Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin was a nineteenth-century novelist and short story writer known for her ability to capture Louisiana Creole culture and women's lives. The most obvious example of this is in her most famous text, The Awakening (1899). Below you will find Chopin's biography and an exploration of some of her best-known works. We will also look at some common themes in her work as well as the literary criticism that Chopin's works have garnered.

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Kate Chopin


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Kate Chopin was a nineteenth-century novelist and short story writer known for her ability to capture Louisiana Creole culture and women's lives. The most obvious example of this is in her most famous text, The Awakening (1899). Below you will find Chopin's biography and an exploration of some of her best-known works. We will also look at some common themes in her work as well as the literary criticism that Chopin's works have garnered.

About Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin's Biography
Birth:8th February 1851
Death:22nd August 1904
Father:Thomas O'Flaherty
Mother:Eliza Faris
Spouse/Partners:Oscar Chopin (1879-1882)
Famous Works:
Literary Period:American Realism

Kate Chopin was born Kate O'Flaherty on 8 February 1851 into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Thomas O'Flaherty, was an Irish emigrant and a very successful businessman. He died when Chopin was still young, so Chopin was raised by her mother, Eliza Faris. Chopin's grandmother and great-grandmother were also very important figures in her childhood. These women were from a Louisiana Creole background. This background influenced Chopin's work.

Louisiana Creole culture typically refers to people of French or Spanish descent who inhabited Louisiana before it came under American governance. They had their own specific cultural identity, spoke some French or Spanish, and were typically Catholic.

Chopin was educated at a convent school until her father's death. She was then homeschooled for a period by her great-grandmother. Chopin lived with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother at this time. They were all independent, widowed women that had not remarried.

After a few years, Chopin returned to her convent school and remained there until her education was completed. She enjoyed her time there and was a very academically successful student.

Kate Chopin married Oscar Chopin in 1870. Oscar was a cotton merchant, landowner, and of French Creole heritage. The couple moved to New Orleans and had six children within the first eight years of their marriage.

The American Civil War was not long over, and New Orleans suffered financially because of this. Oscar Chopin's business failed, and the family was forced to move to a small village in Louisiana. The family earned its money from a small plantation and store that Oscar Chopin owned.

Oscar Chopin died in 1882, and Kate Chopin was left to deal with his debts. She managed to pay them off, working the plantation and store for a time. Chopin and her children were eventually forced to move back to St. Louis with Chopin's mother's support. Chopin's mother passed away not long after this.

Chopin's mother's death impacted her very severely. Her doctor advised her to begin writing to improve her mental well-being. Kate Chopin began writing in 1888. She first wrote short stories, having many published in periodicals and magazines. These included Vogue, Atlantic, and Harpers Young People. Chopin's stories quickly became popular and were known for capturing Southern Creole culture very accurately.

From her early short stories, a major theme in Chopin's work was gaining spiritual and emotional freedom. However, Chopin's work was often viewed as lesser than male authors' writing at the time because she was a woman. Some of her short stories include 'Wiser Than a God' (1889), 'A No-Account Creole' (1894), and 'Beyond the Bayou' (1893). Selling these short stories to publications became a source of income for Chopin.

Chopin published her first novel, At Fault, in 1890. She chose to publish this work herself without the help of a publishing company. The novel did not receive good reviews as it frankly discussed divorce and female sexuality. These were controversial topics at the time. Chopin continued to publish collections of short stories throughout the 1890s.

After a suggestion from an editor she was working with, Chopin began working on The Awakening. This novel was published in 1899. It proved to be even more controversial than At Fault. The Awakening had honest discussions of female sexuality. It also questioned many stereotypes forced upon women at the time. The majority of critics intensely disliked this, and the novel was not hugely successful.

After The Awakening's publication, Chopin found it harder to publish her short stories. The controversial novel had tarnished her reputation. This reputation was of a regional short story writer. Her novels, particularly The Awakening, were not recognised as unique and valuable realist texts until the second half of the twentieth century.

Kate Chopin was not influential in her time; however, she continued to write until her death. Chopin's health deteriorated, and she died from a brain haemorrhage in 1904, aged 54.1

Kate Chopin, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Kate Chopin was born Kate O'Flaherty, and is well regarded as a feminist writer

Works by Kate Chopin

Let's take a look at some of Kate Chopin's notable works.

Kate Chopin: At Fault (1890)

This was Chopin's first novel and was self-published. It captures the Louisiana Creole culture Chopin was so familiar with. The novel follows Thérése Lafirme, who has been recently widowed. With her husband gone, it is up to Thérése to run the plantation they own in their small Louisiana village. She meets David Hosmer, a Catholic businessman. Hosmer wants to do a business deal with Thérése in which he pays her to cut timber from her land.

