Feminist Writer Best Known for The Awakening 1851-1904
Early-twentieth-century champions of women’s rights often faced hostile resistance. Many Americans feared that the feminist’s calls for sexual equality would endanger family relationships and undermine society. Kate Chopin, author of the early feminist novel The Awakening, was a particularly unfortunate victim of their distrust.
Born Katherine O’Flaherty in 1851, Chopin was a child of privilege. Her father was an Irish immigrant who became a prosperous merchant in St. Louis, Missouri, and a founder of the Pacific Railroad. Her mother was a member of a prominent family from the French-Creole community of St. Louis. Poised between these two worlds, Katherine married Oscar Chopin, the wealthy son of a former Louisiana slaveholder, in 1870.A Creole businessman and owner of a cotton processing business, Chopin led his wife back to his home in New Orleans, Louisiana, where her unconventional habits shocked the local communities. Rejecting some of the limitations placed upon women in that setting, she smoked cigarettes, walked through the city streets without male accompaniment, and supported local artists. Despite these daring choices, the Chopins became central figures in New Orleans culture. Together they raised six children.
After Oscar died in 1882, Kate took her children back to St. Louis. To help herself cope with Oscar’s death and to earn some much-needed money, she began to write about his Louisiana experiences. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, she wrote a series of well-received short stories in the “local color” style so popular during that period. Such stories described unusual social and cultural practices from different parts of the country. Though many of Chopin’s stories challenged the institution of marriage and questioned women’s limited role in society, they were so entertaining and skillfully composed that critics were able to ignore these early hints of feminism. Soon Chopin was hosting a regular meeting of St. Louis literary figures, known as a salon, and rising to prominence in southern and Midwestern intellectual circles. But her finest and most explicitly feminist novel, 1899’s The Awakening, put an end to that rise.
The Awakening details a few months in the life of Edna Pontellier, a native of Kentucky who lives with her Creole husband in Louisiana. A social outsider, an uninterested mother, and a halfhearted wife, she is dissatisfied with her life until she falls in love with a younger man, Robert Lebrun. Over time, her love to Robert inspires her to change her life; she becomes an artist and ignores her responsibilities as wife and mother. Finding little support for her new fillings in the Creole community – in which the roles of wife and mother were the only ones available to women – she decided to live entirely on her own. Awakened to her own desires, she nevertheless finds that her newfound freedom brings only loneliness and tragedy.
In its depiction of a woman unhappy with the role society had chosen for her, The awakening broke new ground in American literature. Few books had ever dealt with women’s feelings so openly and truthfully. For this reason, it met stiff opposition. Critics disapproved of the book and accused Chopin of immorality. And even though Chopin received letters of appreciation from sympathetic women around the country, she was shunned from many of the social circles that once welcomed her.
Chopin’s literary output diminished after the controversy over the Awakening. When she died five years later, in 1904, her reputation seemed ruined forever. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the women’s rights movement resurrected her novel as an early representation of women’s complicated feelings, a major work in women’s history, and a true gem of American literature.
More detailed information can be found in the "Extraordinary American Writers" John Tessitore, and issued by The Scholastic Inc. in the USA.Information should be used just for educational purposes.