Kate Chopin's Short Stories

Kate Chopin's Short Stories Themes

Independence and autonomy

Many of the inner conflicts faced by Chopin's heroines are essentially issues of autonomy, in which the protagonist attempts to gain or regain an aspect of control in her life. Most notably, in "The Story of an Hour," Louise Mallard recognizes that the death of her husband and the subsequent breaking of the marriage tie will leave her an independent woman who is beholden to no one in her actions, and "Beyond the Bayou" ends with the main character La Folle realizing that the end of her fear of the world outside of the bayou's boundaries has given her a world of new possibilities. Nevertheless, Chopin sometimes shows that these moments of freedom can be extremely tenuous or temporary, as Mrs. Mallard discovers when her husband returns home uninjured, and as Mrs. Sommers finds when she is forced to return to her life of enforced frugality after a day of indulging her desires in "A Pair of Silk Stockings."

Gender and identity

In many of her short stories, Chopin seeks to elucidate the previously marginalized point of view of the female, who belonged to what could be called an inferior class according to the laws and norms of the late nineteenth century. Although the female protagonists do not themselves consciously understand the role of the gendered power relations in their society, the heroine finds in a number of cases that she has very little power except through the proxy of her husband. For this reason, Louise Mallard feels a sense of exultation when she learns that her husband has died, and she reasons that the end of the obligations of marriage will free her to follow her own desires. In addition, in "Désirée's Baby," Désirée is forced into suicide not only because she cannot bear the lack of her husband Armand Aubigny's love, but also because she has no power to overrule his prejudices and ability to ruin her life.

Opposition to societal norms

Kate Chopin's female protagonists are often highly unconventional characters who eventually choose not to follow the moral standards of their society, and she consistently portrays the choices of these women sympathetically rather than in a condemning manner. For example, in "The Kiss," the author shows Nathalie in her brazen attempts to fulfill the requirements of a socially and fiscally useful match by marrying Brantain while simultaneously maintaining passion in her romantic life by keeping Harvy as her lover. Nathalie ultimately fails to achieve her goal because Harvy defects from the relationship, but her characterization as a strong and ambitious woman suggests that she is comfortable ignoring the monogamous ideals of the men in her society, such as Brantain. Similarly, in "A Respectable Woman," Mrs. Baroda avoids an affair with Gouvernail because she wants to maintain her reputation as a respectable woman, but she later changes her mind, deciding that conforming to societal standards is not her main objective.

Class and race

Because Chopin wrote most often about life in the antebellum, and occasionally in the postbellum, periods of the South in the United States, issues of class and race permeate her short stories, whether or not they come to the forefront of the narrative. "Désirée's Baby" tackles these topics in a particularly forthright manner, as Armand Aubigny chooses to ignore Désirée's lack of a family and consequently tenuous social status and marry her for love, later rejecting her because even though he can see past class, he harbors too strong of a racial prejudice to remain in love with Désirée. Désirée is unfortunate enough to appear on the wrong side of both class and race, and her desperate suicide and the revelation of her innocence provide a clear rejection of the prejudices inherent in contemporary Southern society. Elsewhere, in "Beyond the Bayou," Chopin provides another indication of the erroneous nature of nineteenth-century racial relations by revealing the black slave La Folle to be an inherently capable and strong woman.

Love and desire

In a few of Chopin's stories, such as "The Locket," the main characters are driven by their love for one another, and in "Ma'ame Pélagie" and "Beyond the Bayou," the protective love of Pélagie and La Folle catalyzes the events of each narrative. However, in many cases, Chopin's protagonists face the prospect of illicit desires that are often of a sexual nature and that tend to oppose contemporary moral standards. In "The Kiss," for example, Nathalie is a strong female character who seeks to gain control over her life by marrying Brantain for money while still pursuing her affair with Harvy. For her part, in "A Respectable Woman," Mrs. Baroda is depicted at the juncture between two good friends, Gouvernail and Gaston. She is married to Gaston and appears to enjoy a loving, affectionate relationship with him, but her potential affair with Gouvernail suggests that desire is not always aligned with love, contrary to societal expectations.

Life and death

"The Story of an Hour," "The Locket," and "Ma'ame Pélagie" are three of Chopin's short stories that deal particularly with the thin border between life and death, although several other stories also have the specter of death in the background of the narrative. In Chopin's writings, the physical livelihood of the protagonists is heavily influenced by their mental and emotional livelihood. Consequently, in "The Story of an Hour," Louise Mallard temporarily gains bodily strength as a result of her joy but dies in the shock of the end of her exuberance, and in "Ma'ame Pélagie," the title character gives up her past and in the process succumbs to old age. On the other hand, in "The Locket," those who are dead can also return to life, and while the presumed death of Edmond nearly kills Octavie's spirit, his return brings both of them back to youth.

The Old South and the Civil War

The cataclysmic effects of the Civil War on the lives and environment of those in the southern United States form the historical background for the author's exploration of the psychology of the war's survivors. For instance, "The Locket" offers insight into the trauma of the Civil War not only for the Confederate soldiers such as Edmond, a rare male protagonist in Chopin's stories, but also for the women who remained at home such as Octavie, the protagonist of the story's second half. Chopin indicates that the war almost succeeds in taking away their youth, but she concludes optimistically by suggesting that Edmond's return from the war is capable of renewing their lives. In "Ma'ame Pélagie," however, the protagonist Ma'ame Pélagie never succeeds in moving beyond the tragedy of the war and the subsequent destruction of her home and her beloved Félix. Her inability to surmount the shadow of the past also almost succeeds in taking away the future of those around her, such as her younger sister Pauline.