Chopin’s life and her books are closely interconnected. Her childhood, education, relationships and life experience are reflected in her stories. Therefore, the more you know about Chopin’s life the more you understand her stories and characters. Had Kate Chopin been brought up in a different family and received different education or had she been born in another century and country, the subject of her interest would not probably have been the same. Her stories are what they are, because she was raised in an unconventional and matriarchal family but at the same time in a conventional and patriarchal society.
Kate Chopin’s maiden name was Katherine O′Flaherty. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1850 as the youngest of three children. She was born into a well-off, stable and publicly known family of an Irish immigrant and a French Creole2 woman. Her father (Thomas O’Flaherty) was a merchant. He married Kate’s mother (Eliza O’Flaherty) when she was only 16, because her family had fallen on hard times and needed financial support. The family belonged to the Creole social elite (Toth 2).
Kate was only five when her father was killed in a train accident. He joined city leaders in celebration of a new line of the Pacific Railroad and when the train was crossing a bridge, the structure buckled under its weight and ten cars plunged thirty feet into the river (Toth 4).
All of a sudden, the family was fatherless and had to adjust to the new conditions. There were three generations of widowed women left behind – Kate’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. They were living together in the house and created typically matriarchal world. Even though their community included some men – Kate’s brothers, uncles or cousins, they were in a minority and did not have sufficient influence on the women. No married couple lived in the house until Kate was sixteen.
This kind of an arrangement of the family must have influenced her view on women and made her very sensible to what they thought and what they desired.
In addition, the lack of male role models influenced her as a writer and a woman. “At home, she did not see men as central figures and she did not experience a typical submissive position of women to men, appearing in most social spheres”
Kate was very close to her great-grandmother, Victoria Verdon Charleville (Toth 8). She directed Kate’s mental and artistic growth and looked after her education until she died when Kate was eleven. It was she, who first introduced Kate to the world of storytelling, taught her French and gave her the piano lessons. As Davis notes, “Victoria Verdon Charleville cultivated in the young girl a taste for storytelling, a relish for the intimate details about the earliest settlers of the Louisiana Territory, and an unabashed, unhesitant, even unjudgmental intellectual curiosity about life. She also taught her to explore unconventional ideas” (Tolentino 3).
Frequent topics of Kate Chopin’s stories were smart and independent St. Louis women – these female characters were very similar to members of her family. One of the characters was Kate’s great-grandmother’s mother, who was the first woman in St.Louis legally separated from her husband. Nevertheless, she was able to raise five children on her own and also run a shipping business (Toth 9).
Kate Chopin was lucky to receive a formal education, because for most girls at that time it was impossible to go to school. She attended the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart from the age of five (Toth 14). The thirteen years she spent there being taught by nuns, influenced her attitude to life a lot.
The teaching program at school was very similar to what her great-grandmother taught her because as Toth states, “it mixed women’s wisdom, rigorous intellectual challenges, homely chores, and the celebration of women” (15). The Academy also “exposed her to Catholic teachings and a French emphasis on intellectual vigour,” and she became an “inquisitive observer” (Toth 21). The school taught her how to be independent in thinking and submissive to men at the same time.
Nevertheless, the fact that Kate grew up in a matriarchal family meant that she was not ready to fully accept the limitations on a woman’s autonomy and to entirely conform to the traditional role of a mother-wife. However, although Kate learned to be independent-minded, she was aware of the fact that eventually she would have to get married and become a housewife and mother. According to Skaggs “this inconsistency between training and experience contributed to the irony of her own happy marriage with the creation of her feminist female characters who felt trapped in their marriages”(Skaggs 2-3). I agree with Tolentino, who said that “the inconsistencies in her life led her to become independent through her writing and unconventional behaviour” (7).
In 1868, Kate Chopin graduated and started to attend many social events, which made her very popular. She entered the St. Louis social scene and was called “one of the acknowledged belles of St. Louis.” (Wyatt 12) She also took an interest in the movement for women’s suffrage but she never became extremely politically active.
