“Athénaïse” is Kate Chopin’s short story about a willful young woman who runs away from her husband’s Louisiana plantation and lives secretly in New Orleans.
“Athénaïse” was the Library of America’s “Story of the Week” for the first week in February 2013. And it turned out to be one of the most popular stories for 2013.
If you’re not yet fluent in English, you can hear a version of this story read in “Special English,” used by the Voice of America to “communicate by radio in clear and simple English with people whose native language is not English.”
Reading Kate Chopin’s “Athénaïse” online and in print
“Athénaïse” time and place
When “Athénaïse” was written and published
Questions and answers about “Athénaïse“
How to pronounce Athénaïse
Accurate texts of “Athénaïse“
New All of Kate Chopin’s short stories in Spanish
Recent articles about “Athénaïse“
Books that discuss Kate Chopin’s short stories
You can read the story online, although if you’re citing a passage for research purposes, you should check your citation against one of the accurate texts listed below.
In print you can find “Athénaïse” in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, in the Penguin Classics edition of Chopin’s Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, and in the Library of America Kate Chopin volume, as well as in other paperback and hardcover books. For publication information about these books, see the section “For students and scholars” near the bottom of this page.
- Athénaïse: mentioned in Chopin’s story “In and Out of Old Natchitoches”
- Cazeau: husband of Athénaïse
- Felicity: house servant of Cazeau
- Montéclin Miché: brother of Athénaïse
- Madame Miché: mother of Athénaïse
- Michu: father of Athénaïse
- Sylvie: owner of the New Orleans boarding house where Athénaïse lives
- Gouvernail: journalist and long-term residence at Sylvie’s. In French his name means a rudder, a tiller, with the implication that he is someone who knows the direction, who understands where things are headed. He is also a major character in Chopin’s story “A Respectable Woman,” and he appears at Edna Potellier’s party in Chapter XXX of The Awakening
- Pousette: house servant at Sylvie’s
The story takes place at Cazeau’s plantation along the Cane River, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, and in New Orleans—probably in the 1880s or early 1890s.
As we explain in the questions and answers below, readers often find fundamentally different ways to read the story. Some are disappointed that this strong, independent, daring woman returns to her husband when she discovers she is pregnant. Others see her as acting out exactly what Chopin tells us about her early in the story: “People often said that Athénaïse would know her own mind some day, which was equivalent to saying that she was at present unacquainted with it. If she ever came to such knowledge, it would be by no intellectual research, by no subtle analyses or tracing the motives of actions to their source. It would come to her as the song to the bird, the perfume and color to the flower.”
You can read about finding themes in Kate Chopin’s stories and novels on the Themes page of this site.
The story was written between April 10 and 28, 1895, and published in the Atlantic Monthly in August and September 1896. It was one of three Kate Chopin stories that the Atlantic Monthly published.
Q: How do you pronounce “Athénaïse“?
A: Probably Ah-TEN-ah-ease. But, like the names of some other characters in Chopin’s work, it’s complicated, perhaps impossible, to know how Chopin herself would have pronounced it or how she would have wanted her readers to pronounce it–or whether she would have cared how it’s pronounced. Two Chopin scholars discuss the matter.
Q: This story seems really out of character with Kate Chopin’s other works—with The Awakening and stories like “The Storm,” “The Story of an Hour,” “A Respectable Woman,” or “A Pair of Silk Stockings.” What do critics and others think of it?
A: They fall into two camps. Some ignore the story, in part because, like Athénaïse‘s brother Montéclin, they are unhappy when the life of this independent, daring woman takes—as Chopin phrases it—”a very disappointing, an ordinary, a most commonplace turn, after all.” Others find the story one of Chopin’s richest, a dress rehearsal for The Awakening in its treatment of a dissatisfied woman following her instincts, and in its setting that moves from a rural area to New Orleans and back to the rural area again. Susan Lohafer considers it a nineteenth-century classic.
And Kaye Gibbons writes in her introduction to the 2000 Modern Library Paperback Edition of The Awakening and Selected Stories, “This wonderfully developed story avoids stereotypes, creates suspense, and is a model of Chopin’s ability to satisfy all the requirements of a successful piece of fiction at once. One element is not sacrificed for another, the pathways the characters choose seem inevitable only in afterthought, and the sound moral choice Athénaïse makes at the end would please anyone who might decry Edna’s treatment of her children [in The Awakening]” (xxxviii–xxxix).
Q: Just what is going on near the end of Section II, as Cazeau rides past the old live-oak?
A: Cazeau remembers a moment when as a little boy he was riding on horseback with his father past that tree. His father was bringing back home a slave who had escaped from the plantation, and they stopped by the tree so the slave could take a breath. Cazeau is now on horseback bringing back his wife who had run away from the plantation, and he sees a parallel between the situation of the slave and that of his wife. He finds the thought “hideous.”
Q: Isn’t Gouvernail an unusual man for a Kate Chopin story?
A: Yes. Most of Chopin’s sensitive, intelligent, insightful characters are women. But there are a few exceptions, and Gouvernail is one of them. He is also a major character in Chopin’s “A Respectable Woman,” and he makes a cameo appearance in The Awakening.
Q: I am a reporter in Washington DC and have recently written an abbreviated adaptation of Kate Chopin’s short story “Athénaïse” for one of our weekly features on American culture. I am concerned about how one correctly pronounces Athénaïse. In French, I would think it would be Ah-TEN-ah-ease…but I do not know how it would be given a Cajun pronunciation. So I have searched for Chopin specialists online and thought you might be able to guide me. [You can hear how this word is pronounced in the “Special English” broadcast for the Voice of America.]
