Before The Awakening:
Rebellion and Sex in Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"
Kate Chopin is considered an important writer today, but it was not until fifty years after her death that she developed a wide readership among readers who were accustomed to the ideas of sexually-liberated feminists. In the beginning, when her most important work -- a novel entitled The Awakening -- appeared in 1899, the American reading public was shocked and subjected the book to savage criticism. One early reviewer of the novel called it "an essentially vulgar story," and another reviewer harshly described the book as "sex fiction." Some critics in 1899 even went so far as to describe the novel as "pornographic" and "shocking." Libraries in her home town of St. Louis refused to circulate the book, and even though she was a prominent citizen and famous writer, the St. Louis Fine Arts Club felt that Chopin's work was too immoral and therefore refused to admit her to membership in the club. If one reads Chopin's 1894 tale, "The Story of an Hour," with Kate's reputation as a racy writer in mind, one can see that five years before The Awakening Kate was already dealing with extremely controversial material and using extremely sensual imagery. Kate was risking charges of immorality and vulgarity at least five years before she published The Awakening. It would be a long time before the public accepted her.
Many readers in 1894 were shocked by the plot of "The Story of an Hour." In those days wives were supposed to be submissive to their husbands and totally dependent on them, but here is a tale about a woman who feels like a "goddess of Victory" when she believes she has been freed from marriage by the death of her husband. This is a tale in which the woman dies of disappointment when she realizes that her husband is not actually dead. In The Awakening, the heroine, Edna Pontellier, expressed her negative view of traditional marriage and managed to shock and anger most of her readers with passages like the following:She thought of Leonce [her husband] and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought they could possess her, body and soul.But Kate had already expressed those same views -- in some of the same words -- in "The Story of an Hour":[Now that her husband was dead] there would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. . . "Free! Body and soul free!" she kept whispering.Obviously Kate considered marriage as imprisoning a woman "body and soul," and just as obviously the rebellious views in the 1899 novel are pretty much identical with the shockingly unconventional views of the 1894 short story.
However, Kate's story was not only an attack on the traditional view of marriage. The story contains at least one passage that is clearly and intensely sexual in its imagery. Consider carefully how people with up-tight, Puritanical views about sex would react to the following:Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will--as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been. When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: "free, free, free!" The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.That scene is every bit as sensual as the closing scene of The Awakening, when Edna strips off her bathing suit and stands "naked in the open air. . .naked under the sky."
The passages just cited may not titillate many readers in the 21st Century because we have all seen everything there is to see in movies and on HBO, but carfully consider the passage from "The Story of an Hour" through the eyes of Chopin's 19th Century readers and note just how sexually suggestive it is. To begin with, Louise's "bosom" is in tumultuous or passionate motion, heaving up and down. This breathless passion is her response to "this thing that was approaching to possess her." In Chopin's day, the expression "to possess a woman" suggested sexual activity. The fact that she is feebly "trying to beat it back with her will" suggests the female is powerless before the force of passion. Then Louise "abandoned herself," and "her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body." Chopin may not use the word "orgasm" in this passage, but what she is describing sounds very much like an orgasm, and many a reader in 1894 would be embarrassed and/or shocked by how sexy Kate's little story was.
An attack on the traditional view of marriage and a not so subtle description of sexual passion was clearly how Chopin's masterpiece, The Awakening, was seen by her contemporaries in 1899. But anyone who reads "The Story of an Hour" sees that Chopin had already been writing stories with the same sort of rebellious themes and erotic descriptions for a least five years. It is really not surprising that Kate Chopin was considered so pornographic and controversial in her own day that it would be about a half-century after her death before American audiences were ready to appreciate her work.
(Length: approx. 715 words)
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening.
Goddard, Paula. "Mrs. Chopin was at least a decade ahead of her time:
the Place of The Awakening in the American Canon," 49th
Accessed June 4, 2005.
The Oxford English Dictionary.
Note: In The Awakening Chopin compares her heroine Edna to Aphrodite (or Venus as the Romans called her) being born from the foam of the sea. Educated and well-travelled readers would have been familiar with Kate's allusion to one or both of a couple of famous paintings entitled "The Birth of Venus," one painted by Botticelli during the Renaissance and the other by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1879. Here are details from the pictures Kate probably has in mind: