Kate Chopin’s writing career is during the late 1800’s. She lives in a time where women are sexually suppressed and their opinions are not valued. Her writing holds more in common with our time than the time just after the Civil War. Although her life was full of death, she still lived as happy a life as she could by writing in such a bold and daring way.
Kate Chopin was born as Catherine O’Flaherty. She was born July 12, 1850. She is the daughter of Thomas and Eliza O’Flaherty.
Kate’s father, Thomas O’Flaherty, was born in Ireland in 1805. He came to the United States in 1823. In 1825 he became a merchant in St. Louis. In 1855 he died suddenly in a train wreck when she was only four. His sudden death pushed all his family into new relationships with each other and the world.
Thomas’ first wife, Catherine de Reilhe, married Thomas in 1839. She was a French-Creole girl, who died after giving birth to their son, George. In 1844, Thomas married Eliza Faris. They had three children together: Jane, who died at childbirth; Thomas Jr.; and Catherine, who we know as Kate Chopin. After the father’s death, Eliza had to cope with being a widow.
Kate’s childhood consisted of a widowed mother, and a widowed great-grandmother. As a child, Kate experienced many deaths. She became emotionally close to her half brother George O’Flaherty. George was a Confederate solider during the Civil War and died from typhoid fever after being released from prison in 1862. After her father and brother’s death, Kate seemed to have collapsed. She became faintly ill, and it took her two to three years to recover the traumatizing events of her childhood. These events changed her permanently which made her very wary.
Kate’s great-grandmother, Madame Charleville, taught her French. In fact, that was the only thing she would speak around Kate. Madame Charleville would tell Kate stories about the French. Giving Kate a history lesson about how the French founded the city along the banks of the Mississippi. Some of these stories were false, but Kate didn’t know the difference. They were just, “being no more than the scandals of another day” (Magill 205). In the end, Kate received an altogether unconventional education from her great-grandmother. Kate began a more conventional education at the Madames of the Sacred Heart Convent in 1860. There, the nuns taught her discipline and a respectable academic curriculum. Kate also along with English, learned French literature as well.
Kate began to play the piano at an early age. “Kitty Garesche recalls Kate being an accomplished pianist with an exceptional musical memory” (Baechler 68). Kate began her music with her great-grandmother supervising her piano playing. The great-grandmother would sit patiently with Kate as she practiced her scales. She done this to teach her the importance of discipline and technique. During her schooling with the Madames of the Sacred Heart, the nuns encouraged Kate to continue with her piano playing. “By the time she reached adolescence, Kate O’Flaherty was an accomplished musician” (Unger 205).
“In June 1868, Kate graduated from the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart. She then plunged into the fashionable life, and for two years she was…’One of he acknowledged belles of St. Louis’” (Skaggs 2).
After Kate’s graduation, she emerged from the dark period of her brother’s death, Kate became a popular young woman. In 1869 she began to smoke, which is highly unusual for a woman in those days. “For two years Kate lived a life of an attractive girl in the ‘high society’ (of French Origin) in which her mother moved” (Kunitz 150).
She was greatly fascinated by all the varieties of people she met in New Orleans.“She met aristocratic Creoles, unpretentious Cajuns (or Acadian: French pioneers who in 1755 had chosen to leave Nova Scotia rather than live under the British), Redbones (part Indian, part white), ‘Free Mulattoes’ (so called because they had never been slaves), blacks, and a cosmopolitan assortment of Germans, Italians, Irish, and Americans” (Baechler 68).
Kate would sometimes roam the city unaccompanied. She had a liking to take a streetcar or just simply walk on foot.
There in New Orleans she met 25 year old Oscar Chopin. She fell in love with this businessman and in 1870 they were married. She was 19 years old then and the couple were a perfect match and continued a fairytale marriage from then on.
Oscar Chopin descended from a French-Creole family. He lived on his father’s plantation as a cotton factor. Oscar was different from most white southerners at that time. He treated everyone as an equal, including his father’s slaves. He even once rebelled by tying himself to his father’s slaves when his father bought the McAlpin plantation (which was said to be the model for Harriet Beeches Stowe’s Legree plantation). His father was a cruel, heartless man who even drove his wife away for some period of time when Oscar was just a child. Oscar ran away from the cruelty to relatives when he was old enough.
Oscar treated Kate with dignity, equality and as a valued intelligent friend as well as a loving wife. Oscar’s relatives would criticise him for allowing Kate to forget her “duty” (Unger 206). “But Oscar and Kate merely laughed together over this display of consternation” (Unger 206). Oscar and Kate would often speak French together even though they lived on the American side of town.
Oscar was a cotton factor with established family connections. He handled everything from finance to buying farm equipment. The business was good and stable for a while but excess rain during 1878-1879 ruined the cotton fields. This caused great losses and caused Oscar and Kate to move with their six young children to Cloutierville. In this village, Kate used the setting for many of her stories
While in Cloutierville, Oscar opened a general store where he made enough money to keep Kate and his family comfortable and in style.
Kate was frequently pregnant through the early years of their marriage. By the age of 28 she had five sons which she would take to St. Louis. She took many trips to great places with her children to escape the yellow fever epidemic. Her sixth child was her first daughter, which she was overjoyed to have. “Kate recollects the birth of her son Jean: ‘The sensation with which I touched my lips and my fingertips to his soft flesh only comes once to a mother. It must be the pure animal sensation; nothing spiritual could be so real-so poignant’”(Unger 206). Oscar and Kate’s marriage life was wonderful. But, yet again, tragedy struck the young Creole. In 1882, Oscar came down with a terrible attack of swamp fever. Within days Oscar was dead. Kate was 31 years old when faced with the role of widow and businesswoman. She carried out the duties of her husband’s general store as well as raising six children. She sold most of their belongings and went to live with her mother in St. Louis.
