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Kate Chopin - Championing Love in Turn of the Century America

Updated on July 30, 2014

The idea that Kate Chopin was a strictly feminist author, unable to be understood without the constant shoring up of feminist dictum, is not faithful to the scope and power of her actual canon. A majority of Chopin criticism pigeon holes her into a category with radical feminists not only in literature but in societal constructs as well. Also, for the most part, the critics use one piece to substantiate their claims, The Awakening. If one is to truly appreciate the talent that Chopin possessed, then the canon must be explored without preconceived notions. Once the art has been judged in a closed mind how can one change the judgement? A new perspective on an old subject; Kate Chopin as thirty second spokeswoman for what it is to be in love as a turn of the century American circa 1900.

Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin

Chopin the Humanist

According to Jane Le Marquand, “Kate Chopin is best known in the literary world of today as the author of the novel The Awakening. Highly controversial in its time, The Awakening deals with the condition of the nineteenth century woman in marriage, and has been more recently rediscovered and recognized as an overtly feminist text for the same reasons.” So, as Marquand would believe, if a woman is writing about the conditions of marriage then it must be a feminist totem. Unfortunately this is an assumption made by several Chopin critics. There would be no way, in their minds, to represent a woman with any substance without it having to be the basis for the entire story. I intend to explore Chopin as a realist, a humanist before the term existed.

Deep Philosophy Derived from a French Master

Chopin attacked culture, not as a feminist in pursuit of power for women, but as a critical philosopher. She took vivid snapshots of life and explored the undertones the existed. Her understanding of human psychology was deep. It is through her nuance and precise language that all of this can be admired. Per Seyersted called her “a woman with a daring and a vision all her own.”(p.199) She was daring but the vision was not all her own, possibly it existed as so only in the literary world, and even that is up for debate. The passion she had for humanity lay buried beneath a mound of objectivity. To understand her motivations is to understand her message. To understand her message one must first understand her method. To do this one must understand the French master, Guy Maupassant.

In Chopin’s words, “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 unthinking 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…”(pp.700-701). Her admiration for this French master was great and in imitating his style she found the ability to make single details stand in for years of trope. It was the objective reality, the detail, that informed her characters as well as any informed reading of them. Simple, direct, real.

The Spaces Between the Words

Between her sparse words there is a wholeness to Chopin’s canon that is very seldom represented in critical work. Feminists often disregard the short-short “A Visit to Avoyelles” citing it as a minor piece with little or no impact on the body of work. It is another way of picking and choosing what “facts” are to be representative of an individual. Why is this piece left out on so many occasions? Simple. The story suggests that Mentine is quite content in her environment and even eschews the possibility of leaving it when Doudouce implies the offer. This story flies directly in the face of all feminist research on Chopin. So, it is simply left off the table. I am appalled by such lack of integrity in the academic community. Of the research I came across, less than five percent dealt with any canonical pieces other than The Awakening. The bulk of those were comparative pieces including “Wiser Than A God” and “The Story of An Hour.” I think there is much to be learned from the inclusion and discussion of these pieces as well as a short story called “Her Letters.” From the composite of these four pieces I think a clear picture of Chopin can emerge. A human picture, not stuffed into a convenient hole but exfoliated to expose the full glory in the bones of Chopin.

Explorations of the "New Woman"

So, the table is set; “Wiser Than A God”(1889), “A Visit to Avoyelles”(1892), “Her Letters”(1894), and The Awakening (1899). The progression of Chopin’s work will be made through the use of progressively more intriguing and attainable protagonists. In “Wiser Than A God” the protagonist is the young piano protegee, Paula Von Stoltz. She is the embodiment of the New Woman phenomenon that was the hot topic in the literature of the day. Her story is direct, basic. She is taking care of her sickly mother and has been invited to play at a rather upscale social event. Here she befriends a socially well off, eligible, college man. While she plays at this gathering her mother passes away. She is then courted by the gentleman. Her life path now has two choices, she can either marry the young man and step up the social ladder that way or she can strike out on her own and take a chance on her music career. She does the latter. But is this really what is going on? What are her motivating factors? Why would she choose to try to make it on her own? What makes her a New Woman and why do feminists love this character so much?

