Kate Chopin was born in 1850 to a French Creole mother and an Irish father. Her upbringing in Missouri was affluent and fairly traditional. She received a Catholic education at the Sacred Heart Academy in St. Louis, but an independent mind and a sequence of family tragedies led her to turn away from religion in her teenage years. When she was five, her father died in a railway accident; for the next two years the young Kate lived in a house with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother – all widows fending for themselves. Her great-grandmother died in 1863 and only a few months later her half-brother, who had enlisted in the Confederate army, died whilst held captive by Union forces.
Kate graduated from college at the top of her class and was, by all accounts, a popular and flirtatious debutante. In 1870, she married Oscar Chopin, another French Catholic and the son of a wealthy cotton-growing family. She wrote in her diary before the wedding that she was going to be ‘married to the right man’. Oscar did indeed prove to be a devoted husband, and allowed Kate to behave as she wished even after they started their married life in New Orleans. Unfortunately he was no businessman, however. In 1879, his cotton brokerage failed and the couple moved to Cloutierville, Louisiana, where Oscar bought a general store. By this time, he and Kate had six children to support. Much of Kate’s married life thus far had been spent in child-bearing and child-rearing.
In 1882, Oscar Chopin died of malaria, leaving Kate with $42,000 of debt. After a period of trying to run the business herself and a brief affair with a local plantation owner, she decided to sell up and move back to St Louis. While there, a family friend, obstetrician Frederick Kolbenheyer, encouraged her to try writing as a therapeutic diversion. In 1889 she had her first short story published in the St Louis Post Dispatch. Over the next decade, she wrote around 100 short stories and two novels. She was influenced by French realism, especially Guy de Maupassant, but also by episodes and characters from the local area, where she set most of her works. Her protagonists were often women, many of them stifled by the weight of marriage or societal expectation, all of them nuanced characters. Chopin was, as one scholar put it, ‘a woman who took women extremely seriously’.
Although Chopin’s works were popular and appeared in the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Young People and the Atlantic Monthly, her subject matter had the potential to scandalise American society. She often presented adultery as an escape from the trials of married life: in The Storm, mother-of-one Calixta, who has been married for five years, receives a visit from a former lover whilst her husband and son are out in a storm. Stuck in the house, with the humidity rising both literally and metaphorically, the two fall into bed and have sex before the storm clears and Calixta’s visitor (Laballière) goes on his way. When Calixta’s family return, they find her enlivened and happy to see them; such that “when the three seated themselves at table they laughed much and so loud that anyone might have heard them as far away as Laballière’s”. For Laballière’s part, the liaison seems to breathe new life into his marriage, and leaves him more willing to allow his wife her independence. Chopin ends the story wryly with: “So the storm passed and every one was happy.” This tale of an extramarital affair with no negative consequences, in which sexual desire is explicitly depicted, was subversive when it was written in 1898, and was not published until after Chopin’s death in 1969.
Not all of Chopin’s stories present adultery as a force for good, however. In The Awakening, her heroine Edna Pontellier is “not a mother-woman”; she does not gain fulfilment from ministering to her husband and children. Edna finds herself often miserable as a result of micro-disagreements with her husband: “She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences […] were not uncommon in her married life.”
Over the course of the novel, Edna withdraws from New Orleans society and explores her own identity separate from that of wife and mother. This includes learning to swim and spending more time on painting, but it is also characterised by her emotional and sexual enlightenment, first through a summer romance with Robert Lebrun and then, when her husband is away on business in New York, through a fraught affair with a known womaniser. Eventually she rekindles her relationship with Lebrun, finding that there is still feeling on both sides. However, he cannot escape his initial misgivings and soon leaves her for a second time, professing that he loves her too much to let her shame herself. Devastated, Edna returns to the holiday resort where she and Lebrun met, and wades out to sea to drown herself.
The Awakening received some negative attention from the press, and parts of it were censored. For the St Louis Republic, it was “too strong a drink for moral babes”, while the Chicago Times Herald claimed that “it was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the over-worked field of sex-fiction”. Even Willa Cather, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours, praised Chopin’s writing style but found Edna Pontellier a frustrating heroine: comparing her to Emma Bovary, she complained, “These people really expect the passion of love to fill and gratify every need of life, whereas nature only intended that it should meet one of many demands.” Arguably, however, Edna’s story is not just about love; for Barbara Kingsolver, who regards the book as a source of personal inspiration, “[w]hat we have here is very much more than a sexual awakening.”
After the publication of The Awakening, Kate Chopin published relatively little, and when she died in 1904 her name was already losing currency. However, she underwent a rehabilitation in the 1960s and The Awakening is now one of the most frequently studied texts on English courses all over the world. It is tempting to wonder what Chopin could have done if she had not died prematurely – for she, like the widowed heroine of The Story of an Hour, only really fulfilled her potential after her husband’s death, seeing beyond her grief “a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely”.