She only stayed with her mother a brief moment when Kate was faced with another death. In June 1885, her mother had died. Chopin was “literally prostrate with grief” (Unger 207).
“In later years, Chopin’s daughter would sum up the effect upon her mother’s character:
When I speak of my mother’s keen sense of humor and of her habit of looking on the amusing side of everything. I don’t want to give the impression of her being joyous, for she was on the contrary rather a sad nature… I think the tragic death of her father early in her life, of her much beloved brothers, the loss of her young husband and her mother, left a stamp of sadness on her which was never lost(Unger 207).
Chopin began writing fiction very seriously in 1889. No one knows exactly why she took up her pen, but several influences probably contributed. First, she had always been a voracious reader; second, she needed to provide for her large family; third, her many friends with literary interests, especially Dr. Fredrick Kolbenheyer, encouraged her; and finally, she had through almost 39 years living learned some things she wanted to say (Skaggs 4).
She wrote her first story “Wiser than a God,” in 1889. She had written three other stories by the end of 1889. She published her first novel, At Fault, in 1890 at her own expense. She made good progress until she wrote, The Awakening, her second novel on April 2, 1899. It was ahead of its time by suggesting a sinful sexual maturity in a young married woman. It was given a very harsh critical reputation and thus banned for many years.
“Certainly her friend Dr. Kolenheyer influenced her significantly, apparently she was active in cultural organizations and maintained something of a salon during the 1890’s; yet the St. Louis Fine Arts Club ostracized her after the publication of The Awakening” (Skaggs 4).
Chopin was 39 years old when she published her first story. “Her unusual degree of personal maturity before beginning to write may explain the speed with which she found her focus. Few writers have moved so far so rapidly as she did between writing At Fault in 1889-1890 and The Awakening in 1897-1898” (Skaggs 4).
Kate Chopin was a beautiful young woman. She has a charming girlish figure, and at the time she was writing, the premature gray of her black hair contrasted her brilliant brown eyes. She has a fair complexion to her small plump figure which caused her friends to compare her to a beautiful French marquise. She is an avid listener and is a quiet and stimulating woman. “As for her method of composition the effortless ease of her style make plausible the account of how she wrote a story as soon as the theme occurred to her, recopied it, and sent it off with practically no revision” (Johnson 91).
A well read and loved “Story of an Hour,” is about a woman with heart trouble. She hears of the death of her husband but doesn’t die over this. Instead she dies at the sight of him being alive. This short story was published in 1894.
The Criticism of “The Story of an Hour”, it begins with the complexities of marriage. (April 1894-as elsewhere, the date indicated the date of composition as determined by Per Seyersted in Works), one of her most powerful efforts, offers a provocative glimpse of the complexities in marriage. Running to a scant three pages, it tells of Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to the sudden and unexpected news that her husband has been killed in a railroad disaster. “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease-of joy that kills.” The story concludes upon just that note. There is no omniscient voice to explain or moralize Mrs. Mallard’s hysteric joy. It merely stands, stark and matter-of-fact (Unger 212-213).
First published in 1969, Kate’s vivid story, “The Storm,” is about a married woman who suddenly commits adultery. “She responds not with shame but with joy at her sexual awakening and continued her love for her husband” (Magill 390).
In this 5-part short story, the narrative structure allows Chopin to present varying perspectives on a single situation as a means of suggesting that “reality” is, at best, relative. The situation is simple enough: Calixta’s husband, Bobinot, and her son, Bibi, are in town when a storm hits; alone at home, Calixta is about to shut the windows and doors against the storm when her former lover, Alcee Laballiere, rides into the yard seeking shelter. While the storm rages, Calixta and Alcee renew their passionate feelings for one another; their desire finally leads them into making love. When the storm abates, Alcee departs and Calixta welcomes her family back home. The story concludes, “So the storm passed and everyone was happy.(Magill 391)
Like all Chopin’s best fiction, “The Storm” does not offer pat moral truisms, indeed, the shocking element of this story’s conclusion is that the retribution one might expect for the act of adultery never comes. In section two, the crucial love scene is played out against ironic allusions to Christian symbolism: the assumption, and immaculate dove, a lily, and the passion. Chopin offers a moral tale in which a woman’s experience is not condemned but celebrated and in which she uses that experience not to abandon her family but to accept them with a renewed sense of commitment. Unlike The Awakening, “The Storm” allows a woman to gain personal fulfillment and to remain happily married. As in most naturalistic fiction, morality-like reality-is relative (Magill 391).
The Awakening is about the repressive world of 19th century America. This is where a young woman leads a regular, conventional life of an upper-class wife and mother. When she turns 28, she finds herself confused about life in general. She is so suffocated that she is willing to do anything, including defying Louisiana Creole morals, to gain spiritual independence. She awakens herself but never finds acceptable means of spiritual fulfillment. Her awakening even continues to her death.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has become one of the classics of feminist literature because of it’s theme of sexual awakening and a woman’s right to freedom of choice in matters of love (Magill 159). Chopin was ahead of her time. Her novel, The Awakening met with critical abuse and public denunciation. A reviewer writing for the magazine “Public Opinion” in 1899 stated that he was “Well satisfied” with Edna’s suicide because she deserved to die for her immoral behavior. Chopin never wrote another novel and gradually gave up writing altogether (Magill 159).
After her devastating critical reputation from The Awakening, Chopin’s writing career was virtually over. The Awakening went out of print until 1969 when Per Seyersted issued in two volumes, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. It was only five years after her publication of The Awakening that Kate Chopin died. She died of a stroke cause by a brain hemorrhage. After her death on August 20th, 1904, her work was forgotten and all but impossible to obtain. She lived a life of death, love, success and failure. In the end she lived an all-in-all achieving life.