognition for her other literary merits, Chopin was well-known for her work as a local colorist, and her antebellum works in particular tend to exhibit the French Creole influence, which she obtained from growing up with Creole ancestry and living in New Orleans and southern Louisiana.

Southern society in the decades preceding the American Civil War was highly regimented, with a wealthy class consisting of plantation owners of European descent at the top, a poorer class consisting of white men and a few free black men in the middle, and African American slaves at the bottom. In addition to fundamental racism, the need to reconcile the American value of freedom with the Southern dependence on extremely cheap labor for their agriculture-based economy tended to establish skin color and racial descent as a rationale for slavery. As in much of the European-dominated world of the late 1800s, white Americans regarded African Americans as inferior and somewhat barbaric, and plantation owners often viewed themselves as providing protection and religion for their enslaved constituents. In stories such as "Désirée's Baby" and "Beyond the Bayou," however, Chopin undermines class and racial boundaries by highlighting the value of people with African descent as well as the dangers of false prejudices.

Although race was the clearest indication of lower-class status in the American South, women meanwhile belonged to a subset of each class such that the men held the legal and social authority. In the legal code of the time, women of each class were subordinate citizens. Even white women did not have suffrage in the United States, and in many legal respects they did not actually exist as independent actors except through their husband's or father's relation to the law. As a result, the majority of women did not manage their own property, and possessions tended to be passed down mainly to sons rather than daughters. Widows, however, were in the curious position of being accountable to neither a father nor a husband, and they consequently had more rights. Thus, Louise Mallard's joy at her newfound freedom in "The Story of an Hour" has a legal as well as a societal basis.

Chopin wrote frequently about the antebellum South, but she also dealt with the effect of the Civil War on the South, and a few of her writings depict the adjustment of women at the end of the century to the possibilities of modern life. Unsurprisingly, the Civil War was catastrophic for much of the South, which lost the war after many battles with very high casualties. The fighting had occurred mainly on Confederate territory and had destroyed a great deal of previously arable land, while the death of a generation of men and the end of a free supply of slave labor disrupted Southern agriculture, resulting in a greatly impoverished South while the North continued to industrialize. In this context, Chopin speaks mostly about the psychological effects of the war, as with "The Locket" and "Ma'ame Pélagie," but tales such as "A Pair of Silk Stockings" also indicate the changes in society in the decades after the war. For example, Mrs. Sommers no longer faces the problems of an antebellum society and grapples instead with the more modern problems of wealth and consumerism in her inner conflict.

In her works generally, Chopin's writing is affected heavily by the settings she chooses for her stories and the settings she personally knew. Yet, perhaps her creative talent, had it flourished in another time and place, would have focused on different social boundaries and different kinds of people who yearned for freedom from social norms, or in a more free society, it might have focused less on the need for freedom and more on other fundamental aspects of the human condition. Chopin was not constricted merely to her time; the themes of life and death, love and loss, fear and fortitude, self-deception and self-knowledge, transcend particular settings and speak to every generation of readers.