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Kate Chopin, 1851-1904
The Awakening
Chicago; New York: Herbert S. Stone & Co., 1899.

Summary

Katherine O'Flaherty Chopin was born February 8, but there is some discrepancy about whether she was born in 1850 or 1851. Living in St. Louis, Missouri, her family was financially stable and socially well established. Her father, Thomas O'Flaherty, was an Irish immigrant, and her mother, Eliza Faris O'Flaherty, was a French Creole; both were devout Catholics. Although Thomas O'Flaherty died in 1855, Chopin's mother never remarried. Young Kate O'Flaherty attended the Sacred Heart Academy in St. Louis, where she graduated in 1868. On June 9, 1870, she married Oscar Chopin, a Louisiana native, and the couple settled in New Orleans. After the failure of Oscar Chopin's cotton factoring business in 1879, the family moved to Cloutierville, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, where Oscar ran a general store and managed several small plantation properties. Widowed in December 1882, Kate Chopin found herself the sole caretaker of six children and the inheritor of considerable debts. Able to settle her husband's affairs in under two years, Chopin returned to St. Louis in 1884, where she remained until her death on August 22, 1904.

Kate Chopin did not begin writing until the late 1880s, driven by financial necessity and a desire for intellectual activity. Her first novel, At Fault, was printed privately in 1890. Her two collections of short stories, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), were published by Houghton Mifflin and Way & Williams, respectively. Chopin's early work was shaped by William Dean Howells's realism, though her later ironic pieces show the influence of Guy de Maupassant. Despite living in Louisiana for a brief fourteen years, Chopin infuses her texts with Creole, Cajun, and African American cultures. Her portrait of this uniquely Louisianan society, combined with her employment of dialect and regional mannerisms, contribute to her particular flourish as a local colorist.

In June 1897, Chopin began working on a manuscript titled, "The Solitary Soul," which would become her last and most famous novel, The Awakening, which Herbert S. Stone & Company published in April 1899. Contemporary reviewers reacted against the novel's frank sensuality and sympathetic portrayal of an adulterous heroine, leaving Kate Chopin disheartened by their stinging judgments. Following the rejection of her third collection of short stories, "A Vocation and a Voice," Chopin's literary production tapered severely.

Chopin set The Awakening in and around New Orleans, Louisiana. The novel opens on the vibrant Grand Isle, a favored summer spot for many New Orleans French Creoles, where Edna and Léonce Pontellier, along with their two children, are vacationing. A Kentucky native with a strict Protestant upbringing, Edna appears enamored by the free-spirited Creole culture and enthralled by the island's dreamy, luxuriant atmosphere. She undergoes a profound awakening and falls in love with Robert Lebrun, who flees to Mexico to avoid the potential scandal. Although the Pontellier family returns to life in New Orleans, Edna has changed irrevocably. Refusing her familial and societal duties, Edna moves out of her husband's home, indulges in her own artistic talents, develops eccentric friendships, and unapologetically yields to the sexual advances of the roguish Alcée Arobin. Yet Edna's deeper desires remain unsatisfied. Disenchanted by her life as a piece of property and distraught at Robert's second abandonment, Edna Pontellier returns to Grand Isle and succumbs to the sea's final enchantment.

See also the entry for Kate Chopin from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Pizer, Donald and Earl N. Harbert, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Realists and Naturalists, vol. 12, Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1978; Walker, Nancy A., Introduction: Biographical and Historical Contexts, The Awakening, second edition, Ed. Nancy A. Walker, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000, 3-21; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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