Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1850, one of five children but the only one to live through her twenties. Her father, Thomas O’Flaherty, died when she was five, and she spent her childhood among women: her mother, Eliza; grandmother; great-grandmother; and the nuns who ran her school. In 1870, Chopin married Oscar Chopin and moved with him to New Orleans, where they had six children.
Chopin was an independent spirit who smoked cigarettes, walked alone through the city, and argued passionately with others about politics and social problems, much to the dismay of the other New Orleans housewives in her social circle. Not long after the family moved to Cloutierville, Louisiana, Oscar died unexpectedly. Chopin mourned his death deeply but eventually embraced her independence, even going so far as to having an affair with a married man. Chopin soon returned to St. Louis, where she would spend the rest of her life.
Chopin began writing fiction in 1889. She wrote about life and people in Louisiana and focused her attention on love, sex, marriage, women, and independence. She published her first novel, At Fault, in 1890, when she was forty. The novel was well received, and she went on to publish short stories and essays addressing similar topics. She published two collections of short stories, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Arcadie (1897), and became known as a writer with a keen eye for local culture. “The Story of an Hour” was published in 1894 and, along with “The Storm” (1898), is among Chopin’s most famous stories. Although Chopin’s female protagonists act in unconventional, even scandalous, ways, readers accepted this as simply part of the storytelling and didn’t suspect Chopin of moralizing or trying to insert her personal opinions into her work.
In 1899, Chopin published her second novel, The Awakening. The novel, which chronicles a married woman’s adulterous affair, shocked readers. Chopin had allowed her support of women’s independence and sexual freedom to shine through, which proved to be unacceptable. The publication of this novel marked the beginning of the end of Chopin’s writing career, and the novel soon fell out of print, remaining undiscovered until the 1950s.
Today, Chopin is known for addressing feminist issues many years before the feminist movement became a major social and political force in America. When Chopin was writing, the feminist movement had barely begun, and in Louisiana, women were still considered to be their husbands’ lawful property. As a result, Chopin’s brazen, sensual, independent protagonists were years ahead of their time. “The Story of an Hour” reflects Chopin’s view of the repressive role that marriage played in women’s lives as the protagonist, Louise Mallard, feels immense freedom only when her husband has died. While he is alive, she must live for him, and only when he dies does her life once again become her own.
Chopin died of a brain hemorrhage in 1904. She was fifty-two.
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