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Kate Chopin Essay, Research Paper

Kate Chopin: A Controversial Feminist

Kate Chopin was one of the greatest and earliest feminist writers in history, whose works have inspired some and drawn much criticism from others. Chopin, through her writings, had shown her struggle for freedom and individuality.

Katherine (O’Flaherty) Chopin was born February 8, 1851 to a wealthy Irish Catholic Family in St. Louis, Missouri (“Kate Chopin” 1). Her father, Thomas O’Flaherty, was a founder of the Pacific Railroad, who unfortunately died when a train fell off a collapsed bridge on its inaugural trip in 1855. Only a few years later, Kate’s older brother George was captured by Union soldiers during the Civil War in 1863. He then died in captivity from typhoid fever. The loss of both of Kate’s male role models created the powerful relationships she had with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Eliza Faris O’Flaherty, Kate’s mother, was a member of a French-Creole community and an active participant in that community. After her husband’s death, Eliza became more religious and closer to her daughter. Kate had also developed strong ties with her great-grandmother, who taught her how to speak French and play the piano.

Kate received most of her education in St. Louis at the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart (2). Soon after her father and brother’s deaths, Kate’s great-grandmother had also passed away. Kate took the loss very badly and absorbed herself in literature. After her graduation in 1868, Kate spent the next few years living a privileged lifestyle in the St. Louis high society. She enjoyed life as an independent woman and was criticized for walking unaccompanied through the city and for her smoking habit. Kate met Oscar Chopin, a Louisiana cotton factor, in the late 1880’s. After a yearlong engagement she finally married him on June 9, 1870. When Oscar’s cotton factoring business failed in 1879, he decided to move up north to his family’s plantations. It was there that Kate became introduced to the Creole community that became an important focus of her writing. In 1882, Oscar contracted swamp fever and died a year later from complications of the disease. He left Kate with six children.

Kate had five boys and a girl: Jean, Oscar, George, Frederick, Felix, and Lelia. After Oscar’s death, Kate took her family to St. Louis and moved in with her mother. A year later, Kate’s mother also died, causing Kate to seek comfort in a local family physician, Frederick Kolbenheyer. It was he who suggested that Kate take up writing as a way of expressing herself and her frustration with life.

Kate’s writing career began when she published her first poem, “If It Might Be,” in 1889. She also published her first two short stories that same year, “Wiser Than a God,” and, “A Point at Issue.” In 1890, Kate published her first novel, At Fault (3). The book depicted a young woman who discovered that her fianc? had divorced his first wife because she was an alcoholic. After struggling with her morals and trying to figure out what to do, she told him to marry his ex-wife because it was the right thing to do. He surprisingly accepted her suggestion and remarried his wife who then continued her alcoholic endeavors. She suffered an accident because of her drinking and the husband and the woman were finally able to continue their relationship without any interference or consequences. At Fault received mixed reviews, and was criticized for dealing too much with female alcoholism and marriage problems. Later in January of 1893, Chopin published one of her most famous short stories, “Desiree’s Baby.” This story was later included in Bayou Folk, a collection of twenty-three short stories and sketches published in 1894. The stories included in this collection depicted Louisiana life. Upon its publication, critics praised her portrayal of bayou life and its addressing of unfaithfulness and race issues (3). Chopin next produced a twenty-one short story collection called, A Night in Acadie, published in 1897. This collection showed her interest in passion, sexuality and marriage, and also her growing concern for the discrimination against women. After A Night in Acadie’s publication, Kate was working on another collection, A Vocation and a Voice. Publishers who felt that the collection dealt too strongly with love, sex, and marriage rejected this collection. It was then that she decided to write what was to become her masterpiece, The Awakening.

The Awakening was published in 1899. In The Awakening, Chopin accomplished the largest exploration of feminine consciousness (Magill 91). The Awakening, a realist novel, focused on the role of women through the eyes of Edna Pontellier, the protagonist (“Kate Chopin” 4). While on a summer vacation without her husband, Edna met and fell in love with a younger man named Robert LeBrun. When Edna returned to her life in New Orleans at the end of the summer, she realized that she was no longer happy with her life and marriage. As the novel unfolded, Edna began to withdraw from her husband and continued to think about Robert. Thinking she had no chance with Robert, she decided to have a purely sexual affair with a man named Alycee Arobin. She still loved Robert, however, and after she returned to New Orleans a few years later, they resumed their affair. Only hours after they declared their love for each other, Edna was called away to visit a sick friend. When she returned, Robert had left her a note that said, “goodbye, because I love you.” Edna, devastated by Robert’s rejection and that of many other men in her life, went back to her old vacation spot, where she removed all her clothing and drowned herself.

The critic’s response to The Awakening was tremendously negative; some critics said that it was pure pornography and that Kate was an immoral woman. Others attacked the theme, saying it was stale and distasteful (“Kate Chopin” 4). Kate was even denied membership in several art clubs; any many believed this criticism caused her to give up writing altogether. Many professional criticisms were written about this book. And even today there is still some controversy over the meaning of this novel.

In a criticism written by George Spangler, he questioned the suicidal conclusion of The Awakening, saying that it undermined the good portrayal of Edna Pontellier, therefore making the novel not nearly as much a masterpiece as it should have been (250). He saw Edna as a strong-willed character, who put her family aside to find sexual fulfillment elsewhere. He saw the fact that she swam to her death as completely out of character (254).

In another criticism, Kenneth Rosen focused on the ambiguity of the novel. He called the novel an American myth, defining a myth to present “simply that which is universally complex and which rarely lends itself to resolution” (198). The most important symbol of ambiguity, Rosen explained, was that of the sea. He described the sea as representing both life and death: her “awakening” and her demise. He saw the question in the novel of how an American woman’s life was related to her struggle for freedom and individuality.

In yet another criticism by Margaret Mitsutani, she pointed to signs of narcissism in the character of Edna in The Awakening (3). She, as well as many other critics, had taken the position that Edna committed suicide as an alternative to giving up her physical passion to her devotion to art. Mitsutani viewed Edna’s suicide “as much as an act of self-preservation as self-destruction” (12). She also included in her criticisms what many others have written, the fact that Chopin wrote about women’s rights and their status in the society of the time.

Lastly, in Priscilla Leder’s book, she talked about the conflict of cultures in The Awakening. Priscilla asserted that Edna’s character was an American who believed in the individual’s rights and ability to determine their own destiny while the cultures they encountered were habitual and naturally driven (97). Even though Edna was initially welcomed by her new society and attracted to the freedom of sexual expression, she ended up feeling her identity threatened by lack of individuality and the lack of opportunity for change. Leder mentioned that what was different about Edna besides her femininity, was that her true identity was not discovered at the beginning of the story. Eventually as she awakened to her true self, she could not accept either culture and swam to her death, described by Leder as, ”submerging…in the biological reality she has rejected” (104).

After a fifteen year literary career marked by success, plagued by scorn and failure, two novels and over one hundred short stories, Kate Chopin died on August 22, 1904 from a cerebral hemorrhage (“Kate Chopin” 2). She was fifty-three at the time of her death.

Kate Chopin’s stories, although controversial, are still widely read today. She was a source of inspiration for many feminist literary critics. She started the trend that many future feminist writers will follow. Her works, no matter how praised or condemned, will always be a reminder of the struggle for women’s rights and liberties. Her life can still be told by her stories and it is by those stories that she is immortalized, and a symbol of freedom for women forever.

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