Kate O’Flaherty was an emotional child, described by her
grandmother as having “a heart often spilled over with feeling” (Lyons
70). Her father died in a train
accident when she was five, so the Creole culture of her female relatives
provided her the guidance and care in her childhood years, as she was raised by
her French-Creole great grandmother, grandmother and mother (Lyons 69).
Growing up in a family of independent females, Kate learned early about women
who chose freedom over security and independence over convention (Toth, par.1).
At a young age Kate inherited, “Creole gaiety, Irish humor, French
manners, catholic morals and southern loyalty” (Lyons 70). Her
grandmother also entertained Kate with ancestry stories involving adultery and
interracial marriage, possibly one reason why Kate chose to deal with such racy
topics in her adult writing career (Lyons 69). Kate attended Sacred Heart
Academy, a boarding school, where nuns schooled her in music, literature and
language (Davidson 188). The strict
rules enforced by the nuns were very constraining to Kate, and she often felt
homesick and lonely. At this time Kate found refuge in journal writing, where
she could express her inner most feelings, a behavior that was deemed
inappropriate by the nuns so she kept her writing a secret (Lyons 70).
Following her graduation from the Sacred Heart Academy,
twenty one year old Kate married Oscar Chopin on June 9th, 1870. They
honeymooned in Europe and took in many sights that inspired Kate to begin
writing (Lyons 70). During their honeymoon, Kate recorded in her diary very,
“detailed, clever observations of women” (Davidson 188). These observations
included women walking, interacting with men, and Kate’s own delights in
enjoying European culture (Davidson 188). After their honeymoon Kate and Oscar
settled in New Orleans. She quickly
became pregnant, but instead of hiding her condition like a proper women, she
continued to wander the streets of New Orleans and ride the mule-drawn
streetcars all over the city (Lyons 77).
Kate had 5 more children before she turned 29. Shortly after the birth of her fifth son, Kate was forced to move her family to Oscar’s family plantation in Cloutierville because of financial problems. She gave birth to her last child and only daughter, Lelia, during the first year on the plantation in 1879. Oscar died of malaria in 1882 but because Kate came from a lineage of resourceful women she successfully managed Oscar’s store and his plantations (Davidson 188). Shortly following Oscar’s death, Kate began a scandalous affair with a married man named Albert Sampite who later became her model for the brutal character of Alcee in many of her stories (Davidson 188). After ending her affair with Albert in 1884, she moved her family to her mother’s home in Saint Louis and began writing about Louisiana folk and women in unhappy marriages. After showing some of her short stories to Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, a family friend, she began to write professionally with his encouragement and support (Toth, par.2).
At age 39, Kate’s writing career began with the
publishing of her first short story, “A Point At Issue!” which made her an
instant success (Davidson 188). However, her first novel At Fault (1890)
was rejected by publishers and magazines because of its controversial topic, so
Kate paid to have it printed. This was the first novel written by an American
woman that dealt with the topic of divorce and was condemned by critics.
Kate’s first short story collection Bayou Folk, was praised
everywhere for its charm, color and intense characterization as she brought
the tales of the Cane River region to life (Lyons 83). Her second collection of
short stories, A Night In Acadie, puzzled readers with its “decadent
atmosphere and conclusive stories”, (Davidson 188). Her sensual manner of
writing in A Night In Acadie was considered by the critics as more French
than American (Davidson 188).
Kate’s most controversial work, her second novel The
Awakening (1899), in which a Louisiana wife and mother has two lovers,
allowed Kate to express mixed feelings about marriage and love relationships
(Lyons 88). Chopin was unprepared
for the nationwide condemnation the book received from male publishers and
critics who found the novel to be “unwholesome” (Davidson 188).
The novel tarnished Chopin’s reputation, but during the 1960’s
brought Kate literary fame as it still speaks to readers today who question
women’s social role (Toth, par. 2).
Aside from The Awakening, Chopin is known for “stories about women who learn startling secrets about themselves and their men” (Davidson 188), like her short stories “The Story Of An Hour” and “Desiree’s Baby”. While women around her were writing wholesome stories that could be shared with their families, Chopin used her fiction to unveil her feelings regarding marriage, motherhood, relationships and sexual encounters (Lyons 90). As a result of her racy themes and controversial plots, Kate Chopin has been called a “writer ahead of her times” and a “woman for all seasons”, (Davidson 188).
3 pars. 22 Oct. 2004 <http://80-web30.epnet.com.roxy.nipissingu.ca:2080/citation.asp>
Prepared by Kendra Ostroski (2004).