Chopin in 1894
February 8, 1850
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||August 22, 1904 (aged 54)|
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
|Occupation||Novelist, short story writer|
|Notable works||The Awakening|
Kate Chopin (,also ; born Katherine O'Flaherty; February 8, 1850 - August 22, 1904) was an American author of short stories and novels based in Louisiana. She is now considered by some scholars to have been a forerunner of American 20th-century feminist authors of Southern or Catholic background, such as Zelda Fitzgerald, and is one of the most frequently read and recognized writers of Louisiana Creole heritage.
Of maternal French and paternal Irish descent, Chopin was born in St. Louis, Missouri. She married and moved with her husband to New Orleans. They later lived in the country in Cloutierville, Louisiana. From 1892 to 1895, Chopin wrote short stories for both children and adults that were published in such national magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, The Century Magazine, and The Youth's Companion. Her stories aroused controversy because of her subjects and her approach; they were condemned as immoral by some critics.
Her major works were two short story collections: Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). Her important short stories included "Désirée's Baby" (1893), a tale of miscegenation in antebellum Louisiana, "The Story of an Hour" (1894), and "The Storm" (1898). "The Storm" is a sequel to "At the Cadian Ball," which appeared in her first collection of short stories, Bayou Folk.
Chopin also wrote two novels: At Fault (1890) and The Awakening (1899), which are set in New Orleans and Grand Isle, respectively. The characters in her stories are usually residents of Louisiana, and many are Creoles of various ethnic or racial backgrounds. Many of her works are set in Natchitoches in north-central Louisiana, a region where she lived.
Within a decade of her death, Chopin was widely recognized as one of the leading writers of her time. In 1915, Fred Lewis Pattee wrote, "some of [Chopin's] work is equal to the best that has been produced in France or even in America. [She displayed] what may be described as a native aptitude for narration amounting almost to genius."
Chopin was born Katherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Thomas O'Flaherty, was a successful businessman who had immigrated to the United States from Galway, Ireland. Her mother, Eliza Faris, was his second wife and a well-connected member of the ethnic French community in St. Louis; she was the daughter of Athénaïse Charleville, a Louisiana Creole of French Canadian descent. Some of Chopin's ancestors were among the first European (French) inhabitants of Dauphin Island, Alabama.
Kate was the third of five children, but her sisters died in infancy and her half-brothers (from her father's first marriage) died in their early twenties. They were reared Roman Catholic, in the French and Irish traditions. She also became an avid reader of fairy tales, poetry, and religious allegories, as well as classic and contemporary novels. She graduated from Sacred Heart Convent in St. Louis in 1868.
At the age of five, she was sent to Sacred Heart Academy where she learned how to handle her own money and make her own decisions as the nuns intended. With the discovery of her father's death, she was brought back home where she lived with her grandmother and great-grandmother making three-generations of women who were widowed young and never remarried. For two years she was tutored at home by her great-grandmother, Victoria (or Victoire) Charleville, who taught French, music, history, gossip and the need to look on life without fear. After those two years she went back to Sacred Heart Academy, where she had her mentor, Mary O'Meara and her best friend and neighbor, Kitty Garesche. Mary O'Meara, who was gifted in verse composition and prose, assigned her student to write regularly, to be self-critical and to become a valiant woman. Nine days after Kate and Kitty's first communions in May 1861, the Civil War broke out in St. Louis. After the war ended Kate suffered losses, from her friend Kitty and Kitty's family being banished from St. Louis for supporting the Confederacy, to losing her half-brother from a fever, but most of all the death of her great-grandmother during the chaos.
In St. Louis, Missouri, on 8 June 1870, she married Oscar Chopin and settled with him in his home town of New Orleans, an important port. Chopin had six children between 1871 and 1879: in order of birth, Jean Baptiste, Oscar Charles, George Francis, Frederick, Felix Andrew, and Lélia (baptized Marie Laïza). In 1879, Oscar Chopin's cotton brokerage failed.
The family left the city and moved to Cloutierville in south Natchitoches Parish to manage several small plantations and a general store. They became active in the community, and Chopin absorbed much material for her future writing, especially regarding the culture of the Creoles of color of the area.
When Oscar Chopin died in 1882, he left Kate with $42,000 in debt (approximately $420,000 in 2009 money). According to Emily Toth, "for a while the widow Kate ran his [Oscar's] business and flirted outrageously with local men; (she even engaged in a relationship with a married farmer)." Although Chopin worked to make her late husband's plantation and general store succeed, two years later she sold her Louisiana business.
