Kate Chopin 1850-1904
Overview of her life • Born Katherine O’Flaherty (1850) in St. Louis, Missouri • Father was Irish immigrant; mother was of French-Canadian descent • Only one of the five children to live past age 25 • Married at age 20 and settled in New Orleans, where she had six children by age 28 • Became depressed after her mother and husband died and began to write to deal with feelings and earn extra money; wasn’t taken seriously as a literary writer at the time – was only seen as a regional writer of local color
Overview, continued • Most famous for short stories; she wrote only two novels: The Awakening and At Fault, both set in Louisiana • She was highly criticized for The Awakening. Many readers (especially men) didn’t agree with the moral implications. She proved herself an early feminist whose writings were ahead of their time. She was deeply affected by the criticism, and turned to writing only short stories toward the latter part of her career. • Died from an unexpected brain hemorrhage in 1904.
Literary themes and influences • Chopin lived among many kinds of women and in various societies throughout her life, which gave her ample material for writing. • The daughter of an immigrant who left Missouri to live in Louisiana, she saw the South from multiple perspectives. (The Awakening tells the story of a Kentucky woman who lives in the Creole/Louisiana South.) • Her sympathies obviously lay with her main characters. She does not judge her characters for their actions. • Writes about women who seek autonomy and self-awareness above all else. • Her themes and style were very much in direct opposition of typical Victorian writing. • Work was lost or obscure until the 1970s when it reemerged as a significant part of the literary canon.
Realism and Regionalism • In the 19th century, writing turned toward a more realistic presentation of daily life. Mark Twain is another popular realist of this time period. • In addition to being a “realist,” Chopin was also an regionalist and writer of local color. Regionalist writers are conscious of specific traditions and ways of life around them, and they write purposefully about how these traditions affect the lives of others. • For example, Chopin writes of the cultural differences faced by Edna Pontellier, a Kentucky Protestant who marries a French-speaking Catholic Creole of New Orleans. Chopin uses her knowledge of the South to show us two versions of the South and how even within a region, there are many societal differences across cultures.
Response to The Awakening • Her second novel, The Awakening, was praised for craft and technique but hated for its content. • Her writing is at its best in this novel. She presents herself as a master stylist, balancing long, detailed descriptions with short, summarized passages. She emphasizes certain objects, events, and characters by giving them a lot of room on the page, and she keeps it short and sweet when the object or situation is not as important.
While you read… • Think about some of these things: • The different women in the novel • Roles people are expected to play in society (of the novel). • Edna’s artistic expression (what about the other women?) • Edna’s sexual expression/repression • Different ways cultures/genders/classes communicate • Significance of water • Freedom vs. responsibility • What is the “awakening” Edna experiences? (could be more than one) • What similarities/differences do you see in this version of Louisiana vs. the world we encounter in Beasts of the Southern Wild?