Generally speaking, it is believed that writers write about subjects with which they are familiar and, in particular, fiction writers often use personal experiences as a source of inspiration. This belief is substantiated in the case of Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening, especially with regard to Cheniere Caminada.
Cheniere Caminada was a popular vacation resort located on the Louisiana coast of the Gulf of Mexico. In the late nineteenth century it was very common for upper class wives and children to travel to the hotels there and for husbands to visit on weekends. Many of the defining moments and experiences of Edna Pontellier took place right there at Cheniere Caminada, and this paper will explore some of the real life events in light of Chopin's story.
Cheniere was described by the census of 1880 as a fishing village with a growing resort industry, according to Joseph Loulan Pitre (8). Now, known by only a few, this place of such diversity and recreational appeal lives on only in the books and memorials that exist as a tribute. Fortunately one such book that provides a snapshot of Cheniere Caminada is The Awakening.
Technically a peninsula, Cheniere Caminada was connected to the mainland only by marsh and was named for the "chenieres" that shot up from the ground. Pitre defines a cheniere as a ridge that is high enough to support the growth of oak trees (10). To further aid in the understanding of the geography of Cheniere Caminada and the storm that caused so much damage, a drawing of Cheniere Caminada from the Cheniere Hurricane Centennial book is included at the end of this report as well as a graphic from Unisys Corporation web site showing the path of the hurricane of 1893.
On the evening of October 1, 1893, six years before The Awakening was published, Cheniere Caminada was decimated by a category two hurricane with winds estimated to have been 100 miles per hour, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration web site (NOAA). In contrast to two more recent hurricanes which, were of category five, named Andrew and Mitch, with winds of 135 and 155 miles per hour respectively, the hurricane that struck Cheniere Caminada was somewhat less intense. Nonetheless, [being directly exposed with no barrier whatsoever for protection,] the effects of the strong hurricane were devastating for the village.
Kate Chopin was known to have been a visitor to Cheniere Caminada and although New Orleans was spared any of the effects of the storm, according to The Terrebonne Genealogical Society, local and national newspapers carried reports on the catastrophic storm for over a month (5).
One such newspaper article published by The Thibodaux Sentinel quoted by the Terrebonne Genealogical Society read:
Fifty-four miles from New Orleans and surrounded by water, help for Cheniere Caminada was hampered by the distance and water that made it such an effective hideaway for Edna Pontellier and Kate Chopin.
The stories of heroism as well as great loss and tragedy made their way back to civilization only to intensify the grief of those mourning the loss of loved ones. As stated by The Cheniere Hurricane Centennial, one such story tells of three young sisters that were found penned to a barb wire fence holding hands together as they drowned in the massive tidal surge (17). The report went on to say that the sisters were buried together still holding hands.
In the video cassette by Windell Curole covering Cheniere Caminada and the hurricane of 1893, the narrator observes, "It was a place where some people went to escape from the law and others went to escape from society." The later clearly fits the situation of Kate Chopin and that of her lead character in The Awakening.
It took an eight hour boat ride to travel the fifty-four miles from New Orleans to Cheniere Caminada, but as Curole puts it "it might as well have been 54,000 miles if you were trying to communicate with someone from there. One other account from Curoles video reported the comment of a girl that married someone from Cheniere and had to move there to work. Having been the daughter of a plantation hired hand, she was heard to say in comparing the two lifestyles that you didn't make as much money at Cheniere, but you always had more fun.
Clearly the characteristics that make up Cheniere Caminada gave Kate Chopin the perfect venue for many of Edna's defining moments. For example, it was a free-spirited place where no one really questioned her time with Robert. Yet it was that same sense of free spirit that gave her the power to embrace her awakening and later, back in New Orleans, even reject the notion from Robert that she would become his if Leonce would grant it.
The closeness to nature at Cheniere must have helped her to develop some of the imagery that she used. An unpublished paper presented by Sarah Klein, observes that "Throughout The Awakening, the sea operates as the most significant natural image, wielding substantial power over Edna as a catalyst for her psychological, emotional, erotic, and spiritual awakening." Klein goes on to quote from The Awakening:
It is possible that the sudden, unexpected devastation of Cheniere Caminada awakened the idea within Kate Chopin that such an event as happened with the hurricane of 1893 could also be applied to Edna. One must conclude that in the same way that nature created and destroyed Cheniere, Edna was drowned out by the society that facilitated her knowledge.
The importance of nature imagery in The Awakening is clearly present throughout the novel. Moreover, with an awareness of the real life events, which are well chronicled in the history of south Louisiana, taking place during Chopin's time in the region, one's experience in reading The Awakening is carried to an entirely new and satisfying level of appreciation for the creative process.
It is a sad commentary on the work of Kate Chopin to know that as brilliant as The Awakening is, it was not accepted as such by the people of Kate Chopin's time. Even more disappointing is the fact that the critical rejection of her work resulted in Chopin's withdrawal from the literary scene.
It makes the work that she did and the way that she did it even more valuable, and it is noteworthy to consider that Kate Chopin, like Edna Pontellier and like Cheniere Caminada was destroyed by the society and the culture that helped to create her. Kate Chopin's influence on society lives on in the hearts and minds of those that come to understand and enjoy The Awakening just as the people of Cheniere Caminada are memorialized in the books and tapes that tell their tale and the tale of the great hurricane of 1893.
Cheniere Hurricane Centennial. Reflechir : les images des prairies tremblantes. Cut Off, LA : The Cheniere Hurricane Centennial, 1994.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Selected Short Stories of Kate Chopin. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
Curole, Windell. Cheniere Caminada Commemorative Committee.
Cheniere Caminada remembered Cheniere Caminada Commemorative Committee.
Cut Off, La.: The Committee, 1994. VHS Format.
NOAA 1999. "Late 19th Century." http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ftproot/lch/lalate19hu.htm.
[Accessed March 26, 1999].
Pitre, Loulan Joseph. Cheniere Caminada Avant L'Ouragan : Culture In a Nineteenth-Century Cajun Community. Cambridge, MA. Cote Blanche Press, 1983.
Terrebonne Genealogical Society. Memorial to Cheniere Caminada. Houma, La. : Terrebonne Genealogical Society, 1992.
Unisys Corp. 1998. "Atlantic Tropical Storm Tracking by Year" http://weather.unisys.com/hurricane/atlantic/1893/10/track.gif. [Accessed March 26, 1999].
--Content prepared by Todd McKinnon.
Copyright (c) 1999; all rights reserved.
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