The Awakening Biography/Context
Kate Chopin (1850-1904)
Born Catherine O'Flaherty to Irish and French heredity in St. Louis, Kate Chopin grew up in a privileged world of society and properness. Closely influenced by the stories and personality of her maternal grandmother, a staunch Creole, she would often hear stories that later found their ways into her writings. Kate graduated from the local St. Louis chapter of the Academy of the Sacred Heart and soon entered society as a socialite, attending parties, dances, and gatherings. She seemed to enjoy them, allowing her critical eye to capture them in her work on paper as she created images of such festivities in detail. At the ripe age of 20, Kate married Oscar Chopin, another wealthy Creole and successful cotton broker in Louisiana. After the couple traveled to Europe on vacation, they returned to the states and moved to the plush 'newer American' side of the big city of New Orleans. They did not want to live around the old French Quarter, and instead lived a lavish, society life, in which Kate gave birth to six children and played her role as a dutiful, adoring wife. Soon after this lavish financial glory died, the Chopin family was forced to move to Cloutierville, a small rural town in Louisiana. Oscar died of malaria three years later, leaving his beloved Kate with the burden of six children, a house, and an enormous debt.
After her husband's death, Chopin returned to her roots in St. Louis where she began to write. Her first novel, At Fault, published in 1890 was a moderate success, but did not truly establish Chopin as a reputable writer. She wrote for several publications and translated French works into English. However, it was not until The Awakening and other stories, published in 1899, on the cusp of the turn of the century, change, and exploration, did Kate Chopin's work receive the notoriety it deserved. The Awakening is a story of adultery and sexual awakening that was not won over flawlessly by the critics and society of the time. Some found it too harsh, too sexual, and too shocking. Although Chopin had written a small library of works, including Bayou Folk and collections of short stories A Night in Acadie and A Vocation and the Voice, it is The Awakening (which only earned her $150 in royalties) that ultimately placed her in the league of revered writers. While alive, the groundbreaking story prevented her from entrance into the St. Louis Fine Arts Club and ceased further exploration of her writing talents. She wrote very little after the harsh critical reception of her masterpiece.
Despite the controversy over The Awakening, it is now studied in almost every high school and college, has been published over twenty times, and translated into French, German, Italian, and several Scandinavian languages. During the 1970s, in which feminism began to circulate throughout the entire American culture, Chopin's work reemerged as a precursor to women's rights. It has spawned hundreds of essays discussing Edna's role as a possible feminist, painter, adulteress, and more. The ambiguous ending of the book has also created a wave of critical study, causing The Awakening to be at the pinnacle of study in academia today. While Chopin studied Dickens, Goethe, and Bronte, some would say that she influenced and anticipated William Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence.
According to New York Times Review of Books and Newsweek Magazine, "Chopin is an uncommonly entertaining writer...She was long before her time in dealing with sexual passion and the intricate familial and personal emotions of women...Chopin's oracular feminism and prophetic psychology almost outweigh her estimable literary talents" (Gibbons' foreword, vii).
Chopin died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1904. She never knew the fame and honor her masterpiece would command in the future and never expanded her library of work for fear of more scandal.
Chopin Kate. The Awakening. Bantam Books, New York, 1992.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and other stories. Introduction by Kate Gibbons. Random House Modern Library Paperback Edition, New York: 2000.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text Biographical and Historical Contexts and Criticism. Edited by Margo Culley. W.W. Norton and Company, New York: 1994.