Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Chopin, Kate (1850–1904)
Author:
Barton, Gay
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The fiction of Kate O'Flaherty Chopin depicts late nineteenth-century Creole Louisiana. Her collections of short stories were critical and popular successes, but her final novel, The Awakening (1899)—for which she is now best known—was greeted with almost universally hostile criticism for its sensuousness and its sympathetic treatment of an adulterous woman.

Chopin admired both Whitman's prose writings and Leaves, and his influence is evidenced particularly by her convention-breaking, open treatment of sexuality. Echoes of Whitman are especially pervasive in The Awakening, which alludes to "Song of Myself" and "Out of the Cradle" in its reference to the sensuous murmur and touch of the sea, its recurrent bird imagery, and its association of protagonist Edna Pontellier with Whitman's "bold swimmer" ("Song of Myself," section 46) and "twenty-ninth bather" (section 11). Edna is also a prototype of the ideal woman Whitman depicts in "A Woman Waits for Me" and Democratic Vistas.

Nonetheless, the novel's treatment of female sexuality differs from Whitman's, especially in its darker view of motherhood. Certain of its passages even suggest a darker, un-Whitmanesque view of passion and sexuality itself. In "The Storm," however, a story written after The Awakening, Chopin depicts an unrestrained sexual encounter in a positive manner reminiscent of the "Children of Adam" poems.

Chopin was powerfully influenced by Whitman, although the relationship of her writing to his was more dialogic than derivative. She honored him in the manner he urged upon his followers; she learned under him how to "destroy the teacher" ("Song of Myself," section 47).

Bibliography

Barton, Gay. "'Amativeness, and Even Animality': A Whitman/Chopin Dialogue on Female Sexuality." Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas 27 (1996): 1–18.

Bloom, Harold. Introduction. Kate Chopin: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 1–6.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Biographical and Historical Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Margo Culley. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1994.

Leary, Lewis. "Kate Chopin and Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Review 16 (1970): 120–121.

Loving, Jerome. Lost in the Customhouse: Authorship in the American Renaissance. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1993.

Price, Kenneth M. Whitman and Tradition: The Poet in His Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.


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