Her mother had implored her to move back to St. Louis, and Chopin did, aided by her mother's assistance with finances. Her children gradually settled into life in the bustling city of St. Louis. The following year, Chopin's mother died.
Chopin struggled with depression after the losses in a short time of both her husband and her mother. Her obstetrician and family friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, suggested that she start writing, believing that it could be a source of therapeutic healing for her. He understood also that writing could be a focus for her extraordinary energy, as well as a source of income.
By the early 1890s, Kate Chopin began writing short stories, articles, and translations which were published in periodicals, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper. She was quite successful and placed many of her publications in literary magazines. At the time, she was considered only as a regional local color writer, as this was a period of considerable publishing of folk tales, works in dialect, and other elements of Southern folk life. Chopin's strong literary qualities were overlooked.
In 1899, her second novel, The Awakening, was published. It generated a significant amount of negative press because its characters, especially the women, behaved in ways that conflicted with current standards of acceptable ladylike behavior. People considered offensive Chopin's treatment of female sexuality, her questions about the virtues of motherhood, and showing occasions of marital infidelity. At the same time, some newspaper critics reviewed it favorably.
This, her best-known work, is the story of a woman trapped in the confines of an oppressive society. It was out of print for several decades, as literary tastes changed. Rediscovered in the 1970s, when there was a wave of new studies and appreciation of women's writings, the novel has since been reprinted and is widely available. It has been critically acclaimed for its writing quality and importance as an early feminist work of the South.
Critics suggest that such works as The Awakening were too far ahead of their time and therefore not socially embraced. After its publishing, and shattered by the lack of acceptance, Chopin, deeply discouraged by the criticism, turned to short story writing. In 1900, she wrote "The Gentleman from New Orleans." That same year she was listed in the first edition of Marquis Who's Who. However, she never made much money from her writing, and had to depend on her investments in Louisiana and St. Louis (aided by her inheritance from her mother) to support her.
Kate Chopin lived in a variety of locations, based on different economies and societies. These were sources of insights and observations from which she analyzed and expressed her ideas about late 19th-century Southern American society. She was brought up by women who were primarily ethnic French. Living in areas influenced by the Louisiana Creole and Cajun cultures after she joined her husband in Louisiana, she based many of her stories and sketches in her life in Louisiana. They expressed her unusual portrayals (for the time) of women as individuals with separate wants and needs.
Chopin's writing style was influenced by her admiration of the contemporary French writer Guy de Maupassant, known for his short stories:
...I read his stories and marveled at them. Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinkable way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making. Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes; and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw...
Kate Chopin is an example of a revisionist myth-maker because she revises myth more realistically about marriage and female sexuality of her time. The biggest myth Chopin focused on was the "Victorian notion of women's somewhat anemic sexuality" and "The Storm" is the best example of Kate Chopin using that myth through a character set on fulfilling her complete sexual potential. For instance, in"The Storm", portraits of women were revised by Kate Chopin to obtain consummation in roles other than marriage to evince a passionate nature considered inappropriate by conventional, patriarchal standards of Victorian America.
Chopin went beyond Maupassant's technique and style to give her writing its own flavor. She had an ability to perceive life and creatively express it. She concentrated on women's lives and their continual struggles to create an identity of their own within the Southern society of the late nineteenth century. For instance, in "The Story of an Hour", Mrs. Mallard allows herself time to reflect after learning of her husband's death. Instead of dreading the lonely years ahead, she stumbles upon another realization altogether.
She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.
Not many writers during the mid- to late 19th century were bold enough to address subjects that Chopin took on. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, of Emory University, wrote that "Kate was neither a feminist nor a suffragist, she said so. She was nonetheless a woman who took women extremely seriously. She never doubted women's ability to be strong." Kate Chopin's sympathies lay with the individual in the context of his and her personal life and society.
Through her stories, Kate Chopin wrote a kind of autobiography and described her societies; she had grown up in a time when her surroundings included the abolitionist movements before the American Civil War, and their influence on freedmen education and rights afterward, as well as the emergence of feminism. Her ideas and descriptions were not reporting, but her stories expressed the reality of her world.
Chopin took strong interest in her surroundings and wrote about many of her observations. Jane Le Marquand assesses Chopin's writings as a new feminist voice, while other intellectuals recognize it as the voice of an individual who happens to be a woman. Marquand writes, "Chopin undermines patriarchy by endowing the Other, the woman, with an individual identity and a sense of self, a sense of self to which the letters she leaves behind give voice. The 'official' version of her life, that constructed by the men around her, is challenged and overthrown by the woman of the story."
