Kate Chopin: In Search of Freedom

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin's Famous Novel The Awakening. Book Published by H Stone, Chicago/Wikimedia Commons

Throughout her life, Kate Chopin, author of The Awakening and short stories such as "A Pair of Silk Stockings," "Desiree's Baby," and  "The Story of an Hour," actively searched for female spiritual emancipation, which she found and expressed in her writing. Her poems, short stories, and novels allowed her not only to assert her beliefs for herself but also to question the ideas of individuality and autonomy during the turn of the century. Unlike many of the feminist writers of her time who were mainly interested in improving the social conditions of women, she looked for an understanding of personal freedom that questioned conventional demands of both men and women.

Additionally, she did not limit her exploration of freedom to physical emancipation (i.e., husbands controlling wives through the traditional expectations of motherhood), but also intellectual autonomy (i.e., women having political opinions taken seriously). Kate's writings provided her with the means to live how she wanted, both mentally and physically rather than play the role society expected of her. She did not start her professional writing career until later in life, but the lessons learned and the events experienced gave her the unique insight that provided material for her stories.

Birth and Early Days

Katherine O'Flaherty was born on February 8, 1850 (or 1851 as some critics believe) in St. Louis, Missouri to Eliza Faris O'Flaherty, a well-connected Louisiana woman with French roots, and Captain Thomas O'Flaherty, a businessman from Ireland. Her father became one of the first influences in her life. He found her natural curiosity fascinating and encouraged her interests.

On November 1, 1855, Kate's father was killed in train accident. Because of his premature death, three strong maternal figures raised Kate: her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Madame Victoire Verdon Charleville, Kate's educated great-grandmother taught through the art of storytelling, which is how Kate learned to be a successful storyteller. Through vivid French stories, she gave Kate a taste of the culture and freedom allowed by the French that many Americans during this time disapproved of. Many of the common themes in her grandmother's stories consisted of women struggling with morality, freedom, convention, and desire.

The spirit of these stories endures in Kate's own works.

During Kate's teenage years, the Civil War raged on, separating the North and the South. Her family sided with the South, but most of her hometown of St. Louis supported the North. The loss of loved ones and the fragility of peace taught her that life was precious and needed to be treasured. Her great-grandmother Madame Victoire Verdon Charleville died in 1863 at the age of 83 and a month later, Kate's adored half-brother George O'Flaherty, a 23-year-old Confederate soldier, died of typhoid fever.

One of Kate's teachers, a Sacred Nun named Madam (Mary Philomena) O'Meara, first encouraged her to write. Writing helped Kate express her sense of humor and resolve her painful feelings of war and death. Teachers and classmates soon recognized her talent of being a gifted storyteller.

Social Obligations and Marriage

At age 18, Kate graduated from the academy and made her social debut. Although she preferred to spend time alone reading instead of attending socials all night, Kate was a natural conversationalist. She followed the traditional custom of debuting, but she wanted to escape from the parties and the social expectations. She wrote in her diary, "I dance with people I despise ... return home at day break with my brain in a state which was never intended for it ... . I am diametrically opposed to parties and balls; and yet when I broach the subject-they either laugh at me-imagining that I wish to perpetrate a joke; or look very serious, shake their heads and tell me not to encourage such silly notions." Her diary entries also show a very moody woman exhausted of the hectic pace of debuting that took her privacy and freedom away from her. During this time, she wrote her first story, "Emancipation: A Life Fable," a short story about freedom and restriction.

On June 9, 1870, Kate marries Oscar Chopin and moves to New Orleans.

Little is known of the details of Oscar and Kate's romance. What is known is that her marriage to Oscar was not the antithesis of what she demanded out of life. She did not sacrifice her spiritual freedom by marrying him and continued to violate all the rules of expected female behavior. She rolled and smoked Cuban cigars. Her clothes were flashy and stylish, yet always memorable and pretty. After moving to Cloutierville, Louisiana in 1879, she rode horses in addition to taking walks, but if she was in a hurry, she had a reputation of jumping on her horse and galloping away through the middle of town. She did what she wanted to do and refused to conform to tradition for tradition's sake.

