Kate Chopin in 1894
|Born:||February 8 1850|
St. Louis, Missouri, United States
|Died:||August 22 1904 (aged 54)|
St. Louis, Missouri, United States
|Occupation(s):||Novelist, short story writer|
|Magnum opus:||The Awakening|
Kate Chopin (born Katherine O'Flaherty) (February 8, 1850 – August 22, 1904) was an American author of short stories and novels, mostly of a Louisiana Creole background. She is now considered to have been a forerunner of feminist authors of the twentieth century.
From 1889 to 1902, she wrote short stories for both children and adults which were published in such magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, the Century, and Harper's Youth's Companion. Her major works were two short story collections, Bayou Folk (1884) and A Night in Acadie (1897). Her important short stories included "Desiree's Baby," a tale of miscegenation in antebellum Louisiana; "The Story of an Hour," and "The Storm."
Chopin also wrote two novels: At Fault (1890) and The Awakening (1899), which is set in New Orleans and Grand Isle. The people in her stories are usually inhabitants of Louisiana. Many of her works are set about Natchitoches in north central Louisiana. In time, literary critics determined that Chopin addressed the concerns of women in all places and for all times in her literature.
Kate O'Flaherty was born into one of St. Louis's most prominent families. in St. Louis, Missouri. While Chopin herself claimed that her date of birth was in 1851, Emily Toth, who was researching for Chopin’s biography came across a baptismal certificate showing that she was in fact born in 1850. Her Irish immigrant father, Thomas O'Flaherty, was a successful St. Louis merchant; her mother was Eliza Faris O'Flaherty, a beautiful and gracious daughter of one of the city's oldest and most aristocratic Creole families. Kate received her formal education at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis, where she was exposed to Catholic teachings and a French educational emphasis upon intellectual discipline. Her maternal grandmother, Athena'ise Charleville, was of French Canadian descent. Some of her ancestors were among the first European inhabitants of Dauphin Island, Alabama.
Kate's father died in 1855, when Kate was only four. As a founder of the Pacific Railroad, he was aboard the inaugural trip when a bridge across the Gasconade River collapsed. Mr. O'Flaherty was among the fatalities. That same year, Kate entered the St. Louis Catholic Academy of the Sacred Heart.
After her father's death, Kate developed a close relationship with both her mother and her great-grandmother. She also became an avid reader of fairy tales, poetry, and religious allegories, as well as of classic and contemporary novels. Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens were among her favorite authors.
The year 1863 was a bad one for Kate's family: Her great-grandmother died, as did her half-brother, George O'Flaherty. (Her father had been previously married, and his first wife, George's mother, had died. Kate's mother was much younger than her father.) George O'Flaherty was a Confederate soldier who died of swamp fever as a prisoner of war. Kate dropped out of regular schooling and became further engrossed in her world of books.
In 1865, she returned to Sacred Heart Academy, and began keeping a commonplace book. She graduated from Sacred Heart Academy in 1868, but did not achieve any particular distinction—except as a master storyteller. From the outset, her interests were music, reading, and writing as they provided solace from her tumultuous environment. Even now, sources have retained her commonplace book and the fable, Emancipation.
Marriage and the difficult years
Two years later (June 9, 1870), she graduated from the Sacred Heart Academy and married Oscar Chopin. During the twelve and a half years of her married life—nine in New Orleans; three in Cloutierville, Natchitoches Parish—Chopin gave birth to six children: Jean (1871), Oscar (1873), George (1874), Frederick (1876), Felix (1878), and Lelia (1879). In 1879, Oscar's cotton brokerage failed, and the family moved to Cloutierville, Louisiana, south of Natchitoches, to manage several small plantations and a general store. They became active in the community, and Kate absorbed much material for her future writing, especially regarding the Creole culture of the area. Their home at 243 Highway 495 (built by Alexis Cloutier in the early part of the century) is now a national historic landmark and the home of the Bayou Folk Museum.
When Oscar died in 1882 of swamp fever (like her half-brother two decades earlier), he left Kate $12,000 in debt (approximately $229,360 in 2005 dollars). Kate attempted to manage the plantations and store alone but with little success. She engaged in a relationship with a married farmer.
Her mother implored her to move back to St. Louis, and Kate and the children gradually settled into life there, where finances were no longer a concern. The following year, Kate's mother died.
When Kate suffered a nervous breakdown, her doctor suggested she write as a way to calm herself. She took his advice, and soon re-discovered her natural affinity for story-telling.
