Kate Chopin's Short Stories

Kate Chopin's Short Stories Study Guide

After her early upbringing as a child of Irish and French Creole descent in the upper class of St. Louis in the decades surrounding the Civil War, Kate Chopin married Oscar Chopin, a Creole businessman, and moved with him to New Orleans. In New Orleans, she experienced life as a postbellum Southern aristocrat before moving to the Red River bayou of Louisiana, where Oscar managed the family plantations. After her husband's premature death in 1883 and an affair with a neighboring farmer, Chopin moved back to St. Louis, where she used her rich experience with life and society in Louisiana as the source material for a new writing career. She was renowned in her time as a local colorist, and later critics have acknowledged her as a farsighted pioneer in her exploration of race, sexuality, freedom, and the psychology of the individual.

Although Chopin lived the majority of her life after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, many of her stories reflect the Southern obsession with the antebellum period and the trauma of the Civil War. Chopin often sets her stories in Creole Louisiana and in the context of the plantation system. For instance, "Beyond the Bayou" tells a story of plantation life from the point of view of a loyal slave with a fear of the unknown, while "Désirée's Baby" examines the issue of race and particularly of the social stigma associated with the mixture of black and white blood during this era. Other stories such as "The Locket" tell stories of the Civil War itself, from the points of view of not only the Confederate soldiers but also those who stayed at home and waited for their men to return. Finally, "Ma'ame Pélagie" serves as a reflection upon those who grew up in the antebellum period and never truly left it in their minds, despite the harsh realities of the following years.

Chopin frequently takes a surprisingly modern stance as she examines sensitive social and moral issues, often criticizing the mores of her society in a manner that anticipates the feminist and civil rights movements of the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, "Désirée's Baby" treats mixed-race children such as Désirée's baby with sympathy, and the twist at the end of the story hints at her dissatisfaction with the triumph of bigotry over human compassion and love in the behavior of her contemporaries. Similarly, Chopin approaches the subject of female sexuality and independence with a frank and empathetic tone as she depicts Louise Mallard's dawning appreciation of what life as a widow implies for her mental and physical freedom in "The Story of an Hour" and as she describes two different approaches to illicit sexual desires in "The Kiss" and "A Respectable Woman."

Rather than condemning the excesses that sometimes result from desire as American cultural values often demanded during the late nineteenth century, Chopin simply chooses to explore the psychology of the desires of her protagonists, who are nearly always female. Chopin never condemns her heroines' ultimate choices, whether they ultimately choose to resist temptation, as in "A Respectable Woman," or decide to indulge their cravings, as in "A Pair of Silk Stockings." Her stories generally do not deal with significant, earthshaking events but focus instead on the private dramas of women who live relatively normal lives and find themselves in commonplace but difficult situations. In all cases, Chopin appreciates the hustle and bustle of humanity, and she regards it as her task to step outside the commotion of the crowd and observe the fascinating pattern of the whole, which she then disseminates to the world in her short stories.