Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Kate Chopin and The Awakening

Writer Kate Chopin was born on this date in 1850 in St. Louis.

Two years after graduating from St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1868, Kate O'Flaherty married Oscar Chopin, a Creole cotton-trader. On her honeymoon, she had a chance meeting with the feminist Victoria Woodhull, who advised her "not to fall into the useless degrading life of most married ladies -- but to elevate my mind . . ." Kate moved with Oscar to New Orleans and later to a small French village in northwest Louisiana called Cloutierville, in the part of the Natchitoches Parish called "La Cote Joyeuse." By 1879, Kate and Oscar had five sons and a daughter, and Kate was known throughout the parish as an accomplished mistress of her plantation.

After Oscar died in 1882, Kate stayed on in Cloutierville to run the plantation, and briefly engaged in a notorious affair with a neighbor before pulling up stakes and moving her family back to St. Louis in 1884. She started writing, and during the next decade she published nearly 100 short pieces (stories, poems, essays) and two novels, At Fault (1890) and The Awakening (1899). Her short stories about the people around the Cane River in Louisiana (collected in Bayou Folk, 1894 and A Night in Acadie, 1897) were critically well-received, but the novel for which she is remembered today, The Awakening, was widely reviled by male critics and even by women such as Willa Cather, who said that it was a shame that Chopin "devoted so exquisite and sensitive . . . a style to so trite and sordid a theme."

The novel, about a woman named Edna Pontellier who abandons her family as she realizes that her desire for moral freedom cannot be fulfilled within marriage, was considered to be morbidly erotic; but critics were even more incensed with what they regarded as a totally unsympathetic central character, a woman who had no right to ruin other people's lives with her unimportant internal torments. Reacting to slow sales of The Awakening, Chopin's publisher cancelled her third collection of stories. Years later, her Edna Pontellier draws inevitable comparisons with Gustave Flaubert's Emma Bovary, and The Awakening is viewed an important precursor to modern feminist fiction. The film Grand Isle (1991, starring Kelly McGillis as Edna) was based on the book.

Kate Chopin died on August 22, 1904.

"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." -- novelist and critic Marilynne Robinson.

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