Authors: Kate Chopin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist and short-story writer

February 8, 1851

St. Louis, Missouri

August 22, 1904

St. Louis, Missouri

Biography

Katherine O’Flaherty Chopin (SHO-pan) may well be the most important American female realist writer of the late nineteenth century, and in The Awakening she produced a masterpiece worthy of comparison with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). Katherine O’Flaherty was the daughter of the wealthy Irish immigrant Thomas O’Flaherty and his second wife, Eliza Feris, a descendant of an old Creole family. When she was four years old, her father died in a railway accident; the event affected her deeply, and the account of a similar catastrophe plays a central role in “The Story of an Hour” (1894). {$I[AN]9810001252} {$I[A]Chopin, Kate} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Chopin, Kate} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Chopin, Kate} {$I[tim]1851;Chopin, Kate}

Four generations of women lived in the O’Flaherty household when Kate was young. Especially influential was her great-grandmother Victoria Verdon Charleville, who taught her music and French; Mme Charleville also told her great-granddaughter many stories about old St. Louis. From her, Chopin learned to present her accounts without attempting to condemn characters or draw conclusions for her audience.

After receiving her degree from the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1868, Kate married Oscar Chopin, a prosperous New Orleans businessman who was tolerant of his wife’s unconventional habits, such as smoking and going about unescorted. Together, the couple had six children. In 1879, following financial reverses, the family moved to Cloutierville, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, the setting of many of Chopin’s best stories. After Oscar Chopin died of swamp fever in January, 1883, Kate Chopin successfully managed the family business for a year before returning to her mother’s house in St. Louis. Her mother’s death the next year depressed her deeply. To help her cope with her grief, her obstetrician, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, urged her to try her hand at creative writing.

Her first publication appeared in 1888, and the first volume of the Chicago-based magazine America carried Chopin’s poem “If It Might Be” in its January 10, 1889, issue. Over the next decade, she wrote some one hundred short stories and three novels (one of these she destroyed) that introduced readers to a new region of the United States and that broke new ground in the exploration of the female psyche. The harsh reviews of The Awakening, a novel widely regarded at the time as immoral, shocked and depressed her. Between 1900 and her death in 1904, she wrote little and published only three pieces, two of them in the children’s magazine Youth’s Companion.

Although The Awakening is her boldest as well as her best work, Chopin was never a conventional writer. Even her first attempt at long fiction, At Fault, breaks with tradition. It was only the sixth American novel to treat divorce and the first to recognize that in some cases dissolving a marriage is the best course. Early short stories also anticipate the central concern of The Awakening, Edna Pontellier’s quest for fulfillment. “Euphrasie,” written in 1888, presents a traditional woman who lets others decide her fate. Paula Von Stoltz in “Wiser than a God” (1889) rejects marriage for a career, and the heroine in “A Point at Issue” (1889) agrees to wed only because she believes that she can remain independent within marriage. Chopin neither praises nor condemns these women; she merely records their lives to suggest the possibilities available.

In the larger canvas of the novel, Chopin was able to explore more fully Edna Pontellier’s mind, again without judging her extramarital affair or her suicide. Edna sees various role models: the happily married, unadventurous Adèle Ratignolle; the independent pianist Madame Reisz; the sensual Alcée Arobin, who becomes Edna’s lover for a time; and the enigmatic Robert Lebrun, with whom she might have had a fulfilling relationship if only they had not abandoned each other at crucial moments. At the end of the work, Edna emerges into full consciousness to assert her liberty by embracing death.

Accurately recording the speech, habitat, and customs of Creoles, Acadians, African Americans, and American Indians of the bayou country of Louisiana, Chopin presented a previously unexplored literary landscape. Unlike the local colorists with whom she has been linked, she did not indulge in nostalgia or sentimentality, and her settings remain precisely that, never assuming the primacy they have in much of the period’s regional writing. Even more revolutionary are her explorations of the mental landscapes of her heroines and her appreciation of the power of sexual passion at a time when even male American authors generally shunned this subject. “The Storm,” written in 1898, likens an adulterous liaison to a cyclone, fierce but natural and potentially renewing. Recognizing the tale’s advanced views, Chopin did not attempt to publish it during her lifetime, and it appeared in print only in 1969. Such daring plunged her into obscurity for almost half a century following her death, but it eventually secured for her a significant place in American letters.