The story jumps forward a year. We can now see this deal has been successful. It becomes clear that David is in love with Thérése and wishes to marry her. The two share a kiss, and it is evident that Thérése returns his feelings in some way. She refuses to marry him as David is a divorcee, which goes against her morals.

Thérése is old-fashioned. She encourages David to reconcile with his ex-wife Fanny. David does this out of love for Thérése. David and Fanny remarry and move to Louisiana. David had to spend a great deal of time convincing Fanny to do this. The couple is miserable, but they stay together. Thérése makes an effort to help Fanny feel more comfortable in the village.

Chopin also includes a side plot in At Fault. This subplot is the romantic relationship between Gregoire, Thérése's nephew, and Melicent, David's sister. Not long after David and Fanny return to Louisiana, it is revealed that Melicent plans to leave the area. This news devastates Gregoire. Gregoire is involved in an altercation with Joçint, a worker at the mill that David Hosmer owns. Joçint burns down the mill, and Gregoire kills him because of this. This response upsets Melicent greatly, and she leaves the area without speaking to Gregoire. Gregoire is killed not long after, and Melicent regrets her actions deeply. She truly loved him.

David regrets his decision to reunite with Fanny. Fanny suspects this. She also suspects David's feelings for Thérése. David and Fanny have a violent confrontation over these issues. Fanny leaves the area and is involved in an accident that takes her life. A year later, David and Thérése wed.

Chopin herself has answered the question of who is 'at fault' in this novel. She has said that Thérése was at fault for following her old-fashioned morality and judging David for being divorced.2 Throughout the novel, Thérése learns to be more open-minded.

Kate Chopin: The Awakening (1899)

This novel is Chopin's only other novel. It has become her best-known one. The Awakening, like At Fault, captures French Creole culture and has a female protagonist.

The novel focuses on Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother in her late twenties. She begins to feel trapped by the expectations placed on her by society as a woman. Her husband, Mr Pontellier, is traditional and expects these things of her. They are a wealthy couple and spend time on holidays in the affluent resort of Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico. Edna meets people here who aid in her awakening.

Perhaps the most important of these is Robert Lebrun. He is a young man who holidays in Grand Isle and often flirts with the women there. He and Edna have a real, deep romantic connection that is more than a flirtation that develops for a long time without acting on their feelings until near the end of Chopin's novel. Edna's relationship with Robert encourages her to explore her sexuality. She begins to see herself as more than a wife and mother and instead as a person. She and Robert never physically consummate their love, but she does have an affair with another man, Alcée Arobin.

Edna also spends a lot of time with her close friend Madame Adéle Ratignolle. Madame Ratignolle is everything that women were expected to be at this time. She is devoted and loving. She would do anything for her husband and children. Edna realises she is nothing like this. Because of this, she is encouraged further to explore who she truly is instead.

Edna has many moments of awakening throughout the novel. A key moment is when she swims out to sea at Grand Isle. Edna had stated that she was fearful of swimming out as she could not swim. But one night, she gains the courage to swim out further than anyone else around; this is a moment of strength for Edna.

Despite all her awakenings, Edna has a tragic ending. She has realised that she is more than a wife and mother, but she has also realised that the late nineteenth-century society she lives in would never accept this. It will always place strict expectations upon her. She wades out to sea in the same place she had her awakening. Chopin does not make it explicitly clear, but Edna takes her own life here.

Can you pinpoint any more similarities between At Fault and The Awakening?

Kate Chopin: themes

Let's explore some of the most prevalent themes in Kate Chopin's work.

Kate Chopin and social norms

Social norms are a key theme in Kate Chopin's work. She mainly focuses on the issues women face because of societal pressure—both At Fault and The Awakening feature female protagonists struggling with social norms. Thérése struggles with what society has told her about divorce, and Edna struggles with what society expects her to be as a woman. Chopin's novels garnered a lot of criticism at their time of publishing for dealing with these topics.

When Chopin was writing, women were still expected to behave very traditionally. It was thought they should be passive and well-behaved to be good wives and mothers. Chopin explored taboo topics that went against these norms.

At Fault explores a relationship between a widow and a divorced man that eventually ends in the couple getting married. Many of Thérése's reservations about marriage come from her Catholic religion, which did not permit divorce and certainly did not permit someone to marry a divorced person. Chopin is questioning these kinds of constraints. She instead promotes true emotion and love over manmade rules.

The Awakening rails even more strongly against social norms. Edna's exploration of her sexuality as a woman was considered very inappropriate. On top of this, Edna admits that although she loves her children, she would not give up everything for them. This would have been expected of her as a mother. This, too, was controversial.

I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself. I can't make it more clear; it's only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me. (Chapter 16)

Chopin challenged many social norms in her work. This was particularly controversial as she was a female writer when female writers were expected to stick to appropriate genres, e.g. romance. They were not permitted to do anything unexpected or taboo. Chopin's texts encourage questioning of what was thought to be normal.

