Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin (February 8, 1850 – August 22, 1904) was an American author who made her mark writing fiction that was regional in character, yet universal in nature. Her best known work is The Awakening, a novella that was controversial from the time it was published in 1899 and for several decades afterwards.

The Awakening was often banned from bookstores and libraries, and panned by (mostly male) critics, though some reviews were positive. Overall, the reception of The Awakening and the shockwaves it produced discouraged Chopin, whose output slowed considerably in its wake. It’s now considered a feminist classic, with a secure place in American literature, and Chopin earned her due only decades after her death.

Some wonder whether Kate Chopin was in any way related to the Polish-born composer Frederic Chopin, but no direct connection has been found. Coincidentally, one of her sons was named Frederick Chopin.

 

Early years and upbringing

Born Kate O’Flaherty in St. Louis, she was descended on her mother’s side from the old French families of that city. Her mother was Eliza Faris, and her father was Captain Thomas O’Flaherty, an Irish immigrant who became a wealthy merchant, active in local affairs. Kate was raised in the ethnic French and Irish traditions of Catholicism, and educated at Sacred Heart convent.

Her father died when Kate was not yet five years old from a railway accident. She subsequently developed a strong bond with her maternal lineage — her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, with whom she lived. None of them remarried after the loss of their husbands, and so Kate learned early that women could survive and thrive on their own. 

Kate was an avid reader, devouring contemporary novels, fairy tales, poetry, and religious dramas.  She was steeped in the literature of England and France and became fluent in French. 

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Kate Chopin as a young woman

Kate Chopin in her younger days, likely in the 1870s
Photo: St. Louis Historical Society
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Marriage, family, and widowhood

With her beauty and charm, Kate was considered one of the “belles of St. Louis.” Shortly after her introduction to society, she married Oscar Chopin of Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana in 1870, at age nineteen. The couple moved to New Orleans, then lived on his Natchitoches plantation and other parts of Louisiana.

Those years found her immersed in the Creole and Cajun cultures that figured so prominently in her writing. She had six children, five boys and a girl, in quick succession, from 1871 to 1879: Jean Baptiste, Oscar Charles, George Francis, Frederick, Felix Andrew, and Marie Laïza (also known as Lélia).

Oscar Chopin died in 1882, leaving Kate to care for the six young children. In addition, he left her in extreme debt of $42,0000 — equal to hundreds of thousands in today’s dollars. She tried to make good on the plantation and general store her husband had owned, but her mother prevailed upon her to move back to St. Louis, and she sold the businesses.

Kate Chopin’s children settled well into her bustling home city, but a year after she moved back, her mother died. Losing her mother compounded the stress of widowhood and loss of livelihood; understandably, she struggled with depression. Her family physician suggested that she take up writing as an outlet.

This was fortunate and somewhat surprising, for it was right around the same time that Charlotte Perkins Gilman, suffering from postpartum depression, was forbidden by her doctor to write or have any sort of creative outlet. Chopin did indeed find writing to be the therapeutic outlet she needed.

 

The start of a literary career

In the early 1890s, Chopin forged a writing career, contributing short stories and articles to local publications like the St. Louis Dispatch as well as literary journals. Her work found further favor in national magazines like Vogue, The Century Magazine, and Atlantic Monthly.

Her first works set the stage for the kind of writing she would do for the rest of her brief yet productive career. Her stories were steeped in regional flavor, yet gradually found a wider audience because their themes, albeit controversial for their time, were universal.

Having had the opportunity to live in bustling cities like St. Louis and New Orleans as well as rural communities, Chopin was able to observe various classes and cultures. Since she was steeped in Creole culture, that’s what comes though her work the most.

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The awakening by Kate Chopin cover

Read the full text of The Awakening (1899)

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Influence of Guy de Maupessant

Kate Chopin’s major literary influence was Guy de Maupessant, A French author from Normandy best known for short stories. In his time, some of the themes he explored in his writing were sexuality, depression, and loneliness. Elements of the human condition expressed print were often taboo — and in effect, he was often considered immoral as a result. Chopin described how moved she felt after she read de Maupessant’s work:

“… I read his stories and marveled at them. Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinkable way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making.

Here was a man who had 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…”

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At Fault by Kage Chopin

Kate Chopin page on Amazon
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Literary accomplishments 

Kate Chopin wrote short stories and slim novels rather than tomes, and set most of them in Creole culture. At Fault (1890), her first novel, was printed at her own expense and features a young widow. It touches on the sexual constraints experienced by women, foreshadowing The Awakening (1899).

Her fiction became an outlet for her observations of late 19th-century Southern American society, especially, as mentioned above, the Creole and Cajun cultures she had lived with in Louisiana. In the 1890s, she also published plays and poems in addition to dozens of short stories.

In 1894, “A Respectable Woman” was published in Vogue, expanding her reach beyond Louisiana. This short story introduced the character of Gouvernail, who reappears in The Awakening. 

Bayou Folk (1894), a collection of picturesque stories of Creole life on Louisiana plantation, was told with an exquisite eye for detail. It was the first of her works to gain national attention, and was followed by another collection of short stories, A Night in Acadie (1897).

 

The Awakening

Chopin’s most mature and best-known work remains The Awakening. It was controversial in its time, garnering more negative reviews than positive, including one by her contemporary, Willa Cather, who offered up a rather harsh assessment.

The female characters in The Awakening didn’t adhere to the standards of what was acceptable behavior of the time. Edna Pontellier, the main character, has sexual urges and questions the sanctity of motherhood. Above all, there’s the theme of marital infidelity from the perspective of a wife. The book was widely banned, and even fell out of print for several decades before being rediscovered in the 1970s. It’s now considered a classic of feminist fiction. You can read the full text of The Awakening on this site

Perhaps the poor reception of The Awakening discouraged Chopin. So shocked was the public and critics by the novella that the publication of her final collection of short stories, A Vocation and a Voice (1900), was cancelled.

