Read an Excerpt
From Rachel Adams's Introduction to The Awakening and Selected Short Fiction
Chopin may have begun her serious efforts as a writer out of grief. As a young widow, she contended with the provincialism of Cloutierville for two more years before returning to St. Louis to live with her mother, Eliza. When Eliza died of cancer just one year later, Chopin was heartbroken. But she also began to participate in the intellectual life of the city and to make serious efforts to establish herself as a professional author. Although she moved in literary circles, she resisted alliance with any particular group. A brief membership in the Wednesday Club, a select coterie of women intellectuals who gathered for conversation and debate, only strengthened her distaste for such organized activities. More than once, her fiction depicts women reformers or intellectuals in unflattering terms. Concerned about his wife's erratic behavior in The Awakening, Léonce consults the family doctor, who asks him if she has "been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women-super-spiritual superior beings." These words drip with a disdain that is unrelieved by authorial commentary. Struggling to find venues for her work, Chopin wrote regularly and kept careful records of submissions and rejections. At first, she was most successful with regional publications, placing her poem "If It Might Be" in a Chicago magazine called America and short stories in the Philadelphia Music Journal and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It proved more difficult to access national periodicals like The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and Century. At a time when the social conservatism of the Victorian era still prevailed, Chopin's treatment of such controversial topics as extramarital affairs, venereal disease, murder, and miscegenation often made her work unpalatable to the major literary magazines. Eventually she would break into this market by publishing stories in nationally circulating periodicals such as Vogue, Century, and Youth's Companion.
Among Chopin's literary influences was the French writer Guy de Maupassant, whose realism and formal sophistication she admired. Her respect for his frank treatment of taboo subjects inspired her to translate a number of his stories, but their controversial nature made publication difficult. A more conventional early model was the eminent realist author and magazine editor William Dean Howells, who sent her a brief note of praise for her short story "Boulot and Boulotte." For the depiction of strong, independent female characters, Chopin looked to Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman. She has frequently been grouped with these women as a writer of local color fiction, a genre unjustly dismissed by several generations of critics. More recently, scholars have seen her use of local color techniques as a strategy to gain a foothold in the literary marketplace and to stake a claim in contemporary debates about gender, race, and region. From this perspective, her short story "A Gentleman of Bayou Têche," in which an artist from the city attempts to exploit a humble fisherman for his "local color," reads like an allegory for the regional writer's confrontation with the literary establishment. Reviewers of Chopin's first collection, Bayou Folk (1894), failed to notice such instances of understated social commentary. While generally positive, contemporary responses hailed her depiction of charming local details, rather than her treatment of social issues. Reviewers found a more complicated outlook and maturity of authorial voice in her second collection, A Night in Acadie (1897). An essay in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch praising Chopin's artistry and psychological insight urged readers to think beyond the associations with local color, to recognize "gifts . . . that go deeper than mere patois and local description." A second review demurred, describing Chopin as a specialist in the "childlike southern people who are the subject of her brief romances" and expressing regret that some of the stories were "marred by one or two slight and unnecessary coarseness [sic]."
Despite considerable appreciation by her contemporaries, Chopin would have remained neglected by literary history if it were not for the recovery of The Awakening in the 1960s. Its renewed popularity also brought attention to the whole corpus of her work, which includes numerous poems, essays, and short stories, as well as her first novel, At Fault. These texts illuminate many of the concerns of The Awakening but are also of considerable interest in their own right. Read in its entirety, Chopin's fiction introduces a broad swath of personalities, from impoverished blacks and Acadians of the Bayou to plantation elites and urban intellectuals. Whereas some stories turn seemingly trivial events-the shopping spree of an abstemious middle-aged woman, a country girl's visit to the circus-into dramatic interior conflicts, others deal with more overtly controversial issues such as miscegenation, venereal disease, murder, and extramarital sex. The relatively circumscribed geographical parameters of Chopin's fiction extend from lively, cosmopolitan New Orleans to the insular, rural byways of nineteenth-century Louisiana. Unlike the minutely detailed, inclusive catalogues of realist fiction, her preference is for the sketch, which conveys an impression rather than a sharply delineated picture. Frequently, Chopin writes as an insider whose intimacy with her subjects is conveyed through the use of local dialect and allusions. As a result, whereas the human dramas are readily accessible, contemporary readers may struggle to gain a precise understanding of character and locale.