Kate Chopin, one of Louisiana's best known authors, wrote fiction about late nineteenth-century Cajun life.
Late-nineteenth-century writer Kate Chopin is among the state’s most famous literary voices. Though she lived in Louisiana for only about a decade, the time she spent in New Orleans and then Cloutierville provided the subject material for much of her fiction. Moreover, the popularity of her portrayals of Acadian life shaped outsiders’ perception of the region. Like other writers of local color fiction popular in late-nineteenth-century America, Chopin captured the distinctive folkways and speech patterns of a unique regional culture. Unlike many of those writers, however, Chopin explored complex issues of gender, sexuality, and race, especially in her best-known work of fiction, The Awakening (1899).
Katherine O’Flaherty was the daughter of an Irish immigrant, Thomas O’Flaherty, who married his second wife, Eliza Faris, when she was sixteen, the daughter of a French Creole family with deep roots in St. Louis, Missouri. Born February 8, 1850, Katie was the couple’s only daughter to survive infancy, though she had two older half-brothers who died in their twenties. Thomas O’Flaherty was killed in a train wreck in 1855, when Katie was barely five, so she grew up in a household of widows—her young mother, her grandmother Athenaise Faris, and her great-grandmother Victoire Charleville. The latter was a lively raconteur, who entertained Katie with stories of old St. Louis (including her own spirited past) and encouraged her granddaughter’s fondness for French and for music.
At age five, Katie was sent to the Academy of the Sacred Heart, a private Catholic school that offered an exceptionally good education for girls. Her surviving school-day journals reflect a lively wit and sharp observational skill as well as broad literary interests—from Dickens to Walter Scott and from Susan Warner to Victor Hugo—that she shared with her best friend Kitty Garesche. Despite her distaste for superficiality, Katie made her social debut in 1869. Soon after, she met Oscar Chopin, a young Louisianan who had come to St. Louis to learn the banking business from his great uncle Louis Benoist. They were married on June 9, 1870, and set out on a three-month honeymoon in Europe. Kate’s journal from that period records her pleasure in her new status as a married woman and the modest independence it afforded her. The Franco-Prussian War cut their travels short, and by October, they had settled in New Orleans, where Oscar was employed as a cotton factor—the middle man between growers and merchants.
By the end of May 1871, Kate Chopin had borne the first of her six children, Jean, named after his grandfather, Dr. Jean-Baptiste Chopin. Four more sons followed—Oscar, George, Frederick, and Felix—and then her only daughter, Leila, born in 1879. Though they managed well enough in Reconstruction New Orleans, the cotton crop failures of 1879 devastated Oscar’s business, and the Chopins moved to Oscar’s family home in Cloutierville, where he managed the plantations and a small commodities store. It was there, just twenty miles from Natchitoches, Louisiana’s oldest French settlement, that Kate Chopin first became familiar with the Acadian, or Cajun, people who were later to populate her fiction.
The Chopins’ residence in Cloutierville was ultimately brief: in December 1882, Oscar caught malaria and died. For nearly two years, Kate remained on the estate, settling debts, managing the store, and giving rise to gossip about her supposed affair with local planter Albert Sampite. As much of an oddity to the townspeople as village life was to her, Chopin finally acceded to her mother’s pleas to return to St. Louis. Barely a year after Chopin had resettled her young family, her mother died, leaving Chopin with few other adult relatives, including her grandmother.
Though she had always been a writer from the days of her early childhood journals, Chopin became serious at the urging of her friend and former obstetrician, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, who had praised the descriptions in her letters from Louisiana. Chopin’s first publication was a poem in 1889, but the short story “A Point at Issue” soon followed, and before long she was writing and publishing stories regularly. Chopin later explained that she found her inspiration in the French writer, Guy de Maupassant, who taught her to write, “what [s]he saw,” rather than rely on the “old-fashioned mechanism” of an artificial plot. Though Chopin self-published her first novel in 1890, At Fault, which drew on her experiences as a widow in Cloutierville, she eventually found that her stories of the Cane River were quite marketable. Capitalizing on the popularity of local color fiction, which highlighted regional characters, customs, and dialect, Chopin was soon publishing in the nation’s most prominent journals, including Century, Harper’s, and the new Vogue.
In contrast to many other writers of southern local color, Chopin was less concerned with depicting the repercussions of the Civil War than with examining the issues faced by contemporary women: questioning conventional gender roles and the changing attitudes toward sexuality. Though Chopin’s Louisiana tales faithfully depicted Cajun life, they also examined—sometimes obliquely—more controversial matters, such as domestic abuse (“In Sabine”), class prejudices (“At the Cadian Ball” or “Azelie”), the temptations of adultery (“A Respectable Woman” or “The Lady of Bayou St. John”), the complications of motherhood (“Athenaise” or “Regret”), and cross-racial relationships (“Desiree’s Baby” or “La Belle Zoraide”).
With the success of her first collection of short stories, Bayou Folk, in 1894 and the publication of a second, A Night in Acadie, in 1897, Chopin became less dependent on local color settings in her examination of women’s lives. In 1899, she published her second novel and her most daring exploration of the constraints of conventional marriage on women, The Awakening. The story of Edna Pontellier, a young woman in a loveless marriage who recognizes too late the contradictory limits on female selfhood, the novel was not well-received. While critics praised Chopin’s literary skill, they were largely unsympathetic to Edna’s plight and frankly dismayed by Chopin’s failure to condemn Edna’s pursuit of her own desires. The novel was not banned (as is often reported), but its negative reception was certainly discouraging. Chopin continued to write, but health problems limited her productivity, and on August 22, 1904, she died of a stroke in her native city.
In the half-century after her death, Chopin was primarily regarded as a minor writer of Louisiana local color. The Awakening fell into obscurity until its rediscovery by a Norwegian scholar, Per Seyersted, who published Chopin’s Complete Works in 1969. Coinciding with the second wave of the women’s movement, the novel was an instant feminist classic. Since then, it has been acclaimed as a significant American novel, and many of Chopin’s fine short stories have also become part of the literary canon. A classic example of the importance of literary reevaluations, especially for women writers, Kate Chopin is today one of Louisiana’s most celebrated authors.