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Kate Chopin (February 8, 1850 – August 22, 1904) was an American author who made her mark writing fiction, and was best known for the novella The Awakening (1899), a work quite controversial in its time.
She was born Kate O’Flaherty in St. Louis, descended on her mother’s side from the old French families of that city. Her father was Captain Thomas O’Flaherty, a wealthy merchant active in local affairs. Kate was raised in the French and Irish traditions of Catholicism, and educated at Sacred Heart convent.
Her father died when she was around five years old, after which she developed a strong bond with her maternal lineage — her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Kate was an avid reader, devouring contemporary novels, fairy tales, poetry, and religious dramas.
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. The couple moved to New Orleans, then lived on his Natcihtoches 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 in quick succession, from 1871 to 1879.
Oscar Chopin died in 1882, leaving her not only widowed with six young children to raise, but in extreme debt of $42,0000 — in today’s dollars equal to hundreds of thousands. She tried to make good on the plantation and general store he 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. Compounding the earlier stress of losing her husband and livelihood, she struggled with depression. Her family physician suggested she take up writing as an outlet. This was fortunate and somewhat surprising, for it was right around this 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
By the early 1890s, Chopin forged a successful writing career, contributing short stories and articles to local publications and literary journals. Her work found further favor in national magazines like Vogue and Atlantic Monthly. She addressed themes in women’s lives that weren’t often confronted in literature. Though she didn’t identify as a feminist, she was influenced by the strong women who raised her. In her works, women were a force to be reckoned with, and conveyed her belief that women could claim their identities apart from men.
In her writings, she was a realist and represented the world as it was in her time, avoiding the sentimentality of popular fiction. She wasn’t afraid to confront harsh themes, as she did with the issues of racism and hypocrisy in her 1893 short story “Désirée’s Baby.”
Read the full text of The Awakening (1899)
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…”
Kate Chopin page on Amazon
Literary accomplishments and The Awakening
Kate Chopin wrote short stories and short novels rather than tomes, and set most of them in Creole culture. At Fault (1890), a novel about a young widow and the sexual constraints of women, foreshadows The Awakening (1899). Bayou Folk (1894), a collection of picutesque stories of Creole life on Louisiana plantation, was told with an exquisite eye to 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). Her fiction was 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.
Her 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 Pontillier, 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, as her output slowed considerably after its publication. 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 didn’t last much more than a dozen or so years.
You might also like this 1899 review of The Awakening
A foremother of feminist literature
Chopin is admired as one of the foremothers of 20th 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.
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.
On Certain Bright, Brisk Days: Kate Chopin on her writing life
More about Kate Chopin on this site
- Review by Willa Cather of The Awakening
- The Awakening: An Analysis
- On Certain Brisk, Bright Days
- The Awakening (1899) – full text
- Influential Quotes by Kate Chopin
- At Fault (1890)
- Bayou Folk (1894)
- A Night in Acadie (1897)
- The Awakening (1899)
- Lilacs and Other Stories
Biographies about Kate Chopin
Read and Listen online
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