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Revisiting Kate Chopin: An Apology Letter

by 2 March 19, 2013

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Dear Kate Chopin,

I want to start out by apologizing for all those terrible eye-rolls I’ve given the mention of your works over the years. When I first read The Awakening, I was far less mature than I am now, with a tiny mind and very little patience for self-pitying characters. *ahem, Edna Pontellier* I can see now that this novel is complex and emotional. Maybe it’s more of an “It’s not the destination, but the journey” sort of thing. Regardless, I am impressed by the sheer scandal of it all – quite seriously: The Awakening was, at one time, censored – and I have grown into a woman who can at least appreciate your attempt at early feminism.

While I realize that this novel is your most recognized, it’s actually one of your short stories that has recently made me think of you: “The Story of an Hour.” The brief and primal epiphany of Louise Mallard makes for the perfect study on irony, feminism, symbolism, and style. You really had me going, too: upon first glance, I truly believed that Louise was a poor, pitiable thing. I sympathized over her “heart condition,” her fragile disposition, and her strength as she hears the news of her husband’s death in a railroad disaster. I respected her dignified wishes to be left alone in the immediate wake of such news; after all, a woman needs time to process these things. But once shown in the solitude of her upstairs bedroom, the transformation of Mrs. Mallard into Louise (yes, I see what you did there) was almost frightening. When discussing this revolution with my students, the women in class always view Louise’s “suspension of intelligent thought” as celebratory. They listen to her banshee cries of “Free, body and soul, free!” with awe and empathy. They justify and romanticize her trance-like stare, her cold dismissal, her seeming rebirth, using words like “new life” and “emancipation” and “liberation.” My female students worship a scene that, in any other context, could be confused with a demonic possession. What’s more, when Louise finally emerges from her room, you write that she “carries herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory” down the stairs to rejoin reality. Really? “Goddess of Victory”? That’s just adding insult to injury. I guess Louise does get her comeuppance, but isn’t your surprise ending even just a further liberation for this mutated woman?

As many critics have suggested before, I believe Mrs. Mallard’s heart troubles are not at all medical, but rather emotional. She’s what we could call in the modern world a “sociopath:” entirely egocentric and incapable of true emotion beyond self-concern. That being said, I admire her far more than I do the “heroine” of The Awakening; Edna’s selfishness led her to actions that would utterly destroy the lives of those around her. Louise, on the other hand, at least had the guts to stare out her open window, be enlightened by the springtime season (how Pagan of you!), and admit her delight in the death of her husband.

Ahem: this apology has evolved into a criticism. To refocus, let me just admit that once I became a college English teacher, I truly began to understand the accessibility of your writing; it’s just so damned teach-able. It’s women’s literature-by-numbers. And to say that Louise’s metamorphosis is any less important than that of Gregor Samsa or Henry Jekyll would be uninformed and dull. So thank you, Mrs. Chopin, for “The Story of an Hour,” and please accept my mostly sincere apology for writing you off. I should also request the forgiveness of my women’s literature professor, Dr. Mary Ruth Marotte, who tolerated my terrible attitude for an entire semester.

In sisterhood,