Although Chopin did not see marriage as a necessity, she did get married. At the age of nineteen, she became a wife of Oscar Chopin, a Creole cotton broker. The couple moved to New Orleans, and quite soon after their marriage, Kate gave birth to her first son. It was quite surprising that Chopin, viewed as rather independent woman, bore five more children in following nine years. It seems that she managed to be independent, but at the same time, according to what she had been taught by nuns, she accepted her social responsibilities and obligations of a young wife. Emily Toth, Chopin´s most popular biographer, considers Oscar and Kate to be a happy and satisfied couple (Toth 12).
Like the Pontelliers in The Awakening, the Chopins soon got into the aristocratic Louisiana society. Oscar Chopin was a clever man and gentleman (contrary of the protagonist’s husband in The Awakening), so he tolerated Kate’s unconventional manners and treated her as an intellectual equal (Toth 125). His tolerance might be the base of their content marriage. He did not even mind her smoking, drinking and behaving as her own person (Toth 125). “However, she did not always conform. For instance, she would take long walks unaccompanied, and smoke in public, when women were not allowed to smoke” (Toth, 125).
Unfortunately, the period of their married happiness did not last for long. In 1883, when Chopin was only 33 years old, she became a widow because her husband suddenly died of swamp fever. After her husband’s death, Kate took over his business and ran it for a year (Toth 126). Here we can see same predestination and fatal interconnection among women from Chopin’s family. Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were left without their husbands at quite a young age and had to support their families on their own. All of them managed to succeed. Men seemed to only walk through their lives, stop for a while and leave.
After her husband’s death, Chopin had an affair with a married man, Albert Sampite. The affair became a “village scandal,” and made her move back to St. Louis. Here she was near her mother and relatives (Toth 172). As Emily Toth says about Chopin’s relationship with Sampite: “in the end, Chopin left to her mother’s home, choosing a mother’s love over a man’s uncertain passions” (172). So, like many of her characters, she spontaneously gave in to her temptation and desires but in the end gave them up.
Nevertheless, Alber Sampite did not remain forgotten in Kate´s life. Some form of his name and features of his character appear in Chopin’s books. Emily Toth in her bibliography cites Chopin who wrote, “... men who kindle desire, and who devote themselves to sexual pleasure, I named them all Alcée, which happens to be an abbreviated form of Albert Sampite” (169).
In “At the Cadian Ball” and “The Storm,” which was the sequel, Alcée Laballiére is “handsome young planter who plays cards and enjoys talking crops and politics-unless a drink or two could put the devil in his head” (Toth 169).
Nevertheless, the most remarkable was the use of Albert´s name in The Awakening, where the name was divided between Edna’s two lovers-ALcée and RoBERT (Toth 170). As we can see, although Kate left Albert Sampite, he influenced her so much that she wanted to keep in touch with him. And because it was impossible for her in real life, she did it through her books.
Soon on after Kate’s move to the native town, her mother died. In an introspective diary entry of 1884, the widowed and motherless Kate Chopin wrote:
If it were possible for my husband and my mother to come back to earth, I feel that I would unhesitatingly give up every thing that has come into my life since they left it and join my existence again with theirs. To do that, I would have to forget the past ten years of my growth-my real growth. But I would take back a little wisdom with me; it would be the spirit of perfect acquiescence3.
Kate lost two people closest to her in a very short time and the loss devastated her immensely. When we look at Chopin’s life, this was not the only loss. There were many more and we know that they had a serious impact on her views and writing (Skaggs 1). As a teenager, she had to endure the death of her half-brother George and her great-grandmother, who died a month a part. During her childhood she faced up to the early deaths of her father (his death inspired her to write “The Story of an Hour”), grandfather, and great-grandfather. Their deaths “prevented her as she matured from experiencing in her own family the traditional submissiveness of women to men” (Skaggs 2).
