1851-1904 (Note: Some biographers, including Emily Toth, cite 1850 as Chopin's birthdate, others, including Marilynne Robinson in the preface to The Awakening, say 1851).
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Domestic Goddess Kate Chopin was born Katherine O'Flaherty, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents were from Irish and Creole backgrounds. When Chopin was widowed at 32, she began writing to support herself and her six children. She was widely accepted as a writer of local color fiction, and was generally successful until the publication of her scandalous novel The Awakening, in 1899. Perched between the social conservatism of the nineteenth century and dealing with tabooed themes too soon for the growingly open twentieth, the novel's sexually aware and shocking protagonist, Edna Pontillier, pushed Chopin into literary oblivion. Chopin, and her memorable characters and stories, finally emerged from society's morally imposed ostracization during the resurgence of women's rights in the early 1970's.
Even today, much of the criticism of Chopin's most famous work centers on Edna Pontillier's morals-- is she a fallen woman, a bad mother, a selfish human being? Why does the character still, in an era where sexual openness is not totally condemned, point us toward a discussion of what makes a woman "bad?" What does the novel say about constrictions and constructions of the feminine role, today and during the time it was written? What does the novel say about human consciousness, and conscience?
Chopin's most famous novel's structure and evocative natural imagery deserve more attention. Her short stories, from "A Night in Acadie" to "An Egyptian Cigarette" to "A Vocation and a Voice," are also quite interesting. Chopin was and is an accomplished writer who deserves to be discussed not only from the standpoint of one woman's "awakening" but from the position of all women and indeed, all humans, in society, today and yesterday.
|These different covers of The Awakening show how some readers today interpret important images from the work-- the sea, a solitary woman, women together-- these are all important elements in the novel. I'm particularly interested in the way so many of them also use the color red-- is this intentional, or an accident of our association of "red" with "scarlet women"? What about the one with a woman reading? That's certainly different from the others . . . food for thought.|
Marilynne Robinson, in the introduction to the Bantam edition of The Awakening, published in 1989, says:
In discovering herself Edna is discovering her fate. In exploring Edna's regression, as she puts aside adult life, retracing her experience to its beginnings, for her its essence, Chopin describes as well a journey inward, evoking all the prodigal richness of longing, fantasy, and memory. The novel is not a simulated case study, but an exploration of the solitary soul still enchanted by the primal, charged, and intimate encounter of naked sensation with the astonishing world. (xx)
Only when we discuss Chopin as more than a "one-trick pony" can we discover more about ourselves.
Recently, Emily Toth, one of the foremost Chopin scholars, published a critical biography of Chopin, which I recommend highly for anyone who is interested in Chopin's work called Unveiling Kate Chopin (cover, left). To quote Toth,
Kate Chopin anticipated so much: daytime dramas, women's pictures, The Feminine Mystique, open marriages, women's liberation, talk shows, Mars vs. Venus, self-help and consciousness raising. But in 1899 she was a lonely pioneer. (xix)
Quotations on this page come from:
Robinson, Marilyn. Foreward. The Awakening. By Kate Chopin. New York: Bantam. 1989.
and Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi. 1999.
Photos found on the Internet-- or used with permission of Amazon.com's associate program.