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If you ask a child whom they consider a hero or heroine, they would most likely say a superhero or pro sports figure. When I was growing up, boys would idolize Superman and girls, Wonder Woman. Those magic bracelets and golden lasso were a real turn on, not to mention the perfect body and boots. Fighting for truth, justice and the American flag and the selfless acts performed to help people made them larger than life. Unfortunately, as hero role models, they are hard to measure up to. In works of literature, however, there is no clear way to define what a heroine is and the special qualities they should have. I feel a heroine is often an ordinary person that must deal with circumstances beyond their control. In today's society a person faces so many obstacles and just being able to survive and keep one's family together under such circumstances is an important quality of a heroine. There are many people nowadays who run at the first sign of adversity rather than try to work out a solution. Being a heroine should also mean working towards a resolution regardless of how difficult the task is or the consequences. Obviously, life is not perfect and we all have flaws so a heroine doesn't have to be a paragon of virtue. However, a heroine should have the courage to try to improve their life.
Kate Chopin wrote stories that emphasized women's struggles to live within the social constraints of their time period and also maintain their identity. The women in Kate Chopin's stories are not paragons of virtue and face obstacles that they must overcome as well as the restrictions of being female in the early 1900's. Each story gives us insight into Chopin's views of the society she lived in. Kate Chopin can be considered a modern heroine and a rebel of her time because she wrote about social issues that were illicit and inappropriate for a respectable woman of the times. Chopin's published literature include two novels, "At Fault" (1890) and "The Awakening" (1899) and approximately one hundred short stories and children's books. Her short stories were published in many well-known magazines and children periodicals. Some of Chopin's stories were also published in two collections, "Bayou Folk" (1894) and "A Night in Acadie" (1897) which made her a well known American author of the 1890's. However, it was many years after her death when her short stories were recognized as the important works of literature they were and a Kate Chopin revival began. Now her stories can be found in many different languages throughout the world.
As a girl, Chopin was surrounded by strong women who influenced her views on society and taught her to think and form her own opinions in life which is evident in her writing as an adult. She also suffered many tragedies in her life, including the death of her father at age five and other close family members which left her with no important male influences while growing up. She married Oscar Chopin, who came from a prominent Creole family at the age of 19. They moved to New Orleans and had six children before Oscar died of swamp fever, leaving her a widow at age 32. After her husband's death, she moved back to Missouri to be with her mother and raise her children. Shortly after returning, her mother died leaving Chopin and her six children to deal with another tragedy. During her teenage years Chopin kept a dairy where she wrote poems, essays and her thoughts, but she did not begin writing fiction until 1889 as a way to express her strong views on women's rights and society. Her stories were set in New Orleans, Louisiana and the Cajun and Creole people she met there and generally enjoyed by all.
The short story, "Beyond the Bayou" was a children's story that Chopin wrote in 1891 and was published in "Youth's Companion" in June 1893 and offers a different view of the racial barriers in the south during the 19th century. The black slave, La Folle, is a strong woman whose fears of the unknown keep her from seeing the beauty around her. Because of an incident in her childhood, La Folle lived most her life in fear of the world just beyond the bayou. Her maternal love for the plantation owner's little boy forces her to overcome her fears. When he accidentally gets hurt while hunting, La Folle knows she has to overcome her terror and find the strength to cross the bayou to get the boy the help he needs. La Folle finally faces her fear and realizes that there is more to life than her little cabin. La Folle meets the requirements of a modern heroine because she faced her life long fears to save the boy's life and was able to learn from her experiences and improve her life. In the last line of the story, "A look of wonder and deep content crept in her face as she watched for the first time the sun rise upon the new, beautiful world beyond the bayou," (Bayou Folk, P. 218) Chopin illustrates how La Folle sees her world through new eyes and the possibilities for the future.
Kate Chopin's "Desiree's Baby" was written in November 1892, and published in Vogue on January 14, 1893. It was the first of nineteen Kate Chopin stories that Vogue published. Desiree was a beautiful woman who falls in love with Armand, a plantation owner whose family name went back many generations. Desiree was an orphan with no idea of her family background but Armand marries her even though she lacks the social status or family ancestry that was expected for a man of his wealth and station. After she has a baby, Armand begins to suspect that Desiree may have Negro blood and his racial prejudice makes it impossible for him to accept the baby or Desiree. His rejection leads Desiree to kill herself and her baby. I would not consider Desiree a modern heroine because she had other options but she chose to give up her life and that of her child's rather than stay with Armand or go back to her home at Valmonde. Desiree's story may be tragic but her choice to end her life instead of facing rejection was selfish one. The story gives us Chopin's views on racism and the hopelessness that women faced in marriage and a husband's rights.
"Ma'ame Pelagie" was published in the New Orleans Times-Democrat on December 24, 1893. The heroine, Ma'ame Pelagie, dedicated her life to rebuilding her home to the magnificent plantation it once was before it was destroyed in the war. When she is faced with the choice of making her family happy and living her life in the present or continue to hold on to the past, she chooses to sacrifice her dreams of restoring the family home. By doing so, Ma'ame Pelage's past catches up to her and she begins to feel her age. She was willing to give up something she worked for thirty years to achieve in order to make her sister's life worth living again but the loss also shows her all she has missed in her life. Ma'ame Pelagie could be considered a modern heroine because she put those she cares for before her own dreams, regardless if they were noble dreams or impossible goals. Chopin shows us how the irony of clinging to the past does not stop the future from happening.
