Biography of Kate Chopin
by Neal Wyatt
Kate Chopin was born
Kate O'Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri in 1850 to Eliza and Thomas O'Flaherty.
She was the third of five children, but her sisters died in infancy and
her brothers (from her father's first marriage) in their early twenties.
She was the only child to live past the age of twenty-five.
In 1855, at five and
a half, she was sent to The Sacred Heart Academy, a Catholic boarding
school in St. Louis. Her father was killed two months later when a train
on which he was riding crossed a bridge that collapsed. For the next two
years she lived at home with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother,
all of them widows. Her great-grandmother, Victoria Verdon Charleville
oversaw her education and taught her French, music, and the gossip on
St. Louis women of the past. Kate O'Flaherty grew up surrounded by smart,
independent, single women. They were also savvy and came from a long line
of ground breaking women Victoria's own mother had been the first woman
in St. Louis to obtain legal separation from her husband, after which
she raised her five children and ran a shipping business on the Mississippi.
Until Kate was sixteen, no married couples lived in her home, although
it was full of brothers, uncles, cousins, and borders.
She returned to the
Sacred Heart Academy, where the nuns were known for their intelligence,
and was top of her class. She won medals, was elected into the elite Children
of Mary Society, and delivered the commencement address. After graduation
she was a popular, if cynical, debutante. She wrote in her diary advice
on flirting, "just keep asking 'What do you think?'" (Toth, 62).
She grew up during
the Civil War and this caused her to be separated from the one friend
she had made at the Sacred Heart Academy, Kitty Garesche. Her family were
slave holders and supported the South. St. Louis was a pro-North city,
and the Gareshe's were forced to move. After the war, Kitty returned and
she and Chopin were friends until Kitty entered Sacred Heart as a nun.
There is no other evidence that Chopin had any other close female friendships.
died three days before Christmas in 1863, the same year Kitty was banished.
Kate's half-brother, George, died in the war of typhoid fever on Mardi
Gras Day. Her father had died on All Saints day, eight years previously,
and these unhappy incidents combined to create a strong skepticism of
religion in Chopin.
In 1870, at the age
of twenty, she married Oscar Chopin, twenty-five, and the son of a wealthy
cotton-growing family in Louisiana. He was French catholic in background,
as was Kate. By all accounts he adored his wife, admired her independence
and intelligence, and "allowed" her unheard of freedom. After their marriage
they lived in New Orleans where she had five boys and two girls, all before
she was twenty-eight. Oscar was not an able business man, and they were
forced to move to his old home in a small Louisiana parish. Oscar died
of swamp fever there in 1882 and Kate took over the running of his general
store and plantation for over a year.
In 1884 she sold up
and moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother. Sadly, Eliza died
the next year, leaving Kate alone with her children again. To support
herself and her young family, she began to write. She was immediately
successful and wrote short stories about people she had known in Louisiana.
The Awakening was inspired by a true story of a New Orleans woman
who was infamous in the French Quarter.
Her first novel,
At Fault, was published in 1890, followed by two collections of her
short stories, Bayou Folk in 1894 and A Night in Acadia
in 1897. The Awakening was published in 1899, and by then she was
well known as both a local colorist and a woman writer, and had published
over one hundred stories, essays, and sketches in literary magazines.
As a writer, Kate
Chopin wrote very rapidly and without much revision. She usually worked
in her home
surrounded by her children. The content and message of The Awakening
caused an uproar and Chopin was denied admission into the St. Louis Fine
Art Club based on its publication. She was terribly hurt by the reaction
to the book and in the remaining five years of her life she wrote only
a few short stories, and only a small number of those were published.
Like Edna, she paid the price for defying societal rules, and as Lazar
Ziff explains, she "learned that her society would not tolerate her questionings.
Her tortured silence as the new century arrived was a loss to American
letters of the order of the untimely deaths of Crane and Norris. She was
alive when the twentieth century began, but she had been struck mute by
a society fearful in the face of an uncertain dawn" (Ziff,
While reading The
Awakening remember that it is a kunstleroman, "a tale of a
young woman who struggles to realize herself - and her artistic ability"
and remember that Chopin, as well as Edna, was on a quest for artistic
acceptance. That quest ended in an abrupt and frustrated manner when she
died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 22 1904.
(Much of the above
information was gathered from Kate
Chopin by Emily Toth, Verging
on the Abyss by Mary Papke, and Kate
Chopin: A Critical Biography by Per Seyersted. Below is a chronology
of her life and work taken from Dyer's
The Awakening: A Novel of Beginnings, xii-xv)
1850 Born on February
8 to Eliza Faris O'Flaherty, a well connected St. Louisiana with French
roots, and Captain Thomas O'Flaherty, a businessman from Ireland.
1855 Enters St. Louis
Academy of the Sacred Heart. Father is killed in train accident.
1861 Confirmed in
the Catholic Church by Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick.
1863 Grandmother dies
in January; half-brother George dies of typhoid fever.
1867 Begins keeping
a commonplace book of poems, essays,sketches, criticism, etc.
1868 Graduates from
Sacred Heart Academy.
debutante parties, learns to smoke, and writes her first story, "Emancipation:
A Life Fable," a short story about freedom and restriction.
1870 Marries Oscar
Chopin; keeps journal of European honeymoon; moves to New Orleans; Oscar's
father dies in November.
1871-1878 Has five
sons, Jean, Oscar Charles, George, Frederick, and Felix. Oscar Charles
becomes a professional cartoonist for the San Francisco Examiner
and his daughter Kate, becomes a talented artist.
1879 Oscar closes
his business in New Orleans and they move to Cloutierville where he runs
several small plantations and a general store.
1882 Oscar dies of
malaria, leaving Kate with a heavy debt and six young boys.
1883-1884 Kate tries
to run Oscar's businesses and finally decides to move home to her mother's.
1885 Her mother dies.
The attending doctor, Dr. Kolbenheyer, who is the model for Dr. Mandelet
in The Awakening, continues to visit Chopin and encourage her writing.
1888 Begins reading
Maupassant and writes "Euphrase."
1889 Publishes her
first poem, "If It Might Be," in America. Writes four stories and publishes
each of them.
1890-1892 Joins the
Wednesday Club, founded by Charlotte Stearns Eliot, T.S Eliot's mother,
but resigns two years later. Satire of club women appears in several of
her stories, and in The Awakening in the depiction of Mrs. Highcamp's
1891 Writes "Mrs.
Mobry's Reason" and "A Shameful Affair," which are published in the New
Orleans Times-Democrat in 1893. Publishes more stories in Youth's
Companion and Harper's Young People.
1894 Writes "A Respectable
Woman" (Vogue) in January, introducing the character of Gouvernail,
who reappears in The Awakening. Houghton Mifflin publishes Bayou
Folk in March, and Chopin becomes nationaly known as a short story
1897 A Night in
Acadia, a second volume of short stories is published by Way and Williams
1897-1898 Writes The
1899 The Awakening
published by Herbert S. Stone and Company on April 22.
1900 Herbert S. Stone
and Company reverses its decision to publish a third collection of short
stories (it would not be published until Emily Toth's edition came out
in 1991). Chopin writes four stories, only one of which is published.
1901 Writes and publishes
only one story, "The Wood-Choppers."
1902 Publishes her
last story, "Polly."
1904 Dies from a cerebral
hemorrhage on August 22, after collapsing at the World's Fair, two days
Wyatt (1995) [You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org]
biography of Kate Chopin from Empirezine. Another
biography from the Domestic Goddesses site.