Sensuous Women

Kate Chopin, A Critical Biography

by Per Seyersted
Louisiana State University Press, 246 pp., $8.50
Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin; drawing by David Levine

Madame Ratignolle hoped that Robert would exercise extreme caution in dealing with the Mexicans, who, she considered, were a treacherous people, unscrupulous and revengeful. She trusted she did them no injustice in thus condemning them as a race. She had known personally but one Mexican, who made and sold excellent tamales, and whom she would have trusted implicitly, so soft-spoken was he. One day he was arrested for stabbing his wife. She never knew whether he had been hanged or not.

The confident and insouciant holder of this view is a young Creole matron who, with her children (“About every two years she had a baby”) and with other young women and their children of the same ilk, summers at a pension on Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico to escape the city heat and the threat of yellow fever in New Orleans. Mme. Ratignolle’s friend and protégée, Edna Pontellier, is the heroine of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, which, when it was published in 1899, was looked upon as so immoral, so revealing of “positively unseemly” truths that in St. Louis, Mrs. Chopin’s native town, the libraries banned it. She was cut dead by friends and acquaintances and, if this were not humiliation enough, she was blackballed when she was put up for membership in the St. Louis Fine Arts Club, a stigma that must not have been so quaint as it appears now since her writing career, which had theretofore thrived comfortably, began to peter out; after her disgrace—which apparently came to her as a surprise—she wrote only a handful of stories. She died at the age of fifty-three after a visit to the St. Louis Exposition of 1904 and her work (three novels, a hundred or more stories, a few poems and essays) went into eclipse.

It does not seem probable that she will burst into glory with the reissue of her complete works and the publication of a critical biography by Per Seyersted; but she is deserving of a good deal more attention than she has received, partly because she was long before her time in dealing with sexual passion and the intricate familial and personal emotions of women, and partly because she is an uncommonly entertaining writer. The stories, a good many of them only a page or two long, are frequently no more than anecdotes or episodes or even tricks; but, like Maupassant, whom she translated and by whom she was much influenced, she usually embedded her skeleton in sufficient flesh and musculature to conceal the joints.

“The unseemly truths” that aroused her critics when she published The Awakening were that married women, like married men, could have roving eyes and unchaste thoughts, could, indeed, kick over the traces and trample upon marriage and motherhood and all other privileges and responsibilities accruing to a respectable woman. It is a theorem of great antiquity…

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