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The Awakening | Study Guide

Kate Chopin

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Kate Chopin | Biography


Kate Chopin was born Catherine O'Flaherty on February 8, 1850, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Thomas, was Irish and her mother, Eliza, was from French ancestry, so the O'Flaherty household was a unique mix of French, Irish, and American sensibilities. Chopin's mother was extremely influential in her daughter's life, as were her French grandmother and great-grandmother. So too were the nuns at the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart, which Chopin started to attend at age five. Amid the many nurturing women in her life, Chopin grew up both speaking and reading English and French and absorbing French ways of thinking and writing. Despite these many loving relationships, however, her childhood was marred by strife and loss. Her father died in a railroad accident when Chopin was five, and the Civil War began six years later. Many families lost young men to the war, and Chopin's was no exception; her half brother, who had enlisted with the Confederates, was captured by the Union Army and died of typhoid fever. Starting in 1867 Chopin kept a commonplace book—a collection of poems, essays and other writings she copied from various sources, as well as her own diary entries. In 1869 she wrote "Emancipation: A Life Fable," a short story about an animal that escapes captivity.

After the war Chopin met and fell in love with Oscar Chopin, who shared her French background. The two were married in 1870 and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana, where Oscar became a cotton dealer. The couple had six children—five boys and a girl. For vacations the family sometimes visited Grand Isle, a beach resort catering to Louisiana's wealthy and the setting of part of The Awakening. In 1879 the family moved to Cloutierville, Louisiana, where Oscar Chopin bought a general store, but just three years later he contracted malaria and died. Although she was just in her early 30s, Kate Chopin did not seek another husband, instead choosing to raise her children by herself and find intimacy through an affair. After a few years she moved her family back to St. Louis, where she began to write in earnest. In 1890 Chopin published her first novel, At Fault, about a young widow who is in love with a divorced man but whose Catholic faith proves to be an obstacle to the romance.

Over the next decade or so Chopin wrote about 100 short stories and was active in the St. Louis literary scene. She came to be recognized as a writer of promise and talent. Her work was published in and reviewed by periodicals such as the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1899 she published The Awakening, her second and last novel.

Kate Chopin was a prolific writer and had many publications under her belt by the time she wrote The Awakening. Her work was broadly enjoyed and recognized. Before The Awakening was published, it was glowingly reviewed in the March 1899 issue of Book News, an influential publication. Given Chopin's strong reputation and the complimentary review, The Awakening seemed primed for success. However, controversy grew as the novel was widely available. Book critics and the general readership found the novel's subject uncomfortable and Edna Pontellier's morality questionable. At the time novels were at least partially judged by the values and morals they promoted, and Edna's embrace of extramarital sex and subsequent suicide did not offer a socially acceptable vision of human nature. The novel quickly fell out of favor and did not find real success until the 1960s, when sexual ethics and women's rights came to the forefront of cultural consciousness. The Awakening is now embraced as an important and honest look at a society in which women were valued only for their role as wives and mothers.

On August 20, 1904, Chopin visited the St. Louis Fair and afterward complained to her son of head pain. The next day, on August 21, she lost consciousness and died; doctors speculated that she had a cerebral hemorrhage. She is buried in St. Louis's Calvary Cemetery, in the company of many other noted St. Louis citizens, such as playwright Tennessee Williams and Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman.

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