The Awakening and Selected Stories

About the Book

A feminist literary landmark: the daring story of a woman's search for personal freedom that was so controversial in 1899 that it ended its author's career.

With an effortless, sure-handed artistry, Kate Chopin tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a young mother and model wife, whose romantic involvement with a young man at a seaside resort allows her for the first time to imagine a freer life. Upon her return to New Orleans, Edna leaves her husband’s home for her own cottage, pursues her artistic ambitions, and begins an affair, only to discover that the constraints of social custom are more powerful than she had thought. Contemporary readers were shocked by the frank, unapologetic treatment of adultery in The Awakening, but over the ensuing century the novel went on to achieve the status of a classic for its visionary prescience and narrative brilliance.
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Praise for The Awakening and Selected Stories

"A Creole Bovary is this little novel of Miss Chopin's."
--Willa Cather
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The Awakening and Selected Stories

from the Introduction by Jane Smiley

When I first read The Awakening, in my thirties, I didn’t know a thing about Kate Chopin, but her novel spoke to me because she delves so precisely into the mind of her pro­tagonist, Edna Pontellier. Edna has thoughts and feelings that I considered to be normal for married women of her age—a withdrawal from her “duties,” a retreat into her inner life, and an urge to discover more about the world, both her social world and the natural world. I had a little trouble with a writing style that I considered archaic, but at the same time, I was put­ting together a novel that made use of a very archaic style (The Greenlanders), and so I appreciated what readers learn about the characters of a novel by uncovering the details of that style.
It wasn’t until I read The Awakening again, in my fifties, that I got to know about the history of the novel and learned what a scandal its publication had caused. Not only did I still appreciate it, I appreciated it even more because an honest and explorative novelist is likely to cause a scandal at some point—novelists are literary explorers who use stories to uncover the secrets of human nature and display them. You don’t have to be the Marquis de Sade or Émile Zola to cause a scandal—in 1899, when The Awakening was published, you could do it by giving a wife and a mother a growing sense of independence and then honestly portraying the despair that her choices pres­ent to her.
Kate Chopin grew up in Saint Louis, Missouri, and was liv­ing in Saint Louis when she wrote The Awakening, at around the same time that the Saint Louis suburb that I grew up in was being established. It doesn’t surprise me that Chopin turned out to be an independent-minded novelist and short story writer. Saint Louis has a way of infusing its children with a sense of curiosity and ambition, maybe because Saint Lou­isans have always known that you could get out of town—by steamboat, by airplane, or by Route 66 (Chuck Berry made sure we would never forget this). She was born Katherine O’Flaherty in 1851 in Saint Louis, and she understood from the beginning that her Irish and French inheritance set her apart from the American culture into which she was born. She was educated intermittently at a local Catholic school and was an avid reader in both English and French. Her father died in a bizarre railroad accident when she was only five—the state was celebrating a new bridge across the Missouri River, and various prominent figures were invited to take part in the first trip. The bridge collapsed.
Kate’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother devoted themselves to educating her, and in doing so, they gave her a strong sense of how independent, thoughtful, and self-supporting women could be. She also made a lifelong friend, Kitty Garesché, with whom she rode ponies, ice-skated, and climbed trees. Like Kate’s female relatives, Kitty was passion­ate about music, art, and gossiping—the perfect friend for a future novelist.
The Civil War, in Saint Louis, was a perfect example of the complicated history of Saint Louis, a home for both avid abo­litionists and slave-owning Southern sympathizers. According to Emily Toth, one of Chopin’s biographers, in early May, after the declaration of war, there was a skirmish at a local Con­federate barracks; twenty-eight people were killed, and the mayor declared martial law. Lots of citizens fled to Illinois, and Kitty Gareshé’s family, as Southern sympathizers, were kicked out of town. Not long afterward, Kate’s great-grandmother, from whom she had learned a lot, and her half brother died. Other relatives, in Louisiana, died during the siege at Vicks­burg, a battle that spurred more violence in Saint Louis. In the spring of 1865, the Confederate army planned an attack on Saint Louis, causing more flight and further barricading, but the war ended before they managed to instigate it. Kate was fourteen. After the war, she returned to school, to the Sacred Heart Academy (which is still there, now called the Academy of the Sacred Heart, and serves kindergarten through grade eight). At the academy, she met a young nun from Ireland who was not much older than she was and who encouraged Kate to fulfill the talents she saw in her student. Kate kept notes on all sorts of things—books she read, people she read about, events in her life —and she wrote poems, jokes, and observa­tions about women (Toth, Unveiling Kate Chopin, chapter 3).
When she was eighteen, she “came out” into society (a significant Saint Louis tradition that I was spared), and she continued to write about her new social life as “a nuisance” (Unveiling Kate Chopin, 47). When she was twenty, she joined some friends on a steamboat trip to New Orleans and was charmed by the region. It may have been around that time that Kate met Oscar Chopin, from New Orleans, and fell in love. They married on June 9, 1870. She was twenty-one. They cel­ebrated with a honeymoon in Europe and were in Paris when Emperor Napoleon III was captured by the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War and the Second French Empire was replaced by the French Third Republic. They escaped.
When Kate and Oscar returned to New Orleans, she was pregnant with her first child. Eventually, she and Oscar had six children. Toth suspects that in the fall of 1872, Kate met Edgar Degas, who was visiting New Orleans. Not only did Degas’s uncle and brother work in the same business as Oscar (and one of the paintings Degas produced in New Orleans was titled A Cotton Office in New Orleans), Degas was also an avid walker and observer. There is a great deal of circumstantial evi­dence that The Awakening was inspired by information Degas may have exchanged with Kate as they strolled together or socialized in New Orleans (see below).
Chopin’s life now became very busy, of course, but she remained independent, interested in her own career, and con­stantly observant. As an independent, active young woman from Saint Louis, she did not completely fit in in New Orleans, but Oscar didn’t try to make her. As someone who loves to walk, observe, and eavesdrop myself, I know that doing this teaches a writer much of what she knows and also sparks inspi­ration. Through the 1870s, while raising her children, Cho­pin also had to navigate post–Civil War unrest, a yellow fever outbreak, and in 1879, the failure of Oscar’s business (cotton trading between the growers and the manufacturers). The fam­ily moved out of New Orleans to Cloutierville, where Oscar’s relatives lived, 225 miles northwest of New Orleans. Oscar bought the local general store, and Kate continued to be her independent and observant self, which meant that in a very small town (the population now is about eight hundred), she was judged both positively (for her looks) and negatively (for her habit of doing what she wished, including going for solo evening horseback rides). She began to spend more time back in Saint Louis, and Oscar dealt with several bouts of illness. He died in December 1882. Kate was thirty-two, her oldest child was ten, and her youngest was not quite three. Kate returned to Saint Louis.
For the next seventeen years, Kate Chopin drew on her expe­riences in Louisiana (and, to some degree, in Saint Louis) to fulfill her ambitions and support her family. She wrote ninety-seven short stories, many of which were published in local or national magazines, including Vogue and The Atlantic (see The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, edited by Per Seyersted), and three books, Bayou FolkAt Fault, and The Awakening. She was eager to express herself and also to demonstrate what she had learned from her experiences, but she also knew that she had to conform more or less to the ways in which women (and moth­ers, or, perhaps, especially mothers) were expected to comport themselves in Saint Louis and Louisiana. Perhaps we can say that she walked along many treacherous paths that abounded in edges and even cliffs, which included social dangers, eco­nomic dangers, artistic dangers, and emotional dangers of the sort that women writers of my generation have rarely had to deal with (I even wrote a book that did its best to get banned, because banning spurs discussions and often sales in our liter­ary world—Ten Days in the Hills, about the beginning of the Iraq War—but it did not get banned).
When Chopin was writing her stories, the ones with sur­prise endings were especially popular (think O. Henry or Saki). Perhaps Chopin’s most popular story, “Désirée’s Baby,” was admired because of that, too, but she does not use the surprise ending for humor, as they often did (see “Tobermory,” Saki’s story about a talking cat, or O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief”). She uses it to investigate and display the idio­syncratic inner lives of her apparently normal (and socially accepted) characters. “Désirée’s Baby” was published in Vogue in January 1893, and so had a large audience of women, and “The Kiss” was also published in Vogue (September 1894). The surprise in “Désirée’s Baby” is who is at fault for breaking anti-miscegenation laws, and the surprise in “The Kiss” is what the young woman really feels, in spite of what she says. Chopin explores different types of surprises. “The Story of an Hour” is very short but, perhaps, the most affecting, and it seems to set up some of the themes that Chopin explores in The Awaken­ing. I think my favorite is “Lilacs,” and not only because I love lilacs and Chopin evokes their beauty and fragrance beauti­fully. It is set in a convent near Paris and, perhaps, was partially inspired by Chopin’s relationship with her childhood friend Kitty Garesché, who had become a nun. The protagonist visits the convent every year for about two weeks, and her visit is a beloved respite from her otherwise chaotic life. Because the story is perhaps Chopin’s longest (and for that reason, she had a difficult time finding a magazine willing to publish it), the surprise that the protagonist has to endure is more affecting than in her other stories, though not quite as shocking.
What sets these stories apart from ones written now is that even though Chopin wanted to critique her world, give her female characters voices, and portray their emotional lives, she had to be so discreet that to us it is almost as if she is tell­ing us a secret that we can’t understand. However, the secrets she wanted to reveal were understandable to the newspapers and magazines that published her stories, and Chopin did have some difficulty placing a few of them. But, like all determined writers, she wanted to say what she had to say. And that brings us to The Awakening. . . . . 

