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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Kate Chopin

Critics hardly knew what to do about the work of Kate Chopin, author of some of the boldest and best stories written in America before 1960. Hers were nineteenth-century stories exploring all sorts of taboo subjects—miscegenation, divorce, and even female sexuality.

The daughter of Thomas and Eliza (Faris) O'Flaherty, Chopin grew up in a wealthy Roman Catholic family in St. Louis. She graduated from the Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1868 and on June 9, 1870, married Oscar Chopin, a French Creole businessman from Louisiana. During the next nine years, Chopin bore six children and fulfilled heavy social obligations as the wife of a seemingly successful New Orleans cotton broker. But in 1879 Oscar's business failed and the family moved from New Orleans to Cloutierville, where they operated a plantation store and a farm owned by Oscar's family. On December 10, 1882, Oscar died, leaving Kate a thirty-two-year-old widow with six children and limited financial resources. In 1884 she moved her family back to St. Louis, where she lived the rest of her life.

In 1889, already thirty-nine years old, Chopin began writing poetry and fiction. Only a decade later, she had published twenty poems, ninety-five short stories, two novels, one play, and eight essays of literary criticism. Her fiction is, without question, her best work. She set most of her stories in late-nineteenth-century Louisiana, and she portrayed characters from all social classes of her time and place—aristocratic Creoles, middle- and lower-class Acadians and "Americans," mulattoes, and blacks. Her stories explore relationships among these various classes and, especially, relationships between men and women.

In 1889, Chopin published her first two stories, "Wiser Than a God" and "A Point at Issue," both focusing on what would prove to be her favorite theme—the inherent conflict between the traditional requirement that a wife form her life around her husband's and a woman's need for discrete personhood, a conflict that in Chopin's stories often prevents a woman from having both a happy marriage and a life of her own. These first stories lack finesse; but they introduce the central conflict of her last important work, the novel The Awakening.

Her first novel, At Fault (1890), features an unusually strong woman as protagonist and dares to introduce two topics then considered daring: divorce and alchoholism. The boldness that would end her literary career nine years later was already apparent, though little noted because the novel attracted almost no attention.

Chopin's first stories were published in local periodicals in the St. Louis and New Orleans areas, but in 1890 she placed children's stories in two important eastern magazines. Though most noted today for her feminist themes, Chopin also wrote many outstanding children's stories, such as "Loka" and "Odalie Misses Mass." Two published volumes of her collected stories, Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, and a still-unpublished collection, "A Vocation and a Voice," contain several fine children's stories in addition to those that illustrate her most mature themes.

A number of Chopin's adult stories, including "Athénaïse," "A Pair of Silk Stockings," "The Story of an Hour," and The Awakening, feature wives and mothers who feel enslaved. But she also created women who experience complete fulfillment in marriage, as Mentine does in "A Visit to Avoyelles"; and she portrays others who come to realize the emptiness of a self-sufficient life without husband and children, as does Mamzelle Aurélie in "Regret."

Chopin dared to treat miscegenation in "Désirée's Baby" and to portray the tragic life of a slave under even the kindest of mistresses in "La Belle Zoraïde." "A Vocation and a Voice," the title story of her unpublished collection, illustrates the writer's awareness that men as well as women face identity crises and conflicts between selfhood and sexual attraction.

In Chopin's masterpiece, The Awakening, we encounter a husband beset by the "man-instinct of possession" and a woman who discovers that she needs to be a person as well as a wife and mother. The novel evoked outrage from critics, readers, and library censors primarily because Chopin allowed the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, to take control of her own life without criticizing her for doing so.

For many years, twentieth-century critics dismissed Chopin as a local color writer. But after her Complete Works became available, this viewpoint became untenable, and critics began attempting to place Chopin's works in their proper place in the canon of American literature. The influence of Hawthorne, Whitman, Henry James, and especially Maupassant on Chopin's work has been documented. Elements of romanticism, Transcendentalism, realism, and naturalism have been noted, thus placing Chopin squarely in the mainstream of nineteenth-century literary currents. Per Seyersted, in particular, shows that Chopin's works hold kinship with twentieth-century existentialism. And numerous critics have claimed that Chopin's fiction prophesied twentieth-century feminism. Chopin not only used but also transcended the works of those who preceded her. She found her own unique voice and expanded the possibilities for all who might follow.

Peggy Skaggs
Angelo State University

In the Heath Anthology
Désirée's Baby (1892)
The Awakening (1899)

Other Works
At Fault (1890)
Bayou Folk (1894)
A Night in Acadie (1897)

Cultural Objects
Image fileImages of "White Slaves"

Would you like to add another Cultural Object?

Responses to Marriage in Late Nineteenth Century Women's Writing (Lois Leveen, April 26, 2001)

Would you like to add another assignment or pedagogical approach?


Project Gutenberg's The Awakening and Selected Short Stories
Complete e-text of the novel and selected short stories.

American Authors
Portal to a multitude of primary works and secondary materials.

A fairly substantive biography of Chopin.

Kate Chopin, A Re-Awakening
PBS site offering transcripts of their program on Chopin (1999).

Secondary Sources

Janet Beer, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Ficiton, 1997

Christopher Benfey, Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable, 1997

Thomas Bonner, Jr., The Kate Chopin Companion with Chopin's Translations from French Fiction, 1988

Harold Bloom, ed., Kate Chopin, 1987

Anna Shannon Elfenbein, Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable, Grace King, Kate Chopin, 1994

Suzanne Green and David J. Caudle, eds., Kate Chopin: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Works, 1999

Donald Keesey, ed., Contexts for Criticism, 1994

Bernard Koloski, Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction, 1996

Bernard Koloski, ed., Approaches to Teaching "The Awakening," 1988

Alice Hall Petry, ed., Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, 1996

Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, 1969

Peggy Skaggs, Kate Chopin, 1985

Emily Toth, Kate Chopin, 1990

Emily Toth, Unveiling Kate Chopin, 1999