“The Locket” is Kate Chopin’s short story about two young lovers during the American Civil War and the locket that binds them together.
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Time and place
When the story was written and published
What critics and scholars say
Questions and answers
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Articles about the story
- Edmond Pillier (sometimes called Ned): a soldier in the Confederate army
- Nick: another soldier in Edmond’s unit
- Unnamed soldiers: men also serving in Edmond’s unit
- A wise old bird who watches the battle
- Priest who gives last rights to dying soldiers on the battlefield
- A Black servant who assists the priest
- A dead soldier found with the locket
- Octavie: Edmond’s lover and original owner of the locket. Also mentioned in Chopin’s story “A Respectable Woman,” as Aunt Octavie
- Judge Pillier (Edmond’s father): longtime friend and neighbor of Octavie
The story is set during the American Civil War, sometime between 1861 and 1865. Part I takes place on an unnamed battlefield; Part II takes place not far from Judge Pillier’s house in the central Louisiana countryside.
Readers often think of the story as focused on the power of love and the horrors of war. Although Chopin alludes to the American Civil War in some of her other short stories, such as “A Wizard from Gettysburg,” this is her only story set on a battlefield.
There are further details in what critics and scholars say and in the questions and answers below. And you can read about finding themes in Kate Chopin’s stories and novels on the Themes page of this site.
The story was composed in March of 1897. It was not published in Chopin’s lifetime, first appearing in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin in 1969.
Though some of Chopin’s short stories, including “The Locket,” haven’t garnered much critical attention, Emily Toth notes that the story was Chopin’s attempt to write a war story like those that were popular in magazines at the time. Though her story was similar to Stephen Crane’s earlier literary success, The Red Badge of Courage, Toth notes that: “there was no heroism in Kate Chopin’s account of war–only loneliness, despair, and death–but she could not sell ‘The Locket.’” And, Toth points out, “The Locket” was Kate Chopin’s only story to describe a scene of battle.
Barbara C. Ewell adds that “Octavie’s confused grief in the midst of a glorious spring, like the birds’ bewildered efforts to understand these desperate ‘children playing a game,’ epitomizes the tangled ironies of love and war, even as it anticipates the reversals that restore Octavie’s lost lover and turn tragedy into comedy.”
You can search the titles in our extensive databases of books and articles for more information about this short story—information in English, German, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Q: Why is the locket important in the story?
A: Edmond’s comrades believe that the locket is a charm that got him promoted and allowed him to remain unharmed throughout the war. The locket, in fact, contains pictures of Octavie’s mother and father, and is described as “her most precious earthly possession.” Octavie gave Edmond the locket as a memento.
Q: Which soldier actually dies and how did he end up with the locket?
A: The dead soldier is described as being a “mere boy,” and was one of the two unnamed men that are “lying at full length a little distance away [from the fire]” in the opening scene of the story. Edmond recounts to Octavie at the end of the story that he thought he “lost it in the heat of the struggle, but it was stolen.” Apparently the young soldier stole the locket hoping that it would protect him in the coming battle.
Q: I was upset seeing the word “Negro” in this story. Why did Chopin include it?
A: This painful subject requires a sense of historical imagination, historical empathy. Chopin’s language here is a picture of the way people in her time spoke to one another. Words like “darkey” and “Negro,” offensive for us in the twenty-first century, were used familiarly by people of color and white people in Chopin’s Louisiana, usually without intended rancor. Kate Chopin reproduced such language in her characters’ speech, as she reproduced people’s dialectal patterns. For her, as for Mark Twain and others of her generation, recording accurately the way people spoke was an important part of being a good writer.
Louisiana at the time was just decades away from slavery. Chopin does not pretend that the color line is gone, that Blacks enjoy complete freedom and equality, or that everyone lives in racial harmony with everyone else. There are racial tensions in several of her stories.
Chopin was, of course, a nineteenth-century, white, Southern woman, but she was also deeply steeped in French culture, being bilingual and bi-cultural from birth. She shares both American and European attitudes toward race, and she always sees more than her characters do.
As we note on other pages of this site, there’s been a good deal written about Chopin and race. If you want to explore the subject you might start by reading articles by Anna Shannon Elfenbein, Helen Taylor, and Elizabeth Ammons in the Norton Critical Edition of The Awakening, and you might look at Bonnie James Shaker’s Coloring Locals. For a defense of Chopin you might start by checking Emily Toth’s Kate Chopin and Bernard Koloski’s Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction, and online you could read Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s comments on the Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening site. You can find information about these and other publications about Chopin and race at the bottom of the Awakening page and the Short Stories page of this site, as well as on pages devoted to individual stories, like “Désirée’s Baby.”
Q: Why wasn’t this story published during Kate Chopin’s lifetime?
A: Emily Toth notes that “between March 1897 and December 1898, it was rejected by nine periodicals” and that in “1898 it was also out of step with the its times, for the Spanish-American War had begun, amid waves of patriotic fever.” She also points out that, as a woman, “Kate Chopin was not only expressing an unpopular sentiment, showing war as grief rather than glory, but she was also intruding on masculine territory–and a woman who did so was rarely welcome.”
If you have additional questions, would you contact us?
Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories. Edited by Sandra Gilbert. New York: Library of America, 2002.
These articles may be available online through university or public libraries.
Kotlarczyk, Adam. “Before PTSD: Combat Trauma in the Civil War Short Stories of Kate Chopin.” Notes On American Literature 23 (2014): 23–31.
Johnson, Steven K. “Uncanny Burials: Post–Civil War Memories in Chopin and Bierce.” ABP Journal 2.1 (2006): np
We thank Joel Miller for his contributions to this page.