Kate Chopin and creole culture

As mentioned, Creole culture is present in much of Chopin's work, which was Chopin's own background. She was writing about what she knew.

Creole culture was based in the southern states of America, particularly Louisiana. These people were of French or Spanish descent. Chopin often wrote about those of French descent, seen in both At Fault and The Awakening.

Creole people had a particular cultural identity. They typically spoke French as well as English and were usually Catholic. Chopin places this culture at the centre of her novels. We see Catholic characters that have French names and often switch between French and English while speaking.

There were also particular stereotypes about Creole women. They were thought to be perfect mother and wife figures. There was a great deal of pressure on Creole women to live up to stereotypes. This is linked to the previous theme of social norms and Chopin's challenging of them.

In Chopin's society, it was already taboo to question stereotypes placed upon women. But in a Creole culture that so prioritised women as wives and mothers, this was even more taboo.

Kate Chopin, New Orleans, StudySmarterFig. 2 - New Orleans, Louisiana, is an important setting for Chopin and other writers exploring Creole Culture, postcolonialism, and racial identity.

Kate Chopin and literary criticism

In her time of writing, Kate Chopin received mixed literary criticism. She was often praised for her skill in accurately capturing Southern and Creole culture. Chopin used the genre of realism to convey an accurate picture of the world she was writing about. This was typically a world that Chopin knew well and was a part of. This realism was what Chopin was known for until the late twentieth century.

Realism is a genre of English Literature. It characterises fictional texts that represent a realistic worldview. A key feature to remember about realism is that it is writing that is plausible, not necessarily possible. As a movement, realism began in the 19th century in Europe as a reaction to Romanticism. This was because those in the realist movement saw romanticism as too fantastical and removed from the real world. Examples of well-known realist texts include Middlemarch (1871) by George Eliot and Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens.

Chopin also received a lot of negative reviews and criticism. Some of these centred around the fact that she was a woman. Tackling topics like divorce, female sexuality, and adultery were controversial no matter the writer in the late nineteenth century. This only intensified if the writer was a woman. Chopin's work, particularly The Awakening, was regarded as inappropriate and vulgar.

Many contemporary reviewers overlooked her literary skill. They instead focused on the taboo topics she discussed that they saw as improper for a woman to discuss. In the case of The Awakening, some even complained they did not understand the purpose of the story or its ending. These criticisms impacted Chopin so deeply that she published little after The Awakening.

Literary criticism of Kate Chopin has changed significantly since she published her works. From the 1970s onwards, Kate Chopin began to be recognised as a talented realist writer. Much modern literary criticism focuses on her elegant and realistic portrayal of women's struggles in the nineteenth century. Her lyrical use of language is also often focused on. While critics are typically hesitant to regard her as a proto-feminist, there is general agreement that she accurately investigated women's lives and the problems they faced due to society.

Proto-feminism is a term used to refer to the phenomenon of works or authors that referenced topics that we today would consider feminist. However, at the time of writing, the concept of 'feminism' did not exist yet, nor did the language to define it. Proto-feminist works essentially anticipate feminist ideas before they were common or popularised.

Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (1969)

Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography is one example of the more modern literary criticism of Chopin's work that began to change how she was viewed as a writer. It was written by Per Seyersted, a Norwegian critic, and published in 1969.

Seyersted moved away from looking at the aspect of Chopin's work that accurately captured Creole culture. He instead focused on her realistic depictions of women's issues. Seyersted also focused on Kate Chopin's depictions of female sexuality and how unique this was at the time.

Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography was hugely influential in literary criticism of Kate Chopin's work.

Kate Chopin - Key takeaways

  • Kate Chopin was born in 1851 in St. Louis, Missouri.
  • Chopin published many short stories throughout the 1890s.
  • Chopin published two novels, At Fault (1890) and The Awakening (1899); both novels were controversial for their discussions of taboo topics.
  • Two key themes in Chopin's work are Social Norms and Creole Culture.
  • Modern literary criticism recognises Chopin as a talented realist that accurately captured women's struggles.

1. Tonette Bond Inge, 'Kate Chopin (8 February 1850-22 August 1904)', Gale Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1989.

2. Maureen Anderson, 'Unraveling the Southern Pastoral Tradition: A New Look at Kate Chopin’s At Fault', Southern Literary Journal, 2001.

Frequently Asked Questions about Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin is best known for her novel The Awakening  (1899) which discussed issues of female sexuality.

Kate Chopin married Oscar Chopin in 1870.

Kate Chopin died of a brain haemorrhage.

Chopin's work was controversial because she frankly discussed taboo topics of women's issues and sexuality.

Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis, Missouri. 

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