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God's Trombones
The Awakening and Selected Stories
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The Sun Also Rises
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About the Author

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin (1851-1904) did not begin to write until she was thirty-six years old. Up to that time, her life gave no hint of either literary talent or literary ambition. Yet after the publication of her first stories in 1889, she enjoyed ten years of a productive, serious, and fairly successful career. Her first novel, At Fault (1890), had difficulty finding a publisher, so she brought it out at her own expense and sent review copies to important journals. Her short stories—close to a hundred of them—were published for the most part in prestigious national magazines. They gave her a solid reputation as a gifted 'local color' writer—that is, an author specializing in the depiction of a particular region of the country and its inhabitants. From these many stories, she culled two well-reviewed collections: Bayou Folk in 1894 and A Night in Acadie in 1897. The Awakening, now her best-known work, appeared in 1899.

Critics of Chopin's own day disapproved of the sexual frankness of The Awakening and were especially disturbed by the narrator's neutrality toward the unconventional behavior of Edna Pontellier, the heroine. All reviews of the novel were unfavorable. Soon after this setback, a planned third collection of short stories was rejected by a publisher, and Kate Chopin essentially ceased to write. In poor health, she died some five years after The Awakening appeared. She was only fifty-three. More by Kate Chopin
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About the Author

Jane Smiley
JANE SMILEY is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some LuckEarly Warning, and Golden Age. She is the author as well of several works of nonfiction and books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California. More by Jane Smiley
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