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On the surface Paula is defiantly the New Woman motif. She shows a contempt for the college man before ever meeting him by stating “this little party is given in honor of the son’s return from Yale or Harvard, or some place or other.” She has a career and ambitions that do not include marriage. She has been fulfilling the standard male duties of the household since the passing of her father. In all ways she is the New Woman from the onset of the story. Here one could easily insert any of the feminist critics sighting the powerful image set forth by Chopin. There is no substance to these arguments because if inserted now they would be based on the initial state of the protagonist. After all, what is a story if nothing happens and the protagonist is the same at the outset as the conclusion? Chopin would argue, that is life. Still, in stories things happen, and in this one several key things happen. From the outset Paula is planning her future. She insists that playing for the banal crowd will be beneficial to her career. There is a tension though. Her mother, in a rather couched way, tells her about the important things in life. The most important being love. When she has Paula ply Chopin’s Berceuse there is a moment of transcendence. Here her mother is moved to tears of joy in the remembrance of her husband. This is a key moment in the text. Love is the most powerful thing there can be because it reaches even beyond death. It can be sprung from memory and feel as real as it did in the moment. Paula doesn’t fully recognize this and when her choice is given; be it love or career, she takes the latter. I think here Chopin is saying that the New Woman doesn’t understand the priorities of love in life. I think we are meant to sympathize with the choices made by Paula, as in the end she takes a marriage of convenience over that of love. We find her courtier has taken a wife and has lost the vitality he once had. The introduction of the Latin Proverb in the beginning suggests much “To love and be wise is scarcely granted even to a God.” It suggests that someone here understood the love is the most potent of emotions and the most precious. In this story only Paula’s mother realizes this. She is the character that Chopin is most sympathetic to. Paula has failed to be Wiser than a God as she is without love at the end. Yes she has her Professor Max Kuntzler but the love is not reciprocated and in the end she has only her music.

Chopin has implored us to watch this New Woman through to her end, and in the end she is without love. Chopin has so deftly imposed the ideal of love in the opening passages that the reader is disturbed at the end, but often does not know why. It is because Paula is without the one thing her mother tried to grant her, the ability to accept love. So the human reaction is to ask, why would someone choose a career over love? The answer lies in New Woman philosophy. The new woman was to be an independent person able to survive without the aid of a man. Paula attained this. She was not happy. And in not taking the offer of love she condemned her courtier, his future wife, their children, and poor Professor Max all to unfulfilled lives without true love. In the end, the new woman brought down all of society.

The New Woman Ruins Old Society

Is this a fair statement? Yes. When Chopin decides her loyalties ride with love then anything that opposes that love is in opposition to her. Here the protagonist is the force that is opposing love and in the end rejects it to pursue a more important personal goal. When she describes Paula as being a Frauline and resting after an extended and remunerative concert the lilt of the language implies that there is only reward in the title and money. These are hollow without love.

In “A Visit to Avoyelles” the protagonist is Doudouce, a completely sympathetic character in Chopin’s eyes. He has put the happiness of another before his own. He has let the woman he loved marry another man because he thought she would be happier with him. The story sets Doudouce on a journey to visit his old flame, Mentine. He has heard, on numerous occasions, that she was having troubles with her family. Doudouce makes his way there and has a conversation with Mentine in which there is the inaudible mention of the possibility that they could be together. Mentine quickly atrophies that situation. She has made her life choice, to marry Jules Trodon, and she is sticking to it. Is she a New Woman figure? Not in the least. This text shows her to be the epitome of convention. Even when given the opportunity to better her life she chooses to stay with the man whose hand she has taken. Doudouce missed his opportunity, and although Chopin has much sympathy for him, she leaves him on the road home alone, thinking of how he could make her life better. As he looks back at her she is looking out toward her husband who is working the field to provide for her and her family. Chopin is directly upholding conventional values here. There is no mention of the New Woman, no feminist slant – unless it would be considered strong of her not to take up with a better man --, nothing but convention and a real slice of life vignette.

Embracing True Love is the Only Way for Chopin

What Chopin does here, as she did previously in “Wiser Than a God,” is point out that when true love is not grabbed by the horns it will get away and then cause nothing but hardship on the parties who did not attain it. Doudouce and Mentine are both unhappy. It was Doudouce who failed to act on his love and thus Doudouce whose pain we see at the forefront. Still Mentine is shown to be in pain as well. She is described as “sadly misshapen, with skin like parchment, piteously thin, and with lines that cut like old age.” Mentine was wasting away from the life she had chosen. Life without love. Chopin has a clear agenda here. It is sharp because there is no fluff to hide behind. She is straight forward and smacks us with the “lack of love” motif again. The poignancy of love is visited here, “ He had loved Mentine long ago, when she was young and attractive, and he found that he loved her still. He had tried to put all disturbing thought of her away, on that wedding day, and he supposed he had succeeded. But he loved her now as he never had. Because she was no longer beautiful, he loved her. Because the delicate bloom of her existence had been rudely brushed away, because she was in a manner fallen, because she was Mentine, her loved her, fiercely, as a mother loves an afflicted child. He would have liked to thrust that man aside, and gather up her and her children, and hold them and keep them as long as life lasted.”

