Chopin, Kate (1850–1904)

views updated

Chopin, Kate (1850–1904)

American writer, originally characterized as a local colorist, who is now acknowledged as a pioneering American realist, best known for her 1899 novel, The Awakening. Pronunciation: SHOW-pan. Born Katherine O'Flaherty on February 8, 1850, in St. Louis, Missouri (some sources, notably Chopin herself, cite 1851); died at home in St. Louis on August 22, 1904; daughter of Thomas (a merchant) and Eliza (Faris) O'Flaherty; attended the Sacred Heart Academy off and on from 1855 until she graduated in June 1868; married Oscar Chopin, in 1870 (died 1882); children: Jean Baptiste (b. 1871); Oscar Charles (b. 1873); George Francis (b. 1874); Frederick (b. 1876); Felix Andrew (b. 1878); Lelia (b. 1879).

After European honeymoon, moved with Oscar Chopin to New Orleans, Louisiana; moved to Cloutierville (1879); husband died (1882); returned to St. Louis (1884); mother died (1885); published love poems (1889); began At Fault (1889), which was self-published (1890); published "Desiree's Baby" in Vogue, and Houghton Mifflin accepted Bayou Folk (1893); attended Indiana Conference of Western Association of Writers and wrote critical article, "The Western Association of Writers" (1894); sent de Maupassant translation collection to Houghton Mifflin (1895), rejected; her grandmother Athenaise Charleville Faris died (1897); published The Awakening (1899); her A Vocation and a Voice rejected by publisher Herbert S. Stone (1900); published "Polly" in Youth's Companion (1902), last publication during her lifetime.

Selected publications: stories, poems, reviews and articles published in literary journals, newspapers, and large circulation magazines (1889–1902); (stories) Bayou Folk (Houghton Mifflin, 1894); (stories) A Night in Acadie (Way and Williams, 1897); (novel) The Awakening (Herbert S. Stone, 1899).

Katherine O'Flaherty was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 8, 1850, two years after the convention for women's rights had met in Seneca Falls, New York, to call for woman's suffrage. While the mature Kate Chopin was not a feminist advocate, nor a champion of women's rights per se, her life as an artist might be understood as an example of how certain freedoms and economic rights are necessary to artistic integrity and creative production. The work for which Chopin is best known, The Awakening, tells another side of that story, of a woman's frustration and diminishment as she discovers that marriage means she is no more than "a valuable piece of [her husband's] personal property" with no voice or autonomy of her own. In The Awakening, the artistic Edna Pontellier wants "to swim out where no woman has ever swum before," but at the novel's close she finds that she does not have the strength or the skills to persevere; "exhaustion presses down upon her, and she sinks in the sea's sensuous, enfolding embrace."

It is possible to make interesting and useful connections between Chopin's life and the story and setting of the novel. But the connections between Kate Chopin and her creation, Edna Pontellier, are more imaginative mirrors than descriptions of actual like experience. Unlike Edna, who lost her mother when she was a baby, Kate Chopin was a beloved child in an extended family with a strong maternal influence that continued to nurture her as she matured and raised her own family. Chopin, an artist who did "dare and defy" the narrow role of woman as mother/wife in the 19th century, understood Edna's frustrations and longings. When Edna Pontellier tells Robert Lebrun: "I always feel so sorry for women who don't like to walk; they miss so much—so many rare little glimpses of life; and we women learn so little of life on the whole," we can imagine Chopin speaking here, giving to her character's longings the shape and taste of her own love of exploration, expression, and solitude.

St. Louis in the 1850s was both a Southern city and a frontier town, later christened "Gateway to the West." Its society was Southern (many families, including the O'Flaherty's, were slave-holding), and heavily French and Catholic, though there was a rich representation of diversity: German immigrants, fur trappers and traders, Indians, steamboatmen, con artists. While a girl would not have had the mobility of her brothers and could not have moved freely through the streets, nor fully explore what she found there, the young Kate did likely visit the levee and the docks with her father Thomas O'Flaherty. St. Louis, like many American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was so polluted by the soft coal that was burned for heat and energy that candles and street lamps would have been necessary for illumination during the afternoon. Sewers were open; disease and infant mortality were a reality, especially in the summer heat. Crime, as noted by Emily Toth , included the assault, seduction and abandonment of women, of which the young Kate would have been ignorant, but which serve to remind that the city and the 19th century were not safe "places" for women, nor places where they were taken seriously or respected. But there was culture here, and opportunity for women as well as men. St. Louis had a museum, libraries, several newspapers, a telegraph system, access to products from Europe and the other states, a university, and a seminary for girls. For the O'Flaherty family, life in St. Louis offered rich possibilities for a rewarding social, familial, and intellectual life.

