Female Emancipation in Kate Chopin’s Short Stories
The role of women is a topic questioned in many literary works. Writers often focus on female submission and tackle their endeavor to emancipate themselves and become equal to men. One of the most fruitful periods regarding the writing about female emancipation is undoubtedly the latter part of the 19th century. And how can this best be depicted if not from a women’s perspective? Therefore, it was a period of a growing number of female authors, in America and worldwide, of which many wrote about their own experiences.
“By the middle of the nineteenth century, woman authors had become so numerous that Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing to his publisher, described them as a “damn’d mob of scribbling women.“ (Chopin, 1993, p. 12). They wrote solely for female readers, popularizing stories of heroines who successfully overcame adversity and proved their worth in situations in which they started out with little respect or appreciation (Chopin, 1993). The focus of this essay is a female author Kate Chopin and several of her short stories (‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’, ‘The Story of an Hour’, ‘Regret’, ‘A Respectable Woman’ and ‘The Storm’) in which protagonists are females who tend to emancipate themselves and find their true self.
Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis, Missouri on February 8, 1850. She is considered one of the first feminist authors of the 20th century and often credited for introducing the modern feminist literary movement (American Literature, Kate Chopin, n.d.). Until the unfortunate tragedy of her husband’s death found her, she was a rather conventional housewife (American Literature, Kate Chopin, n.d.). Her career in writing started when she was in her thirties, and her short stories were published in well-known periodicals as Vogue, the Century and the Atlantic (Boriçi, 2014, p. 248). “But apart from nearly one hundred short stories, Kate Chopin has also written two novels, a play, various essays and literary reviews and some translations“ (Boriçi, 2014, p. 248). After her two collections of short stories, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), were published, she was recognized nationally as an outstanding short story writer of the local color school (Boriçi, 2014, p. 248). Chopin died in St. Louis, Missouri, on August 22, 1904 (The Biography.com website, 2014).
According to Boriçi (2014, p. 248) Kate Chopin is considered as the author of some of the boldest and best stories written in America before the 1960 s and some critics even consider her to be a predecessor of the feminist authors of the 20th century. “Her stories treat all sorts of taboo subjects of her time such as miscegenation, divorce, alcohol, pregnancy, childbirth and even female sexuality“ (Boriçi, 2014, p. 248). But almost a constant theme in most of her stories is “Emancipation” (Boriçi, 2014, p. 248). She started dealing with it at the age of eighteen by writing a little sketch entitled “Emancipation: A Life Fable” (Boriçi, 2014, p. 248). “A Respectable Woman“ is Chopin’s short story published in Vogue on February 15, 1894 and reprinted in Chopin’s collection of stories A Night in Acadie in 1897 (KateChopin.org, n.d.). In this story, Mrs. Baroda experiences a sensuous desire towards her husband’s friend Gouvernail. Her role in the story is the one of a traditional woman who acts in accordance with that behavior she is expected to perform (De Cima Juárez, 2015, p. 19). As De Cima Juárez (2015, p. 19) points out, “she is a respectable woman confronting her own feelings, even controlling them in an attempt to handle the situation as a woman from her class would do“. The concept of emancipation can in this story be interpreted in terms of Mrs. Baroda being free to choose whether she will commit adultery. The fact that she has thought about the idea of cheating on her husband with his friend distinguishes her from other women who, at the time, lived under traditional expectations (De Cima Juárez, 2015).
Another Chopin’s story concerned with female issues is “The Story of an Hour“. It was published in Vogue on December 6, 1894, under the title “The Dream of an Hour” (KateChopin.org, n.d.). Berkove (2000) writes that “few other stories say so much in so few words“. Many readers and scholars often view the idea of freedom in “The Story of an Hour,” as well as the tendency for selfhood, self-fulfillment, the meaning of love, or what Chopin calls the “possession of self-assertion” (KateChopin.org, n.d.). The title itself implies that the story takes place within “an Hour“. The events happening throughout this hour follow Mrs. Mallard’s emotional state. After she learns about her husband’s death, she does not react as other women would: “She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance“ (Chopin, 1981, p. 6). Moreover, she exclaims: “Free! Body and soul free!” (Chopin, 1981, p. 8). Boriçi (2014, p. 249) argues that “the story is a truly remarkable tale about a subdued wife’s vision of living only for herself“.
Louise Mallard is a character who feels trapped in her marriage: she sees it as “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, 1894). “Marriage, of course restricts freedom. Whoever marries, or even loves, gives up large areas of freedom, usually willingly“ (Berkove, 2000). She simply wishes to be absolutely free and live solely for oneself. However, this absolute freedom is possible only for a divinity, and therefore, her wish is unobtainable in real life so, in the end, she dies. “It is a fantasy, a dream, and ‘A Story of an Hour’ was indeed first published in Vogue magazine in 1894 under the more revealing title of ‘The Dream of an Hour’ “ (Berkove, 2000, p. 158).
