Kate Chopin, née Katherine O’Flaherty (Feb. 8, 1851-Aug. 22, 1904) was an American writer who published two novels and short stories. She came from a wealthy St. Louis family. In 1870, Kate married Oscar Chopin, whose family was prominent in Louisiana. By the age of 29, Chopin had six children. In 1882, Oscar passed away and Kate tried for two years to keep his plantation and business afloat. She finally sold the general store and she moved back to St. Louis. A year after returning home, her mother died. Both of these deaths hit Chopin hard. Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, a friend and her doctor suggested that she write to help with her depression resulting from her losses. Not only that, she had a large family to support. In 1889, some of her stories were published and in 1890, her first novel, At Fault, appeared. Chopin’s stories are mostly influenced by the Creole society that she experienced during her marriage. During her time, focus was on these types of stories that depicted unique regional populations in the United States. She achieved national recognition as one of the writers who embodied this up-and-coming movement.
In 1899, Chopin published The Awakening. And this was when the reading public turned against her after of a decade of acceptance. In 1904, she went to the St. Louis World’s Fair and during this visit she suffered a brain hemorrhage. Two days later, she died. Kate was only 53. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century when readers and critics started to appreciate Chopin’s novel.
What shocked readers and made them turn their backs on a writer who they once respected? To be blunt, people did not like her honesty and unromantic view of marriage in her novel. The Awakening tells Edna Pontellier’s story. Edna, is the wife of Leonce Pontellier, a successful and respected businessman in New Orleans. They have two children, Etienne and Raoul. The story begins during the summer, while Edna and the two boys are staying at a resort on the Gulf of Mexico. Her husband visits on the weekends, but during the week he is in New Orleans taking care of business. During her stay, Edna befriends Robert Lebrun, a young man. Both of them fall in love. Robert spontaneously decides to move to Mexico to pursue business. His true motive for leaving is that he realizes that their love is hopeless since Edna is married to a powerful man and a relationship or even an affair is impossible.
As the summer draws to a close, Edna moves back to New Orleans with the boys and rejoins her husband. At this point, she starts to take a hard look at her life and she realizes that she does not want to conform to what her husband, children, and society expect her to be. Edna starts to feel like she is drowning. She rebels by leaving the home during the time she is expected to receive visitors. As she starts to assert her independence, she also suffers solitude since many of her friends and acquaintances do not understand her behavior. Her examination of her own desires and self-worth ultimately leads her to make a dramatic decision.
This novel explores female independence during an age when women were controlled by their husbands. Chopin shocked her readers by implying that some women were not happy in their marriages and flirted with the idea of having an affair. There is a climatic ending, which I won’t reveal for those who haven’t read it, but the novel doesn’t have a resolution. I wonder if this was Chopin’s way of saying she didn’t know the answer either, but she thought it worthwhile to open up the discussion. At the time, no one wanted to talk about it.