Chopin, Kate (O'Flaherty)

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CHOPIN, Kate (O'Flaherty)

Born 8 February 1851, St. Louis, Missouri; died 22 August 1904, St. Louis, Missouri

Daughter of Thomas and Eliza Faris O'Flaherty; married OscarChopin, 1870 (died 1882); children: five sons

Descended on her mother's side from the French and Creole elite of St. Louis and on her father's side from Irish newcomers, Kate Chopin, after her father's death in 1855, was raised in a household dominated by three generations of widowed women. Her mother filled the home with people attracted to her unusual beauty and vivacity; her grandmother reinforced the religious atmosphere of the home; her great-grandmother enthralled the young girl with many stories "of the characters and characteristics, often quite intimate, of the city's founders." Although a child during the Civil War, Chopin strongly supported the South and was deeply affected by the death of her half-brother George. After her graduation from Sacred Heart Convent, she married Oscar Chopin, a native of Louisiana, in 1870.

Chopin moved with her husband to New Orleans, where she bore five sons in the next 10 years. The family then settled in Cloutiersville in the Natchitoches Parish, the setting of many of her best stories. Chopin's husband died in 1882, and she then returned to her mother's home in St. Louis to begin a new life as a writer. Her first poem, "If It Might Be," was published in 1899; her first novel, At Fault, appeared in 1890. Chopin wrote most of her small canon of two collections of short stories and two novels in 10 years. The hostile reception of her second novel, The Awakening (1899), seemed to have silenced its author who thereafter wrote only 10 more stories, mostly for young people.

Chopin's earliest writing, "Emancipation: A Fable" dates from 1869, and tells of the confinement and subsequent escape of an animal "born in a cage," prefiguring her concern for the themes of freedom and nature vs. civilization. Because her central character is often a woman in search of freedom, Chopin is admired by feminist critics of today, but not by the moralistic critics of her own day.

Chopin's first novel, At Fault, despite its pedestrian style, is notable for its unromantic characters and its absence of moralizing. The first American novel to treat divorce amorally, it tells of a young widow's attempts to apply the morality she has been taught to life itself. When she learns her suitor had divorced a weak, alcoholic wife in the past, she insists he return to mend the damage he had done. The subsequent remarriage proves destructive to everyone involved, ultimately leading to the wife's death. Our heroine must admit it was she who was "at fault," learning "there is rottenness and evil in the world, masquerading as right and morality—when we learn to know the living spirit from the dead letter."

Allowing her characters to live "in the world" produced the bold realism of the short stories collected in Chopin's next two books, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). These stories, many of them published earlier in magazines, established her reputation as a local colorist because of her vivid recreations of the lives and language of Creoles and Acadians in Louisiana. Both collections further explore the theme of nature vs. civilization, and they also show an increasing concern with women's quest for self-fulfillment.

Chopin's exploration of this women's quest began with her first published stories. In "Wiser Than a God" Paula Van Stolz chooses a career over a marriage which could have provided love and economic security, but then succeeds both in becoming a famous pianist and in gaining the love of her music professor. Another story worth noting, "The Maid of Saint Phillippe," is set in 1765 and tells the story of a young girl who chooses to join the Cherokees, asserting that "hardships may await me, but let it be death rather than bondage." Through this heroine, Chopin establishes a history of independence for American women. Unfortunately, however, Chopin's women are not free of biology, and in her highly praised masterpiece, "Desiree's Baby," Chopin tells of a woman who drowns herself and her baby when her husband inaccurately suspects her of having the black blood that manifested itself in their child.

Biology is also the key to understanding Edna's fate in The Awakening. Edna, the strongest and most controversial of Chopin's heroines, has immersed herself in an empty marriage and a confusing maternity. Awakening to a sense of herself through her exposure to the more natural Creole society and through the attentions of Robert LeBrun, she chooses to express herself artistically and sensually despite social and personal repercussions. But although Edna walks away from her marriage and from her children, she cannot escape the biological reality of motherhood. Neither can she achieve her artistic goals, because the artist in Chopin's novel can only gain her career at the expense of both her social and her sensual self. Edna chooses to save the self she has discovered, but she must do so at the cost of the life she owes her children. As she walks to the beach to join herself with the eternal flux of Nature symbolized by the sea, "the children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them."

Chopin's superb psychological insight, especially into the lives of her women, her vivid descriptions of Creole and Acadian life, and her deep-felt concern with human relationships and social institutions will preserve her reputation long after the initial excitement of her rediscovery by contemporary critics has passed.

Other Works:

The Complete Works of Kate Chopin (edited by P. Seyersted, 2 vols. 1969).

Kate Chopin's papers are in the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, as well as in the Eugene Watson Memorial Library of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.


Bloom, H., ed., Kate Chopin (1987). Bonner, T., The Kate Chopin Companion: With Chopin's Translations from French Fiction (1989). Boren, L. and S. Davis, eds., Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou (1992). Boyd, V. D., "The Rhetoric of Gender Politics in 'At Fault' and Selected Short Stories of Kate Chopin" (dissertation, 1995). Chelte, J. S., Philomela's Tapestry: Empowering Voice Through Text, Texture, and Silence (dissertation, 1996). Dickson, R. J., Ladies Out of Touch: Kate Chopin's Voiceless and Disembodied Women (dissertation, 1998). Dyer, J., The Awakening: A Novel of Beginnings (1993). Ewell, B. C., Kate Chopin (1986). Fick, T. H., and E. Gold, eds., Kate Chopin (1994). Green, S. D., Kate Chopin: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Works (1999). Green, S. D., Knowing Is Seeing: Conceptual Metaphor in the Fiction of Kate Chopin (dissertation, 1998). Hoffman, P. E., "The Search for Self-Fulfillment: Marriage in the Short Fiction of Kate Chopin, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett" (thesis, 1991). Koloski, B., Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction (1996). Leary, L., Southern Excursions: Essays on Marks Twain and Others (1971). Martin, W., ed., New Essays on The Awakening (1994). Petry, A. H., ed., Critical Essays on Kate Chopin (1996). Podlasli, H. M., Freedom and Existentialist Choice in the Fiction of Kate Chopin (dissertation, 1991). Russell, K. E., Hidden Darkness: Landscape as Psychological Symbol in Kate Chopin's Fiction (dissertation, 1998). Seyersted, P., Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (1990). Sparks, L. V., Counterparts: The Fiction of Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin (1993). Springer, M., Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin: A Reference Guide (1976). The Awakening: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives (1993). Toth, E., Kate Chopin (1993). Toth, E., Unveiling Kate Chopin (1999). Van Sittert, B. C., Social Institutions and Biological Determinism in the Fictional World of K. Chopin (dissertation, 1975).

Reference Works:

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1987). DAB. NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Twayne's Women Authors on CD-ROM (1995).

Other reference:

Kate Chopin (video, 1994). Kate Chopin and the 19th-Century Woman (audiocassette, 1987). Kate Chopin Newsletter. Markham Review (1968). Perspectives on Kate Chopin: Proceedings from the Kate Chopin International Conference, 6-8 April 1989, Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, Louisiana (1990). Southern Review (1975). The Courage to Write: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century (audiocassette, 1993).