Kate Chopin (1851-1904)
Contributing Editor: Peggy Skaggs
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Chopin's irony is too subtle for some students, who may see her female characters as cold, unloving, unfeeling women. They have difficulty understanding that the protagonists in, say, "A Respectable Woman" and "The Story of an Hour" really do love their husbands, although in the one case the wife seems sure to commit adultery and in the other the wife exults in her freedom when she believes that her husband has died in an accident. The same students almost surely will judge Calixta (but probably not Alcée) in "The Storm." Students almost always respond to Chopin's treatment of the relationship between men and women. Often the male students intensely dislike such characters as Mrs. Mallard and Mrs. Baroda. Often, also, they judge the mother in "A Pair of Silk Stockings" to be uncaring about her children and frivolous in spending her little windfall. In other words, students today still hold many of the notions about women that inspired Chopin's best irony and satire.
Class discussions usually help a great deal to clear up such misunderstandings. These discussions are based on a very close reading of the text, calling attention to the myriad small clues Chopin always provided but readers do not always observe. "The Storm," being a sequel to "At the Cadian Ball," becomes much clearer in characterization and theme when students understand the groundwork that was laid in the earlier work. Indeed, without such explanation, "The Storm" hardly makes sense to many students.
Since Chopin wrote everything she produced during the last decade of the nineteenth century but was too advanced in her thinking to be accepted until the last quarter of the twentieth century, she offers a fine vehicle for exploring the intellectual and aesthetic tides of American thinking and American literature. In important ways, she summarizes the nineteenth century with her fine mixture of romanticism, realism, and naturalism. But in other ways, she predicts the latter part of the twentieth century with her feminism and existentialism. I like to close one century and begin the next with her works.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Chopin's feminism certainly is a major theme, but an instructor must be careful not to overstate it. Chopin seems to have believed that men and women alike have great difficulty reconciling their need to live as discrete individuals with their need to live in close relationship with a mate; these conflicting needs lie at the center of her work.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Since Chopin's works contain clear elements of romanticism, transcendentalism, realism, naturalism, existentialism, and feminism, her stories can help students understand these literary modes and the directions in which American literature has developed during the last century and a half. Chopin's style offers opportunities to point out the virtues of conciseness; strong, clear imagery; symbolism; understatement; humor; and irony.
I discuss the intellectual background against which Chopin was writing in the 1890s. I share with the students some of the vitriolic reviews received by The Awakening in 1899. I trace the history of Chopin's literary reputation from the time the critics buried her in 1899 until a Norwegian, Per Seyersted, resurrected her work in 1969.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Chopin admired Maupassant's stories enormously, and she translated a number of them into English. Many writers have noted his strong influence, especially apparent in the sharp, ironic conclusions Chopin favored in many stories ("The Story of an Hour" and "Désirée's Baby," for example). The influence of Hawthorne, Whitman, and Henry James has been noted by various critics, also.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. I try to get students to look for irony, simply because so many of them are prone to miss it in Chopin's work.
2. Writing a character study of Mrs. Mallard in "The Story of an Hour" sometimes helps a student to accept that she can be both grief stricken and relieved that her husband is dead.
A similar assignment focused on the protagonist in "A Respectable Woman" occasionally forces a student to admit that Mrs. Baroda tries valiantly to resist her temptation.
If the class has read Whitman, I often have them write an essay about how the two authors use lilacs as a symbol or how they both emphasize the importance of both body and spirit.
Particularly useful is Approaches to Teaching Chopin's "The Awakening," edited by Bernard Koloski (New York: MLA, 1988). The backgrounds, biographical information, discussion of critical studies, bibliography, and aids to teaching all contain information useful for teaching Chopin's short stories as well as the novel.
Mary E. Papke's chapter, "Chopin's Stories of Awakening," discusses "The Story of an Hour" and "A Pair of Silk Stockings."
In Kate Chopin (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985), I discuss each of the stories in this anthology as well as everything else Chopin wrote.
Thomas Bonner, Jr., in The Kate Chopin Companion, with Chopin's Translations from French Fiction, Westport: Greenwood Press, 1988, has made Chopin's translations of Maupassant's stories easily available for the first time--a very important resource in understanding Chopin's own stories.
And Emily Toth's Kate Chopin, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990, gives us for the first time a comprehensive biography filled with previously unknown or simply rumored details about Chopin's life.