There is not a more potent affirmation of love in the English language. Chopin has thrust the method of love deep into the reader and thus our sympathies lie with Doudouce because he created his own pain from a want to provide happiness to someone else; the woman he loved. Now he could not, if as he wished to, because the moment had passed and there was no regaining it. She would not have him now. She was upholding conventions. Jane Le Marquand would say that, “Chopin exerts literary individuality and originality and, ultimately, speaks in a truly feminist voice.” I can see Chopin commenting on societal conventions that inhibit love. These are the values that Chopin is exerting, society should not inhibit love. There is nothing feminist about that, in fact I would venture to say that it is directly against the grain of feminist thought.

Exploring "Her Letters"

Following that line there is “Her Letters.” The protagonist here is the husband of a woman who has recently died. It is an interesting take on the idea of marital convention at the turn of the century. She had been having a passionate affair and had kept letters throughout it. On her death bed she decides not to burn the letters but to rather leave them to the care of her husband who will take care of them “with perfect faith in his loyalty and love.” Chopin is subverting the audience by playing the opening scene as a monstrous woman laying one final stake into the heart of a man she is about to devastate.

In looking back to the opening after finishing the story one can see the skillful presentation that Chopin has laid out. When we realize the reaction that the husband has to these letters we get a decisively different perspective and our own initial “monstrous” interpretations are turned on their heads. Here we find Chopins sympathies, directly siding with the woman who choose to explore love instead of remaining constrained by societal convention. Through the letters Chopin speaks out against the conditions of nineteenth century women but also against the monogamist restraints of marriage and the consequences they have on love. The feminists, such as Martha J Cutter, identify Chopin as having, “voice couvert…a voice which attempts to undermine a patriarchal discourse though mimicry and through hollowing out the patriarchy from within its own structures.” (p.17) The letters are this paradigm that is used to give the wife an autonomous identity. She becomes a human capable of love through the lens of the letters where she could not in the eyes of her own husband. Here she reaches the truest voice in her canon. Through the letters we can see the audacity of convention in the eyes of Chopin.

The initial reaction of the husband is disbelief. He is confounded by the fact that his wife has been able to keep something from him. “She had never seemed in her lifetime to have had a secret from him. He knew her to be cold and passionless, but true, and watchful of his comfort and happiness.” This description is in stark contrast to what we already know of his wife from the opening passage. “it stirred her still to-day, as it had done a hundred times before when she had thought of it. She crushed it between her palms when she found it. She kissed it again and again. With her sharp white teeth she tore the far corner from the letter, where the name was written; she bit the torn scrap and tasted it between her lips and upon her tongue like some god-given morsel.” Her husband had never seen this passion in his wife. To him, she only existed within the constraints of the nineteenth century roles of womanhood. He saw her as convention and the letters, they show her to be subverting that very ideal.

Jane Le Marquand makes a valid and convincing point in her discussion of “Her Letters.” She states, “The woman’s husband becomes hounded by questions: if his wife was not what he supposed her to be, not the ideal of womanhood, then what was she? What secret did she hold? He can see only one possible answer; an answer which reveals his absolute immersion in the conventions of the patriarchy. If not the ideal woman he thought her to be, his wife must have been unfaithful. There re no other possibilities - the woman is either angel or monster – those very same extreme images which Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar see male authors as having generated for women (p.17) Any suggestion of having a positive autonomous being is denied her. Furthermore, the husband’s reaction to this sole possibility is the key to his wife’s secret indicates in itself why the possibility is so horrific – it threatens ownership of her: “As quickly as the suggestion came to his mind, so swiftly did the man-instinct of possession stir in his blood” His wife is to him an object, something to be possessed, both physically and mentally. Her secret stands in the way of this possession.” Marquand explores the patriarchal issues but fails to place the blame on the constraints of marriage in general. She insists that the society is not to blame but only the patriarchy. I believe that Chopin is searching for something more fundamental here. She is searching for the ability to love outside of marriage. Marquand explores this in her critique and I believe she is exemplary to this effect. “For it is the workings of this society which Chopin sets out to critique, not the individual; the workings of a world in which, as Simone de Beauvoir suggests in The Second Sex, “…humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being,” a world in which man is subject and the absolute.” Chopin never attacks men in general though. She seems to portray a world in which both men and woman are subject to the same insufficient trappings.