Kate's extended family included half-brothers from Thomas O'Flaherty's first marriage. Her mother Eliza Faris (O'Flaherty) was 23 years younger than her husband, and, like O'Flaherty's first wife, she was of French Creole ancestry. By the time Kate was born, Thomas O'Flaherty, an Irishman who had immigrated to the United States in 1823, was a prosperous merchant who was prominent in the St. Louis business and social world, both by virtue of his industry, and through his marriages. Kate was enrolled briefly in Sacred Heart Academy in 1855 but left in November when her father was tragically killed in the collapse of the new Gasconade Bridge carrying the inaugural train of the Pacific Railroad into St. Louis. Several months later, a significant part of Kate's education began when her maternal great-grandmother joined the O'Flaherty household. Mme. Charleville taught Kate her French, and she also told sophisticated stories of Creole life in which strong, vocal women were frequently involved in interracial marriage or extramarital romance. The plots of these stories resisted a popular 19th-century compulsion to moralize and introduced Kate to a formative and complex understanding of the relationships between men and women, which would later be the subject of her fiction.

In 1859, Kate was re-enrolled in Sacred Heart Academy where her special subjects were literature and piano—both of which are featured prominently in the plots of her stories 30 years later. The education at Sacred Heart was traditional in that the school's express mission was to train young women to enter the domestic and social spheres as good wives and mothers. But there was solid intellectual grounding here, too. Chopin was already well read in the French classics, as well as some Dickens, Ivanhoe, and Paul and Virginia. In her academics, she later read Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, and Coleridge. At the same time, Kate and her best friend Kitty Garesche , who later became a Sacred Heart nun and teacher, were reading novels by women: Days of Bruce, Zaidee, Queechy, Orphans of Moscow; or, The Young Governess. Chopin also had a teacher, Mme. O'Meara, who encouraged her to write.

Though Kate Chopin's reading was varied, and her views of the world shaped by creative, unusual women, there were limits to the broad-mindedness of her childhood. It is unlikely that Kate or Kitty would have read Uncle Tom's Cabin. Kitty Garesche wrote that she did not think she and Kate had ever seen a slave sale, "though I think we wanted to," but their families were slave-holding; Kate's brother George fought for the South, was captured and imprisoned, and later died of typhoid while traveling to rejoin his regiment; Kitty Garesche's family was banished from the city because of their pro-slavery politics. Toth recounts a story of a ferocious Kate who yanked down a union flag that had been pinned to their porch after the Union army made its home in St. Louis. But the mature Chopin's stories, like "Desiree's Baby" and "La Belle Zoraide," indicate that her sophisticated understanding of the way in which patriarchal law disenfranchised women, while protecting their abusers, included stories of black women's lives. Chopin would live in Louisiana after her marriage. While Louisiana law did not allow married women to own property, and this would have included their children, black women were much more at risk in this system than were their white counterparts. Many critics suggest that Chopin's handling of racial issues is simply a background for her stories, and her black characters are caricatures, but it is also true that, like a number of women writing in the United States in the late 19th century, the point of view of her stories calls attention to women's longings, women's angers and experiences in women's voices, both black and white.

Chopin's early reading habits became a lifelong vocation. And, as her taste matured, she gravitated towards writers like Madame Germaine de Staël who explored a tension in women's lives between desire and virtue. At the same time, in her late adolescence, Chopin was a social success. Kitty Garesche recalls that Kate had a "droll gift for mimicry" and "was the object of much admiration." But she also remembers that Kate's "intellect predominated and kept the passions cool." Chopin herself wrote in her commonplace book on New Year's Day, 1868: "parties, operas concerts, skating and amusements ad infinitum have so taken up my time that my dear reading and writing that I love so well have suffered much neglect." The next year would begin a time of activism for women in St. Louis; the young Kate Chopin read about these passionate women and their work. In 1869, she was jotting in her journal that women's "duties" and "rights" were issues in conflict. At the same time, she noted that a woman, like herself, with intellectual needs and interests, is rarely taken seriously. The questions raised in that year about women's rights within and beyond the confines of the home would also appear later in the mature Kate Chopin's work.

