The dust jacket of this biography advertises it as “A Life of the Author of The Awakening,” thus identifying Kate Chopin’s primary claim to recognition in the late twentieth century. Canonized by inclusion in the major anthologies of American literature, The Awakening has enjoyed critical acclaim and popular success. This biography, the first of Kate Chopin in twenty years, explains how this novel came to be written. Exactly as Gustave Flaubert observed, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” so Chopin might have said that The Awakening is the story of her life. The work unquestionably depends on a literary tradition that includes Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), Bjornstjerne Bjornson’s Fiskerjenten (1868; The Fisher Maiden, 1869), and the stories of Guy de Maupassant, several of which Chopin translated in the 1890’s. Much of the book’s power, though, derives from Chopin’s ability to draw on first-hand knowledge of Louisiana’s Cane River country where the novel is set and, even more significantly, on her own experiences and emotions in the 1880’s in Cloutierville. She could describe Edna Pontellier’s quest for fulfillment and rejection of convention so convincingly because she was writing about herself.
Whereas Edna rebels against her background as well as her society to forge a life of her own, Chopin found much in her heritage to encourage independence. Even as a child, she longed to know what lay beyond the bounds of her genteel household; her father, a successful St. Louis businessman, introduced her to his riverfront world of trappers and alcoholics, poor children begging for coins, hawkers, thieves, and the homeless, a universe apart from the cloistered Sacred Heart Academy where Chopin began her education in September, 1855.
Thomas O’Flaherty may have inadvertently contributed even more to the shaping of his daughter’s literary career when he died in November of that year. As a prominent St. Louis citizen, he was chosen to participate in the first train crossing of the Gasconade Bridge. The bridge collapsed, and ten of the eleven railroad cars fell thirty feet into the river below. Thirty people were killed, including Thomas. In Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (1894), Louise Mallard learns that her husband has died in a similar accident. Far from grieving, she rejoices in her newfound freedom, only to discover that her husband is alive after all—just as in 1855 two people initially reported dead survived the train disaster. Plunged back into her former condition, Louise suffers a heart attack and dies. The onlookers believe that she could not bear the happiness of having her husband restored, but the reader knows that she has been killed by disappointment and despair. Toth suggests that the story may mirror Eliza O’Flaherty’s feelings in 1855 and observes that Mrs. Mallard’s first name, Louise, much resembles “Eleeza,” as Kate’s French-speaking relatives would have called her mother. Although there is no other evidence to support such a reading of Eliza O’Flaherty’s sentiments, the similarities between the Gasconade tragedy and Chopin’s story demonstrate the impression that the event made on the five-year-old girl.
Thomas’ death interrupted Chopin’s attendance at Sacred Heart, though she later returned to the school and was graduated in 1868. The interlude at home was, however, significant for the future writer. Her great-grandmother, Madame Victoire Verdon Charleville, assumed responsibility for the girl’s education during this period, teaching her French and piano, and, more important, telling her stories about the founders of St. Louis. Among them were two of Madame Charleville’s uncles who carried on affairs, one with an Osage Indian and the other with a woman of mixed blood. Madame Charleville had herself been four months pregnant when she married. She also told Kate about Marie Therese Bourgeois Chouteau, who left her brutal husband to live with another man, and of Elizabeth de Volsay, who lived with another man while her husband traveled on business. The husband received St. Louis’ first divorce but proved no paragon of marital virtue: He left most of his fortune to an illegitimate daughter. Chopin thus became acquainted with people who flouted convention and chose freedom over traditional morality. These people would serve as models in her life and writing.
Outwardly, Chopin seemed the typical adolescent socialite. On December 31, 1868, she recorded in her diary, “I write … to day the first time for many months; parties, operas, concerts, skating and amusements ad infinitum have so taken up all my time that my dear reading and writing that I love so well have suffered much neglect.” Much of her early reading was not unusual for the period—Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820), Grace...
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