The Awakening: Biography: Kate Chopin

Born Katherine OFlaherty in St. Louis, Missouri (on February 8, 1850), Kate Chopin was the only child of her parents who lived past the age of 25. Her father died in a train accident, leaving Kate to be raised by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, all of whom were widows. As Neal Wyatt notes, these “smart, independent, single women” had a profound impact on young Kate and the future direction of her life.

So also did the intellectual and literary climate of the time, as Sandra M. Gilbert has suggested. Women authors such as the Bronte sisters were writing “surprisingly radical” and “shockingly passionate” novels featuring strong female protagonists, and feminism was an emerging force in the social and political culture. Kate herself read early on the works of the Brontes, George Eliot, and Jane Austen, thus exposing her to the strong work of women of letters.

While Kate was educated in the Sacred Heart Academy, a Roman Catholic boarding school in St. Louis; and though she was confirmed in that Church, Kate developed what Wyatt calls “a strong skepticism of religion”-skepticism quite evident throughout The Awakening. Religion emerges as no more than one of les convenances (see Theme Analysis) which Edna, and her creator, would “dare and defy” with the courageous soul of the artist.

In 1870, Kate married businessman Oscar Chopin of New Orleans, the locale of The Awakening. A business failure, however, forced the Chopin family-which would include seven children-to move to a plantation. There, Oscar died in 1882 of swamp fever. Strong-willed and independent, Kate ran her husbands store and plantation for more than a year after his death.

Kate and her children returned to St. Louis, where, to support the family, Kate began writing. She vividly portrayed the people and situations she had known while living in Creole Louisiana; according to Wyatt, in fact, “The Awakening was inspired by a true story of a New Orleans woman who was infamous in the French Quarter.” While editors eagerly hailed Kate as a writer of “local color” (she published two collections of short fiction, Bayou Folk [1894] and A Night in Acadie [1897]), they did not respond as positively when she began writing about womens issues and inner emotional lives. Her first story, “Emancipation: A Fable” signifies by its title alone that womens independence of men and of society in general would be an important theme in her lifes work.

The Awakening appeared on April 22, 1899, to much controversy, due to its (for the time) frank discussions of sexuality, and the theme of a woman seeking her place in the world outside of expected social conventions. Because of this novel, the St. Louis Fine Arts Club denied Chopin admission into its ranks. No less a feminine literary light than Willa Cather publicly expressed regret that Kate Chopin had “devoted so exquisite and sensitive . . . a style to so trite and sordid a theme” as Edna Pontelliers quest for independent, true selfhood. Today, however, the book is widely regarded by academic critics and ordinary readers alike as Chopins most significant, enduring work. That verdict came, however, only after much neglect. Readers of the 1960s rescued her work from obscurity, perhaps because that decade was similarly concerned with authentic living, including an acknowledgment of human sensuality.

Kate Chopin died on August 22, 1904 of a cerebral hemorrhage.