Essay, Research Paper: Kate Chopin

Literature: Kate Chopin

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Kate Chopin is a brilliant writer. Her writing career is during the late
1800’s. She lives in a time where women are sexually suppressed and their
opinions are not valued. Her writing holds more in common with our time than the
time just after the Civil War. Although her life was full of death, she still
lived as happy a life as she could by writing in such a bold and daring way.
Kate Chopin was born as Catherine O’Flaherty. She was born July 12, 1850. She
is the daughter of Thomas and Eliza O’Flaherty. Kate’s father, Thomas
O’Flaherty, was born in Ireland in 1805. He came to the United States in 1823.
In 1825 he became a merchant in St. Louis. In 1855 he died suddenly in a train
wreck when she was only four. His sudden death pushed all his family into new
relationships with each other and the world. Thomas’ first wife, Catherine de
Reilhe, married Thomas in 1839. She was a French-Creole girl, who died after
giving birth to their son, George. In 1844, Thomas married Eliza Faris. They had
three children together: Jane, who died at childbirth; Thomas Jr.; and
Catherine, who we know as Kate Chopin. After the father’s death, Eliza had to
cope with being a widow. Kate’s childhood consisted of a widowed mother, and a
widowed great-grandmother. As a child, Kate experienced many deaths. She became
emotionally close to her half brother George O’Flaherty. George was a
Confederate solider during the Civil War and died from typhoid fever after being
released from prison in 1862. After her father and brother’s death, Kate
seemed to have collapsed. She became faintly ill, and it took her two to three
years to recover the traumatizing events of her childhood. These events changed
her permanently which made her very wary. Kate’s great-grandmother, Madame
Charleville, taught her French. In fact, that was the only thing she would speak
around Kate. Madame Charleville would tell Kate stories about the French. Giving
Kate a history lesson about how the French founded the city along the banks of
the Mississippi. Some of these stories were false, but Kate didn’t know the
difference. They were just, “being no more than the scandals of another day”
(Magill 205). In the end, Kate received an altogether unconventional education
from her great-grandmother. Kate began a more conventional education at the
Madames of the Sacred Heart Convent in 1860. There, the nuns taught her
discipline and a respectable academic curriculum. Kate also along with English,
learned French literature as well. Kate began to play the piano at an early age.
“Kitty Garesche recalls Kate being an accomplished pianist with an exceptional
musical memory” (Baechler 68). Kate began her music with her great-grandmother
supervising her piano playing. The great-grandmother would sit patiently with
Kate as she practiced her scales. She done this to teach her the importance of
discipline and technique. During her schooling with the Madames of the Sacred
Heart, the nuns encouraged Kate to continue with her piano playing. “By the
time she reached adolescence, Kate O’Flaherty was an accomplished musician”
(Unger 205). “In June 1868, Kate graduated from the St. Louis Academy of the
Sacred Heart. She then plunged into the fashionable life, and for two years she
was…’One of he acknowledged belles of St. Louis’” (Skaggs 2). After
Kate’s graduation, she emerged from the dark period of her brother’s death,
Kate became a popular young woman. In 1869 she began to smoke, which is highly
unusual for a woman in those days. “For two years Kate lived a life of an
attractive girl in the ‘high society’ (of French Origin) in which her mother
moved” (Kunitz 150). She was greatly fascinated by all the varieties of people
she met in New Orleans.“She met aristocratic Creoles, unpretentious Cajuns (or
Acadian: French pioneers who in 1755 had chosen to leave Nova Scotia rather than
live under the British), Redbones (part Indian, part white), ‘Free
Mulattoes’ (so called because they had never been slaves), blacks, and a
cosmopolitan assortment of Germans, Italians, Irish, and Americans” (Baechler
68). Kate would sometimes roam the city unaccompanied. She had a liking to take
a streetcar or just simply walk on foot. There in New Orleans she met 25 year
old Oscar Chopin. She fell in love with this businessman and in 1870 they were
married. She was 19 years old then and the couple were a perfect match and
continued a fairytale marriage from then on. Oscar Chopin descended from a
French-Creole family. He lived on his father’s plantation as a cotton factor.
