The Importance of Point of View in Kate Chopin’s Fiction
The impact of Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, on society resulted in her ruin, both literary and social. Reviewers called it vulgar, improper, unhealthy, and sickening. One critic said that he wished she had never written it, and another wrote that to truly describe the novel would entail language not fit for publication (Stipe 16). The overwhelming condemnation of the entire book rather than just Edna’s suicide seems surprising in light of her successful short story career. The themes that Chopin explores in her novel are present in both Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, her short story collections published before The Awakening, and the other short stories she published separately. The only reasonable explanation is that people misinterpreted Chopin’s short stories about male/female relationships as sentimental and witty stories rather than serious condemnations of the social order that left women so little choice while giving men little restriction. This misinterpretation even occurs today. In classes I have taken that cover Chopin, many students and instructors read her short stories as romance, as celebrations of motherhood, and as empowerment of the matriarchy, yet they read The Awakening and recognize Chopin’s criticism of society without seeing any serious contradiction in their earlier readings of her short stories. However, the overwhelming pattern in Chopin’s fiction seems to either satirize or undermine the worlds of her characters. One way in which she does this is through point of view. A look at this technique reveals the genesis of The Awakening in even the earliest of her published fiction dealing with male/female sexual relationships.
Point of view is always important in a story. Readers use it to judge whether the narrator is reliable or unreliable. They use it to understand the limitations the narrator may have on his/her ability to interpret the events of the story. In Chopin’s short stories, the sex of the primary point of view character often determines the level of sentimentality at which readers rank the story. When I say “sentimentality,” I mean the level of romance the relationship and ending seem to have.
When the male point of view dominates, the stories have a fairy-tale quality that reflects Southern notions of chivalry. For example, in “In and Out of Old Natchitoches,” Alphonse Laballiere seems to have stepped straight out of a Sir Walter Scott novel when he throws “a plank over a muddy pool for [Mademoiselle St. Denys Godolph] to step upon” (Chopin, Bayou Folk). In “A No-Account Creole,” Placide views Euphrasie as a golden goddess who sets him trembling, arouses jealousy in him, and drives him to serve her (Bayou Folk). These two incidents, out of many similar ones in Chopin’s short fiction, exemplify the code by which many of her male characters live and view the world. Eugene Genovese, in his essay...