Kate Chopin: An Unconventional Writer
Kate Chopin, a female author in the Victorian Era, wrote a large number of short stories and poems. She is most famous for her controversial novel The Awakening in which the main character struggles between society's obligations and her own desires. At the time The Awakening was published, Chopin had written more than one hundred short stories, many of which had appeared in magazines such as Vogue. She was something of a literary “lioness" in St. Louis and had numerous intellectual admirers. Within weeks after publication of The Awakening, this social landscape that had appeared so serenely comfortable became anything but serene and anything but comfortable.
Of all things, death led Kate Chopin to write. The death of her brother, her beloved grandmother, her husband, and lastly, her mother left her with an overwhelming sadness and six children to raise, prompting her move to write. With such earnest promptings, Chopin took up writing at age thirty-eight. The publication of the love poem "If It Might Be" in January 1889 marked Chopin's first appearance in print.
Many of Kate Chopin’s writings wave a backward glance to her childhood. Kate's grandmother, Madame Charleville, spent much time telling Kate stories that stirred her interest about people's lives, minds, and morals. Madame Charleville's favorite saying was, "One may know a great deal about people without judging them. God does that" (Oscar 17). Young Kate must have paid a great deal of attention. Three decades later, when she came to do her own storytelling, she would continue to leave judgment entirely to God.
Kate Chopin’s first novel, At Fault, also refers to sentiments of her childhood, which was not without limitations and prejudices. Her parents, the O'Flahertys were slave holders and rebel supporters. When the Civil War broke out, Kate's brother George joined the Confederate Army. Kate's sentiments followed after the protection of her brother, and she became the "littlest rebel" in St. Louis (Thornton 2). Because of Kate's feelings about the Union, it shouldn't be too surprising that some of those sentiments survived into her adulthood. In much of her work, beginning with At Fault and continuing through such stories as "For Marse Chouchoute," and "The Benitous Slave," the black characters are portrayed as simple, childlike, and mindlessly devoted to their masters (Thornton 6). Even in "Desiree's Baby" (perhaps Chopin's best-known short work), racial injustice is a necessary background against which Chopin stages her deadly dramatic irony.
Between 1889 and 1894, many of Kate's famous works were written and published. Many of these were beginning to appear in familiar magazines across the country, making Chopin a nationally known author. A collection of short stories, Bayou Folk, was published. This famous series earned her glowing reviews and a great amount of literary success. "The Story Of an Hour" was written shortly after. This is one of Chopin's most unforgettable stories. Though Chopin herself never complained about her marriage, it is surely significant that this story about the fantasized freedom of a woman should come to her in the rush of literary success.
In April 1899, The Awakening was published. The flood of reviews that met The Awakening deemed the novel "nauseating and unworthy" (Oscar 19). The book was censored both locally and nationally for its "poisonous theme" (Bloom 126). Libraries removed the book from circulation. Chopin also suffered critical abuse and public denunciation as an immoralist because of the novel. The reaction of The Awakening almost caused Chopin to stop writing entirely. Unfortunately, Chopin never knew that this book was extraordinary. Like William Blake, Chopin was interested in innocence and experience, and both of these themes run within The Awakening. It was this book, though after her death, that made her loved.
Kate Chopin died in August of 1904 of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was an incredibly talented writer. She wrote about real issues and real feelings. Light and shadow play in her fiction. Moods come and go, representing the diverse events Chopin experienced. Unfortunately, like many other authors, Kate Chopin was never recognized for these incredible talents until it was far too late.
Bloom, Harold. Modern Views On Kate Chopin. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 125-133.
Oscar, Steven. Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening. New York: Rosen Publishers, 1992. 17-24.
Thornton, Lawrence. "Kate Chopin." The Scribner Writers Series.CD-ROM, 2001: 1-9.