Although Kate Chopin lived during a period when the color of an individual’s skin dictated his or her place in society as either a master or a slave was nearing its end (Toth 11), she also lived in a period when married women were expected to serve their husbands and their children with pure joy and contentment. In this paper, three of the short stories of Kate Chopin – “The Story of an Hour,” “Desiree’s Baby” and “The Storm” – revealed a different outlook on the concept of marriage. In these stories, she had shown through the point-of-views of the heroines the unhappiness women during Chopin’s period felt when they got married because of how they were being treated by their husbands so much so that it would drive these women to either seeing the death of their husbands as a joyous moment and a second chance in life or would lead these women to engage in extra-marital affairs.
Kate Chopin has been considered by literary critics today as a “regional writer.” Regional writing was one of the most important literary forms that had its roots in the late 19th century. Initially, critics have viewed regional writing as a minor element in American Literature. However, this has changed when critics discovered how regional writers constructed national literary traditions through both its substance and structure. It provided critics with an understanding to the meaning of the local lives, ideas and traditions during a certain period in the country’s history. Today, it is now considered as a genre dedicated in giving details on the places and the people who lived in a particular area and a particular time, and has now become associated with the interest of people who were considered as the minority in society, including women, sexual dissidents and village dwellers (Foote 25-27).
One of the perspectives that Chopin depicted in her works is the status and feelings of women regarding marriages during her period. Although many women are happy with their marriages, most women often would become uneasy within the confines of marriage. This leads them in entertaining feelings that society would appall. One such feeling is the private celebration of the death of a husband because of the freedom the death would bring (Disheroon-Green 317). The reason why many women during the time of Chopin entertained such feelings was because this was a period when prenuptial agreements and arrangements between parents of the woman and either the family of the man or the man himself were the societal norm. Marriage during this period was seen as a practical arrangement undertaken for social standing and security, as opposed from love (Toth 14).
Such was the case in “The Story of an Hour.” This work first depicts marriage as an institution that traps women to another person’s will (Disheroon-Green 317; Toth 10). In the story, the growing joy of Mrs. Louise Mallard learning that her husband’s death has set her free, despite the fact that “[…] she loved him – sometimes” (Chopin “The Story of an Hour” 327). When she discovers that the news of her husband’s death was erroneous, Mrs. Louise Mallard dies, not from the shock of the happy news. Rather the death was a result from the disappointing loss of freedom which Louise Mallard believed that she had gained.
“The Story of an Hour” provides also a perfect example of Chopin’s work being based on real life since she would often use original names of people and incidence or somewhat similar to these in her stories. The heroine in this story was named Louise Mallard. The first name Louise sounds very much like the French pronunciation of Kate Chopin’s mother’s name. Her mother had a sister named Josephine, just as her heroine did in the story. The last name used in the story, Mallard, is similar in sound to the name Bullard, who was one of the victims of the train accident that killed Chopin’s father, which was also the cause of death of the heroine’s spouse (Chopin “The Story of an Hour” 326; Toth 10).
In the story “Desiree’s Baby,” Chopin showed that women are enslaved by their husbands in marriages very similar to that of the African-American slaves in the plantations owned by the Caucasian families. When a woman gets married, they lose their last name just as African-Americans lose their names once they are bought and owned by their Caucasian masters. This was the reason why he did not adhere to the cautions given to him “[…] that she was nameless. What did it matter […] when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest [names] in Louisiana […]” (Chopin “Desiree’s Baby”). By marrying a beautiful woman such as Desiree, he was assured that he would be passing his name to a lineage that would retain the prestige of his patriarchal name. But this had changed the moment that Desiree and Armand were married. Although Desiree loved her husband dearly, she was depicted as someone who was afraid of her husband that “[w]hen he frowned she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God” (Chopin “Desiree’s Baby”).
Things began to worsen after the birth of their son. At first, Desiree noticed that there was an immense change in her husband’s demeanor. She noticed that he had become more affectionate and caring, even to their slaves who were previously maltreated. But after a few months, she had noticed that not only did Armand begun to change towards her, but that their son resembled the slaves that worked on the fields. Because of this, Armand realized that his plan for himself was faulted. From that moment on, he treated Desiree as he would his slaves. That is, only referring to her as “La Blanche” and rejects her as he would to a slave he is throwing out of his plantation (Peel 225-26). Desiree likened her husband’s demeanor as though “[…] very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his dealings […]” (Chopin “Desiree’s Baby”). She became more and more afraid of her husband that she feared to confront him on the reason for his change of demeanor. Her husband began to become cold towards her so much that he would do his best to avoid Desiree’s presence as much as he could by spending lesser time at home and would avoid looking into Desiree’s eyes when they would speak. Lost and confused on the sudden change of how her husband was treating her, Desiree began to feel “[…] miserable enough to die” (Chopin “Desiree’s Baby”).
