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Kate Chopin

By Christina Ker

"AHEAD OF HER TIME"
An Overview of the Life and Works of

"Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had the slightest intimation of such a thing, I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over, and it was then too late."

"Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had the slightest intimation of such a thing, I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over, and it was then too late."

Thus did Kate Chopin respond to her critics in the July, 1899, edition of Book News, Purchase The Awakening having been almost universally condemned for the publication of her second novel: The Awakening. A novel that would become an American classic and is often included on required reading lists for literary courses and which is almost certainly a benchmark for the transition of American women writers from the themes of romance and contented domesticity to the exploration of the emotional and sexual needs of women. It is ironic, too, that the publication of The Awakening, certainly her highest artistic achievement as a novelist, would effectively end Kate Chopin's literary career and place her, now recognized as one of the most important of American women novelists, in obscurity for almost half a century.

The question of who was Kate Chopin and what influences did she have has often been asked by readers of her works. Having written the majority of her stories over a 10-year span, and not having begun to write until the age of 39, Kate Chopin was, as one of her most famous characters, Mademoiselle Reisz, stated, "The artist who dares and defies."

Born Catherine O'Flaherty on July 12, 1850, in St. Louis, Missouri, Kate Chopin was the daughter of an immigrant Irishman, Thomas O'Flaherty and a French-American mother, Eliza Faris. One of three children born to this union (Thomas' second, his first having produced her brother George), Kate was their youngest child and by all accounts, a happy one. However, in 1855 Thomas O'Flaherty died suddenly, and so, at five years old, Kate was forced to reshape her concept of herself and her world, which at that time largely revolved around the father figure as the center of the household. After her father's death, Kate's family included her widowed mother, her widowed grandmother and her widowed great-grandmother.

Her personal community included her brothers, her sister (who later died while still in childhood) and assorted other relatives and people. Records indicate that the O'Flaherty household usually abounded with people during Kate's childhood and adolescence. However, in this happy domestic scene, one begins to get a glimpse of what would ultimately so greatly influence Kate Chopin as a writer-- the lack of male role models and men as central figures in her life as she matured. This lack would also prevent her from experiencing what was basically a fundamental social concept of her time--the tradition of submission of women to men in all social spheres, but especially that of marriage.

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In June, 1868, Kate graduated from the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart. Being a young debutante, she entered into the St. Louis social scene and was "one of the acknowledged belles of St. Louis." As a young, southern debutante, she would have been thrown together with young men of her social class and preparing for her expected role of wife and mother. However, her upbringing in a household of women and her education by nuns in a school for girls, may not have prepared her to completely accept the societal limitations of such a role. While it is true that she would have been instructed in the basic duties of being both a wife and a mother, and also taught subordination of the self to a "higher" masculine authority, her primary role models, both at home and at school, were women. Therefore, Kate would have been quite accustomed to seeing women in positions of autonomy and authority. It is often speculated that this, the inconsistency between training and experience in her life, contributed to the later development of her strong female characters, many of whom are stifled by their marital relationships.

In June, 1870, Kate married Oscar Chopin of New Orleans, a Creole cotton broker, and quite soon after Kate Chopinher marriage and subsequent move to New Orleans, Louisiana, she gave birth to her first son, Jean, in May, 1871. During the 1870s, she fulfilled the social responsibilities and obligations of a prominent young wife, and bore five more children. Apparently, Oscar and Kate were very happy. However, in 1879 financial problems caused them to move their family to Cloutierville, Louisiana, when Oscar's cotton brokerage failed. Three years later, Oscar died suddenly in December, 1882, thus leaving Kate a widow and businesswoman in her own right. Having settled her business affairs, in 1884 Kate then moved her family back to St. Louis to be near her mother and relatives. Soon after this move, though, her mother died, ending their very close relationship. Chopin was said to be devastated by this loss of her husband and mother in such rapid succession.

What can be ascertained from the formation of the close personal relationships in Chopin's life and their abrupt terminations from illness and death is that Kate would have had a constantly changing sense of who and what she was as a person. This need for self identification and self understanding was later transmitted to many of her eventual protagonists. Just as she was searching for her own role and identity during this time of her life, her myriad characters search for their roles and identities and places in society. This searching for identity and place is a constant theme throughout her works.

Perhaps the need to resolve this question of identity lead Kate Chopin to eventually write, but whatever her reasons for doing so, in 1889 Kate Chopin began to write fiction seriously. Many factors probably contributed to this. First, she was a voracious reader herself and was greatly influenced by classic writers such as Maupassant. Secondly, she needed to provide for her children, and lastly she had many friends with literary interests. Also, it has been suggested, tongue in cheek, that after 39 years of trials and tribulations and just plain living, she finally had something to say!

In June, 1889, Kate wrote Wiser Than a God and by the end of 1889 had written three more short stories as well as begun At Fault, her first novel published in 1890. By 1894 she published Bayou Folk, a collection of short stories written in the local-color tradition and containing all but four short stories previously published in popular journals. This would earn her the highest critical praise she would receive in her lifetime. Most of the stories contained in Bayou Folk are somewhat superficial and sentimental. However, even in these one can find Chopin's characters struggling for a sense of self and purpose, with such themes as self-reliant women as protagonists, post Civil War racism, male/female relationships and what would eventually become known as male chauvinism. Also, in these early characters one sees the prototype for her most famous character to come, Edna Pontellier of The Awakening.

Since all evidence seems to suggest that Kate Chopin herself had a loving and unusually fulfilling marriage for her time, and it has been recounted that she wrote surrounded by her children in an armchair in her salon and was a loving mother, it can probably be deduced that her early years are what greatly influenced her later work.

It is in The Awakening, published in 1899 that Kate Chopin finally came into her own as a novelist. Ironically, it marked the end of her critical reputation and literary career. By degrees discoveringPurchase The Awakening her sense of self as a person and an artist, the novel's protagonist, Edna Pontellier, slowly emerges from her semi-conscious state as wife and mother and "awakens" into full-blooming vibrancy and womanhood by the novel's end. However, 1899 America was not ready for either Edna ( who, realizing that she would not ever be accepted or permitted by the Creole society which she habitat's to be her own person, poignantly commits suicide) or for Kate Chopin, who had the audacity to write about female oppression and a woman's emotional and sexual needs at a time when neither subject was acknowledged. A barrage of critical abuse and personal ostracization followed the novel's publication and, unfortunately for her later admirers, extinguished her period of creativity. Kate Chopin died four years later, in 1904, from a brain hemorrhage, obscure and bitter.

She began writing seriously at the age of 39, when she would have already experienced many maturing life situations. She found her central focus rapidly, and wrote stories whose colorful characters and lush settings often masked the seriousness of their themes. Not greatly involved in the politics of her time, she was nonetheless influenced by such classic masters as Maupassant who would have awakened her, the artist, to ideas such as personal liberty and freedom.

These intellectual observations coupled with her early life experiences enabled her to produce stories that were both entertaining and which questioned the social mores and standards of her time. And, just as Edna Pontellier chose to end her life rather than submit to a less than full human existence, Chopin chose to end her literary career rather than submit to a less than full artistic existence, producing very little after the publication of The Awakening and dying soon after that. Thus, Chopin's life and literary career were an ironic parallel and salute to her most famous and notorious character.
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