Author Works Long fiction: At Fault, 1890 The Awakening, 1899 Short Fiction: Bayou Folk, 1894 A Night in Acadie, 1897 Miscellaneous: The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, 1969 (2 volumes; Per Seyersted, editor) Bibliography Beer, Janet. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1997. This book includes three chapters on Chopin’s short fiction. In one, Beer argues that Chopin’s Louisiana is postcolonial rather than postbellum; in another, she discusses how erotic desire expresses the lives of women; and in the third, she examines the authorial voice in Chopin’s short-story fables. Bonner, Thomas, Jr. The Kate Chopin Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Alphabetically arranged guide provides information on the more than nine hundred characters and more than two hundred places that affect the courses of Chopin’s stories. Also includes a selection of her translations of pieces by Guy de Maupassant and one by Adrien Vely. Supplemented by interesting period maps and a useful bibliographic essay. Boren, Lynda S., and Sara de Saussure Davis, eds. Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992. Collection of essays presents extensive discussion of The Awakening, with several contributors also addressing such stories as “Charlie,” “After the Winter,” and “At Cheniere Caminada.” Other topics include a comparison of Chopin with playwright Henrik Ibsen in terms of domestic confinement and discussion of Chopin’s work from a Marxist point of view. Brown, Pearl L. “Awakened Men in Kate Chopin’s Creole Stories.” ATQ, n.s. 13, no. 1 (March, 1999). Argues that in Chopin’s Creole stories, in intimate moments women discover inner selves buried beneath socially imposed ones and men discover subjective selves buried beneath public personas. Erickson, Jon. “Fairytale Features in Kate Chopin’s ‘Désirée’s Baby’: A Case Study in Genre Cross-Reference.” In Modes of Narrative, edited by Reingard M. Nischik and Barbara Korte. Würzburg: Königshausen and Neumann, 1990. Shows how Chopin’s story conflicts with the expectations set up by the fairy-tale genre on which it is based; for example, the prince turns out to be the villain. Argues that the ending of the story is justified, for in the fairy tale the mystery of origin must be solved and the villain must be punished. Hackett, Joyce. “The Reawakening.” Harper’s Magazine 307, no. 1841 (October, 2003). Lengthy review of the Chopin collection Complete Novels and Stories (2002) provides an overview of Chopin’s life and career and offers analysis and commentary on The Awakening, which Hackett describes as “the book that both culminated Chopin’s career and ended it.” Koloski, Bernard. Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996. Discusses Chopin’s short stories in the context of her bilingual and bicultural imagination; provides readings of her most important stories, examines her three volumes of stories, and comments on her children’s stories. Also includes excerpts from Chopin’s literary criticism and brief discussions by other critics of her most familiar stories. Ostman, Heather, and Kate O’Donoghue. Kate Chopin in Context: New Approaches. Palgrave MacMillan, 2016. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1218704&site=ehost-live. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. Presents a collection of critical essays on The Awakening and other works by Chopin. Petry, Alice Hall, ed. Critical Essays on Kate Chopin. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996. Comprehensive collection of essays on Chopin reprints early evaluations of the author’s life and works as well as more modern scholarly analyses. Begins with a substantial introduction by the editor and includes original essays by such notable scholars as Linda Wagner-Martin and Heather Kirk Thomas. Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. 1969. Reprint. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Provides invaluable information about the New Orleans of the 1870’s while examining Chopin’s life, views, and work. Devotes substantial discussion not only to The Awakening but also to Chopin’s many short stories. Seyersted views Chopin as a transitional literary figure, a link between George Sand and Simone de Beauvoir. Seyersted, Per, and Emily Toth, eds. A Kate Chopin Miscellany. Natchitoches, La.: Northwestern State University Press, 1979. This volume contains some previously unpublished stories, some poems, two of Chopin’s diaries, Chopin’s letters and those written to her, and a translation of Cyrille Arnavon’s introduction to a 1953 edition of The Awakening. Contains also an excellent annotated bibliography, arranged chronologically, of Chopin scholarship from 1890 to 1979, and several photographs of Chopin’s family. Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Overview of Chopin’s life and work includes a brief biographical chapter and discussion of the author’s work in terms of the theme of the search for identity. Includes a chronology and a select bibliography. Streater, Kathleen M. “Adèle Ratignolle: Kate Chopin’s Feminist at Home in The Awakening.” Midwest Quarterly 48, no. 3 (Spring, 2007): 406–416. Presents analysis of the character Adèle Ratignolle, arguing that she is a less radical feminist than Edna Pontellier but is admirable because of her feminine virtue and ideals of motherhood. Maintains that Ratignolle, whom Chopin portrays as a sexually confident woman as well as a mother, defied the sexist stereotypes of the period. Taylor, Helen. Gender, Race, and Religion in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Chapter on Chopin is divided between the novels and the short stories, some of which are given extensive feminist readings. Focuses on Chopin as a local colorist who uses regional and historical themes to explore gender issues. Offers invaluable discussion of Chopin’s literary influences, particularly Guy de Maupassant, and the intellectual climate of the time. Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow, 1990. Definitive biography is a thoroughly documented, exhaustive work, an excellent starting point for Chopin research. Covers not only Chopin’s life but also her literary works, discussing many of the short stories in considerable detail and addressing the alleged banning of The Awakening. Includes a bibliography of Chopin’s work and a helpful chronology of her life. Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. Using newly discovered manuscripts, letters, and diaries of Chopin, Toth examines the source of Chopin’s ambition and passion for her art, arguing that she worked much harder at her craft than previously thought.

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