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Kate Chopin's Feminist Religion: Themes of a Sexual and Feminist Revolution
Perhaps it should be said that Kate Chopin was a woman before her time. For, in 1899, her unparalleled themes of feminism (the woman’s search for self, the revolt against sexual norms, finding passion in adultery, and finding strength in motherhood) were read by the scandalized eyes of affluent society and impressed into oblivion for her outrageous feminist ideals. Kate Chopin was never well-received in her own time and it wasn’t until more than sixty years after her death that her works were not only made available for public consumption but were accepted with open arms and read by hungry readers as the women’s liberation movement began to spread in the United States in the late sixties (Toth, xix).
In Defense of Literature
At one point in her career, and in defense of literature in its most basic form, Kate Chopin wrote that “human impulses do not change and cannot so long as men and women continue to stand in the relation to one another which they have occupied since our knowledge of their existence began. It is why Aeschylus is true, and Shakespeare is true to-day” (Simons, 243). Aeschylus, of course, is known as the Greek playwright, and the father of modern tragedy, having begun where the works of Homer left off, and taking many familial archetypes and improving upon them. Shakespeare, to his credit, might not have been literally inspired by the works of Aeschylus, Homer, or even Sophocles, but he too used transcendent archetypes in his tragedies. Further, Chopin might not have been literally giving credit to the birth of tragedies, here, but she is remarking on the basic fundamental that drives literature of any archetypal value, which, in setting up her idyllic themes of feminism, Chopin, too employed in her own writing.
Moreover, Kate Chopin expanded that her ideals are “why Ibsen will not be true in some remote tomorrow, however forcible and representative he may be for the hour, because he takes for his themes social problems which by their very nature are mutable” (Simons, 243). In this, Chopin is remarking on the essence of her main character, Edna, in The Awakening, and the same sense of self that Edna experiences when she realizes that her husband only loves her for the value that she brings to the luxury of the home. Like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Edna discovers that she is an actual human being with thoughts and ideals above that which her husband allows her to have. And it is this archetype (that of a woman discovering her own power) that makes Chopin’s writings so poignant, especially to society that was just beginning to embrace the women’s movement of the 1970’s.
The First Representation of the Sexual Revolution
Indeed, Chopin’s stories, primarily The Awakening, were “excoriated or deprecated because unlike many of her female contemporaries, Chopin was aligned with a particularly sensational, largely male-dominated fin-de-siècle rhetoric, a rhetoric which explored, and often defended, what society defined as damnation” (Disheroon, Caudle, 20). For any sort of religious society, Chopin represented an almost satanic figure; a woman who promoted and flaunted adultery and suicide, a woman who felt no shame at the stories and ideals that she was presenting to the impressionable youth of the early nineteen-hundreds.
But, Kate Chopin’s writing was more than simple rebellion against the mores of religion; she also “challenged the social establishment at a far more fundamental level than is commonly recognized. The theme of her novel implies social changes—and subtly indicts established institutions—that go far beyond sexual frankness” (Disheroon, Caudle, 41). Indeed, she was able to highlight what writers such as Orwell and Huxley had managed—to confront the methodologies of a society that needed challenging. In this, she created a heroine who “boldly claims, ‘I don't want anything but my own way’, and thus offers a direct challenge to the expectations of Victorian society in America” (Beer, Nolan, 1). Essentially, she managed to give true weight to the woman’s ideal of “individual freedom” (102), or, on an even deeper level, the new ideal of the domestic civil war” (Pontuale, 121). This war was not between men at arms, but of women against the standards of their husbands and society. And, it is this aspect that makes Kate Chopin “unusual for her day” (Toth, xxi), and unappreciated in her own time.
Kate Chopin can be seen as the first representation of the sexual revolution, as her ideals, archetypes, and characters date back to the late eighteen-hundreds. Her feminist standards demonstrated themes that transcended her own repressed culture; themes representing the rising up of women who, in their own “awakenings,” are able to discover their sense of self and obtain the bravery and strength to rebel against the sexual norms holding them down in their lives as housewives. Indeed, Chopin might have inspired what is now not only known as the women’s liberation movement, but feminism as a whole.
Beer, Janet, and Elizabeth Nolan, eds. A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening, and Other Stories. Pamela Knights, ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
Disheroon, Suzanne, and David J. Caudle. Kate Chopin: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Works. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Pontaule, Francesco. “Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction.” The Mississippi Quarterly 52.1 (1998): 121.
Simons, Karen. “Kate Chopin on the Nature of Things.” The Mississippi Quarterly 51.2 (1998): 243+.
Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.