Chopin appeared to express her belief in the strength of women. Marquand draws from theories about creative nonfiction in terms of her work. In order for a story to be autobiographical, or even biographical, Marquand writes, there has to be a nonfictional element, but more often than not the author exaggerates the truth to spark and hold interest for the readers. Kate Chopin might have been surprised to know her work has been characterized as feminist in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, just as she had been in her own time to have it described as immoral. Critics tend to regard writers as individuals with larger points of view addressed to factions in society.
Kate Chopin began her writing career with her first story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. By the early 1890s, Chopin forged a successful writing career, contributing short stories and articles to local publications and literary journals. She also initially wrote a number of short stories such as "A Point at Issue!", "A No-Account Creole", "Beyond the Bayou" which were published in various magazines. In 1890, her first novel "At Fault" about a young widow and the sexual constraints of women was published privately. The protagonist demonstrates the initial theme of Kate Chopin's works when she began writing. In 1892, Kate Chopin produced "Désirée's Baby", "Ripe Figs" and "At the 'Cadian Ball" appeared in Two Tales that year, and eight of her other stories were published.
The short story "Désirée's Baby" focuses on Kate Chopin's experience with miscegenation and communities of the Creoles of color in Louisiana. She came of age when slavery was institutionalized in St. Louis and the South. In Louisiana, there had been communities established of free people of color, especially in New Orleans, where formal arrangements were made between white men and free women of color or enslaved women for plaçage, a kind of common-law marriage. There and in the country, she lived with a society based on the history of slavery and the continuation of plantation life, to a great extent. Mixed-race people (also known as mulattos) were numerous in New Orleans and the South. This story addresses the racism of 19th century America; persons who were visibly European-American could be threatened by the revelation of also having African ancestry. Chopin was not afraid to address such issues, which were often suppressed and intentionally ignored. Her character Armand tries to deny this reality, when he refuses to believe that he is of black descent, as it threatens his ideas about himself and his status in life. R. R. Foy believed that Chopin's story reached the level of great fiction, in which the only true subject is "human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the view with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it".
"Desiree's Baby" was first published in an 1893 issue of Vogue magazine, alongside another of Kate Chopin's short stories, "A Visit to Avoyelles", under the heading "Character Studies: The Father of Desiree's Baby - The Lover of Mentine." "A Visit to Avoyelles" typifies the local color writing that Chopin was known for, and is one of her stories that shows a couple in a completely fulfilled marriage. While Doudouce is hoping otherwise, he sees ample evidence that Mentine and Jules' marriage is a happy and fulfilling one, despite the poverty-stricken circumstances that they live in. In contrast, in "Desiree's Baby", which is much more controversial, due to the topic of miscegenation, portrays a marriage in trouble. The other contrasts to "A Visit to Avoyelles" are very clear, although some are more subtle than others. Unlike Mentine and Jules, Armand and Desiree are rich and own slaves and a plantation. Mentine and Jules' marriage has weathered many hard times, while Armand and Desiree's falls apart at the first sign of trouble. Kate Chopin was very talented at showing various sides of marriages and local people and their lives, making her writing very broad and sweeping in topic, even as she had many common themes in her work.
Martha Cutter argues that Kate Chopin demonstrates feminine resistance to patriarchal society through her short stories. Cutter claims that Chopin's resistance can be traced through the timeline of her work, with Chopin becoming more and more understanding of how women can fight back suppression as time progresses. To demonstrate this, Cutter claims that Chopin's earlier stories, such as "At the 'Cadian Ball," "Wiser than a God," and "Mrs. Mobry's Reason" present women who are outright resisting, and are therefore not taken seriously, erased, or called insane. However, in Chopin's later stories, the female characters take on a different voice of resistance, one that is more "covert" and works to undermine patriarchal discourse from within. Cutter exemplifies this idea through the presentation of Chopin's works written after 1894. Cutter claims that Chopin wanted to "disrupt patriarchal discourse, without being censored by it." And to do this, Chopin tried different strategies in her writings: silent women, overly resistant women, women with a "voice covert," and women who mimic patriarchal discourse.
In 1893, she wrote "Madame Célestin's Divorce," and thirteen of her stories were published. In 1894, "The Story of an Hour" and "A Respectable woman" were firstly published by Vogue. "Bayou Folk", a collection of twenty-three of Chopin's stories, was a success to Kate Chopin in 1894 which was published by Houghton Mifflin. It was the first of her works to gain national attention, and was followed by another collection of short stories, A Night in Acadie (1897).
