Biography of Kate Chopin, American Author and Protofeminist

Photograph of Kate Chopin in a riding habit
Kate Chopin, circa 1876.

 Missouri History Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Kate Chopin (born Katherine O'Flaherty; February 8, 1850–August 22, 1904) was an American author whose short stories and novels explored pre- and post-war Southern life. Today, she is considered a pioneer of early feminist literature. She is best known for her novel The Awakening, a depiction of a woman's struggle for selfhood that was immensely controversial during Chopin's lifetime.

Fast Facts: Kate Chopin

  • Known For: American author of novels and short stories
  • Born: February 8, 1850 in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
  • Parents: Thomas O'Flaherty and Eliza Faris O'Flaherty
  • Died: August 22, 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
  • Education: Sacred Heart Academy (from ages 5-18)
  • Selected Works: "Désirée's Baby" (1893), "The Story of an Hour" (1894), "The Storm" (1898), The Awakening (1899)
  • Spouse: Oscar Chopin (m. 1870, died 1882)
  • Children: Jean Baptiste, Oscar Charles, George Francis, Frederick, Felix Andrew, Lélia
  • Notable Quote: “To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts—absolute gifts—which have not been acquired by one’s own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist much possess the courageous soul … the brave soul. The soul that dares and defies.”

Early Life

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Kate Chopin was the third of five children born to Thomas O’Flaherty, a successful businessman who had immigrated from Ireland, and his second wife Eliza Faris, a woman of Creole and French-Canadian descent. Kate had siblings and half-siblings (from her father’s first marriage), but she was the family's only surviving child; her sisters died in infancy and her half-brothers died as young adults.

Raised Roman Catholic, Kate attended Sacred Heart Academy, an institution run by nuns, from age five to her graduation at age eighteen. In 1855, her schooling was interrupted by the death of her father, who was killed in a railway accident when a bridge collapsed. Kate returned home for two years to live with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, all of whom were widows. Kate was tutored by her great-grandmother, Victoria Verdon Charleville. Charleville was a significant figure in her own right: she was a businesswoman and the first woman in St. Louis to legally separate from her husband.

After two years, Kate was allowed to return to school, where she had the support of her best friend, Kitty Garesche, and her mentor, Mary O’Meara. However, after the Civil War, Garesche and her family were forced to leave St. Louis because they had supported the Confederacy; this loss left Kate in a state of loneliness.

In June 1870, at age 20, Kate married Oscar Chopin, a cotton merchant five years her senior. The couple moved to New Orleans, a location that influenced much of her late writing. In eight years, between 1871 and 1879, the couple had six children: five sons (Jean Baptiste, Oscar Charles, George Francis, Frederick, and Felix Andrew) and one daughter, Lélia. Their marriage was, by all accounts, a happy one, and Oscar apparently admired his wife’s intelligence and capability.

Widowhood and Depression

By 1879, the family had moved to the rural community of Cloutierville, following the failure of Oscar Chopin’s cotton business. Oscar died of swamp fever three years later, leaving his wife with significant debts of over $42,000 (the equivalent of approximately $1 million today).

Left to support herself and their children, Chopin took over the business. She was rumored to flirt with local businessmen, and allegedly had an affair with a married farmer. Ultimately, she could not salvage the plantation or the general store, and in 1884, she sold the businesses and moved back to St. Louis with some financial help from her mother.

Kate Chopin with four of her young sons
Kate Chopin with four of her sons, circa 1877.  Missouri History Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Soon after Chopin settled back in St. Louis, her mother died suddenly. Chopin fell into a depression. Her obstetrician and family friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, was the one to suggest writing as a form of therapy, as well as a possible source of income. By 1889, Chopin had taken the suggestion and thus began her writing career.

Scribe of Short Stories (1890-1899)

  • "Beyond the Bayou" (1891)
  • "A No-Account Creole" (1891)
  • "At the 'Cadian Ball" (1892)
  • Bayou Folk (1894)
  • "The Locket" (1894)
  • "The Story of an Hour" (1894) 
  • "Lilacs" (1894)
  • "A Respectable Woman" (1894)
  • "Madame Celestin's Divorce" (1894)
  • "Désirée's Baby" (1895) 
  • "Athenaise" (1896)
  • A Night in Acadie (1897)
  • "A Pair of Silk Stockings" (1897)
  • "The Storm" (1898) 

Chopin’s first published work was a short story printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her early novel, At Fault, was rejected by an editor, so Chopin printed copies privately at her own expense. In her early work, Chopin addressed themes and experiences with which she was familiar: the abolition movement, the complexities of the Civil War, the stirrings of feminism, and more.

Chopin's short stories included successes such as "A Point at Issue!", "A No-Account Creole", and "Beyond the Bayou.” Her work was published both in local publications and, eventually, national periodicals including the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Vogue. She also wrote non-fiction articles for local and national publications, but her focus remained on works of fiction.

During this era, “local color” pieces—works that featured folk tales, Southern dialect, and regional experiences—were gaining popularity. Chopin’s short stories were typically considered part of that movement rather than evaluated on their literary merits.

Sheet of paper written in Chopin's handwriting
Chopin's original manuscript for "The Storm," 1898.  Missouri History Museum/Wikimedia Commons

"Désirée's Baby,” published in 1893, explored the topics of racial injustice and interracial relationships (called "miscegenation" at the time) in French Creole Louisiana. The story highlighted the racism of the era, when possessing any African ancestry meant facing discrimination and danger from law and society. At the time Chopin was writing, this topic was generally kept out of public discourse; the story is an early example of her unflinching depictions of controversial topics of her day.

