"A Group of People at My Disposal": Humor in the Works of Kate Chopin

By Walker, Nancy | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January 2000 | Go to article overview
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"A Group of People at My Disposal": Humor in the Works of Kate Chopin


Walker, Nancy, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


In late May of 1899, after enduring several weeks of largely critical--although not yet outraged--reviews of her novel The Awakening, Kate Chopin wrote her well-known mock defense of the novel for Book News:

Having a group of people at my disposal, thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over and it was then too late. (qtd. in Private Papers 296)

Few readers then, and none today, would have taken this statement as a sincere apology for any of Edna Pontellier's actions. Chopin's flippant tone is obvious; she uses humor to create the pretense that she had little control over her own creation and thereby to disarm her critics. The attempt failed; by the time Book News published her comments in July, the critical die had been cast, and The Awakening was widely regarded as an immoral book. This was not the first time that Chopin had used humor in her writing. Indeed, it is a fact largely unremarked by scholars that Chopin was a skilled practitioner of humorous techniques--sometimes to avoid the sentimentality that could so easily find its way into "local-color" sketches and stories for children, but more extensively to critique such manifestations of late-nineteenth-century American society as ostentatious philanthropy, social pretentiousness, and even some aspects of the Southern culture that was her most common subject matter. A study of Chopin's use of humor and satire provides important insights into her opinions of the culture in which she lived and her ability to maintain an ironic distance from the parts of that culture that threatened her independence.

Indeed, although Chopin has most often been categorized--particularly during her own lifetime--as a writer of Southern regional fiction, she should also be seen as part of the tradition of American women's humor. [1] By the time Chopin's career was well underway in the 1890s, several generations of women writers had used wit and humor to declare their resistance to hypocrisy, pretension, and cultural constraints, particularly as they affected women's lives. In the 1840s, Frances Whitcher had used satire to point out that it was women's economic dependence on men that caused them to be competitive in the marriage market, and during the following two decades Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton) employed sprightly comedy to address conflicts between marriage and women's careers, the tyranny of fashion, and religious hypocrisy. By the 189 OS, Marietta Holley had emerged as one of America's most popular humorous writers; her central character, Samantha Allen, is an outspoken feminist who rejects sentimental views of m arriage and advocates female suffrage. Although there is no evidence that Chopin read the work of these predecessors, she similarly found the various humorous modes the appropriate vehicle for much of her social commentary.

In both her critical writing and her fiction, Chopin frequently declared her affinity for humor and her resistance to the sentimental and the conventional. One of her major reservations about Thomas Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure was that "from beginning to end there is not a gleam of humor in the book" (qtd. in Rankin 152). She valued a sense of humor as a personal characteristic as well as an element of literature. When she was invited to meet fellow writer Ruth McEnery Stuart in February of 1897, she initially dreaded the encounter: "I had met a few celebrities, and they had never failed to depress me." But the meeting with Stuart reassured her: "I might have known that a woman possessing so great an abundance of saving grace--which is humor--was not going to take herself seriously, or to imagine for a moment that I intended to take her seriously" (qtd.

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