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Kate Chopin, 1851-1904
A Night in Acadie
Chicago: Way & Williams, 1897.

Summary

Biographers agree that Katherine O'Flaherty Chopin was born February 8, but there is some discrepancy 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. Though Thomas O'Flaherty died in 1855, Chopin's mother never remarried. Young Kate 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 debt. 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. Chopin's early work appears 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. Her first novel, At Fault, was printed privately in 1890. Two collections of short stories, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), were published by Houghton Mifflin and Way & Williams, respectively. Herbert S. Stone & Company printed her last and most famous novel, The Awakening, in April 1899. However, contemporary reviewers were scandalized by its frank and sympathetic portrayal of an adulterous heroine, leaving the author disheartened by the book's reception. Following the rejection of her third collection of short stories, "A Vocation and a Voice," Kate Chopin's artistic production waned.

The twenty-one short stories in A Night in Acadie, like those of Bayou Folk, take place in the uniquely blended, multicultural Louisiana. Yet unlike Chopin's first collection of short stories, A Night in Acadie reveals a bolder, less traditional treatment of bayou life. For example, "Athénaïse" is the tale of a young woman who, wearied after a brief two months of marriage, leaves her husband and moves to New Orleans. Athénaïse comes close to having an affair, but her discovery that she is pregnant awakens her passions and results in her return to her husband, Cazeau. In stories like "Azélie" and "At Chênière Caminada," characters embrace an unrestrained, passionate love that often produces irrational decisions or pronounced despair. A Night in Acadie is populated with memorable figures, including the exceedingly lazy Polydore, who fakes a rheumatic attack in order to avoid labor, and the impish Mamouche, who subjects the neighborhood to his mischievous pranks. In the case of these two tricksters, both ultimately prove repentant, thereby restoring order to their society. Chopin's stories also include rather independent, unconventional women, from Mademoiselle Aurélie in "Regret," a remarkably contented spinster who is transformed by her two-week encounter with surrogate motherhood, to "A Matter of Prejudice's" crotchety Madame Carambeau, who is similarly altered by her experiences nursing a sick "American girl." Throughout these collected short stories, Chopin examines the emergent tensions between individual desires and the communal good. And in somewhat ambivalent terms, Kate Chopin begins exploring the implications of characters' internal awakenings, a theme that would later induce public moral outrage in response to The Awakening.

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, volume 12, Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1978; Walker, Nancy A., Introduction: Biographical and Historical Contexts, The Awakening, second edition, Nancy A. Walker, ed., 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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