During this difficult period, Kate had a close friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer who was her mother’s neighbour and Kate’s obstetrician. He played a highly important role in Kate’s life because due to his influence, Kate started to study science, abandoned her Catholicism, and, what is the most praiseworthy, she began to write and publish
( Toth 182).
Writing was her therapy as well as the way to support her family. “It is no wonder she became depressed, and wrote for solace” (Toth 183). However, it looks that Chopin’s losses only made her stronger. Most women of that time would have difficulties to survive without men, but Chopin was different from others.
Kate began writing seriously when she was thirty-nine, old enough to have already experienced numerous life situations. Her biographer Emily Toth claims: “She had the talent and then the life experience to become a writer” (112).
She produced stories that were entertaining and at the same time questioned the social morals and standards of her time. In her books, she used her talent of a good intellectual observer. Sometimes, she masks seriousness of the themes by colourful characters and lush settings.
The favourite topic of her stories is often a marriage seen from an unconventional perspective. Most of her characters face choices between society expectations and their own desires. Nevertheless, they usually decide to follow their own path rather than lose themselves. In her books, Chopin touches and explores specific women problems and dilemmas and is brave enough to, for instance, suggest that sometimes women want independence or even sex.
In 1894, her short story collection Bayou Folk was published, including her most famous short stories “Desiree’s Baby” and “The Story of an Hour.” Chopin’s early stories were well received and earned her fame as a “local colourist” (Toth 185). To promote her books, she established the first salon in St. Louis and became the first woman professional fiction writer in the city. In 1890, Kate Chopin wrote A Fault, her first novel (Toth 186).
The controversial masterpiece, The Awakening, was published in 1899. It is ironic that the work regarded as her highest artistic achievement practically ruined her career and remained overlooked and neglected for several decades (KateChopin.org). Chopin was discouraged by the negative reaction to her book, though continued with her writing. However, in the remaining five years of her life, she wrote only a few short stories for magazines, but due to her “bad name” only several of them were published (KateChopin.org).
The Awakening was rediscovered in the 1950s, especially by feminist scholars (Toth 187). Up to that time, Chopin was not considered a true literary talent; she was mainly remembered and appreciated for her local colour works depicting atmosphere of Louisiana and the idleness of Creole life. Nevertheless, since the 1950s, Kate Chopin has her place in the canon of American literature. Today, The Awakening belongs to the five most-read American novels in universities and colleges and is considered an early example of American realism (“Kate Chopin’s life” in KateChopin.org). Kate Chopin is rated as one of the best Southern writers of all times and a forerunner of feminist authors of the 20th century. She was a real celebrity so it seems fitting that she has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame (located on 6310 Delmar Bouleyard) (“Kate Chopin’s life” in KateChopin.org).
Unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see success and fame, because it came almost fifty years after her death. She died in 1904, at the age of fifty-four, after she suffered a stroke when visiting the St. Louis World’s Fair. Her grave is at Calvary Cemetery, in north St. Louis. She is buried there together with Tennessee Williams, Dred Scott and Thomas Dooley (“Kate Chopin’s life” in KateChopin.org).
Emily Toth, a professor of English and Women’s Studies at Louisiana State University, is the editor of Kate Chopin’s Private Papers and probably her most famous bibliographer. Toth has written numerous books on Kate Chopin. The latest and most popular is her book Unveiling Kate Chopin, which brings a detailed look on Chopin’s life and analyses many stories she wrote.
According to Toth, Kate Chopin was:
...a woman filled with passion and desires. She was her own woman and would make her own rules. She went after what she wanted and she said what she thought, even when it was scandalous. Kate did not restrict herself to a certain way of living, acting, or writing, which is obvious in her stories and novels. In a time that it was not acceptable for women to speak out about independence and sexuality, Chopin has enough courage to discuss it in her writing. She wrote of a time in the future, about women’s freedom to write what they felt, but she did it in a time when it was not considered desirable. Through her writing, she told a story of women’s better life, their independence and freedom that left her outstanding among others (170).