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...
(The entire section is 35,446 words.)