Kate Chopin Biography

Kate Chopin Biography

Kate Chopin, born Katherine O'Flaherty was born to an Irish immigrant father and a French American mother. Though she was the third of five children, her older half-brothers died in their early twenties, and her younger sisters died in infancy. Her father died when she was four.

Kate Chopin’s life and work, considered together, show how difficult it is to define female identity in America. Chopin’s greatest works (The Awakening, “The Story of an Hour”) are defined by portraits of women becoming aware of their own desires, struggling to realize them, and dying.

However, in her own life it was Chopin’s loved ones who died and Chopin herself who lived to juggle artistic, social, and sexual desires, while raising six children alone and dealing with her late husband’s debts. Her works repeatedly refuse to provide simple answers and instead draw readers into sympathy with the complexities created by passion, racial bias, and the demands imposed by society.

Facts and Trivia

  • Much of Chopin’s life was defined by the deaths of those close to her. Her father died when she was only four years old. A founder of the Pacific Railroad, he was killed when a railway bridge collapsed.
  • Upon her husband's death, Chopin managed their small plantations and a general store by herself. However, after two years she moved back to her birthplace of St. Louis.
  • Chopin’s half-brother died from typhoid fever in 1863. Her great-grandmother, whom she’d been very close to, died the same year.
  • Many of Chopin’s works are set in Louisiana and often describe the lush natural settings and the mix of cultures that define the region.
  • The Awakening has been adapted into two movies, and PBS made a documentary about Chopin’s life in 1999.
  • After spending a day at the World’s Fair in Saint Louis in 1904, Chopin died of a brain hemorrhage.

Biography

Article abstract: Author of the early feminist novel The Awakening, Kate Chopin created works that showcased the Louisiana bayou country and often featured women struggling against society’s restrictions.

Early Life

Katherine O’Flaherty was born February 8, 1851, in St. Louis. Her father was an Irish merchant and her mother was the daughter of an old French family. Chopin’s early fluency with French and English, and her roots in two different cultures, were important throughout her life.

Kate’s father, Thomas O’Flaherty, was killed in a train accident in 1855 (the imagined effect on her mother was later depicted in “The Story of an Hour”). Kate lived her preteen years in a female-centered household. Her sophisticated grandmother had a great impact on Kate, encouraging her to reject hypocrisy, to love music and storytelling, and to indulge in unconventional behavior. Kate’s formal education began at Sacred Heart Academy, a Catholic school devoted to creating good wives and mothers, while also teaching independent thinking. Kate’s readings included fairy tales, The Pilgrim’s Progress, old-fashioned romances, and contemporary popular novels by women.

The Civil War meant that Kate spent much time at home; she saw the war’s violence at first hand. After Kate returned to the academy, her English teacher encouraged her to write. Kate kept a “commonplace book” from 1867-1870, where she recorded observations on her reading and studies. At the age of eighteen, Kate was known as one of St. Louis’ prettiest and most popular belles. Her diary, however, reveals that she was torn between social pressures—to attend dances, flirt, and be agreeable—and her passion for voracious reading of authors such as Victor Hugo, Dante, Molière, Jane Austen, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In an age known for producing restless women, Kate also seemed to want something more.

When she was twenty, Kate married Oscar Chopin, a twenty-six-year-old businessman of cosmopolitan background. In their first ten years of marriage, Kate gave birth to five sons and a daughter. Motherhood’s joys and demands, as well as societal restraints on women, are important themes in her fiction. During these years, Kate and the children lived three seasons in New Orleans and spent long summers at the Creole resort Grande Isle.

In 1879, Oscar Chopin’s money-lending business was in deep trouble. The family moved to Cloutierville, Louisiana, where Oscar ran a general store. Kate Chopin’s sophisticated behavior and dress inspired gossip in the small, closely knit town. Her husband, worn down by financial worries, died in 1882, leaving Kate with debts of some $12,000 and six children to rear alone. She decided to manage Oscar’s businesses herself. During this time she was romantically linked with Albert Sampite, a handsome and unhappily married man. In 1884, Kate left Cloutierville and Sampite to return to St. Louis, where she lived with her mother.

Her mother’s death the following year left Kate devastated; a physician friend suggested that she write for solace—and for much-needed money. Kate’s writings at the time indicate that she sometimes longed for the security of marriage, but also recognized that the deaths of the two people closest to her gave her independence unavailable to other women. She later characterized this period as a time of “growth.”

Life’s Work

These sudden deaths and her own unconventional ideas demanded that Kate Chopin make her own way. She started her first short story in 1888, and became a published author in 1889 when her poem “If It Might Be” appeared in the journal America. Her stories and sketches from this early period show that she questioned traditional romance. “Wiser Than a God” depicts a woman who chooses a career as pianist over marriage. Other stories portray a suffragist and a professional woman who try to determine their own lives. Chopin’s friends during this period included “New Women”—single working women, suffragists, and intellectuals—who doubtless influenced her previously private questioning of women’s role in society.

At Fault (1890), Chopin’s first novel, focuses on a woman who renounces her lover after she learns he is divorced. The conflict between morality and sexual attraction is a major theme, and the novel is ahead of its time in depicting an alcoholic woman, the lover’s estranged wife. This novel suggests that environment is a greater influence on behavior than heredity—an unpopular idea in the 1890’s. At Fault was praised for its local color and believable characters, but was attacked by literary moralists, who disliked its subject matter and language. Because one publisher had rejected the novel and Chopin was impatient for publication, she paid to have it printed and distributed.

Chopin also wrote children’s stories that appeared in national magazines. Her stature as author began to grow. In her adult stories, she persisted in writing about taboo subjects: “Mrs. Mobry’s Reason” (1893), repeatedly rejected, concerned venereal disease; “The Coming and Going of Liza Jane” (1892) focuses on a woman who, longing for a more glamorous life, leaves her husband. Chopin’s output from this period is oddly split between formula writing of predictable morality tales and stories of individuals’ conflicts with...

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