A: Two Kate Chopin scholars, Emily Toth (Louisiana State University) and Thomas Bonner, Jr. (Xavier University of Louisiana) discuss the question.
Emily: As to how Kate O’Flaherty (Chopin’s name at birth) would’ve heard “Athénaïse” pronounced: I doubt if there’s anyone who would know. I’m not sure it matters a whole lot, really. She would’ve been hearing the name her whole life (her grandmother Athénaïse died when Kate was in her mid-forties), no doubt spoken by relatives and friends in Natchitoches Parish, New Orleans, and St. Louis. Even today some names are pronounced differently in those three places.
Joan Marie Lally did a dissertationin 1973 on the different dialects in Chopin’s work, and that’s the only source I know of about pronunciations. But we don’t even know how Chopin would’ve pronounced Reisz or Ratignolle–so really, it’s all hopeless!
P. S. Further example of hopelessness: Chopin’s daughter was called Lélia (French, George Sand pronunciation) but also “Lil.”
Tom: Tom Klingler, Department of French at Tulane University, has done much work on Creole French in Louisiana. He has two books, including a dictionary on the subject, and with a grant has been developing tutorials. Amanda Lafleur at Louisiana State University has been working on Cajun French. She and Klingler are both cooperating to develop the tutorials in both local dialects of French. There has long been a dictionary of Cajun French by Jules Daigle, and a number of dictionaries have been subsequently developed. This is an interesting issue, as there are Creole and ‘Cajun characters in the work. There is the question of linguistic variations of French as spoken in old St. Louis as well. As Chopin’s family and friends had strong Louisiana connections, as Emily has indicated, it seems likely that the patterns of language to which she had been exposed in her youth, aside from her school experiences, were similar to those in Louisiana.
Emily: Thanks to Tom for further names of experts. I continue to think it’s something that can’t be determined, because Kate O’Flaherty, even as a youngster, would’ve heard many varieties of Americanish French.
How did the slaves in St. Louis, for instance, pronounce “Miz Athénaïse”–or would they have said “Madame Athénaïse” or “Madame Faris”? (I dunno.) Then of course there were Sacred Heart teachers [Kate studied at the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart], who taught in French but were often Irish. There were neighbors and other family friends, and Kate’s father, Thomas O’Flaherty himself, who probably pronounced French in some kind of Irish way (which leads me to one of my all-time favorite Kate Chopin lines–in her short story “A Matter of Prejudice”–about the crotchety maman’s theory that “the Irish voice is distressing to the sick . . .”).
Tom: Absolutely–on variety. All one has to do is experience the anglicized pronunciations of French and Greek named streets in New Orleans. And given the variances of pronunciation of French and German in St. Louis and especially New Orleans, I am with Emily on this matter.
What we say about the pronunciation of Athénaïse could apply to the names of other Chopin characters as well.
For students and scholars
The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Edited by Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie. Edited by Bernard Koloski. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Lohafer, Susan. “Kate Chopin and the Future of Short Fiction Studies.” Bernard Koloski, ed. Awakenings: The Story of the Kate Chopin Revival. 157–72. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2009, 2012.
Lippincott, Gail. “Thirty-Nine Weeks: Pregnancy and Birth Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” This Giving Birth: Pregnancy and Childbirth in American Women’s Writing. 55-66. Bowling Green, OH: Popular, 2000.
Lund, Michael. “Kate Chopin and Magazine Publication: Human Birth and Periodical Issue at the End of the Nineteenth Century.” Nineteenth-Century Feminisms 1 (1999): 95-117.
Goodspeed, Julie. “The Use of Endogamous Marriage in the Formation of Creole Identity in Cable’s The Grandissimes, Chopin’s ‘Athénaïse,’ and King’s ‘La Grande Demoiselle’.” Southern Studies 9 (1998): 45-67.
Thomas, Heather Kirk. “‘The House of Style’ in Kate Chopin’s ‘Athénaïse’.” Critical Essays on Kate Chopin. 207-217. New York: Hall, 1996.
Koloski, Bernard. “The Anthologized Chopin: Kate Chopin’s Short Stories in Yesterday’s and Today’s Anthologies.” Louisiana Literature 11 (1994): 18-30.
Arima, Hiroko. Beyond and Alone!: The Theme of Isolation in Selected Short Fiction of Kate Chopin, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2006.
Beer, Janet. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Stein, Allen F. Women and Autonomy in Kate Chopin’s Short Fiction New York: Peter Lang, 2005.
Walker, Nancy A. Kate Chopin: A Literary Life Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2001.
Koloski, Bernard. “Introduction” Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie by Kate Chopin New York: Penguin, 1999.
Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.
Koloski, Bernard. Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction New York: Twayne, 1996.
Petry, Alice Hall (ed.), Critical Essays on Kate Chopin New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.
Elfenbein, Anna Shannon. Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable, Grace King, Kate Chopin Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1994.
Boren, Lynda S. and Sara deSaussure Davis (eds.), Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.
Perspectives on KateChopin: Proceedings from the Kate Chopin International Conference, April 6, 7, 8, 1989 Natchitoches, LA: Northwestern State UP, 1992.
Papke, Mary E. Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton New York: Greenwood, 1990.
Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.
Taylor, Helen. Gender, Race, and Region in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.
Bonner, Thomas Jr., The Kate Chopin Companion New York: Greenwood, 1988.
Bloom, Harold (ed.), Kate Chopin New York: Chelsea, 1987.
Ewell, Barbara C. Kate Chopin New York: Ungar, 1986.
Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin Boston: Twayne, 1985.
Susan Lohafer. Coming to Terms with the Short Story Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.
Rankin, Daniel, Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1932.