The short story, "A Respectable Woman," was written in January 1894, and published in Vogue on February 15, 1894. When the protagonist, Mrs. Baroda meets her husband's friend, Gouvernail, she is not quite sure why she is not comfortable around him. He doesn't do anything to make her feel this way and she cannot explain her feelings. She loves her husband and has a good marriage so when she realizes that she is attracted to Gouvernail, she decides to visit her aunt in the city. Mrs. Baroda considers herself a respectable woman who follows the rules of society so when she is faced with a situation, she doesn't know how to handle it; she avoids the problem by running away. I wouldn't consider her a modern heroine because avoiding a difficult situation doesn't solve the problem just puts it in the background to return at another time.
"The Kiss" was written in 1895 and published in " Vogue, January 1895. Nathalie is a beautiful woman who actively seeks to secure her place in society by marrying Braintan, a rich but unattractive man who can give her the lifestyle and security. Nathalie is a strong, intelligent woman who believes she can buck the system by doing what society expects and also have the pleasure she desires. Chopin portrays Nathalie as a freethinking woman who sees a way to secure her future and also find some happiness outside of marriage. Chopin shows us that a woman may have little control over their destiny but, if they are smart enough, they can work around the rules that society forces them to adhere to. Nathalie could be considered a modern heroine because she achieves her goals of security and accepts the consequences of her actions and is willing to adjust her plans. We start to see Chopin's acceptance of extramarital affairs as a way for women to find some happiness in their lives.
"A Pair of Silk Stockings" was written in April 1896, and published in Vogue on September 16, 1897. Before Mrs. Sommers married, she was used to the finer things in life and was able to buy clothes without worrying about the price. After her marriage her life changed and she was no longer able to have whatever she wanted. Chopin shows us how much more a woman's life changes than a man's after marriage and the decision should not be made lightly because you may one day regret it. When Mrs. Sommers comes into to some extra money, she is anticipating the things she could buy for her children and how good they will look in new clothes. When she sees a sale on silk stockings, she remembers a time when she was young and able to buy beautiful clothes. Her excitement over the extra money soon leaves her depressed because she realizes what she is missing in life. Mrs. Sommers does face a crossroads in her life and I would consider her a modern heroine because she questions the choices that she has made in life. She knows she cannot go back to the way her life once was and must face the consequences of her choices. Chopin wrote this short story at the midpoint of her career and seems to demonstrate how she viewed what a woman loses after marriage and how a woman may regret those decisions.
Kate Chopin's novel "The Awakening" was written in 1899 and illustrates how much Chopin's skills matured throughout her literary career. The protagonist, Edna, is a complex character because the reader must decide what is happening in the story and how Edna's skewed sense of reality deals with the situation. An example of this is the men in Edna's life before she married Leonce. Edna kept a picture of an actor which she never met and devised a torrid love affair in her mind. If someone asked her about it, she would say how much she admired his talent and when she was alone, she would fantasize about him. The quote, "In the presence of others she expressed admiration for his exalted gifts, as she handed the photograph around and dwelt upon the fidelity of the likeness. When alone she sometimes picked it up and kissed the cold glass passionately." (Chap. 7, P. 46) gives us an insight into Edna's mental instability. Edna cared for her husband but didn't love him. She married him because he asked her and she felt it was time for her to live in the real world. Also, the fact that her father and sister were against the marriage made him more desirable. Edna didn't understand why she couldn't be the wife he wanted and she just drifted along. She wanted more in life but didn't know how or what it was she needed to be happy. Robert gives her the attention she craves and inspires her to express the romantic dreams she once had. Edna returns to her childhood fantasies and sees Robert as her grand passion in life. She feels free to experience life again without the inhabitations that society places on women. Robert encourages her to paint again and overcome her fears of swimming in the ocean. The ocean becomes her escape from society and gives her the freedom to be herself. When Robert leaves because his feelings for a married woman would not be accepted by society, Edna becomes obsessed with the loss of what she believed to be her grand passion. Throughout the novel, Edna struggles with reality and her fantasy world. These conflicting feelings make her resist her husband's control in order to find what she thinks is missing in her life. First, she sends her children to stay with her mother-in-law because she loves them but is not willing to give up her independence for them. Then she moves out of her husband's house to free herself from his financial control and declares that she is a possession of no one. Finally, she takes a lover to satisfy her sexual needs without emotional involvement so she would not lose her freedom and independence. She is now in control of her life and any decisions about her future. When Robert refuses her offer of an affair, she realizes she can never be totally free from society's limitations on women. Edna returns to where she first felt true independence and solitude and swims out to where her obligations could not reach her and accepts that the sea is her last hope for freedom. I truly enjoyed this book and, after discussing it in class, enjoyed reading it again to capture the underlying message Kate Chopin gives us of a woman's struggle to find herself. Though I believe Edna has some of the qualities of a modern heroine, her inability to face reality and accept the consequences of her actions rules her out in my opinion. Edna was courageous and tried to make changes in her life, but I cannot accept suicide as a way of gaining one's independence.
Clearly there is no way to define what qualities a modern heroine should have in works of literature, however, the women in Chopin's stories all show some aspects of what I feel a modern heroine should be and also how difficult life was for women in the late 19th century.