- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

Moderately famous in her lifetime, Kate Chopin was largely forgotten for more than six decades after her death in 1904. Born Katherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis in 1850, she was educated in Catholic schools. In 1870, she married Oscar Chopin, a well-to-do Creole from New Orleans, who later suffered financial losses, leaving her and their six children in debt when he died of yellow fever in 1882. She managed, however, to stabilize the family finances by running her late husband's general store.
Although Kate Chopin was an avid reader and had always loved writing, she did not embark on her professional literary career until 1888. Short stories, poems, essays, and novels flowed from her pen to a mixed reception.
Although many of her stories were snapped up by magazines, her first novel, "At Fault," was rejected by a publisher. She published it herself, to generally positive reviews. Her second novel, "Young Doctor Gosse," was rejected so many times, she destroyed the manuscript. Her third and final novel, "The Awakening," published in 1899, provoked shocked responses among American critics. (The British liked it better.)
Chopin's portrait of a wife and mother whose awakening passions, sensuality, and sense of individuality induce her to put herself, rather than her husband and children, first was condemned as sick and immoral. (Willa Cather dismissed it as "a Creole Bovary.")
Although Chopin had attained sufficient renown in her lifetime to be included in the first edition of "Who's Who in America" in 1900, her reputation languished after her death four years later from a cerebral hemorrhage. Then, after more than six decades, with the advent of feminist literary criticism, her novel "The Awakening" began turning up on lists of required reading. (It even has a place in critic Harold Bloom's version of "The Western Canon.")
And now, not surprisingly, all of Chopin's extant novels and short stories, including some not published in her lifetime, are being published as part of "The Library of America" series in a hefty volume ($35, 1075 pages) adeptly and knowledgeably edited by Sandra M. Gilbert.
Kate Chopin may be part of the American literary landscape, but how good a writer is she? How much of the attention that she has received is owing to the innate aesthetic value of her work and how much to the way in which her themes and subject matter appeal to current cultural and political tastes?
Chopin herself would have wanted to invoke this distinction. In her review of "Crumbling Idols," a book in which the Western writer Hamlin Garland suggested that traditional aesthetic standards should give way to social realism, Chopin firmly asserted that "social problems, social environments, local color and the rest of it are not of themselves motives to insure the survival of a writer who employs them."
A perusal of this thick volume of Chopin's fiction turns up plenty of "local color." Many of the stories are slight, more valuable as quasi-documentary specimens of a bygone time and region than as works of art. Even her daringly erotic short story "The Storm," deemed unpublishable in her lifetime, is more interesting as cultural history than as a story in its own right.
Chopin was no D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller breaking new boundaries in erotic writing. But she did go over the line of what was considered acceptable for a respectable Southern lady author of her era.
Her two novels, however, are something else. Although no longer as well known these days as "The Awakening," her debut novel, "At Fault," is well worth reading. Its heroine is an attractive and intelligent young widow,Therese Lafirme, who has been running her late husband's Louisiana plantation. Everyone in the parish admires her. Significantly, Chopin describes her as "a warm-hearted woman, and a woman of clear mental vision; a combination not found so often together as to make it ordinary."
When David Hosmer, a hard-working, serious-minded businessman from the West, comes to the parish to set up a lumber mill, he finds himself falling in love with her. Meanwhile, Hosmer's stylish and witty kid sister Melicent (already in her 20s, but as flirtatious and skittish as a teenager) toys with the heart of Therese's hotheaded young relative Gregoire, a good-looking but not very bright fellow who has fallen head over heels in love with her.
It is Melicent who informs Therese of her older brother's first wife, Fanny, who, alas, is not conveniently dead, but still very much alive in St. Louis. Shades of "Jane Eyre"? Not quite, because Hosmer and Fanny are divorced.
When Hosmer proposes to Therese, she responds by calling him a coward for having ended his first marriage rather than live up to his original vows at the altar. (Her response reflects her Roman Catholic upbringing and her Southern ideas of gallantry and honor.) Obedient to his lady's precepts, Hosmer travels to St. Louis and persuades Fanny a weak, shallow woman fond of the bottle to remarry him and move to Louisiana. The stage is set for drama, as Therese's well-intentioned, but emotionally obtuse plan unravels.
Therese's overly rigid attitude gives way as she learns that the heart, too, has its reasons. As the novel concludes, Therese's warm heart and her "clear mental vision," not to mention her sexual and emotional needs, are no longer at odds. "At Fault" is a genuinely interesting and involving story that stands the test of time.
But "The Awakening" is bolder, not simply because it is more sexually explicit, or even because its heroine, Edna Pontellier, is a less admirable person than Therese, but also because in it, Chopin cuts even closer to the core of her heroine's feelings. Indeed, unlike the feminist fiction of a writer like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Awakening" focuses neither on the oppression of women nor on visions of liberated women helping to build a better world. It has no overt message.
Instead, it is simply and complexly the story of one particular woman, 29-year-old Edna Pontellier mother to two young boys, wife of a caring and indulgent husband who becomes enamored of another man, Robert Lebrun, at the summer resort where she and her family are vacationing. Chopin's focus is on Edna's feelings, which are depicted with exquisite accuracy and unflinching honesty.
The heading of "feelings" covers an enormous range of things, starting with pure physical sensations, as Edna experiences the caress of the balmy night air, the embrace of the ocean, the flavor of a steak, the stirring strains of a classical pianist, or the tingling heat of a kiss.
Then, entwined with but not identical to sensations, there are Edna's emotions: infatuation, excitement, irritation, impatience, ennui, and passion. (The keen yet inconstant love she feels for her own children is contrasted with the deeper and more enduring maternal love that lives in the bosom of her friend Adele Ratignolle, whose different emotional makeup makes her, unlike Edna, the perfect wife and mother.) Finally, there are Edna's memories, fantasies, and thoughts.
Ironically, it is Edna's powerful longing for another human being, Robert Lebrun, that awakens her sense of independence. But independence for Edna has nothing to do with earning her own living, pursuing a vocation, or functioning in the wider realm of politics. It simply means owning her own feelings, with all that that may imply.
Feelings, as depicted in "The Awakening," are the permeable boundaries of the self. They link us to the world and to other human beings, yet at the same time, they reinforce our sense of isolation: No one else can think our thoughts, feel our emotions, or think our thoughts for us. Our consciousness is ours alone unique, individual, solitary yet it inevitably involves us with others whose existence impinges on our independence. The great power of "The Awakening" resides not in the answers it provides, but in the questions it exposes.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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