Kate Chopin

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At a Glance

Kate Chopin 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 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 in Louisiana 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.

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Biography

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

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...

(The entire section is 5,182 words.)