Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kate Chopin: The Awakening and other Short Stories

Downloaded because Kate Chopin is, according to Wikipedia, considered to be a forerunner to feminist authors of the 20th century - caught my interest. Admittedly, I have never studied literature, but Chopin seems quite forgotten, which is a bit of a shame. I don't know if I loved her writing to be honest, but it's certainly not worse than that of many male authors of the period who still make their way into anthologies and are spoken of with respect. I sometimes feel that a lot of writing still hailed as classic is actually very dated and dull. But that's by the by.  Chopin's writing is actually remarkably modern, I think.

The Awakening is the title story of this collection and more like a short novel. It's about a married woman who starts to discover that she doesn't know who she is, that she feels trapped in her marriage. No, not just in her marriage, trapped in anyone having a hold on her, stopping her from doing what she wants. In one scene she travels to visit her children who are staying with their (paternal) grandmother. When saying good-bye she hugs them and kisses them and feels like she'll miss them forever, but once on the train they quickly slip from her mind as she starts to refocus on her own emotions and tries to figure out what she wants for herself. They have no permanent hold on her - not because she is callous, mind. It's more that she's contrasted with her friend who is the self-sacrificing mother type, the kind who lives for her family, and who must have been the ideal of the times. Mme Pontellier is not that type, and being forced into that mold maybe pushes her too far to the other side. She is the kind of mother that we all are nowadays, the kind who keeps her own hobbies, her "old life", and this isn't considered strange. Towards the end of the story she tragically realises though that if she pursues her own happiness she'll kill her children's chance of it, so she makes the ultimate sacrifice, to protect them, as it were.
Most of Chopin's stories take place around Natchitoches in Lousiana, and by chance a Facebook friend recently posted a link to a fantastic gallery of photos that happens to include a few from that very area, scroll down for no. 36 and no. 40. Admittedly a few decades later than Chopin's writing (these photos were taken during the Depression), but I still got a bit of a jolt. Chopin's descriptions of the Lousiana way of life, the Creole culture, are just tremendously interesting. In my mind it all mixes with Anne Rice's vampire books and True Blood - all so different, obviously, but all drawing from the same places and people for inspiration. (Anne Rice is a bit shite, mind. Just let's get that straight.)

The question of race burns through, of course. In the awakening Mme Pontellier's children are being watched by an octaroon somewhere in the first chapter, and to my shame I first didn't grasp what that was, that it was a person. I thought it was some kind of dog maybe? A few sentences later it transpires that it's a human and then I remembered the different cathegories of blackness they'd divide people by in those days. Must've read about those names sometime or other, they floated back up in my memory while reading. The most political story in this respect is Desirées Baby.  I don't know if one could claim that it's a contribution to a discussion on minority rights or equality at all, it reads more like a description of how horrible the effects of the racist society traps and imprisons the people who live in it. Just a description, but sometimes that's all you need. Desirée is a foundling, who grows up with loving adoptive parents. When she grows up she marries Armand, a local bigwig, a man who is unusually cruel to his slaves, who hates them. This lets up when she gives birth to their son, but as the son goes from new-born to baby it starts again. One morning Desirée realises that her son looks like the little quadroon (sic) boy who is fanning them, and confronts her husband, who says that yes, he'd noticed. Their child is not white, she is not white. Clearly he wants nothing to do with her any more. Desirée writes in despair to her mother who tells her to come home, to her mother who loves her. The story ends with a twist. Armand burns all his wife's things, and all the baby's too. The cradle, the delicate clothes, her letters. At the back of the drawer he finds a scrap of an old letter from his own mother to his father, admitting her own blackness. It's really very poignant and tragic.

That said, I don't think I'll be actively searching for any more works by Chopin to read. If something falls into my lap, sure, but that's it. Her work is interesting, well written and some of her characters have definitely stayed with me, but they are nonetheless a little dated. Can't believe they haven't been filmed though. Period historical drama galore.

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