Kate Chopin, born Katherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri on February 8, 1850, is considered one of the first feminist authors of the 20th century. She was following a rather conventional path as a housewife until an unfortunate tragedy -- the untimely death of her husband -- altered the course of her life. She was a talented and prolific short story writer, influenced by the French short story writer, Guy de Maupassant. She is best known for her novel The Awakening (1899), a hauntingly prescient tale of a woman unfulfilled by the mundane yet highly celebrated "feminine role," and her painful realization that the constraints of her gender blocked her ability to seek a more fulfilling life.
Commenting on the influence of Maupassant on her writing, Chopin wrote:
"...I read his stories and marveled at them. Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinkable way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making. Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes; and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw.." [source: Jane Le Marquand, Deep South (1996)]
Chopin placed most of her stories in north central Louisiana, many in Natchitoches, and she published two significant short story collections; Bayou Folk in 1894, and then A Night in Acadie in 1897. The reader will find gems in both collections.
Some argue that modern feminism was borne on her pages, and one needs to look no further than her 1894 short story The Story of an Hour to support the claim. The reader should note the relationship of the leading figure in that story to the circumstances of Kate Chopin’s own life, where the death of her own husband started a process that would ultimately push her beyond the roles of wife and mother of six and on to the life of an artist. After The Story of an Hour a reader would do well to balance the scale and turn their attention to Regret -- a short story blessed with love and borne from a mother's heart.
Chopin's writing career began after her husband died on their Louisiana plantation in 1882 and she was struggling financially. Her mother convinced Kate to move back to St. Louis, but died shortly thereafter leaving her alone. Now Chopin, suffering from the loss of her husband and mother, was advised by her obstetrician and family friend to fight her state of depression by taking up writing as a source of therapeutic healing, a way to focus her energy and provide Chopin with a source of income. She took the advice to heart.
By the early 1890s, Kate Chopin was writing short stories, articles, and translations which appeared in periodicals and literary magazines regionally based in St. Louis -- she was perceived as a "local color" writer, but her literary qualities were discounted. Her novel The Awakening, (1899) was considered too far ahead of its time and Chopin was discouraged by the literary criticism and that she had not been accepted as an author, so she turned to short story writing almost exclusively thereafter.
Chopin embraced a number of writing styles, taking into account her ancestry of Irish and French descent, and her years with Creole and Cajun influences in Louisiana. Slavery and women's rights were realities that she incorporated in many of her stories and sketches, portraying women in a less than conventional manner, with individual wants and needs. Perhaps in many ways autobiographical, her exploration of women's independence was not celebrated until many years later. Chopin was in many ways, a woman before her time.Readers interested the feminist aspects of Kate Chopin's works will also wish to investigate plays and short stories from Susan Glaspell and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's semi-autobiographical sketch The Yellow Wallpaper.
But it would be a grave mistake to dismiss Chopin as "a feminist" writer. She was a first-class writer and her ability to raise life from a blank page knows few equals. Prepare your heart and your brain before reading Kate Chopin, she demands both.Feminist Lit: Louisa May Alcott & Kate Chopin images on Pinterest.