Thirteen stories, including “Madame Celestin’s Divorce,” were published in 1893. The following year, “The Story of an Hour,” about a newly widowed woman’s emotions, was first published in Vogue; it went on to become one of Chopin's most famous short stories. Later that year, Bayou Folk, a collection of 23 short stories, was published. Chopin’s short stories, of which there were around a hundred, were generally well-received during her lifetime, especially when compared with her novels.

The Awakening and Critical Frustrations (1899-1904)

  • The Awakening (1899)
  • "The Gentleman from New Orleans" (1900)
  • "A Vocation and a Voice" (1902)

In 1899, Chopin published the novel The Awakening, which would become her best-known work. The novel explores the struggle to formulate an independent identity as a woman in the late 19th century.

At the time of its publication, The Awakening was widely criticized and even censored for its exploration of female sexuality and questioning of restrictive gender norms. The St. Louis Republic called the novel "poison." Other critics praised the writing but condemned the novel on moral grounds, such as The Nation, which suggested that Chopin had wasted her talents and disappointed readers by writing about such “unpleasantness."

Title page of a copy of
First edition title page of The Awakening, 1899. Wikimedia Commons

Following The Awakening’s critical trouncing, Chopin’s next novel was canceled, and she returned to writing short stories. Chopin was discouraged by the negative reviews and never entirely recovered. The novel itself faded into obscurity and eventually went out of print. (Decades, the very qualities that offended so many 19th century readers made The Awakening a feminist classic when it was rediscovered in the 1970s.)

Following The Awakening, Chopin continued to publish a few more short stories, but they were not entirely successful. She lived off of her investments and the inheritance left to her by her mother. Her publication of The Awakening damaged her social standing, and she found herself quite lonely once again.

Literary Styles and Themes

Chopin was raised in a largely female environment during an era of great change in America. These influences were evident in her works. Chopin did not identify as a feminist or suffragist, but her work is considered "protofeminist" because it took individual women seriously as human beings and complex, three-dimensional characters. In her time, women were often portrayed as two-dimensional figures with few (if any) desires outside of marriage and motherhood. Chopin's depictions of women struggling for independence and self-realization were unusual and groundbreaking.

Over time, Chopin’s work demonstrated different forms of female resistance to patriarchal myths, taking on different angles as themes in her work. Scholar Martha Cutter, for instance, traces the evolution of her characters’ resistance and the reactions they get from others within the world of the story. In some of Chopin’s earlier short stories, she presents the reader with women who overly resist patriarchal structures and are disbelieved or dismissed as crazy. In later stories, Chopin’s characters evolve: they adapt quieter, covert resistance strategies to achieve feminist ends without being immediately noticed and dismissed.

Race also played a major thematic role in Chopin’s works. Growing up in the era of slavery and the Civil War, Chopin observed the role of race and the consequences of slavery and racism. Topics like miscegenation were often kept out of public discourse, but Chopin put her observations of racial inequality in her stories, such as "Désirée's Baby."

Chopin wrote in a naturalistic style and cited the influence of French writer Guy de Maupassant. Her stories were not exactly autobiographical, but they were drawn from her sharp observations of the people, places, and ideas that surrounded her. Because of the immense influence of her surroundings on her work—especially her observations of pre- and post-war Southern society—Chopin was sometimes pigeonholed as a regional writer.

Death

On August 20, 1904, Chopin suffered a brain hemorrhage and collapsed during a trip to the St. Louis World’s Fair. She died two days later on August 22, at the age of 54. Chopin was buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, where her grave is marked with a simple stone with her name and dates of birth and death.

Legacy

Although Chopin was criticized during her lifetime, she eventually became recognized as a leading early feminist writer. Her work was rediscovered during the 1970s, when scholars evaluated her work from a feminist perspective, noting Chopin's characters' resistance to patriarchal structures.

Photograph of Kate Chopin
Photograph of Kate Chopin, date unknown.  Wikimedia Commons

Chopin is also occasionally categorized alongside Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott, who also wrote complex stories of women attempting to achieve fulfillment and self-understanding while pushing back against societal expectations. These characterizations of women who sought independence were uncommon at the time and thus represented a new frontier of women's writing.

Today, Chopin's work—particularly The Awakening—is frequently taught in American literature classes. The Awakening was also loosely adapted into a 1991 film called Grand Isle. In 1999, a documentary called Kate Chopin: A Reawakening told the story of Chopin's life and work. Chopin herself been featured less frequently in mainstream culture than other authors of her era, but her influence on the history of literature is undeniable. Her groundbreaking work paved the way for future feminist authors to explore topics of women's selfhood, oppression, and inner lives.

Sources

  • Cutter, Martha. "Losing the Battle but Winning the War: Resistance to Patriarchal Discourse in Kate Chopin's Short Fiction". Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. 68.
  • Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP, 1985.
  • Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1990.
  • Walker, Nancy. Kate Chopin: A Literary Life. Palgrave Publishers, 2001.
  •  “$42,000 in 1879 → 2019 | Inflation Calculator.” U.S. Official Inflation Data, Alioth Finance, 13 Sep. 2019, https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1879?amount=42000.