Kate Chopin was born Catherine O’Flaherty on February 8, 1850, in St. Louis, Missouri. She was one of five children, but both her sisters died in infancy and her brothers both died in their twenties. When she was five years old, Kate was sent to a Catholic boarding school called The Sacred Heart Academy. Just months later, however, her father died in a train accident, and she was sent home to live with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, all widowed. After two years in their care, she returned to Sacred Heart, where she excelled in French and English, finishing at the top of her class.
Both at home with family and at school with the nuns, Kate grew up surrounded by intelligent and independent women. Her childhood lacked male role models; thus, she was rarely witness to the tradition of female submission and male domination that defined most late nineteenth-century marriages. The themes of female freedom and sexual awareness that dominated Chopin’s adult writings were undoubtedly a result of the atmosphere in which she was raised.
After graduating from Sacred Heart, Kate became a part of the St. Louis social scene. In 1870 she married Oscar Chopin, the son of a prominent Creole family from Louisiana. Fulfilling the social responsibilities expected of her, Kate Chopin bore six children in the first ten years of her marriage to Oscar. Unlike many women of her time, however, she also enjoyed a wide range of unconventional freedoms. While Chopin was known to be a good wife and mother, she often grew tired of domestic life and escaped to smoke cigarettes or take solitary walks through New Orleans. She took strong, often controversial positions on the issues of the day.
When Oscar Chopin’s cotton brokerage failed in 1879, he moved the family to Cloutierville, Louisiana, where he owned some land. Kate Chopin adjusted her habits to the smaller provincial lifestyle of Cloutierville, but became the subject of much gossip. While other women in town were completing their household chores, Chopin would often stroll or ride horseback down the town’s main street. In 1882, her husband died suddenly of swamp fever, leaving Chopin devastated. After a year spent managing her late husband’s general store and plantation, Chopin moved back to Missouri with her children to be with her mother and family. Chopin’s mother died shortly after her return.
In 1889 Chopin began writing fiction, an activity that enabled her to develop and express her strong views on women, sex, and marriage while simultaneously supporting her family. Chopin enjoyed immediate success with her writings about the French Creoles and Cajuns she had met and observed during her New Orleans and Cloutierville years. She sold dozens of short stories and essays exploring themes of love and independence, passion and freedom. By setting her stories in a specific region and community and by basing her characters on real people, Chopin was able to publish controversial stories in a socially acceptable format. Readers could choose to see the passions she described as curiosities of a localized culture rather than universalities in human nature. Chopin was often asked to attend conferences and give speeches and was widely celebrated for the majority of her short but prolific career.
Chopin’s best-known novel, The Awakening, was published in 1899 at the height of her popularity. Ironically, this work, now regarded as a classic, essentially marked the end of Chopin’s writing career. Many of Chopin’s earlier works had been accepted despite their controversial subject matter because they appeared to contain narrative reporting rather than critical commentary. An underlying sense of support colored the generally objective tone of The Awakening, however, and the reading public was shocked by such a sympathetic view toward the actions and emotions of the sexually aware and independent female protagonist.
The feminist movement, just beginning to emerge in other parts of America, was almost entirely absent in the conservative state of Louisiana. In fact, under Louisiana law, a woman was still considered the property of her husband. Chopin’s novel was scorned for its open discussion of the emotional and sexual needs of women. Surprised and deeply hurt by the negative reaction to The Awakening, Chopin published only three more short stories before she died of a brain hemorrhage in 1904.
After her death, Chopin was remembered for her “local color” works about the people of New Orleans but was never acknowledged as a true literary talent until the rediscovery of The Awakening some fifty years later. New generations, more accepting of the notions of female sexuality and equality, praise the novel’s candid and realistic views and have found it to be informative about early American feminism. Modern critics have noted the book’s rich detail and imagery and find that its ironic narrative voice is a rich source for analysis. The Awakening has now earned a place in the literary canon for the way it uses these formal and structural techniques to explore themes of patriarchy, marriage and motherhood, woman’s independence, desire, and sexuality both honestly and artistically.