Stories by Kate Chopin
Women need to nurture themselves and realize their humanness, but sometimes, the only way to do it is by emancipating themselves from rigid societal rules and expectations. This is the underlying message of the stories of celebrated author Kate Chopin. No other person can best describe women of a bygone era than one who herself has lived and dealt with life’s vicissitudes and challenges during such a time.
An enigmatic woman who has shown, through her writings, that she is in close touch with her own sexuality as well as with the raging issues of her time, Kate Chopin is the epitome of the women she writes about – human beings with passions, aspirations, and quirks. In most of her stories, the female protagonists feel shackled by societal mores or grapple with a conflict stemming mainly from her social status. Usually, the main female character is married and she is trying to repress her emotions while yearning to be true to herself.
Based on their own interpretations of the world, they do what is in their power to free themselves of the shackles or overwhelming rules foisted on women by society. As such, the literary works come across as searing accounts that tackle complex issues, thereby instigating moral debates, especially during an era when women’s rights were not really recognized yet. A much greater understanding and appreciation of Kate Chopin’s purpose in writing her stories may be gleaned by learning something about her family background.
As may be surmised, “aspects of Chopin’s life are visible in her fiction… Catherine (Kate) O’Flaherty was born in St. Louis… and the influence of French life and literature on her thinking is noticeable throughout her fiction” (“KateChopin. org,” para. 6-7). Chopin’s love for the arts & culture, not to mention her angsts, are likewise evident in the way she depicts her main characters. In The Awakening, for instance, the female protagonist Edna Pontellier is portrayed as a cultured woman who moves around among the privileged ranks of middle class society, yet finds something amiss in her life.
There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why… when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly towards inevitable annihilation” (“Awakening” 78). Indeed, the main subject matter that may be found in Kate Chopin’s literary masterpieces are women who are struggling to achieve their aspirations or are searching to piece together parts of their identity that contribute to their wholeness.
Chopin illustrated that women realize their humanness by peeling away at the layers of confusion and contradiction that society, and their very own subservience to men and institutions – have created. To emphasize her key points, Kate Chopin relies on deft use of language and powerful use of images of nature. These are but some elements found in her literary pieces which make them truly endearing classic works of literature that are a joy to read and reread.
Take for instance the climactic moment when the protagonist in The Awakening yields to stirrings of her soul. “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude” (“Awakening” 154). Chopin’s portrayal of Edna Pontellier as she allows herself to fall in the abyss of despair is striking, sensitive, dramatic and beautiful. The line is full of imagery, and the use of personification is so powerful it lures readers to share a sublime experience with the fictional character.
Reading The Awakening leaves behind the impression that society, as it existed during the 19th century, was quite imperfect. While a flawed social order remains today, modern-day women generally have more rights, or are generally treated with the importance and respect they deserve – owing to greater understanding of their societal roles/contributions, capabilities, and aspirations – compared to their 19th century counterparts.
The seeming paradox that a greater knowledge comes through the suppression of rationality is at the heart of Edna’s development” (“Awakening,” introduction). While many readers will note the sensuous images and depiction of Edna Pontellier’s character, more discerning ones will see that the weak spots in the character of the protagonist, and the fitting backdrop of a society that ironically eggs her on yet stifles her personal aspirations, all serve to build up and signal her rebirth & transformation. Similes and metaphors abound in the book.
There are numerous instances when Edna Pontellier is shown sleeping or awakening from a nap, serving as a symbol of the state of her mind and soul. There are also many references to the piano, symbolizing not just the female characters’ cultured personas but the creative spontaneity of their emotions, or women’s unrecognized skills during a bygone era. In several portions of the book, Edna Pontellier is swept by the superb piano playing of another female character, Mademoiselle Reisz, who modestly says that only Edna Pontellier gets to really appreciate it.
Such scenes mirror that while women may find support from each other, society-at-large during the 1800s in Europe and other parts of the world has not yet granted equal rights to women, whether in the domestic front, or in the community. The book mirrored women’s plight in a patriarchal society, as wives or individual people still struggling to make their voices be heard. One of the symbolisms used in the book for a woman’s coming to terms with her own self is swimming.
Edna Pontellier learns to swim after helpful encouragement from people around her, and she declares that is all so easy (“Awakening” 37), even if she encounters a frightening brush with death. Overall, Kate Chopin’s sensitive portrayal of a woman who faces a moral/personal conflict by engaging in an extramarital affair with a single, liberated man is but one facet of the overall social realities she intended to show. Notwithstanding the morally weak character readers may find in Edna Pontellier, Chopin may have intended to show her as woman of intensity as far as behaving in accordance with her own decisions was concerned.