Oscar was different from most white southerners at that time. He treated
everyone as an equal, including his father’s slaves. He even once rebelled by
tying himself to his father’s slaves when his father bought the McAlpin
plantation (which was said to be the model for Harriet Beeches Stowe’s Legree
plantation). His father was a cruel, heartless man who even drove his wife away
for some period of time when Oscar was just a child. Oscar ran away from the
cruelty to relatives when he was old enough. Oscar treated Kate with dignity,
equality and as a valued intelligent friend as well as a loving wife. Oscar’s
relatives would criticise him for allowing Kate to forget her “duty” (Unger
206). “But Oscar and Kate merely laughed together over this display of
consternation” (Unger 206). Oscar and Kate would often speak French together
even though they lived on the American side of town. Oscar was a cotton factor
with established family connections. He handled everything from finance to
buying farm equipment. The business was good and stable for a while but excess
rain during 1878-1879 ruined the cotton fields. This caused great losses and
caused Oscar and Kate to move with their six young children to Cloutierville. In
this village, Kate used the setting for many of her stories in later years.
While in Cloutierville, Oscar opened a general store where he made enough money
to keep Kate and his family comfortable and in style. Kate was frequently
pregnant through the early years of their marriage. By the age of 28 she had
five sons which she would take to St. Louis. She took many trips to great places
with her children to escape the yellow fever epidemic. Her sixth child was her
first daughter, which she was overjoyed to have. “Kate recollects the birth of
her son Jean: ‘The sensation with which I touched my lips and my fingertips to
his soft flesh only comes once to a mother. It must be the pure animal
sensation; nothing spiritual could be so real-so poignant’”(Unger 206).
Oscar and Kate's marriage life was wonderful. But, yet again, tragedy struck the
young Creole. In 1882, Oscar came down with a terrible attack of swamp fever.
Within days Oscar was dead. Kate was 31 years old when faced with the role of
widow and businesswoman. She carried out the duties of her husband’s general
store as well as raising six children. She sold most of their belongings and
went to live with her mother in St. Louis. She only stayed with her mother a
brief moment when Kate was faced with another death. In June 1885, her mother
had died. Chopin was “literally prostrate with grief” (Unger 207). “In
later years, Chopin's daughter would sum up the effect upon her mother’s
character: When I speak of my mother’s keen sense of humor and of her habit of
looking on the amusing side of everything. I don’t want to give the impression
of her being joyous, for she was on the contrary rather a sad nature… I think
the tragic death of her father early in her life, of her much beloved brothers,
the loss of her young husband and her mother, left a stamp of sadness on her
which was never lost(Unger 207). Chopin began writing fiction very seriously in
1889. No one knows exactly why she took up her pen, but several influences
probably contributed. First, she had always been a voracious reader; second, she
needed to provide for her large family; third, her many friends with literary
interests, especially Dr. Fredrick Kolbenheyer, encouraged her; and finally, she
had through almost 39 years living learned some things she wanted to say (Skaggs
4). She wrote her first story “Wiser than a God,” in 1889. She had written
three other stories by the end of 1889. She published her first novel, At Fault,
in 1890 at her own expense. She made good progress until she wrote, The
Awakening, her second novel on April 2, 1899. It was ahead of its time by
suggesting a sinful sexual maturity in a young married woman. It was given a
very harsh critical reputation and thus banned for many years. “Certainly her
friend Dr. Kolenheyer influenced her significantly, apparently she was active in
cultural organizations and maintained something of a salon during the 1890’s;
yet the St. Louis Fine Arts Club ostracized her after the publication of The
Awakening” (Skaggs 4). Chopin was 39 years old when she published her first
story. “Her unusual degree of personal maturity before beginning to write may
explain the speed with which she found her focus. Few writers have moved so far
so rapidly as she did between writing At Fault in 1889-1890 and The Awakening in
1897-1898” (Skaggs 4). Kate Chopin was a beautiful young woman. She has a
charming girlish figure, and at the time she was writing, the premature gray of
her black hair contrasted her brilliant brown eyes. She has a fair complexion to
her small plump figure which caused her friends to compare her to a beautiful
French marquise. She is an avid listener and is a quiet and stimulating woman.
