At Fault

Literary themes

Kate Chopin lived in a variety of locations, based on different economies and societies. These were sources of insights and observations from which she analyzed and expressed her ideas about late 19th-century Southern American society. She was brought up by women who were primarily ethnic French. Living in areas influenced by the Louisiana Creole and Cajun cultures after she joined her husband in Louisiana, she based many of her stories and sketches on her life in Louisiana. They expressed her unusual portrayals (for the time) of women as individuals with separate wants and needs.[15]

Chopin's writing style was influenced by her admiration of the contemporary French writer Guy de Maupassant, known for his short stories:

...I read his stories and marveled at them. Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinkable way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making. 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...[20]

Kate Chopin is an example of a revisionist myth-maker because she revises myth more realistically about marriage and female sexuality of her time.[21] The biggest myth Chopin focused on was the "Victorian notion of women's somewhat anemic sexuality" and "The Storm" is the best example of Kate Chopin using that myth through a character set on fulfilling her complete sexual potential.[21] For instance, in "The Storm", portraits of women were revised by Kate Chopin to obtain consummation in roles other than marriage to evince a passionate nature considered inappropriate by conventional, patriarchal standards of Victorian America.[21]

Chopin went beyond Maupassant's technique and style to give her writing its own flavor. She had an ability to perceive life and creatively express it. She concentrated on women's lives and their continual struggles to create an identity of their own within the Southern society of the late nineteenth century. For instance, in "The Story of an Hour", Mrs. Mallard allows herself time to reflect after learning of her husband's death. Instead of dreading the lonely years ahead, she stumbles upon another realization:

She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.[7]

Not many writers during the mid- to late 19th century were bold enough to address subjects that Chopin took on. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, of Emory University, wrote that "Kate was neither a feminist nor a suffragist, she said so. She was nonetheless a woman who took women extremely seriously. She never doubted women's ability to be strong."[22] Kate Chopin's sympathies lay with the individual in the context of his and her personal life and society.

Through her stories, Chopin wrote a kind of autobiography and described her societies; she had grown up in a time when her surroundings included the abolitionist movements before the American Civil War, and their influence on freedmen education and rights afterward, as well as the emergence of feminism. Her ideas and descriptions were not reporting, but her stories expressed the reality of her world.[15]

Chopin took strong interest in her surroundings and wrote about many of her observations. Jane Le Marquand assesses Chopin's writings as a new feminist voice, while other intellectuals recognize it as the voice of an individual who happens to be a woman. Marquand writes, "Chopin undermines patriarchy by endowing the Other, the woman, with an individual identity and a sense of self, a sense of self to which the letters she leaves behind give voice. The 'official' version of her life, that constructed by the men around her, is challenged and overthrown by the woman of the story."[20]

Chopin appeared to express her belief in the strength of women. Marquand draws from theories about creative nonfiction in terms of her work. In order for a story to be autobiographical, or even biographical, Marquand writes, there has to be a nonfictional element, but more often than not the author exaggerates the truth to spark and hold interest for the readers. Kate Chopin might have been surprised to know her work has been characterized as feminist in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, just as she had been in her own time to have it described as immoral. Critics tend to regard writers as individuals with larger points of view addressed to factions in society.[20]

Early works

Kate Chopin began her writing career with her first story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.[23][24] By the early 1890s, Chopin forged a successful writing career, contributing short stories and articles to local publications and literary journals. She also initially wrote a number of short stories such as "A Point at Issue!", "A No-Account Creole", "Beyond the Bayou" which were published in various magazines.[23][24] In 1890, her first novel "At Fault" about a young widow and the sexual constraints of women was published privately.[23][24] The protagonist demonstrates the initial theme of Kate Chopin's works when she began writing. In 1892, Kate Chopin produced "Désirée's Baby", "Ripe Figs" and "At the 'Cadian Ball" which appeared in Two Tales that year, and eight of her other stories were published.[23][24]

The short story "Désirée's Baby" focuses on Kate Chopin's experience with miscegenation and communities of the Creoles of color in Louisiana. She came of age when slavery was institutionalized in St. Louis and the South. In Louisiana, there had been communities established of free people of color, especially in New Orleans, where formal arrangements were made between white men and free women of color or enslaved women for plaçage, a kind of common-law marriage. There and in the country, she lived with a society based on the history of slavery and the continuation of plantation life, to a great extent. Mixed-race people (also known as mulattos) were numerous in New Orleans and the South. This story addresses the racism of 19th century America; persons who were visibly European-American could be threatened by the revelation of also having African ancestry. Chopin was not afraid to address such issues, which were often suppressed and intentionally ignored. Her character Armand tries to deny this reality, when he refuses to believe that he is of partial black descent, as it threatens his ideas about himself and his status in life. R. R. Foy believed that Chopin's story reached the level of great fiction, in which the only true subject is "human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the view with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it".[25] The story can also be seen from a feminist perspective, where the white wife is unjustly made to suffer for having given birth to a partially black child.