Chopin’s output slowed considerably after that. Though she published a few short stories, but wasn’t able to replicate the kind of early success she’d had in the early 1890s with her contributions to magazines and journals. Mostly, she lived on the inheritance she had received from her mother. All told, the period of prolific literary output was concentrated in a period of a dozen years or so.

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Kate Chopin, author of The Awakening

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Themes in Chopin’s work

Chopin didn’t identify as a feminist; she would have likely protested the label. Yet she was influenced by the strong women who raised her, and believed that women had the capacity of being strong and independent. Her works conveyed the message that women could claim identities independent from men’s.

It’s not surprising, then, that her writings would have been considered subversive in the antebellum South, and in the post-Victorian era, when women were still supposed to aspire to being “the angel in the house” and nothing more.

In her writings, she was a realist, representing the world as it was, while avoiding the prevailing sentimentality of popular fiction. She addressed themes in women’s lives that weren’t often confronted in literature, not shying away from issues of race, class, and hypocrisy.

She was also interested in the imperfection of the institution of marriage, and also addressed the ever-fraught topic of what was then called miscegenation, or interracial marriage. Since Creole culture included people of color, relationships were complicated with societal hierarchies, something that Chopin observed throughout her life in these communities.

Her convictions were on full display in the short story (which you can read in its entirety by following the link) “Désirée’s Baby.” First published in Vogue magazine in 1893, it explored, like many of her subsequent tales, the struggle for racial and gender equality and the vagaries of identity. The story was published with a related tale by Chopin, “A Visit to Avoyelles.” 

Désirée, the adopted daughter of wealthy French Creoles marries the son of another wealthy French Creole family. When the couple has a baby, it’s apparent that he’s mixed race, with the coloring of what was then called a “quadroon” — a person that is one-quarter black. Because Désirée’s parentage is not known, Armand assumes that she’s part black and rejects both her and his baby son, compelling them to leave the estate. 

“The Storm” was another short story masterpiece by Kate Chopin, and like The Awakening, was far ahead of its time, exploring a woman’s quest for sexual fulfillment. Since this theme was expressed through a story about an adulterous one-night affair, it never saw the light of day. Written in 1898, it was first published only in 1969, inThe Complete Works of Kate Chopin.  

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The awakening by kate chopin - cover

You might also like this 1899 review of The Awakening
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A foremother of feminist literature

Chopin is admired as one of the foremothers of twentieth century feminist literature. She may not have considered herself a feminist as such; she simply thought that women’s desires and ambitions were just as valid as men’s. As such, in her fiction, she focused on women’s constant struggles to forge an identity of their own, especially within the rigid constraints of Southern culture.

Though Chopin’s body of work is primarily fiction, her stories presented profound and very real observations. She allowed the range of human experience she viewed in everyday life to come through in her writing. Here, from Unveiling Kate Chopin by Emily Toth, considered to be her definitive biography, is an encapsulation of the legacy that has been cemented by The Awakening:

“Now recognized as an American classic, Kate Chopin’s story [The Awakening] was welcomed by most women, but despised by most men. The two women who reviewed it publicly, Willa Cather and Frances Porcher, praised the author’s writing talents, but felt they had to deplore her uniquely sensational plot.

A century later, though, The Awakening‘s plot seems very familiar — the tale of a wife and mother who begins to realize that her life is unfulfilling and meaningless. She turns to art and adultery, but neither one fully satisfies her hunger. Ultimately she figures out how to elude everyone’s demands, and she does.

Kate Chopin anticipated so much: daytime dramas, women’s pictures, The Feminine Mystique, open marriages, women’s liberation, talk shows, Mars vs. Venus, self-help and consciousness raising. But in 1899, she was a lonely pioneer.

Overwhelmingly, reviewers called Chopin’s heroine colossally selfish, stupid and mean. Some even left out The Awakening in articles about her career. Inevitably, with men as the powerful reviewers, publishers, editors, and gatekeepers, this view prevailed. Kate Chopin died in 1904, and The Awakening was soon out of print. It was reprinted only once, half a century later, through the efforts of an editor at Putnam Publishing whose name is lost to history.

And then, in 1969, a Norwegian scholar named Per Seyersted published Chopin’s complete works and the first modern biography, as the women’s liberation movement was sweeping the United States. Sixty- five years after her death, Kate Chopin became a star.”

 

A sudden death

Kate Chopin died rather suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. She returned from a visit to the World’s Fair taking place in St. Louis on an August evening in 1904, complaining of severe pain in her head.

She called one of her sons to come to her, but by the time he arrived, she was unconscious. Her other children rushed to her side, and though she briefly regained consciousness, she died the next day. She was 54 years old and was survived by all six of her children.

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Kate Chopin

On Certain Bright, Brisk Days:
Kate Chopin on her writing life


More about Kate Chopin

On this site

Full texts on this site

Major Works

  • At Fault  (1890) – novel
  • Bayou Folk  (1894) – short stories
  • A Night in Acadie  (1897) – short stories
  • The Awakening  (1899) – novella
  • The Complete Works of Kate Chopin (1969)

Biographies and literary criticism

  • Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography by Per Seyersted (1980)
  • Unveiling Kate Chopin by Emily Toth (1999)
  • Kate Chopin’s Private Papers Emily Toth and Per Seyersted (1998)
  • Kate Chopin: A Literary Life by Nancy Walker (2001)
  • The Cambridge Companion to Kate Chopin by Janet Beer (2008)

More Information

Read and Listen online

All of Kate Chopin’s works are in the public domain and many are available to read online. 

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