Kate Chopin 1851-1904
(Full name Katherine O'Flaherty Chopin) American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
A popular local colorist during her lifetime, Chopin is best known today for her psychological novel The Awakening, (1899) which depicts a woman's search for spiritual and sexual freedom in the repressive society of late-nineteenth-century America. When The Awakening appeared, critical and public indignation over the novel's frank treatment of guiltless adultery caused Chopin to abandon her literary career, and the novel itself was forgotten for several decades. Since the 1950s, however, serious critical attention has focused on the pioneering psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and artistic integrity of the work.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1851, Chopin was the daughter of a prominent businessman and his wife. Her father died when Chopin was four years old, and her childhood was profoundly influenced by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, women descended from French Creole pioneers. Chopin also spent time with her family's Creole and mulatto slaves, whose dialects she mastered, and she read the works of Walter Scott, Edmund Spenser, and other writers who were not represented among the encyclopedias and religious books in the family library. Despite her bookish nature, Chopin was an undistinguished student at the convent school she attended. She graduated at age 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. Chopin had also begun to publish 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 acknowledgment 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 ousted from local literary groups. Demoralized, she wrote little during the rest of her life. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 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. Although they sometimes have a slick quality, 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.
The Awakening is considered Chopin's best work as well as a remarkable novel to have been written during the morally uncompromising era 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, a lonely and unattractive pianist. The central symbol of the novel, the sea, also provides the framework for the main action. As a symbol, the sea embodies multiple pairs of polarities, the most prominent being that it is the site of both Edna Pontellier's awakening and of her suicide at the end of the narrative.
After the initial furor over The Awakening had passed, the novel 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 roles 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. George Arms, for instance, has contended that Chopin was a happily married woman and devoted mother whose emotional life bore no resemblance to that of Edna Pontellier, while Chopin's principal biographer, 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 that Edna Pontellier's first priority should have been to her family and not to herself. Like Allen, Seyersted brings a feminist interpretation to The Awakening and points out that the increasing 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.
Once considered a minor author of local-color fiction, Chopin is today recognized for her examination of sexuality, individual freedom, and the consequences of one's actions—themes and concerns important to many later American writers. While her psychological examinations of female protagonists have made The Awakening and several of Chopin's stories seminal works in the development of feminist literature, her writings also provide a broad examination of societies that stifle self-expression, illustrating, as Peggy Skaggs has observed, that “having a secure place … is not enough in life; that one's sexual nature is a powerful part of the self, whether feminine or masculine.”