Chopin also paints a somewhat modern woman in Edna Pontellier. Though she initially keeps her ideas and feelings to herself in the beginning, as she takes the path to self-discovery and her character unravels, she eventually learns to express her angsts and sentiments to the object of her affection, Robert LeBrun. She says to him, for example, “You have made me so unhappy with your indifference” (“Awakening” 146). Kate Chopin’s protagonist may as well be referring to societal indifference, in this instance, to women’s rights and issues back in the 19th century.
Another literary work of Kate Chopin, The Story of An Hour, likewise tackles the few options or limited rights accorded to women a few centuries ago. In the story, the female protagonist, Louise Mallard, has a very reticent personality whose life appears to revolve mainly around her husband. As such, when news that her husband perished in a train wreck is presented to her, she shows aghast and sorrow, but soon ponders on the opportunities opened by the incident to her for the rest of her life. Kate Chopin’s fluid prose and riveting storytelling style are once again put to remarkable use in this short story.
Chopin expertly employs figures of speech like personification, as shown in the line, “She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring of life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air” (“Story” par. 5). The imagery alone lets readers share in the breakthrough moment being experienced by the central character. Chopin uses nature to highlight the long yearned for freedom, hope and ecstatic feelings stirring in the consciousness of Mrs. Mallard. Repetition of words, like when Mrs. Mallard utters “free, free, free! (“Story” par. 11) makes it clear that the central character had felt trapped in a marriage that no longer gives her the fulfillment she is yearning for.
In The Story of An Hour, Mrs. Mallard’s room, with the roomy armchair she plopped on to after she learned the news of her husband’s death, symbolizes respite or comfort zone. A window that looks out into the open square where she can see the birds, hear peddlers, and witness the “patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west” (“Story” par. ) signifies that that the female central character is at the crossroad between domestic servitude and the opportunity to follow her own dreams and the desires of her heart.
The personification used by the author on the clouds underscores that life goes on outside Mrs. Mallard’s home, and she is raring to experience all that it has in store for her. Readers are able to sense Mrs, Mallard’s intoxicating joy at such a possibility. As Chopin wrote, “she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window” (“Story” par. 17).
The author employs another literary technique, dramatic irony, to show that some good things may only be experienced for a fleeting moment. Hence, when Mrs. Mallard’s husband shows up at the ending of the story, unscathed and alive, all her hopes are dashed and she suffers a fatal heart attack. The doctors’ pronouncement, that “she had died of heart disease – of joy that kills” (“Story” concluding paragraph) is ironic, considering the fact that, as readers learned beforehand, the female protagonist had nurtured hopes of finally being able to enjoy life without her husband.
In The Story of An Hour, Kate Chopin depicts man’s domination of woman as a “powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose…” (“Story” par. 14). Just like in The Awakening, the author portrays a patriarchal society where women are subjugated by, and allow themselves to be subjugated by, their male counterparts. Kate Chopin’s other literary masterpiece, The Storm, is just as engrossing in its own way. The title itself is an allegory for the restrictive society back in the 19th century.
As with the storm, Chopin shows that time goes on, new events and fresh beginnings unfold. Meantime, societal problems and issues, particularly women’s rights, need to be grappled with. The stereotyped image of a woman as one who undertakes household chores is illustrated through the main female character, Calixta. Her vulnerability to the temptation that presented itself right in her own home, in the absence of her husband, may well symbolize the secret desire that women may be nurturing within themselves – to help complete them as persons.
The Storm may be understood then, not merely as a tale of adultery, extramarital affair, or sexual misconduct, but as a moving tale of a woman coming to terms with her own self. As with Kate Chopin’s other literary pieces, the vivid imagery and figures of speech were once again effectively utilized to highlight the key message. Personification is used in the line, “The playing of the lightning was incessant. A bolt struck… filled all visible space with a blinding glare and the crash seemed to invade the very boards they stood upon” (“Storm” par. 18).
Chopin likewise employed several similes, like when she likened the room where Calixta and an old admirer consummate their sexual tryst to a “dim, mysterious chamber” and Calixta’s flesh to “a creamy lily that the sun invites to contribute its breath and perfume to the undying life of the world” (“Storm” par. 23). The repeated reference to the `dim and mysterious room’ where the act of indiscretion takes place adds an element of suspense as well as contrast to the brightness and happiness that later on descends on the family home when Calixta is reunited with her husband and child.
The literary devices in the story easily transport the readers to a place and time when life was much simpler yet restrictive, particularly for women longing to find their place as equals of men – in the home front and in society. Overall, Kate Chopin’s stories offer a catharsis, especially for the women on the brink of breaking away from an institution like marriage. Even in the modern age, women continue striving to nurture themselves. To realize their wholeness, they seek support not just from the home front but from society. That is the message Chopin conveyed.
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