Kate Chopin Biography
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2240
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.
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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.”
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 society.
Throughout her career, Chopin gained inspiration from her time in Louisiana. Much of her fiction was set there: she valued its dreamy, less structured and more sensual atmosphere. Chopin was pigeonholed as a regional writer, but badly wanted to reach a national audience. She tried hard to place her collection of Creole stories and finally succeeded. Bayou Folk (1894) collected mostly Cane River country stories. Praised for its exotic and bewitching subjects and atmosphere, the collection solidified Chopin’s reputation as a local colorist.
The 1890’s were a time of achievement for Chopin. Bayou Folk’s success led to more short story publications in national magazines and to regional celebrity. “The Story of an Hour” (1894) recounts the ironic reversal in emotion—from grief to joy—of a woman who mistakenly believes she has been widowed. It is one of Chopin’s most powerful—and controversial—stories, and it anticipates The Awakening in its depiction of a repressive marriage.
In St. Louis, Chopin held salons where the city’s cultural elite could play cards, listen to music, and argue about philosophy and literature. Chopin translated contemporary French writer Guy de Maupassant’s tales, and was greatly influenced by his writing. Maupassant was thought to be immoral; his satires, like Chopin’s mature fiction, focus on betrayal of ideals, questioning of traditional values, sex, and depression.
Through the mid-1890’s, Chopin wrote mainstream fiction, but continued to address more daring subjects such as aging, obsessive love, extrasensory perception, and gambling. A Night in Acadie (1897), Chopin’s second short story collection, focused on the Cane River country she knew so well. Women characters, some repressed and others rebelling, were prominent. This collection was generally well received, though some reviewers disliked its coarseness—a muted charge that would become a roar with the publication of The Awakening in 1899.
The Awakening features a strong female protagonist. After twenty-nine years “asleep” to life’s possibilities, Edna Pontellier awakens to the need to find her identity. Like her creator, Edna sometimes feels as if she lives a double life: one that conforms and one that questions. Edna’s attraction to both sides is illustrated in her friendships with the conventional “mother-woman” Adele Ratignolle and the eccentric pianist Mademoiselle Reisz.
Edna grows up desiring unattainable men. Believing that she is renouncing the world of illusion, she marries a man for whom she has only fondness and no passion, and settles into motherhood. In a series of small incidents at Grand Isle, however, Edna’s rebellion against her rigid role is shown: her unexpected emotional response to Mlle Reisz’s concert; her exultation on learning to swim; her desire for Robert Lebrun, a young man with whom she is in sympathy; and her defiance of her husband’s wishes.
Edna disproves Victorian ideas about women’s moral superiority through her open longing for Robert and her affair with the roguish Alcée Arobin; she moves into her own house and tries to attain fulfillment through painting and an unconventional social life. For a time she behaves solely in accordance with her desires. Eventually Adele summons Edna to her bedside and implores her to think of her children. Edna realizes that she cannot give her children honor and good reputation without sacrificing her independence, her sensuality, and her newfound enjoyment of life. Ironically, freedom means that a “solitary soul” (the novel’s original title) will be isolated from society and from sensual experience. Because of her husband’s death and her own strength, Chopin was able to escape rigid social convention to an extent. Edna, unable to compromise her desires with her duties, commits suicide.
The Awakening became Chopin’s major literary achievement; it was also far in advance of its time. One of the earliest American novels to question marriage as an institution, Edna’s discontent and her various attempts to find fulfillment caused a scandal. The novel was attacked as immoral and as unfit for reading. Critics praised the beauty and power of the novel’s style and setting, its careful pacing, and its subtly drawn characters, but many questioned Edna’s (and Chopin’s) morality. Like Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, The Awakening’s realistic portrayal of a woman’s desire to find her identity outraged many.
Chopin was hurt by the negative reaction to the novel, though she published a tongue-in-cheek “retraction” apologizing for Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and ensuring her own damnation. Chopin’s career slowed markedly after 1899. She continued to write poetry and reviews, but published little until her death in 1904. At that time Chopin was eulogized chiefly as a regional writer of note; little was said of The Awakening until decades later.
Kate Chopin’s reputation as a writer initially faded soon after her death. After the initial sensation when the novel first appeared in 1899 and in a 1906 reprinting, The Awakening was out of print for half a century. By the late 1960’s, however, Norwegian writer Per Seyersted rediscovered Chopin and edited The Complete Works and a critical biography in 1969. Chopin’s reputation blossomed, and her novel is considered a classic, taught in university literature and women’s studies courses. Largely through the attention of scholars and critics, Chopin’s work has enjoyed a renaissance. Her writing beautifully illustrates a variety of feminist concerns: the clash between individual freedom and social duty; the stifling quality of unequal marriage; the hypocrisy of the sexual double standard; women’s desire for creativity and independence. Her characters are utterly believable: complex, thoughtful, and intelligent.
The Awakening is a fine example of the rehabilitation of a “disappeared” writer. Considered out of step with its times, it is a powerfully written novel by a writer whose work had been safely categorized as regional and domestic; these reasons explain its fading from public view. Like several other women’s novels enjoying renewed attention as American classics (African American writer Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker’s cynical comedies, for example), The Awakening is being reevaluated by critics and readers. It is a startlingly radical and honest book, which deservedly stands as a classic.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Edited by Margaret Culley. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. The novel’s complete text, including helpful explanatory footnotes that help explain its context. Contains excerpts from writers contemporary with Chopin as well as a sampling of reviews from the novel’s first publication to its rediscovery in the 1960’s.
Chopin, Kate. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Edited by Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969. Reprints Chopin’s work, including unpublished and uncollected stories, sketches, essays, and poetry. Valuable for the overview these writings give of Chopin’s evolution as a writer.
Rankin, Daniel. Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932. An early biography that relies on interviews with Chopin’s friends and relatives and Chopin’s manuscripts and journals. Examines Chopin primarily as writer of unique and rich Creole stories; reprints some stories and sketches.
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969. A reexamination of Chopin’s life and career, using previously unavailable materials. Examines her importance as a writer of realism and her ambitious and assertive life; links Chopin’s experience and her work.
Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow, 1990. A detailed and fascinating critical biography; gives much valuable information on Chopin’s childhood and passionate, secretive life. Shows relationships and influences in Chopin’s life and effects on her writing. Includes thorough bibliography of Chopin’s writings and criticism of her work, a chronology, and exhaustive footnotes.
Wheeler, Otis. “The Five Awakenings of Edna Pontellier.” Southern Review XI (January, 1975): 118-128. Focuses on Edna’s rejection of “angel in the house” and “scarlet woman” roles; traces Edna’s development through her awakenings about personhood, true love, sex, biology, and despair. A useful psychological study of Chopin’s most complex character.
Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation. New York: Viking Press, 1966. Examines the decade when Chopin flourished as a writer. Ziff puts in context the two impulses of American society—conformity versus individuality—and criticizes the literature of the decade as overly optimistic and unrealistic.