In June 1870, Kate married Oscar Chopin, a French Creole from Natchitoches, Louisiana. After a three month European honeymoon, which culminated in leaving Paris just before that city was closed by siege during the Franco-Prussian War, the Chopins settled in New Orleans in the American Quarter where they lived for nine years. Oscar was a cotton factor (agent), and Kate lived a life not unlike Edna Pontellier's, which included a receiving day, the endless social range of "calls," and summertime visits to the Creole culture of Grande Isle where much of the drama of The Awakening occurs. Kate Chopin's talent for sketching local color is a significant gift, for the Grand Isle she recorded ceased to exist when in 1893 the island was besieged by a hurricane. Two thousand people were killed, the coast was devastated, and the hotel and cabins she described were destroyed. During the New Orleans years, Chopin also gave birth to her four sons, returning for several of the births to St. Louis where she had the company and support of her mother and grandmother.

The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.

—Kate Chopin, The Awakening

The young Chopins moved to Cloutierville, Louisiana, in 1879, after excessive rainfall ruined the cotton crop; Chopin described Cloutierville as a "little French village, which was simply two long rows of very old frame houses, facing each other closely across a dusty roadway." There, Oscar worked as a merchant, and Kate was known as a gracious hostess who, nevertheless, shocked many of her neighbors with her chic town clothes, her penchant for cigarettes, and for wandering off alone on horse or on foot.

The couple's last child, Lelia, was born during the Cloutierville years, and though many critics have wanted to read Chopin's marriage-weary heroines autobiographically, there is no evidence to suggest that Kate Chopin was unhappily married. What is more likely: her early introduction to a sophisticated understanding of women's passions enabled her to contemplate paradox. A woman might know that she lived in a culture that circumscribed her activities and monitored her desires, but she could also choose to live in such a way that she questioned the tyranny of the 19th-century family structure, while loving her own. Chopin was critical of the Creole mother-women she would have encountered in New Orleans and at Grand Isle, describing them in The Awakening as women who "esteemed it a privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels," but her son, Felix Chopin, remembers that she was always available to her children. It is possible that had Oscar not died when Kate was just 33 she would never have written a story for publication despite all the seeds that had been sown for the fruit of her ten strong writing years. But he did. And after maintaining her husband's business in Cloutierville for a few more years and possibly having an affair with a married man (which according to Toth may have begun before the death of her husband), Kate Chopin returned with her children to St. Louis and the company of the strong women in her own family.

It was devastating to Chopin when her mother died in 1885. Her daughter told Daniel Rankin that the "tragic death of her father early in her life … the loss of her young husband and mother, left a stamp of sadness on her which was never lost." It was Kate Chopin's St. Louis obstetrician, Frederick Kolbenheyer, who urged her to write. He was a man noted for his intellectual pursuits, and someone she trusted. Chopin's first published work was love poems, elegies for her husband. They were sentimental, but they were deeply felt, and they were a beginning. She was at the same time trying her hand at short stories, which were profoundly influenced by the stories of the French writer, Guy de Maupassant. Chopin credits him with her own literary awakening, writing in an essay for The Atlantic:

I had been in the woods, in the fields, groping around; looking for something big, satisfying, convincing and finding nothing but—myself [when] I stumbled upon Maupassant. I read his stories and marveled at them. Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots … that in a vague, unthinking 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 … with his own eyes; and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw. When a man does this, he gives us the best that he can; something valuable for it is genuine and spontaneous.

What she saw in Maupassant was a vision and a sensibility similar to her own, and the literary corollary to the early stories told her by her great-grandmother that refused to reduce the complexities of human interaction to a socially acceptable moral.

As her writing skills sharpened, Chopin's themes emerged clearly. Her first novel, At Fault, published at her own expense, introduces her exploration of the tensions between passion and convention. Early stories, "Wiser Than a God" and "A Point at Issue," explore conflicts between artistic integrity and social mores. Later, in tales like "The Story of an Hour," Chopin began clearly to describe her ideas about a woman's experience of marriage. And, as always, she embraced paradox. In "The Story of an Hour" a wife weeps, and then feels delirious with the sudden possibility of freedom when she hears of her husband's sudden death in a train accident. She falls dead at the end of this brief, terse story when she discovers he's alive. But in other narratives, also collected in Bayou Folk, young wives awaken to sensual pleasure—both inside and outside their marriages. "Athenaise" is a good example, convincing, erotic and subtle in its portrayal of a young wife's rebellion against her marriage. In so many of Chopin's stories, the shadowy, sensual and autonomous self lurks just behind the woman whose responses are muted, or socially correct. And Chopin often suggests that there has been an extramarital liaison that facilitates her characters' awakenings.

