Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.

Kate Chopin: A Woman Before Her Time

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Awakening Cover 1899

“She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before” (715).  This sentence by Kate Chopin can sum up the whole novel of The Awakening.  It shows how Edna dares and defies all societal expectations of the time.  We have learned in class that there were men and women who enjoyed and rejected the book.  Willa Cather, a female author who often wrote about frontier life on the Great Plains, called it “trite and sordid.”  To understand why Chopin would want to create a book that “swam far out” we may want to look at her earlier life.

Chopin grew up knowing how to speak English and French.  She was taught by her mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and the nuns at Sacred Heart.  Here we can see how she was heavily influenced by adult women.  Her father died in a railroad accident in 1855.  Chopin was married to Oscar Chopin in 1870 and lived in New Orleans for a couple of months in 1872.  They even went to Grand Isle for vacation.  Below, is where the Chopins ended up living in 1879: A home in northwestern Louisiana.  The house ended up burning down in 2008.

House Before Fire

Mr. Chopin ended up dying in 1882, which left Kate to raise six children on her own. We can see already that Chopin faced many deaths of people that were close to her and how she had to take on bigger responsibilities.  Her obstetrician encouraged her to write.  She was described as a woman who “could express her own considered opinions with surprising directness.”  Not only do we see this “surprising directness” in The Awakening, but we can see it some of her other short stories, such as “Desiree’s Baby” and “A Story of An Hour.”

Chopin once commented, “human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it.”  This comment is useful in understanding what Chopin may have meant by The Awakening.  There is more meaning to life, then just obeying conventional rules.  Chopin may have been trying to say that without these standards, a woman (or anyone) had the opportunity to find the true meaning to life.  When Chopin’s grandmother died in 1897, she began to work on The Awakening.  I was hoping to find out that Chopin died of some magnificent death that defied all societal expectations, but I was let down.  Doctors say that she died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

A lot of her life experiences were reflected her in works.  We can see that her education came from many women and that her father wasn’t around long enough to make a significant impact.  Maybe Chopin did not have an exact feminist view when she wrote The Awakening, but just wanted to convey that women had feelings and desires too.

In Chopin’s “A Story of An Hour” we see how the main character is set free once she learns of her husband’s death.  (The death was caused by a railroad accident, which can be connected to Chopin’s father’s death).  In a way the female character is elated by the fact that she does not have to succumb to a man’s wishes.

By the end of the story, once the woman finds out that her husband was in fact not dead, she died herself.  We can read this short story with a feminist view and say that the woman died because she was upset that she would have to be forced back into a lifestyle she thought she escaped.  Or, we can say the woman died because she was so happy to see her husband, her heart just could not take.

For me, I think Chopin did write to express her views.  People of her time characterized her as having “surprising directness,” so I do actually think Chopin wrote of her own awakening.  She may not have had a husband that never took care of the children, like Edna did, but Chopin might have seen other experiences where this was the case and she wanted to express her views on the matter.  Without an interview from Chopin, we are able to tell that she put many of her real life experiences into her works.  So, part of me wants to assume that Kate Chopin was before her time and wanted the same rights as men.  Of course, this may not be the case, but we can agree that an awakening did occur.

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