Kate Chopin was born Catherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis on February 8, 1850. Her mother, Eliza Faris, came from an old French family that lived outside of St. Louis. Her father, Thomas, was a highly successful Irish-born businessman; he died when Kate was five years old. Chopin grew up in a household dominated by women: her mother, great-grandmother, and the female slaves her mother owned, who took care of the children. Young Chopin spent a lot of time in the attic reading such masters as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the Brontes. Her great-grandmother taught her to speak French and play piano, and related stories about her great-great-grandmother, a woman who ran her own business, was separated from her husband, and had children while unmarried. This woman great example for young Katie of a woman’s strength, potential for independence, and the real workings of life’s passions.
Like the rest of her family, Chopin grew up strongly pro-Confederate, a sentiment enhanced by her beloved half-brother’s death in the Civil War. In fact, 13-year-old Chopin was arrested when she tore a Union flag from her family’s porch that had been hung there by the triumphant Union troops. She became known as St. Louis’s “Littlest Rebel” — a trait that marked Chopin’s behavior as an adult, when she attended her own interests more closely than society’s arbitrary and sexist dictates.
Education, Marriage, and Children
Chopin attended a St. Louis Catholic girl’s school, Academy of the Sacred Heart, from ages five to eighteen. There, the nuns continued the female-oriented education begun at home by her great-grandmother, providing a forum for their students to express their thoughts and share their opinions.
After finishing her education at Academy of the Sacred Heart, Chopin entered St. Louis society, where she met Oscar Chopin, a French-born cotton factor (the middleman between cotton grower and buyer). She married Oscar in June 1870, and they moved to New Orleans. Between 1871 and 1879, she had six children. Like Edna and Leonce Pontellier, the Chopins vacationed during summers on Grand Isle, to avoid the cholera outbreaks in the city of New Orleans. Also like Edna, Chopin took long walks alone in New Orleans, often while smoking cigarettes, much to the astonishment of passersby.
When Oscar’s cotton brokerage business failed due to drought and his mismanagement, they moved to the small French village of Cloutierville, Louisiana where Oscar had family and a small amount of land. Chopin was distinguished in this tiny town by her habit of riding horses astride rather than sidesaddle, dressing too fashionably for her surroundings, and smoking cigarettes — all of which were considered unladylike. Many of the locals found their way into her later stories.
Oscar ran a general store in Cloutierville until he died in 1882 of malaria. Upon his death, which left his family in great debt, Chopin ran the store and their small plantation, a highly unusual move for widows at the time. Not until 1884 did Chopin take the usual course for widows, when she and her children moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother. Before she left Cloutierville, Chopin had an affair with a local married man who is said to be the prototype for Alcee Arobin in The Awakening.
Her Later Years
A year after Chopin moved her family back to St. Louis, she began to write, publishing first a piece of music called “Polka for Piano” in 1888 and then a poem called “If It Might Be” in 1889. She then turned her attention toward fiction and concentrated on that genre for the rest of her life.
Resenting the expectation that she was to spend her days making social calls on other women, Chopin began St. Louis’ first literary salon, a social gathering one evening a week where both women and men could gather for some intelligent conversation. Through these salons, she fulfilled the social requirement to entertain regularly but did so under her own terms. A benefit of these salons was professional advancement: Publishers and reviewers alike attended Chopin’s salons, providing a fertile network for the ambitious Chopin to pursue additional publication opportunities.
Chopin published almost 100 short stories, three novels, and one play within twelve years — after she began writing, she pursued it with the same business sense she displayed while running her husband’s general store after he died.
In her last years, health problems made writing difficult, although many people attributed the decrease in her writing as a result of the storm of negative publicity that accompanied The Awakening’s publication in 1899. Her death came suddenly; she died on August 22, 1904 of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
Chopin’s first short story was published in 1889; she began her first novel, At Fault, that year as well. Chopin was assiduous about submitting manuscripts and cultivating relationships with influential editors. Her stories appeared in prestigious magazines such as Vogue and Atlantic Monthly, and two collections of her short stories were published in book form, as Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). Both of those books were well received, although regarded by many reviewers and critics primarily as “regionalist” work, meaning it had little literary value beyond the portrait it presented of the Louisiana/Missouri region.
Her most famous work, The Awakening, appeared in 1899. As in much of Chopin’s writing, this novel concerns itself with issues of identity and morality. Unlike the rest of her work, it created a tremendous controversy. While many reviewers deemed it a worthy novel, an equal and more vocal number condemned it, not simply for Edna’s behavior, but for her lack of remorse about her behavior — and Chopin’s refusal to judge Edna either way.
A well-regarded author at the time of her death, despite the controversy surrounding The Awakening, Chopin’s work fell into obscurity for many years as regional literature fell out of literary favor. Chopin’s work did not come to the attention of the established literary world until 1969, after almost 70 years of obscurity, with the publication of Per Seyersted’s critical biography and his edition of her complete works. The 1960s feminist movement in America had a great deal to do with her new-found fame as well; that movement brought to attention the work of women who had been excluded from the literary canon by its male creators. Today, her work is part of the canon of American literature.