Apopular local colorist during her lifetime, Chopin is now recognized as an important figure in nineteenth-century American fiction and as a major figure in feminist literature. Her best-known work, The Awakening (1899), depicts a woman's search for sexual freedom in the repressive society of the American South during the Victorian era. The novel's frank treatment of guiltless adultery inspired critical backlash and public condemnation when it was published, and this negative reception caused Chopin to abandon her literary career. Chopin was largely ignored until the 1950s, when critical interest in her works began to enjoy a significant revival. Modern scholars now view The Awakening as a masterpiece of its time. Feminist critics are particularly interested in Chopin's novel for its insights into the condition of women at the turn of the century, and for its comment on the institution of marriage as well as female independence and sexuality.
Born on February 8, 1851, in St. Louis, Missouri, Chopin was the daughter of Thomas O'Flaherty, a prominent businessman, and Eliza Faris. Chopin's father died when she was four years old, and her childhood was profoundly influenced by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, who were descendants of French Creole pioneers. Chopin also spent time with her family's Creole and mulatto slaves, whose dialects she mastered. Chopin read the works of Walter Scott, Edmund Spencer, and other writers who were not represented among the encyclopedias and religious books in the family library, but despite her bookish nature Chopin was an undistinguished student at the convent school she attended. She graduated at the age of seventeen and spent two years as a belle of fashionable St. Louis society. In 1870, she married a wealthy Creole cotton magnate, Oscar Chopin, and moved with him to New Orleans. For the next decade, Chopin pursued the demanding social and domestic schedule of a wealthy New Orleans wife, the recollection of which would serve as material for The Awakening. By 1880, however, financial difficulties made it necessary for Chopin's steadily growing family to move to Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish, located in Louisiana's Red River bayou region. There, Chopin's husband managed the family plantations until his death in 1883. Afterward, Chopin insisted on assuming her husband's managerial responsibilities, which brought her into contact with almost every aspect of the family business and every segment of the community. She was particularly intrigued by the French Acadian, Creole, and mulatto sharecroppers who worked the plantations. The impressions she gathered of these people and of Natchitoches Parish life were later reflected in her fiction.
In the mid-1880s, Chopin sold most of her property and left Louisiana to live with her mother in St. Louis. Family friends, who had found her letters entertaining, encouraged Chopin to write professionally, and she soon began writing short stories. These early works show the influence of her favorite authors, especially the French writers Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, and Molière. At this time, Chopin also read the works of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Herbert Spencer in order to keep abreast of trends in scientific thinking, and she began questioning the benefits of certain mores and ethical constraints imposed by society on human nature. After an apprenticeship marked by routine rejections, she published the novel At Fault in 1890. This work displayed many of the shortcomings of a first novel and failed to interest readers, but Chopin soon began to publish her short stories in the most popular American periodicals. With the publication of the collections Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), her growing reputation as a skillful local colorist was established. In 1899, Chopin completed her ambitious novel The Awakening, which was received with hostility by critics despite general acknowledgement of Chopin's mature writing skills. Chopin's reputation as a writer was severely damaged by the negative reception of The Awakening; she had difficulties finding publishers for her later works and was ostracized from local literary groups. Demoralized, she wrote little during the rest of her life. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 22, 1904.
The short stories collected in Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie established Chopin as an important writer of local-color fiction. Set primarily near Natchitoches Parish, these tales of Creole and Cajun life are noted for meticulous descriptions of setting, precise dialect, and an objective point of view. The stories in Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie attempt honest examinations of sexuality, repression, freedom, and responsibility—themes Chopin was to explore more fully in The Awakening. "Her Letters," for example, a story published in the magazine Vogue in 1895, tells with great realistic detail the story of a man driven to suicide by the suspicion of his late wife's infidelity, commenting subtly on patriarchal control as well as frankly displaying some of the key challenges of the institution of marriage. Scholars consider The Awakening Chopin's best-known work, remarkable in that it was written during the morally uncompromising climate of 1890s America. Psychologically realistic, The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a conventional wife and mother who experiences a spiritual epiphany and an awakened sense of independence that change her life. The theme of sexual freedom, and the consequences women must face to attain it, is supported by sensual imagery that acquires symbolic meaning as the story progresses. This symbolism emphasizes the conflict within Pontellier, who realizes that she can neither exercise her newfound sense of independence nor return to life as it was before her "awakening." For example, the sexual candor of the Creole community on Grand Isle, the novel's setting, is contrasted with the conventional moral strictures of New Orleans; birds in gilded cages and free-flying birds are juxtaposed; and the protagonist selects for her confidantes both the domesticated, devoted Adele Ratignolle and the passionate Madame Reisz, an antisocial and unattractive pianist. Critics consider Chopin's careful presentation of the constraints on married and unmarried women in The Awakening to be her most sophisticated and radical commentary on feminist themes.
The Awakening was very much ahead of its time; critics were outraged at its moral statements, and Chopin was shunned by southern literary society. After the furor over the novel had passed, it was largely ignored until the 1930s, when Daniel S. Rankin published a study of Chopin's works that included a highly favorable assessment of the book. During the succeeding decades, critical debate surrounding The Awakening has focused on Chopin's view of women's role in society, the significance of the main character's awakening and her subsequent suicide, and the possibility of parallels between the lives of Chopin and her protagonist. Per Seyersted has noted her secretive, individualistic nature and her evident enjoyment of living alone as an independent writer. Priscilla Allen has posited that male critics allow their preconceptions about "good" and "bad" women to influence their interpretations of Chopin's novel, arguing that they too often assume Edna Pontellier's first priority should have been her family and not herself. Like Allen, Seyersted brings a feminist interpretation to The Awakening and points out that the depiction of passionate, independent women in Chopin's other fiction supports the theory that she was in fact concerned about the incompatibility of motherhood and career for women living during the late nineteenth century.