Pioneering Kate Chopin’s Feminism: Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons as Patchwork Precursor to The Awakening

  • Diana Epelbaum
Part of the American Literature Readings in the Twenty-First Century book series (ALTC)


In Elizabeth Stoddard’s odd novel The Morgesons (1862), the sea stirs young Cassandra Morgeson, pulling to the surface a dormant sexuality, “murmuring softly, creeping along the shore, licking the rocks and sand as if recognizing a master. And I saw and felt its steady, resistless heaving, insidious and terrible” (63). Another, more famous, fin de siècle novel echoes this inner disturbance within its heroine in much the same terms, engaging the sea as a powerful symbol for sexuality and freedom. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), Edna Pontellier’s love affair with the ocean is similarly characterized by an unleashing, first felt as a calm drifting and later as a violent storm. Edna is a boat unmoored, “borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening—had snapped the night before” (81). The sea, however, is only one representative element of the two closely related novels. While there is no evidence that Chopin read Stoddard’s work, the two novels are thematic sisters, employing identical symbols, like those of water, food, music, and sleeping/waking, to probe common feminist themes. As patchwork of nineteenth-century fictional styles, and as early iteration of regional, realistic, and even naturalistic writing, The Morgesons stands firmly as a precursor to The Awakening. This chapter reads Stoddard and Chopin in tandem in order to model an enriching pedagogical approach to Chopin’s canonical novel.


Local Color Powerful Symbol Interpretative Strategy Female Relationship Domestic Sphere 
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© Heather Ostman and Kate O’Donoghue 2015

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  • Diana Epelbaum

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