Kate Chopin was born in 1851 to the well-to-do St. Louis couple Eliza and Thomas O’Flaherty. She attended a convent school, took piano and French lessons, and delighted in her two years as a St. Louis debutante. Chopin had a nonconformist side, too. For example, she spent many hours with her family’s slaves and became St. Louis’ “Littlest Rebel” when she took down and hid a Union flag. In addition, she retreated to the attic of her family’s home and remained secluded there for about two years after the death of several of her family members.
Kate Chopin’s actions reflected the influence of her great-grandmother, who lived with the family until Kate was eleven. Chopin learned from her the love of storytelling, an interest in history, and an inquisitive attitude. Encouraged by her great-grandmother, Chopin read widely and pondered unconventional ideas. When she met a woman in New Orleans who was successful at having a career, family, and social life, Chopin was thrilled by the possibilities. She later behaved in ways that showed she believed in a woman’s having control over her own life. After she was married, for example, she ignored society’s disapproval as she often walked alone through the streets of New Orleans and smoked cigarettes. She married Oscar Chopin in 1870. Oscar was from New Orleans. He worked as an agent, a banker, and a broker in the cotton industry. As members of the Southern aristocracy, the Chopins owned a summer residence on the shore, had servants, and were involved in many social activities. Kate Chopin was an active socialite during this time but also helped her husband run his business. This equal sharing of work and play by husband and wife was unusual for the time. Their luxurious life came to an end, however, when the business failed in 1879. With six children, the Chopins moved to Cloutierville-a small town in north-central Louisiana where they lived on her father-in-law’s property and helped manage the Chopin family plantations. They had only been there four years when Oscar died of swamp fever. Kate Chopin managed the business for a year on her own but then moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother.
When her mother died in 1885, Chopin had little money. Her few friends encouraged her to write professionally, having been impressed with her letter writing. At the time, Chopin was reading such authors as Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, Moliere, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Herbert Spenser. Relying on her life experiences, her great-grandmother’s wisdom, and the influence of great writers, Chopin began to write about life in north-central Louisiana. While readers enjoyed her first collection of stories, Chopin wrote stories that challenged and conflicted with society’s moral standards. Her novel, The Awakening, was widely criticized for this when it was published in 1899. Even fellow author Willa Cather condemned the book for having a “sordid” theme.
Understandably despondent over this criticism, as well as the subsequent rejection of her next book, An Avocation and a Voice, Chopin nevertheless did not at first give up on her writing. She composed a number of short stories, including “The Storm,” a tale of two lovers and their infidelity during a rainstorm.
By 1904, however, the author began to abandon writing as her health worsened. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 22 of that year. Today, Kate Chopin is recognized not only for her skills as a local colorist but also as a realist.