"Desiree's Baby" was first published in an 1893 issue of Vogue magazine, alongside another of Kate Chopin's short stories, "A Visit to Avoyelles", under the heading "Character Studies: The Father of Desiree's Baby – The Lover of Mentine." "A Visit to Avoyelles" typifies the local color writing that Chopin was known for, and is one of her stories that shows a couple in a completely fulfilled marriage. While Doudouce is hoping otherwise, he sees ample evidence that Mentine and Jules' marriage is a happy and fulfilling one, despite the poverty-stricken circumstances that they live in. In contrast, in "Desiree's Baby", which is much more controversial, due to the topic of miscegenation, portrays a marriage in trouble. The other contrasts to "A Visit to Avoyelles" are very clear, although some are more subtle than others. Unlike Mentine and Jules, Armand and Desiree are rich and own slaves and a plantation. Mentine and Jules' marriage has weathered many hard times, while Armand and Desiree's falls apart at the first sign of trouble. Kate Chopin was very talented at showing various sides of marriages and local people and their lives, making her writing very broad and sweeping in topic, even as she had many common themes in her work.[26][27]

Martha Cutter argues that Kate Chopin demonstrates feminine resistance to patriarchal society through her short stories.[28] Cutter claims that Chopin's resistance can be traced through the timeline of her work, with Chopin becoming more and more understanding of how women can fight back suppression as time progresses.[28] To demonstrate this, Cutter claims that Chopin's earlier stories, such as "At the 'Cadian Ball," "Wiser than a God," and "Mrs. Mobry's Reason" present women who are outright resisting, and are therefore not taken seriously, erased, or called insane. However, in Chopin's later stories, the female characters take on a different voice of resistance, one that is more "covert" and works to undermine patriarchal discourse from within. Cutter exemplifies this idea through the presentation of Chopin's works written after 1894.[28] Cutter claims that Chopin wanted to "disrupt patriarchal discourse, without being censored by it." And to do this, Chopin tried different strategies in her writings: silent women, overly resistant women, women with a "voice covert," and women who mimic patriarchal discourse.[28]

In 1893, she wrote "Madame Célestin's Divorce," and thirteen of her stories were published. In 1894, "The Story of an Hour" and "A Respectable woman" were firstly published by Vogue. Bayou Folk, a collection of twenty-three of Chopin's stories, was a success to Kate Chopin in 1894 which was published by Houghton Mifflin. It was the first of her works to gain national attention, and was followed by another collection of short stories, A Night in Acadie (1897).

The Awakening

Published in 1899, her novel The Awakening is often considered ahead of its time, garnering more negative reviews than positive from contemporary sources. Chopin was discouraged by this criticism, and would turn to writing short stories almost exclusively.[29] The female characters in The Awakening went beyond the standards of social norms of the time.[29][30][31] The protagonist has sexual desires and questions the sanctity of motherhood.[29][30][31]

The novel explores the theme of marital infidelity from the perspective of a wife. The book was widely banned, and fell out of print for several decades before being republished in the 1970s.[29] It is now considered a classic of feminist fiction.[29] Chopin reacted to the negative events happening to her by commenting ironically:

I never dreamt 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. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over and it was then too late.

According to Bender, Chopin was intrigued by Darwin's The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.[30] Though she agreed with the processes of evolution, Chopin however quarreled with Darwin's theory of sexual selection and the female's role, which can be exemplified in The Awakening, in which Bender argues that Chopin references The Descent of Man.[30] In his essay, Darwin suggests female inferiority and says that males had "gained the power of selection." Bender argues that in her writing, Chopin presented women characters that had selective power based on their own sexual desires, not the want of reproduction or love.[30] Bender argues this through the examples of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, Mrs. Baroda in "A Respectable Woman," and Mrs. Mallard in "The Story of an Hour."[30]

Martha Cutter's article, "The Search for A Feminine Voice in the Works of Kate Chopin," analyzes the female characters in many of Chopin's stories. Cutter argues that Chopin's opinion of women as being "the invisible and unheard sex" is exemplified through the characterization of Edna in the Awakening. Cutter argues that Chopin's writing was shocking due to its sexual identity and articulation of feminine desire. According to Cutter, Chopin's stories disrupt patriarchal norms.[32] Today, The Awakening is said to be one of the five top favourite novels in literature courses all over America.[33]

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