Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Writer Ahead of Her Time

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Kate Chopin was a strong, independent woman. Her strength and independence was surely a result of her upbringing, but being born in the mid-eighteen hundreds, this was not a popular way for a woman to be. As she became a writer, her experiences throughout her childhood and her early adulthood made for some very controversial themes and ideas in her writings. As evidenced by her short story “The Story of An Hour”, Kate Chopin was obviously ahead of her time in that she often wrote of such controversial themes as a woman’s desire for freedom and independence. To understand the controversy of her writings, it is important to understand her upbringing and the world in which she lived.


Chopin was surrounded by strong women and very few men during her childhood. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1850 to a family with money and social class. At the early age of five she was sent to a Catholic boarding school, Sacred Heart, where she was taught by nuns who believed in creating strong women. However, shortly after she got there her father was killed in a train accident, and she returned home. She lived with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother (all three widowed), along with aunts, uncles, cousins, and servants, but “the strongest individuals were the widows” (Kate). Then, two years after her father’s death, Chopin returned to Sacred Heart to continue her education. There she was taught that “young women ought to know science and history to be their husband’s intellectual companions” (Toth 1).


Chopin’s uncommon upbringing was followed by an uncommon adult life. She married a cotton broker when she was twenty. They lived in New Orleans and reportedly had an unusually happy marriage for the time. However, twelve years and six children later, her husband became ill and died. For about a year she took over her husband’s role in his business, which was highly unusual for a woman to do, but then she returned to St. Louis and eventually began to write. Working for a living was another thing that women did not typically do. Very few women worked outside the home at that time. (Howard)


Chopin was an accepted member of society in St. Louis, but “she was not a stereotypical product of her times and so could not conform to socially acceptable themes in her writing” (Hicks). In an online article about Chopin’s life, Ann Bail Howard gives a great description of the culture in which the writer lived “Marriage, said Chopin’s world, was the goal of every woman’s life, service to her husband and her children her duties, passionlessness and submission her assumed virtues, selflessness her daily practice, self sacrifice her pleasure.” Chopin’s defiance to this mindset made her a “pioneer in her own time” (Kate). Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of Emory University calls Chopin “one of the earliest examples of modernism in the United States”, and angelfire.com reports that, “In a time that it was not acceptable for women to speak out about sexuality and independence, Kate screams it in her writing” (Society).


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Chopin’s short story “The Story of An Hour” is a prime example of her writing about a woman’s desire for freedom and independence. This is the story of a woman, Mrs. Mallard, who learns that her husband has been killed in a train accident. It is Mrs. Mallard’s eventual revelation in regards to her freedom that was considered to be so inappropriate at the time the story was written. Jennifer Hicks, a director at Massachusetts Bay Community College, says that Chopin “implicitly questions the institution of marriage” in this story. At the beginning of the story we are told that Mrs. Mallard has “a heart trouble” (Chopin 71), as great care is taken in breaking the news of her husband’s death to her. Her initial reaction is appropriately extremely grievous, but then she goes upstairs to her room and wants to be left alone. This is where the reader learns that her heart trouble, while likely a medical condition, also refers to the unhappiness Mrs. Mallard felt in her marriage. Hicks points out that “the problem with her heart is that her marriage has not allowed her to ‘live for herself’.”


Mrs. Mallard is truly sad about her husband’s death, but she soon begins to see past the pain and into the future. The narrator explains that “she had loved [her husband] � sometimes. Often she had not” (Chopin 7), and while “she knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her…” (Chopin 7), something within her begins to change. As she sits comfortably alone in her room staring out the window the narrator explains what Mrs. Mallard sees and hears “trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life … the delicious breath of rain … the notes of a distant song … patches of blue sky” (Chopin 7). This description does not depict the setting of a woman mourning the loss of her husband. Rather, it foreshadows her revelation. She sits with a “suspension of intelligent thought” (Chopin 7) as she begins to notice the new feeling. Before she even fully comprehends it, “a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips … ‘free, free, free!’” (Chopin 7). The repression that she felt in her marriage is evident as the narrator reveals Mrs. Mallards thoughts. There would no longer be any “powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature” (Chopin 7). She actually finds herself rejoicing at her new found freedom and praying for a long life. Only recently she had feared that she would have a long life. At the end of the story Mrs. Mallard composes herself and returns downstairs only to see her husband walking through the front door. The news of his death � and of her freedom � had been wrong. At this moment she dies, and the doctors say it was because of the “joy that kills” (Chopin 7). The ironic truth is that she died of the disappointment of her short-lived freedom.


It is easy to understand why “The Story of An Hour” was so controversial at the time. Marriage was considered to be sacred in the eighteen hundreds. Women lived to be married and were content with their secondary positions in life. The idea that a woman would want to be free and independent was quite unpopular to say the least. Hicks explains that Chopin wrote during a time that “a female writer who wrote of women wanting independence would not be received very highly, especially one who wrote of a woman rejoicing in the death of her husband. The fact that she pays for her elation with her life at the end of the story is not enough to redeem either the character or the author.” It is believed that Chopin enjoyed her twelve-year marriage, but being surrounded by such strong women during her childhood, she did not feel that it was necessary for a woman to have to depend on a man. She expressed this time and time again in her writing. Obviously ahead of her time, her controversial stories remained socially unacceptable until about fifty years after her death. Interestingly enough, as there are still inequalities between men and women in today’s world, issues regarding the social roles and responsibilities of women remain relevant to today’s readers.


Works Cited


Angelfire.com. “Kate Chopin The Writer”. n. pag. Oct 00.


http//angelfire.com/nv/English4/Chopin.html.


Angelfire.com. “Society in Kate Chopin’s Lifetime”. n. pag. Oct 00.


http//www.angelfire.com/nv/English4/Society.html.


Chopin, Kate. “The Story of An hour”. Literature Reading, Reacting, Writing. Ed. Laurie


G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. 4th ed. Fort Worth Harcourt, 000. 71-7.


Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Interview. “Kate Chopin A Re-Awakening”. Public Broadcasting


Service. n. pag. Oct 00. http//www.pbs.org/katechopin/interviews.html.


Hicks, Jennifer. “An Overview of ‘The Story of An Hour’”. Short Stories for Students. Gale


Research, 17. n. pag. Literature Resource Center. Public Lib., Killeen. 1 Oct. 00.


Howard, Ann B. “A Woman Far Ahead of Her Time”. 17. Great Plains Chatauqua Society.


n. pag. Oct 00. http//www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng84/chopinhoward.htm..


Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson Mississippi UP, 1.


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