“As for her method of composition the effortless ease of her style make
plausible the account of how she wrote a story as soon as the theme occurred to
her, recopied it, and sent it off with practically no revision” (Johnson 91).
A well read and loved “Story of an Hour,” is about a woman with heart
trouble. She hears of the death of her husband but doesn’t die over this.
Instead she dies at the sight of him being alive. This short story was published
in 1894. The Criticism of “The Story of an Hour”, it begins with the
complexities of marriage. (April 1894-as elsewhere, the date indicated the date
of composition as determined by Per Seyersted in Works), one of her most
powerful efforts, offers a provocative glimpse of the complexities in marriage.
Running to a scant three pages, it tells of Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to the
sudden and unexpected news that her husband has been killed in a railroad
disaster. “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease-of
joy that kills.” The story concludes upon just that note. There is no
omniscient voice to explain or moralize Mrs. Mallard’s hysteric joy. It merely
stands, stark and matter-of-fact (Unger 212-213). First published in 1969,
Kate’s vivid story, “The Storm,” is about a married woman who suddenly
commits adultery. “She responds not with shame but with joy at her sexual
awakening and continued her love for her husband” (Magill 390). In this 5-part
short story, the narrative structure allows Chopin to present varying
perspectives on a single situation as a means of suggesting that
"reality” is, at best, relative. The situation is simple enough:
Calixta’s husband, Bobinot, and her son, Bibi, are in town when a storm hits;
alone at home, Calixta is about to shut the windows and doors against the storm
when her former lover, Alcee Laballiere, rides into the yard seeking shelter.
While the storm rages, Calixta and Alcee renew their passionate feelings for one
another; their desire finally leads them into making love. When the storm
abates, Alcee departs and Calixta welcomes her family back home. The story
concludes, “So the storm passed and everyone was happy.(Magill 391) Like all
Chopin’s best fiction, “The Storm” does not offer pat moral truisms,
indeed, the shocking element of this story’s conclusion is that the
retribution one might expect for the act of adultery never comes. In section
two, the crucial love scene is played out against ironic allusions to Christian
symbolism: the assumption, and immaculate dove, a lily, and the passion. Chopin
offers a moral tale in which a woman’s experience is not condemned but
celebrated and in which she uses that experience not to abandon her family but
to accept them with a renewed sense of commitment. Unlike The Awakening, “The
Storm” allows a woman to gain personal fulfillment and to remain happily
married. As in most naturalistic fiction, morality-like reality-is relative (Magill
391). The Awakening is about the repressive world of 19th century America. This
is where a young woman leads a regular, conventional life of an upper-class wife
and mother. When she turns 28, she finds herself confused about life in general.
She is so suffocated that she is willing to do anything, including defying
Louisiana Creole morals, to gain spiritual independence. She awakens herself but
never finds acceptable means of spiritual fulfillment. Her awakening even
continues to her death. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has become one of the
classics of feminist literature because of it’s theme of sexual awakening and
a woman’s right to freedom of choice in matters of love (Magill 159). Chopin
was ahead of her time. Her novel, The Awakening met with critical abuse and
public denunciation. A reviewer writing for the magazine “Public Opinion” in
1899 stated that he was “Well satisfied” with Edna’s suicide because she
deserved to die for her immoral behavior. Chopin never wrote another novel and
gradually gave up writing altogether (Magill 159). After her devastating
critical reputation from The Awakening, Chopin’s writing career was virtually
over. The Awakening went out of print until 1969 when Per Seyersted issued in
two volumes, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. It was only five years after her
publication of The Awakening that Kate Chopin died. She died of a stroke cause
by a brain hemorrhage. After her death on August 20th, 1904, her work was
forgotten and all but impossible to obtain. She lived a life of death, love,
success and failure. In the end she lived an all-in-all achieving life.

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