By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The novels and short stories of the American writer Kate Chopin (1850-1904) are important precursors to twentieth-century modernism, and can be viewed as forerunners to the short fiction of Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and other high modernists. Where other nineteenth-century writers tended to privilege plot over character, and action over introspection, Chopin focused on interiority and the inner lives of her female protagonists.
This enabled her to give her readers a sense of how women think and feel about everything from marriage to spinsterhood, love to relationships, duty to independence. Below, we select and introduce ten of Kate Chopin’s finest books and short stories, many of which can be read in just a few minutes.
1. ‘A Respectable Woman’.
Chopin wrote ‘A Respectable Woman’ in 1894 and it originally appeared in Vogue magazine that year, before being reprinted in her 1897 collection A Night in Acadie. This collection met with some hostile reviews, with one critic objecting to the ‘unnecessary coarseness’ of some of the subject-matter.
The story is about a woman whose husband invites his old college friend to stay with them on their plantation. Despite being certain she will dislike the man, she discovers that she is strangely attracted to him and grows confused about her feelings. Chopin’s story leaves the ending of the story ambiguous: has the wife decided to embark on an affair with this man, or has she brought her feelings under control?
2. ‘The Story of an Hour’.
Some short stories can say all they need to do in just a few pages, and Kate Chopin’s three-page 1894 story ‘The Story of an Hour’ (sometimes known as ‘The Dream of an Hour’) is a classic example. Yet those three pages remain tantalisingly ambiguous, perhaps because so little is said, so much merely hinted at.
Yet Chopin’s short story is, upon closer inspection, a subtle, studied analysis of death, marriage, and personal wishes. The story focuses on an hour in the life of a married woman who has just learnt that her husband has apparently died.
We have analysed this classic story here.
This 1893 story is among Chopin’s most widely studied, partly because it deals with the subject of race as well as gender. The title character is a daughter of French Creole parents and she marries a French Creole man, Armand, and they have a baby together. When Armand discovers that their baby is one-quarter African, he realises his wife must have African parentage. But there is a twist in this tale, not revealed until the end of the story when things have gone terribly wrong …
4. ‘The Storm’.
This 1898 story is a sequel to an earlier Chopin story, ‘At the ’Cadian Ball’. A wife is at home on her own while her husband is out shopping. A storm hits, and one of the wife’s former sweethearts arrives, hoping to shelter from the storm with her. As the storm increases in intensity, so does the remembered passion of these two former lovers …
The story was too graphic in its exploration of sexuality to be published in Chopin’s lifetime, and was only first published in 1969. What is more, the message of the story would have been too progressive for her original readers: Chopin appears to suggest that not only the storm itself but what went on during the storm passed and everyone continued their happy family lives together.
This story, also from the A Night in Acadie collection, is about an unmarried woman, Mamzelle Aurélie, who looks after her neighbour’s children and comes to realise that she deeply regrets never having married and had children of her own. Many of Chopin’s stories are about married women, but ‘Regret’ explores the fate of those women who opted for the other road: lifelong ‘spinsterhood’.
We discuss this story in more detail in a separate post.
6. ‘Her Letters’.
Written in 1894 – something of an annus mirabilis for Chopin – this story is thought to have been inspired by a local artist, Carrie Blackman, who intrigued Chopin when the two women met at a party. Blackman’s portrait showing a woman reading a letter is also thought to have inspired this story, which is about a woman who is unable to destroy the letters she received from a former lover, even after she has got married.
7. ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’.
Written in 1896 and published in Vogue the following year, this story is about a married woman, Mrs Sommers, who comes into possession of fifteen dollars and, despite originally planning to spend the money on new clothes for her children, ends up doing something she has never done before: treating herself to new clothes, a meal in a restaurant, and a theatre show.
Chopin implies that this is not some cold and calculated act designed to deprive her children of necessities, but an impulse and almost automatic act, as if Mrs Sommers in the grip of some consumerist mania.
Indeed, it’s possible to analyse ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ as a commentary on American consumerism during this period, which saw the rise of the department store and the advertising of ‘while stocks last’ sales campaigns (Chopin wrote the story in April 1896 after seeing the department stores in her hometown of St Louis, Missouri announcing their Easter sales).
8. ‘The Kiss’.
This story is another variation on what is probably the central theme of Kate Chopin’s stories: the choices that are open to women, and how these are often not really choices at all. Chopin wrote ‘The Kiss’ in a single day (19 September 1894) and it was published in Vogue magazine the following June. Chopin was paid just $10 for the story.
The story is about a woman who is passionately attracted to one man but who wishes to marry another, who is a millionaire; one day, the man she loves kisses her in full view of the wealthy man she wants to marry.
9. ‘The Unexpected’.
Dorothea and Randall are in love, but Randall is dangerously ill, and Dorothea knows that if she marries him, she will be his full-time carer and will have to give up her independence. Many Chopin stories explore the ways in which women lose their own lives – their freedom, their passion, their autonomy – when they agree to marry a man, and ‘The Unexpected’ takes this theme, we might say, to its extreme.
10. The Awakening.
Let’s conclude this pick of Kate Chopin’s best books and stories with one longer work: The Awakening is included in collections of Chopin’s short stories but is so long it qualifies as a ‘novella’ or even as a novel.
Once again, we have a story (or novel) which demonstrates Chopin’s proto-modernism, through the psychologically complex delineation of the novel’s central character and a focus on interiority over action-packed plot. The Awakening is set in Louisiana and focuses on Edna Pontellier, who finds herself caught between traditional nineteenth-century attitudes towards women and marriage and the new world of the approaching twentieth century which is, as yet, powerless to be born.