A good example of emancipated woman can be found in Chopin’s story “Regret“, first published in 1897 in the short story collection “A Night in Acadia“ (Chopin, n.d.). Mamzelle Aurélie is a woman who has never been in love and is thoroughly independent. However, the decision of not marrying and not bearing children strikes her as a tragedy in her later years (Rennemo, 2015). This rather ambiguous ending leaves the reader wondering what exactly is the author trying to convey. Rennemo (2015, p.37) argues that, at face value, the story seems to support or even encourage women who marry and bear children. This proposition does not necessarily mean that unmarried women are always unhappy. Moreover, it may imply the need of every human to be loved and surrounded by someone close, such as a child. Freedom is a relative term and for some women, it may mean being single, for some being in a happy marriage.
“A Pair of Silk Stockings“, first published in Vogue in September 1897, provides a story about an interesting “adventure“ of Mrs. Sommers, who suddenly finds herself with a windfall of $15 (KateChopin.org, n.d.). Instead of spending the money on her children, she decides to give herself a few “treats“. As Rennemo (2015, p. 42) notes, “her wish is to escape the financial and psychological suppression of her life as a married woman for just one day, to experience the freedom and indulgence of an economically independent female“. By affording herself stockings, boots, gloves, high-priced magazines, lunch in a restaurant and a ticket for the theatre, Mrs. Sommers escapes for one day her dull life in which she is economically constrained. However, the question raised at this point is whether her act is selfish. We learn that in the beginning she makes plans for spending the money on “the boys and Janie and Mag“. From this, it is possible to conclude that she is a caring woman. She is also very frugal: “Mrs. Sommers was one who knew the value of bargains“ (Chopin, 2012). Despite all this, she does not manage to resist the possibility given to her – and that is – do something for herself. This is a great example of the female tendency for emancipation, although, in this story, it is not completely fulfilled. At the end of the day, Mrs. Sommers is obliged to return to her regular life and to her everyday worries. Kate Chopin’s story “The Storm“ deals with the controversial issue of adultery. It did not even saw publication during her lifetime, yet in 1969, when Paul Seyester, a Norwegian student in the United States rediscovered Chopin’s work (Beer, 2008, p. 15, as cited in De Cima Juárez, 2015, p. 29). Calixta seems as an ordinary and caring housewife. The reunion with Alcée re-awakes past feelings and desire. What is so astonishing about this story is that after their “adventure“, protagonists “come back to their lives, keeping the happy memory as if nothing would have happened“ (De Cima Juárez, 2015, p. 29). Another interesting aspect of the plot is the storm itself. Storm as a natural phenomenon is something disastrous. However, every storm eventually ends and as the popular saying implies – “After rain comes sunshine“. Calixta’s and Alcée’s act of sin was a kind of „a storm of passion“ and after they have committed it, they felt liberated.
The main aim of many Kate Chopin’s characters is to overcome struggles and to free themselves from the constraints laid upon them by society’s expectations. The fact that a woman considers cheating her husband, just as Mrs. Baroda, is in support of the reality that any human can face. The desire to go against the norms is often interpreted as a bad thing, yet each of us is free to choose its realization. Mrs. Mallard, on the other hand, clearly is not happy in her marriage and just the thought that her husband is dead brings her joy, although consequently – joy that kills.
Somewhat different character is Mamzelle Aurélie. She chose a single life, and still, in the end, she regrets it. We may speculate what exactly does she regret. By this story, Chopin implies that each and every of us has a natural need to love and to be loved. The acts of Mrs. Sommers are somewhat an example of the female tendency to move away from everyday problems. The universality of this issue makes the story especially applicable to our modern day reality. Although the notion of emancipation is apparent in the story in terms of woman wanting to be economically free, another thing introduced is consumerism. People often want to escape reality and, instead of focusing on spiritual, they strive for material. One of the most controversial of Chopin’s characters, Calixta, offers a vivid portrayal of a liberated woman who is not afraid to bend the rules. Unlike other character aforementioned, her emancipation is fully achieved in the act of committing adultery. She surrenders to the moment and afterwards feels no guilty conscience.
In conclusion, it is necessary to mention that the rise of female authors in the 19th century American literature greatly influenced what came in the period that follows – the struggle for equal rights of women and men. Being one of the greatest contributors to literature in general, Kate Chopin wrote in support of female emancipation. Many character’s from her stories are females who experience the daily struggles just because of their gender. The diversity of her character spectrum brings her even more popularity. At the time when women were expected to be housewives, she depicted them as craving independence. For her, emancipation is a matter of spirituality. Living the life within the constraints prevents happiness and Kate Chopin was greatly aware of that. Although the issues she dealt with were a taboo in her period, she left an indelible mark in history with her works presenting the everyday reality of a 19th century woman.  Local Color refers to fiction that came to prominence in the USA in the late nineteenth century and was devoted to capturing the features and peculiarities of a particular locality and its inhabitants- their distinctive dialect, history and customs (Boriçi, 2014, p. 248)
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