Published in 1899, her novel The Awakening is often considered ahead of its time, garnering more negative reviews than positive from contemporary sources. Chopin was discouraged by this criticism, and would turn to writing short stories almost exclusively. The female characters in The Awakening went beyond the standards of social norms of the time. The protagonist has sexual desires and questions the sanctity of motherhood. The novel explores the theme of marital infidelity from the perspective of a wife. The book was widely banned, and fell out of print for several decades before being republished in the 1970s. It is now considered a classic of feminist fiction. Chopin reacted to the negative events happening to her by commenting ironically:
I never dreamt of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over and it was then too late.
According to Bender, Chopin was intrigued by Darwin's The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Though she agreed with the processes of evolution, Chopin however quarreled with Darwin's theory of sexual selection and the female's role, which can be exemplified in The Awakening, in which Bender argues that Chopin references The Descent of Man. In his essay, Darwin suggests female inferiority and says that males had "gained the power of selection." Bender argues that in her writing, Chopin presented women characters that had selective power based on their own sexual desires, not the want of reproduction or love. Bender argues this through the exemplification of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, Mrs. Baroda in "A Respectable Woman," and Mrs. Mallard in "The Story of an Hour.
In Martha Cutter's article, "The Search for A Feminine Voice in the Works of Kate Chopin," analyzes the female characters in many of Chopin's stories. Cutter argues that Chopin's opinion of women as being "the invisible and unheard sex" is exemplified through the characterization of Edna in the Awakening. Cutter argues that Chopin's writing was shocking due to its sexual identity and articulation of feminine desire. According to Cutter, Chopin's stories disrupt patriarchal norms.
Kate Chopin wrote the majority of her short stories and novels between the years 1889 - 1904. Altogether, Chopin wrote about a hundred short stories or novels during her time as a fiction writer; her short stories were published in a number of local newspapers including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A large number of her short stories were also published in national Magazines like Youth's Companion and Harper's Young People. Bayou Folk was especially well reviewed, with Chopin even writing about how she had seen a hundred press notices about it. Those stories were published in the New York Times and the Atlantic. People particularly liked how she used local dialects to give her characters a more authentic and relatable feel. She also published two novels, At Fault and The Awakening. Her novels were not well received initially, compared to her short stories. Her 1899 novel The Awakening was considered to be immoral due to the overt themes of female sexuality, as well as the female protagonist constantly rebuking societal gender roles and norms. There have been rumors that the novel was originally banned, which has since been disproven. Local and national newspapers published mixed reviews of Chopin's novel with one calling it "poison" and "unpleasant", continuing on to say it was "too strong a drink for moral babes", while another newspaper published a review calling the novel, "A St. Louis Woman Who Has Turned Fame Into Literature." The majority of the early reviews for The Awakening were largely negative. Emily Toth, one of her most well known biographers, thought she had gone too far with this novel. She argued that the protagonist, Edna, and her blatant sensuality was too much for the male gatekeepers. So much so that her next novel was even cancelled.
It wasn't until Per Seyersted, a Norwegian professor and scholar, rediscovered her almost 70 years later that the general public began to really appreciate her work as essential Feminist and Southern literature from the 19th Century. Seyersted wrote that she "broke new ground in American Literature." According to Emily Toth, Kate Chopin's work rose in popularity and recognition during the 1970s due to themes of women venturing outside of the constraints set upon them by society, which appealed to people participating in feminist activism and the sexual revolution. She also argues that the works appealed to women in the 1960s, "a time when American women yearned to know about our feisty foremothers"." Academics and scholars began to put Chopin in the same feminist categories as Louisa May Alcott, Susan Warner, and Emily Dickinson. Parallels between Alcott and Chopin have been drawn to point out how both authors wrote about females who departed from their traditional roles by dreaming of or striving for independence and individual freedoms, also described as a dramatization of a woman's struggle for selfhood. A reviewer for Choice Reviews stated that it was ultimately a struggle doomed to failure because the patriarchal conventions of her society restricted her freedom. Karen Simons felt that this failed struggle was perfectly captured by the ending of the novel, where Edna Pontellier ends her life due to her realization that she cannot truly be both the traditional mother role and have a sense of herself as an individual at the same time but especially not during those times.
I want you to take your time with it," he cautions. "Pay attention to the language itself. The ideas. Don't think in terms of a beginning and an end. Because unlike some plot-driven entertainments, there is no closure in real life. Not really.