Kate Chopin. Image from the archives of the Missouri Historical Society.
Credit: Courtesy of The Kate Chopin International Society.
"Here was life, not fiction," Chopin wrote of Guy de Maupassant in her diary. "Here was a man who escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes; and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw." (from Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening transcript) Guy de Maupassant was a French realist author of approximately 300 short stories, 6 novels, and various other writings who lived in the mid- to late- 19th century (b. 1850, d. 1893).
Introduce to your students concepts of realism, a literary movement in the 19th century that focused on reporting aspects of "common" life (common, of course, is a relative term). Chopin is often regarded as a practitioner of regionalism or local color (the two terms are often used interchangeably).
While the specific attributes of realism as a literary style are often debated, a dedication to verisimilitude is the basic precept. Regionalist or local color writing focuses on a particular setting and segment of society—often mimicking in print their manner of speech (their vernacular), their class system, and other social rules particular to the region, such as specific roles or assumptions for women or children (see the first passage in "Selected Passages" below for an example of the latter). See "Preparing to Teach" below for more definitions, and review the websites below for lists of specific attributes commonly found in realist, local color, and regionalist fiction.
The websites used in the Activity provide a greater amount of detail—and complication—of literary realism of the 19th century, but the following two definitions serve as good starting points.
In its literary usage, the term realism is often defined as a method or form in fiction that provides a "slice of life," an "accurate representation of reality."
—from the Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism, ed. Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi
Literary realism is a 19th century conception related to industrial capitalism. In general, it means the use of the imagination to represent things as common sense supposes they are.
—from Bloomsbury Guide to Literature, ed. Marion Wynne-Davies
Literary realism is a variable, complex, and often argued about concept. No one work is a perfect example of 'realism'—Lesson 2 allows students to read through some basic attributes of realist literature in order to use that context to examine The Awakening. Practitioners of a realist style in the American tradition include William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and Henry James.
These two literary terms are often used interchangeably, and certainly they have many similarities. For the purposes of this lesson, students should not need to differentiate between the two, but for the teacher's clarity the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, excerpted in the EDSITEment reviewed website Documenting the American South, distinguishes them as follows:
Although the terms regionalism and local color are sometimes used interchangeably, regionalism generally has broader connotations. Whereas local color is often applied to a specific literary mode that flourished in the late 19th century, regionalism implies a recognition from the colonial period to the present of differences among specific areas of the country. Additionally, regionalism refers to an intellectual movement encompassing regional consciousness beginning in the 1930s.
In The Awakening, as well as her short stories, Chopin frequently focused on the Creole culture of Louisiana. Unique regional features included a heritage that drew from French and Spanish ancestry, a complex cast system, the settings of urban New Orleans and rural vacation retreats like Grand Isle (located on the Gulf Coast). Chopin's use of a culturally foreign protagonist - Edna was a protestant from Kentucky, rather than a French-speaking Catholic Creole like her husband—casts cultural differences into even sharper relief. Specific textual examples of Edna's encounter with Creole culture can be found in "Selected Passages" below.
Chopin's The Awakening is set in Louisiana—in the resort town of Grand Isle, as well as New Orleans. Often, the characters slip into French phrases, or Chopin uses words that might be unfamiliar to students—such as Creole or quadroon. Students should be encouraged to use either a print or online dictionary while reading—the Internet Public Library has several available, including Dictionary.com, which provides both English and French dictionaries.
[Students should read at least the first seven chapters of The Awakening before doing this in-class exercise]
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
E-texts of The Awakening are freely available at the following locations:
Have students visit one or more of the following sites (you might break them into groups to work on different sites), which detail aspects of Realism, Local Color, and Regionalism:
Students should research the attributes of realism, local color, and/or regionalism. Working in groups (group size as appropriate for class size), students should find a passage in the novel that exhibits one or more aspects of these styles. Students should list why the passage reflects realism, local color, or regionalism; they should read the passage closely, giving detailed evidence. Each group should present their passage and their findings while the instructor lists the passages and their attributes on the board. At the end of the class activity, several passages from the novel will be available for further discussion.
Teachers might want to lead the class through an example of the exercise using one passage (perhaps selected from one below). In this case, the teacher would lead a class analysis first, and then establish groups to perform the activity on their own.
Possible questions to explore as students encounter different passages may include:
The following passages are only a few of many that students might examine in context of realism, local color, or regionalism.
Below are various assessment strategies that might be used alone or in combination:
Student groups should present the passage that they select to the classroom, discussing the various points of realism, local color, or regionalism as it pertains to their specific passage. Students should provide a close (rather than general) reading, pointing to specific phrases and ideas to support their ideas. Each group should come up with two or three discussion questions to share with the class that will further discussion.
The teacher should select a passage not examined by students in class thus far and have students mine it for realism, local color, setting, and how it effects the portrayal of Edna and her situation. Alternatively, students might do a similar examination with Robert as their focus.
Ask students to write a local color or regionalist story or essay. They should try to emulate the style by portraying a place they live or have visited. Ask them to briefly reflect on how setting and culture influences what they wrote about.
2-3 class periods