Kate and Oscar had all six of their children within the first ten years of marriage. Kate allowed their children as much freedom as possible and permitted them to enjoy their youth with playing, music, and dancing. Although Kate loved her children, motherhood often consumed her so she traveled to familiar places such as St.

Louis and the Grand Isle as much as possible. Her children came with her since family and friends would be available to watch them.

When Oscar could no longer work as a cotton factor in New Orleans, Kate, Oscar, and the children moved to Natchitoches Parish. They settled in Cloutierville, Louisiana where Oscar opened a general store and managed nearby land. A few months before his death, Oscar suffered from fever attacks. The country doctor misdiagnosed the illness and without the proper treatment, Oscar died on December 10, 1882.

Another Beginning: Writing 

Oscar had left Kate with a failing business and six small children to raise. She ran the store, paid off the debt, and managed the property for two years before moving back to St. Louis to live closer to her mother and to provide better educational opportunities for her children. Some theorists say that Kate also wanted to leave Albert Sampite, a married man whom many believe she had a romantic affair with after Oscar's death.

Her mother died a year after Kate returned to St. Louis. Her mother's death affected her the most. She had barely recovered from Oscar's sudden death only to face her mother's sudden death. As a result, she was reintroduced to one of her favorite childhood activities: writing. After the death of her mother, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, her obstetrician and family doctor, recognized the eloquence in her letters and encouraged her to write short stories as a form of therapy. Much like Madam O'Meara at the academy, Dr. Kolbenheyer recognized Kate's literary style of writing in the letters she wrote to him and her friends.

He believed women should not be discouraged from having careers and advised Kate to write as a means of emotional therapy and financial support. She later models Dr. Mandelet in  "The Awakening" after him.

She published her first short story, "A Point at Issue!" in the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch" on October 27, 1889, and a few months later, "Philadelphia Musical Journal" published "Wiser Than God." Her first novel, "At Fault" is published in September 1890 at her own expense. Around this same time, she became a charter member of the Wednesday Club, which was founded by Charlotte Stearns Eliot, ​T.S Eliot's mother. She eventually resigned from the club and satirized it in her later works. She continued writing and publishing more stories in magazines and newspapers such as "Vogue," "Youth's Companion," and "Harper's Young People," but it wasn't until March 1894 when Houghton Mifflin published "Bayou Folk" that Kate became nationally known as a short story writer. She published a second volume of short stories, "A Night in Acadie," in November 1897.

Herbert S. Stone & Company published her most famous work,  The Awakening, in 1899. Many have believed that her book was banned due to its "controversial" topics dealing with women, marriage, sexual desire, and suicide. According to Emily Toth, the book was never banned, but it did receive negative reviews. The following year, Herbert S. Stone and Company reversed its decision to publish a third collection of short stories. Kate did not write much afterward because no one would buy her stories. Her last published story was "Polly" in 1902. Two years later, Kate collapses at the St. Louis World's Fair and dies two days later from complications of a stroke.

After her death, her writings were ignored until 1932 when Daniel Rankin published "Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories," the first biography on Kate, but his text presents a very limited view and showed her only as a local colorist. It wasn't until 1969 when Per Seyersted published "Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography," which sparked a new age of Chopin readers. Ten years later, he and Emily Toth published a collection of Kate's letters and journal entries called A "Kate Chopin Miscellany". Both Seyersted and Toth have taken a great interest in the writer and have provided the world more access to Chopin's life and work. In 1990, Toth published one of the most comprehensive biographies on Chopin and a year later, she published Kate's third volume of short stories, "A Vocation and A Voice," the volume Herbert S. Stone and Company refused to publish. Toth and Seyersted have since released another text titled "Kate Chopin's Private Papers" and Toth published another biography, "Unveiling Kate Chopin".

Both books include journal entries, manuscripts, and other information.