Majority of Chopin’s later works were also based on the stories surrounding the town of Natchitoches. Chopin’s use of this town was highly influenced by her great-grandmother, Mme. Victoire Charleville who not only ensured that Chopin would become fluent in French, but also provided her subject matters for her works because Mme. Charleville loved gossip and would talk about the lives of the different women during this time (Rowe 228; Toth 13). One possible topic that she may have overheard from the gossip of her great-grandmother indulged herself in may have been the adulterous behavior of married women in the area.
In Chopin’s “The Storm,” she shows extra-marital relationships to be a desirable outcome for two individuals who have spent years longing for each other, but trapped in their own marriages. This one time sexual relationship was depicted as one that is done not to harm their current marital statuses. Rather, this was shown as one that serves to strengthen their relationships with their own spouses. This view of extra-marital affairs as a means to intensify marriages may have shocked the readers of Chopin’s work since it was not only what they expected but also it is not considered as the norm of society. As a result, many literary critics who had reviewed her works condemned them as being vulgar and unwholesome, not because of the suggestions that the main heroine in this story would become unsatisfied in her marriage and with her husband despite meeting all of the requirements of what society would consider a proper husband to be. They condemned Chopin’s works because of her depiction of Calixta as a heroine, and not to condemn her main character for her transgressions against her husband. As a result, her later works such as “The Awakening” were banned from libraries and Chopin herself was ousted from the social clubs which she was a member of (Chopin “The Storm”; Cutter 87; Rollyson 195; Rowe 231).
Kate Chopin showed in her works the lives of women in Louisiana and the struggles which occur within the confinements of marriage. Chopin would generally defy social conventions by showing in her works that married women may aspire things and roles that are non-traditional (Disheroon-Green 317). This may have been the reason why Chopin’s works were initially not given the credit her works were due. Both the literary critics of Chopin’s time and the public in general may have viewed Chopin and her works rebellious, particularly when she began to test the ways that women could voice out their emotions and when they could not articulate themselves as she progressed in her career as a writer. The more she attempted to show women as vocal heroines with strong desires, the harder it was for her work to be accepted by publishers, literary critics and the public in general (Cutter 98-99). This was because the norm for women during this period was to be silent, passive and submissive towards their lives and their spouses as well as incapable of expressing themselves of their desires (Cutter 98).
Today, Chopin has become an enigma because she did not readily accept the status of women and their obligations in married life in Louisiana. Despite her works being considered as vulgar and almost forgotten after her death, her literary works have eventually become notable not only because she was able to strike a delicate balance between the stories of the rural Cane River region and those set in urban New Orleans, but also she created an entire fictional community replete with characters, events and settings to which to place her stories. The works of Chopin that have been presented in this paper provided a glimpse of real events that were experienced by married women during Chopin’s time. It also showed the development of how women, single or married were able to gain a voice in society. Furthermore, it showed how married women faced the everyday dilemma of desire versus duty, self-realization versus socially sanctioned self-sacrifice (Byrd 1; Cutter 98; Disheroon-Green 317).
The works of Kate Chopin had given the readers a glimpse on the realities of life during the 19th century, specifically inside the lives of married women. While many authors have glorified this era with stories about etiquette and the value of conferring with societal norms, they have also provided their readers with the harshness of life and how marriage is seen not as a union of a man and woman who were in love, but as a union for monetary and practical reasons. Chopin’s works show how nothing has changed throughout the years. Even today, women still feel trapped in their marriages, treated with abuse and indifference by their spouses and indulge in extra-marital affairs. Perhaps it has become relatively more accepted now to discuss these issues as opposed to the period when Chopin was still living. This could explain why her works were greatly denounced by publishers, critics and the public during her time. As a regional writer, she has given literary critics and scholars today a glimpse into the other side of the women of the 19th century, not as genteel women. Rather, women who had become enslaved in marriage, submissive to their families and their spouses’ desires while shutting out and sacrificing their own needs and wants, making Kate Chopin the voice of women during the time when their voices were muffled.
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