- "Her First Party" as Her Last Story:Recovering Kate Chopin's Fiction
On 30 March 1905, the Youth's Companion published its twelfth and final story by Kate Chopin (1850-1904), seven months after the author's death. Until now, "Her First Party"—alternately titled in Chopin's Account and Memoranda Notebooks "Millie's First Party" and "Millie's First Ball"—was thought to have been lost or destroyed (Toth, Seyersted, and Bonnell 310). Researchers have long known of the story and its sale to the Companion, as these are documented in Chopin's notebooks, which constitute an exhaustive, handwritten record of her literary production, transactions, and revenue. But no manuscript of the tale has been found among Chopin's private papers, nor has a copy of the Companion's original text appeared before this Legacy reprint.1
As a newly recovered addition to Chopin's body of work, "Her First Party" is perhaps most significant as the tale that punctuates the end of the author's publishing career. Appearing within a year of her death, it comprises Chopin's final words to be read by her contemporaneous public. "Her First Party" displaces "The Wood-Choppers" and "Polly" for this distinction; before this writing, these two tales were thought to be Chopin's last set into type, both in 1902. Also published by the Companion, "The Wood-Choppers" and "Polly" are anomalies in the Chopin oeuvre, their simplistic, happily-ever-after formula a strange finale to more than a decade of work filled with nuanced treatments of marital ambivalence, marital strife, and extramarital passion. In the absence of "Her [End Page 384] First Party," it seemed that at the end of her career Chopin was capitulating to safe plots that would sell (11).2 But "Her First Party" and "The Wood-Choppers" were composed on consecutive days, 16 and 17 October 1901, and sold to the Companion in a bulk submission dated 18 October.3 The content of "Her First Party" illustrates that, to the last, Chopin was willing to voice her own subjective truth through her fiction—a courageousness for which we value her today.4 A product of that courage, "Her First Party" resembles in subject and style some of the fiction for which Chopin is best known: It critiques white debutante traditions through an expert use of point of view and the surprise double ending, two techniques that distinguish some of Chopin's most anthologized short stories, including "The Story of an Hour" and "Désirée's Baby."
Heather Kirk Thomas, following Chopin's first biographer, Daniel Rankin, has countered the prevailing characterization of Chopin as a melancholic retiree in her post-Awakening years. Even though Chopin's Account/Memo Notebooks document sustained literary activity and sales for the first three of the five years between The Awakening's release and Chopin's death, some of the field's most influential scholars nonetheless recirculated the myth that the author was "a defeated and demoralized woman who retired from literary and public life after unfavorable reviews of The Awakening" (Thomas, "'What Are the Prospects'" 36-37).5 "Her First Party" corroborates Thomas's interpretation, strengthening our understanding of Chopin's post-Awakening productivity and acceptance by readers and editors; it also registers the pre-Awakening defiance we associate with "St. Louis's 'Littlest Rebel'" (Toth, Kate Chopin 64).6
Fittingly, "Her First Party" echoes its author's youthful opinion of society balls, that bygone courtship custom for uniting eligible young men and women. Even at the age of nineteen, Kate, née O'Flaherty, wrote in her diary that she was "diametrically opposed" to the ritual, and with "Her First Party" the fifty-something matron shows her readers why.7 "Her First Party," the deftly written account of one teenage girl's myopic preoccupation with attending her first of such engagements, whisks readers along from protagonist Millie's infectious excitement at the outset to her ultimate contrition at the end when her self-absorption proves trivial and ultimately irredeemable. With signature deadpan foreshadowing, Chopin betrays the title's promise (an extended treatment of the party itself) in favor...