Biography of Kate Chopin (1850-1904)
Published in 1899, The Awakening created a scandal because of its portrayal of a strong, unconventional woman involved in an adulterous affair. While Kate Chopin never flouted convention as strongly as did her fictitious heroine, she did exhibit an individuality and strength remarkable for upper-middle-class women of the time.
Born on February 8, 1850, in St. Louis, Katherine O'Flaherty was the daughter of an immigrant Irish father and a French Creole mother. The O'Flahertys were members of the Creole social elite and were fairly well-off. When Kate was very young, her father Thomas O'Flaherty died in a work-related accident. He left behind a family of four generations of women all living in the same house. Kate was very close to her maternal great-grandmother, Madame Charleville, who first introduced her to the world of storytelling. Madame Charleville spoke only French to Kate and told her elaborate, somewhat risqué stories.
Family tragedy surrounded the young Kate. When she was eleven, Madame Charleville died, and her half-brother George was killed while fighting in the Civil War for the Confederate side. Yet, Kate seems not to have completely despaired; she earned a reputation as the "Littlest Rebel" when she tore down a Union flag that had been tied to her front porch by Yankee soldiers. Had Kate not been a young girl at the time, the incident might have resulted in serious consequences, but since she was, her act became famous as local legend.
While attending a Catholic high school, Kate studied both French and English literature and became an accomplished pianist. She attended numerous social events and became very popular in St. Louis high society. She also became interested in the movement for women's suffrage although she never became very politically active. When she was nineteen, she married Oscar Chopin, a twenty-five-year-old French-Creole businessman. The couple moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, and later moved to Cloutierville in north central Louisiana.
Kate and Oscar were very happy together and, like the Pontelliers in The Awakening, soon became immersed in aristocratic Louisiana society. A gentle man, Oscar tolerated Kate's "unconventional" ways, even though relatives warned him not to. He treated Kate as an intellectual equal and apparently did not mind that she smoked, drank, and behaved as her own person. However, Kate's period of married happiness did not last for long. After giving birth to six children, Kate became a widow in 1883 when her husband died of swamp fever.
Luckily, Oscar Chopin had been a successful businessman, and Kate did not have to worry about feeding her six children. She managed her husband's business for a year but then moved back to St. Louis, only to have her mother die the following year.
During this period of her life, she had one close friend named Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer. Dr. Kolbenheyer was initially Kate's obstetrician and her mother's neighbor, but he soon came to play a very important role in her life. Because of his influence, Kate began to study science, decided to abandon her Catholicism, and started to write and publish.
In 1890, Kate Chopin wrote At Fault, her first novel. She also initially wrote a number of short stories, which were published in various magazines. Among her most famous short stories were "Désirée's Baby," which was published in her 1894 short story collection Bayou Folk and which details the fallout of the birth of a child of mixed race, and "The Story of an Hour," which describes the reaction of a woman who learns of her husband's death and dreams of her future independence. In 1897, she published another collection of short fiction, A Night in Acadie.
Chopin liked her writing to be spontaneous, and she generally wrote her stories all at once, with little or no revision. She also wrote in the living room, where her six children would constantly interrupt her. Kate also maintained her other interests, such as music; she generally wrote only one or two days a week and spent the other days going to musical or theatrical performances.
Chopin's stories often deal with marriage and present an unconventional perspective on the theme. Her characters face choices between what society expects of them and what they really desire, and they usually decide to follow their own path rather than that of society. In her fiction, Chopin explores the special problems and dilemmas that women face and is unafraid to suggest that sometimes women want sex--or even independence. All of these themes appear in Kate Chopin's second and final novel, The Awakening, which she published in 1899. The novel caused a great deal of controversy because of what most critics perceived as her immorality, although the New York Times Book Review praised her writing.
After the public uproar over The Awakening, Chopin wrote only seven short stories between 1900 and 1904. Her life ended on August 22, 1904, after she suffered a stroke while visiting the St. Louis World's Fair. However, decades after her death, literary critics rediscovered her work and began to celebrate her stories for their strong perspectives on female independence and sexuality.