Early reviewers praised Bayou Folk, lauding Chopin's ear for the regional voice and flavor of Louisiana; few noted her implied criticism of marriage, nor her exploration of women's sensual lives. These were not considered appropriate subjects for women who wrote during the 19th century; women were routinely disparaged for any perceived censure of social mores either by public (critical) censure, inability to publish, or by editors who would request more "wholesome" material. In the end, in The Awakening, it is Edna Pontellier who brings the longing for autonomy, and artistic integrity, and sensual insistence together. While she is "forced to admit that there are none better" than her husband, Edna also realizes that generous as he is, he cannot understand her. She cannot "make an indenture, not a mark" upon her marriage. When he complains that she doesn't comply with his idea of a woman, and that she ought to be able to paint as a hobby while still attending to all of the household duties, Edna responds with a challenge: "I'm not a painter. It isn't on account of painting that I let things go." Just before she drowns, while standing before "the inviting waves," Edna attempts to cast convention away as she casts her "unpleasant, pricking garments from her." And though she cannot sustain her gesture and live, she is clear in her last thoughts that while she loves her family, "they needn't think they could possess her, body and soul." Chopin's radical insistence here is upon the necessity of autonomy to the human soul. It is the ability to be alone, without a label that condones aloneness, like "artist," or "business man," that Edna longs for.

Though Chopin was accustomed to critics misreading her work, she wasn't prepared for the acrimonious reviews The Awakening received. Few critics doubted the strength of her writing, few quibbled with the style, but nearly all responded to the story of Edna Pontellier with such bitter protestations that it appears as if Edna, or Kate Chopin, had personally offended. Though Edna does not have the emotional strength to conceive of herself outside a romantic relationship, what she strives to articulate before she swims to her death is the right of the human being, particularly the female human being, simply to be herself, something Kate Chopin always insisted upon. (This insistence was also clear when Chopin wrote an essay describing the concerns of the Western Association of Writers as provincial, thus alienating a group to which she belonged.) Chopin's ability to create her own self, independent of sexual and material, or other relationships, depended in part on those maternal and female friendships that nurtured her in her writing, in her education, and in her ability to be a loving mother. She had models in her mother, and grandmothers, and friends that the motherless and friendless Edna did not.

Though she remained intellectually engaged, Chopin wrote and published very little after the hostile reaction to The Awakening, and she died at home in 1904 after a day of exploring at the St. Louis World's Fair. While it is a myth that the book was ever banned, it was out of print and unread for a long time. Daniel Rankin's edition of Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories did much to revive interest in Chopin's work. And the growing awareness of readers and students of women's work has brought all of Chopin's oeuvre into print.

Kate Chopin crossed boundaries. In both her work and her life she insists upon the necessity of autonomy, complexity, and paradox. In her ten writing years, she produced three novels, over 100 short stories, a translation of de Maupassant's stories, a play, and numerous reviews, articles, and essays for the most prestigious and popular journals and magazines in the country. Her life was richly intellectual, sensual and familial, while her exploration of women's lives is as relevant at the conclusion of the 20th century as it was at the turn of the 19th century. It was she who had the courage to dare and defy social convention, as well as the courage to describe herself as an artist with a particular and important vision.


Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Edited by Nancy A. Walker. NY: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Martin, Wendy, ed. New Essays on "The Awakening." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. NY: William Morrow, 1990.

suggested reading:

Rankin, Daniel. Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932.

Seyersted, Per, ed. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. 2 vols. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

——. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

——, and Emily Toth, eds. A Kate Chopin Miscellany. Natchitoches, LA: Northwestern State University Press, 1979.

——, and Emily Toth, eds. Kate Chopin's Private Papers. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, forthcoming.

related media:

The Joy That Kills (VHS, 56 minutes), an adaptation of a short story produced by Films for the Humanities, 1988, was a Blue Ribbon Winner at the American Film Festival.


Primary collection of Kate Chopin materials located at the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Missouri, includes most extant manuscripts, stories, poems, clippings, the de Maupassant translations, diaries, letters, notebooks, and photographs.

Other materials can be found in several collections housed at Northwestern State University.

Susan Morehouse , Assistant Professor of Creative Writing, Alfred University, Alfred, New York