Romantic Love is Dangerous

Following through in “Her Letters” we can identify factors which contribute to the unhappiness of the wife in her marriage. These are all apparent in the initial paragraph of the story, “the leaden sky in which there is no gleam, no rift, no promise.” She is living in a sealed box, a coffin. She is suffocating from the lack of sensuality and emotional fulfillment that should be in the marriage. As the husband later states, “She seemed cold and passionless.” The fire of marriage was no longer there and she thus had no identity. Her autonomy was required for her to return to life. She found it outside of marriage and thus allowed herself to live, and he as well. Through the affair the marriage was kept alive. He had his dualistic definition of life through her and she had individual autonomy without him. Everything was well on the surface until she died and allowed him the opportunity to know her. If society had allowed for an out, a divorce without repercussion, then much pain could have been saved. The greatest accomplishment of this piece, though, is the suicide of the husband. He has been destroyed by the letters to a point of madness and ultimately, death. His death is directly attributable to societies inability to deal with the unpredictability and its ultimate inflexibility toward love. And in his death Chopin asserts, “Only the river knew. It babbled, and he listened to it, and it told him nothing, but it promised all. He could hear it promising him with caressing voice, peace and sweet repose. He could hear the sweep, the song of the water inviting him.” Chopin, allowing her protagonist to drown because he gave in to the promises of nature and the romantic world. Here is a key point to Chopin, those who give in to the romanticized notions of life and love are doomed to die broken.

The Awakening

This discussion comes to a head with The Awakening in which the protagonist, Edna, meets an eerily similar death to the one just mentioned. She and the husband in “Her Letters” can be linked in several ways and in thus doing it will come to light that Edna is not at all the model of New Woman but rather a victim of romantic fantasy and failed love. Erin MacDonald, in “Necessarily Vague: Kate Chopin’s Gender Awakening” states, “Chopin hints that Edna is one of those who will perish in the tangled fin-de-siecle struggle for equality.” MacDonald expresses this but then contradicts by exploring the notion that Edna sabotages her own attempt at autonomy by focusing her life on gaining or regaining the love of a man. There may be evidence to that effect but by no means should we discount the previous trends in Chopin’s canon. She has been attempting, since the beginning, to expose the artifice of marriage as a poor substitute for true love and to establish the danger in pursuing the romantic idea of love in the real world. Edna is the prime example of this, she is the embodiment of romantic thought. It her attempt to break free from societal chains and explore the independent autonomous life she tries to grasp the unbridled perfection of nature. Chopin refuses to let her do so. In Chopins descriptions of nature we find accurate descriptions of both positive and negative aspects but Edna can see nothing but the romantic. In fact, during Mrs. Rataniolle’s birth scene we can finally understand the true nature of Edna’s vision as she is unable to accept the pain and reality of birth. It jars her and in so doing unravels the perspective which she has been harboring. Her fantasies of love overcoming all are shattered and she is left alone. Her regression is complete from the initial new woman to the independent and playful teenager, to the child, then through the birth, and finally swallowed back into the Earth by Mother Nature. Edna is a classic reverse coming of age story. She, in her attempt to make fantasy into reality has regressed to a point previous to birth and the sea envelopes her. She gives in to the final fantasy and drowns without even realizing her actions. She gives in to the romantic idea of love and it ultimately kills her. Unfulfilled love, in the face of society, kills her.

Kate Chopin was an advocate of love. all of her works were informed by this idea that a true love forsaken is the root of all unhappiness in the world. Society, in an attempt to corral the forces of nature in an institution such as marriage, fails to do anything but cause harm to itself. A marriage of convenience or of social construction leads only to the unhappiness of the entire society. Those who choose success, money, power, or status, over love are looked down upon and caused to have great suffering. Life is to be lived and loved, spent with the person who is the perfect love. Chopin was deliberate in each piece of her canon and in so being a common thread emerges, the thread of love. Her protagonists rarely realize the importance of love until it is far too late and the moment to grasp it has changed. In this sense, Chopin can be considered a fatalist. Her passions for life are couched in the opinion that love has only the initial chance for success and society thwarts all attempts to reconcile the missed opportunity . Regret and pain are the cornerstones of Chopin’s literary world. She falls in step with the naturalist community and often her protagonists fail in their attempts to overcome the grand scheme of nature. Their fabrics are torn and because Chopin has genuine sympathy for these hopeless souls we as readers have an intrinsic connection as well. She truly encapsulated the idea of love and its importance to humane existence. To try to pigeon hole such an emotionally sound writer would be a disservice to the power of her canon. Look to Chopin for a perspective on humane experience and the rewards are much greater than any feminist pigeon hole could explore.

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