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  • "A Lot Up For Grabs":The Idiosyncratic, Syncretic Religious Temperament of Kate Chopin
  • David Z. Wehner

Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman represent "one of the most compelling, if uncategorizable, intellectual tendencies of the twentieth century: that of religious temperament without religious faith."

—Carlos Fuentes

A search for Kate Chopin's name in the online MLA Bibliography turns up 652 articles published over the past forty years, but only one—published in 1982 by a scholar at Loyola University—mentions Catholicism in its title.1 This void exists despite the fact that Chopin's family raised her as a practicing Catholic, she did all of her schooling in Catholic institutions, she went to communion on her honeymoon, and references to Christianity fill her work. Of her ninety-six short stories, she set five at Christmas and four at Easter, and religious diction suffuses all her stories: awakening, rapture, ecstasy, transfiguration, miracles, Christ, the Holy Ghost, Eve, and Assumption. The title of her most-studied novel, The Awakening, represents a trope that runs throughout Christian conversion narratives. The novel starts on a Sunday with most of the Grand Isle vacationers attending Mass, except for the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, and a week later on the next Sunday, Edna's awakening begins as she first realizes her feelings for Robert Lebrun. Edna's foil in the novel, Adele Ratignolle, is described as "a faultless Madonna," "a sensuous Madonna," while the Farival twins always dress in blue and white because at their baptism they were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.2 An unnamed woman dressed all in black counting her beads floats in and out of the pages of the novel for no apparent reason. Still, scholars remain relatively silent on Chopin's interaction with religion and instead focus on the problematics of gender.

Certainly, Chopin's life, work, and reception history lend themselves well to a feminist reading. In the 1890s, Chopin enjoyed a nice literary career and reputation until in 1899 she published The Awakening, whose protagonist challenged cultural norms around female sexuality, motherhood, [End Page 154] and marriage. The novel's reception, harsh and critical, convinced Chopin's publisher to cancel her already-accepted third collection of short stories, A Voice and a Vocation. The author's literary output fell off from the productivity of the 1890s, and she died of a stroke five years later in 1904. Over the next sixty-five years, the scholarship on her remained scant and spotty until Per Seyersted in 1969 published a biography of her along with The Complete Works. Seyersted's work coincided with the second wave of feminism's project of recovering lost women writers, and perhaps because of this coincidence, thirty-five years later we continue to read Chopin's oeuvre as if the question of gender drives her body of work. In this emphasis, our scholarship separates out questions of religion, though clearly Chopin did not separate the questions of gender and religion. Indeed, Chopin's unorthodox views on female sexuality, marriage, and motherhood grew out of her unorthodox views on religion and her attempt to reconcile the Catholicism of her early life with her later reading in writers like Charles Darwin. This article will offer a reading of Chopin that foregrounds her engagement with the tension between religion and secularism in the late-nineteenth century. By the time Chopin began her writing career, as with Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman, her religious faith had faded, but religious temperament remained; her work, then, demonstrates a steady, clear articulation of this idiosyncratic, syncretic temperament.3

Chopin and Christian Asceticism: Nuns and Monasteries

In the attached photograph of Kate Chopin, dating to 1877 (figure 1), the writer is twenty-seven years old, living in New Orleans with her husband, Oscar, and her first four children. In the photograph, a large cross hangs around her neck—a cross so big it represents not a demure piece of jewelry but rather a loud proclamation of faith. In 1889, twelve years after this picture, Chopin published her first short story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. By the time Chopin published The Awakening (1899), Seyersted tells us, she was "a Catholic in name only...