The writing years
By the late 1890s, Kate was writing short stories, articles, and translations which appeared in periodicals, including The Saint Louis Dispatch. She became known as a regional local color writer, but her literary qualities were overlooked.
In 1899, her second novel, The Awakening, was published, and was criticized based on moral, rather than literary, standards. Her best-known work, it is the story of a dissatisfied wife. Out of print for several decades, it is now widely available and critically acclaimed for its writing quality and importance as an early feminist work.
Kate, deeply discouraged by the criticism, turned to short story writing. In 1900, she wrote "The Gentleman from New Orleans," and that same year was listed in the first edition of Marquis Who's Who. However, she never made much money from her writing and depended on investments in both Louisiana and St. Louis to sustain her.
While visiting the St. Louis World's Fair on August 20, 1904, Kate was felled by a brain hemorrhage and died two days later, at the age of fifty-four. She was interred in St. Louis.
Kate Chopin has been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
In much of her literature, particularly The Awakening, Kate Chopin uses her childhood surrounding of Creole as the region in which the story takes place. One personal source of inspiration for her was "Victoria Woodhull, the radical-feminist publisher, stockbroker, spiritualist, and future nominee for president, who according to Chopin's diary advised her "not to fall into the useless degrading life of most married ladies…." For her literary models, "Chopin found the inspiration for her themes and techniques among French writers, principally Guy de Maupassant, whom she seems to have discovered in 1888 or 1889, and—during her apprenticeship—the fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. In her realistic and outspoken treatment of human, especially female, sexuality, she was a pioneer among American fiction writers."
- "Emancipation. A life Fable"
"An allegory of the soul's movement from bondage to freedom, the fable describes an animal's bold flight from the confines of his cage, whose door was accidentally opened. Though the price of his freedom is pain, hunger, and thirst, "So does he live, seeking, finding, and joying and suffering."
- "Wiser than a God"
This text revolves around the complex notion of freedom in terms of love and marriage. It is very much like her other texts, and she develops her points to a greater extent in The Awakening.
- "A Point at Issue"
"Marriage was to be a form, that while fixing legally their relation to each other, was in no wise to touch the individuality of either…." Yet sexual jealousy enters to drive both of them into a conventional relationship, with Faraday revealing at story's end his inability to view Eleanor as his equal. Chopin seems to suggest that human nature itself works against enlightened redefinitions of love and marriage."
- "Mrs. Mobry's Reason"
"These early stories show Chopin's naturalistic interest in the operation of both internal and external forces in the determination of individual behavior and destiny, themes which Chopin treats with consummate artistry in her masterpiece, The Awakening."
- "Bayou Folk"
In this text, Chopin continues to pursue the psychological explanations and associations of human nature, heredity, and marriage.
- "Beyond the Bayou"
This deals with the liberating power of maternal love.
- "Ma'ame Pelagie"
This text revolves around the psychological dangers of living in one's mind. In other words, the danger of living in a fantasy.
- "Desiree's Baby"
Here Chopin deals with the concept of race and heredity in context with love and marriage.
- "Madame Celestin's Divorce"
"Madame Célestin's Divorce" (written in May 1893, and first published in Bayou Folk), one of Chopin's best stories, treats the theme of the independent woman with remarkable honesty, lightness of touch, and conscious artistry."
- "A Lady of Bayou St. John"
"A Lady of Bayou St. John encompasses the concept of finding love in someone other than your husband.
- "La Belle Zoraide"
"Chopin's ending establishes a strong social theme for the story: the violations of individual freedom and happiness created by a caste system form a poisonous legacy from one generation to the next."
- "In Sabine"
A young Acadian woman who, with the aid of the sympathetic young Creole gallant Grégoire Santien, succeeds in breaking away from her abusive husband.
- "A Night in Acadie"
"In this second collection the psychological themes become bolder, for the internal conflicts portrayed are rooted in the passions, which can be a source sometimes of destruction, at other times of liberation."
- "A Respectable Woman"
The title is the antithesis of what the story is actually about: a woman on the verge of committing adultery.
"Regret" (Century, May 1895) tells the story of Mamzelle Aurélie, a physically strong, self-sufficient, determined woman of fifty who efficiently manages a farm and wears a man's hat, an old blue army overcoat, and topboots when the weather calls for it. At twenty she turned down the only marriage proposal she received and "had not yet lived to regret it." When circumstances conspire to place "a small band of very small children" in her care for two weeks, she learns, however, that she would have lived a much happier, more fulfilled life if she had a family. Ironically, this self-knowledge comes too late."
- "A Sentimental Soul"
In this text, a woman expresses her undying love for another woman's dead husband, whom she loves from afar.
- "The Story of an Hour"
- "Her Letters"
- "A Vocation and a Voice"
- "Ti Demon"
- "The White Eagle"
- "A Pair of Silk Stockings"
- "A Family Affair"
- "The Storm"
- At Fault (St. Louis: Privately printed, 1890).
- Bayou Folk (Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1894).
- A Night in Acadie (Chicago: Way & Williams, 1897).
- The Awakening (Chicago & New York: Herbert S. Stone, 1899).
- The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 2 volumes, edited by Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969).
- A Kate Chopin Miscellany, edited by Seyersted and Emily Toth (Natchitoches, La.: Northwestern State University Press, 1979).
The Awakening is set in the later parts of the nineteenth century in the Creole territory of Grand Isle. A young woman named Edna Pontellier is married to Leonce and is the mother of two children. In other words, the story begins with the ideal image of the maternal figure in her place in society. This, however, does not last for long, as Edna's suppressed hopes and desires come to the forefront. She soon leaves the grandiose home and her children for a small apartment to call her own. After time, she engages in an affair with Robert, ultimately forsaking her spot in society, and paving a path toward destruction.
This is a text in which the domestic maternal figure comes to the realization that her life has become mechanical, and she is trapped in the bounds of traditional society. Edna Pontellier is the passionate and aspiring woman that is hidden in every woman, and she is not willing to conform to the rules that society has lay for her at any cost. Chopin's love for music emanates throughout this text, as music teachers play crucial roles in influencing, or warning Edna that her decision will have disastrous consequences. Ultimately, Edna Pontellier gives herself to the sea, indicating, in her mind, not defeat, but a vast and endless surge of hope. The theme of diverging form society and forming one's own identity in traditional society is what Chopin's work strives for.
Once again, Chopin dives into a text full of marital failure. "There is the lady who drinks and the gentleman who gets a divorce from her, the widow who loves and is beloved by him, but who persuades him to remarry his divorced partner and bring her to the Louisiana plantation, where she (the widow) may have a fostering care of the two and help them do their duty to each other. There is also the young lady of many engagements, the negro who commits arson, the young gentleman who shoots him, the Colonel who shoots the young gentleman, the St. Louis lady who goes to matinées and runs off with the matinée-going gentleman. It may not be amiss, in deciding who is At Fault, to consider as well the claims of the author, the publisher, and the reader. The reverse side to all this is a graphic description of life on a cotton plantation, an aptitude for seizing dialects of whites and blacks alike, no little skill in perceiving and defining character, and a touch which shows that the array of disagreeables was born rather of literary crudity than of want of refinement."
- Sandra M. Gilbert, ed., Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories (At Fault, Bayou Folk, A Night in Acadie, The Awakening, Uncollected Stories) (Library of America, 2002). ISBN 978-1-93108221-1
Kate Chopin clearly was the pioneer of the early feminist movement. Although it took many readers by surprise, her notion of a woman finding her own identity, and breaking free from society's shackles to soar and strive for one's aspirations has become prevalent in modern time. Women are no longer suppressed against their will to do what their husband says (in most cases), and are allowed to pursue their dreams in the same way that males are. Kate Chopin stated, "There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar upon the water." In other words, Chopin's work did not conform to society in her lifetime; however, she foreshadowed a world in which women were no longer submissive, but rather have the strength to raise their voices and aspire to be the best they can be.
- Bobbly Ellen Kimbel, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 78: American Short-Story Writers, 1880-1910. (Pennsylvania State University, Ogontz Campus. The Gale Group, 1989), p. 90-110.
- Rootsweb, Kate Chopin. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
- Carole Stone, The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Birth and Creativity, in Women's Studies, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2, 1986, pp. 23-31.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bloom, Harold. Kate Chopin. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. ISBN 9780877546931
- Chopin, Kate. Kate Chopin's Private Papers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780585028781
- Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990. ISBN 9780688097073
All links retrieved October 5, 2022.
- The Kate Chopin International Society.
- Chronology of her life, from a Public Broadcasting Service website.
- The Awakening.
- "Kate Chopin" at the American Authors site includes bibliographies, study questions, and links.
- "The Story of an Hour" at Wikisource.
- Kate Chopin Webpage.
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