Kate Chopin: Adversity and Criticism
Tragedy, death, adversity and criticism can one or a combination of these circumstances influence the path you take? Enduring the death of loved ones, facing critical abuse and public denunciation as an immoralist, Kate Chopin is considered among the most important women in the nineteenth-century American fiction. (Scarsella)
Katherine (Chopin) O’Flaherty was born of Irish-French descendants. There is some controversy over the actual date of her birth. Kate stated her day of birth as February 8,1851. There was another listed date, July 12, 1850. Most biographers listed Kate year of birth as 1851 as Kate stated, but Toth discover both baptismal date of May 12, 1850, recorded for Kate at St. Louis Cathedral registry and the U.S. Census record of August 1850 that records a seven-month-old baby, “Cath”, at the O’Flaherty home. (Toth, 24)Therefore, the actual date of birth is unclear.
Her father, Thomas O’Flaherty, was Irish immigrant who became wealthy. Her mother, Eliza Faris O’Flaherty, was of French-Creole heritage. Eliza, at age 16, became Thomas second wife.From Thomas’ first marriage was born George O’Flaherty, Kate’s half brother whom she loved with all her heart. Also living in the home was her grandmother and her great-grandmother.
Kate had a special bond with her father. She was always curious and inquisitive about his job. So, at the age of 5, Thomas O’Flaherty decided to take his daughter to work with him one day. This caused the bond to grow even
stronger. Her father was one of the founders of the Pacific Railroad. In 1855, during a celebration ceremony of the completion of the Pacific Railroad, a bridge collapsed and the train fell into the Gasconade River. Her father died in this accident, this beginning a series of tragedies Kate had to endure.
After her father’s death, she began bonding with the other members of her family. Her mother, Eliza, dealt with death of her husband by focusing on religion. She enrolled Kate in the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart. It is here that Kate discovers literature and the joys of reading (Hoffman). Her great-grandmother taught her to speak French and play the piano. She also delighted Kate with stories that made a vial impression on her. One of which was the story of how her grandmother, had run a ferry service on the Mississippi, and lively stories of women who dared- and seldom remarried. (Howard)
In 1863, Kate had to endure more heartache. Her great-grandmother dies. During the same year, her half-brother, George, was captured as a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, contracted typhoid fever and dies. This caused Kate to go into seclusion for two years. She spent most of her time in the family attic. Missing a great deal of school at this time did not cause Kate to flounder. Although she was a scholastic student, she being a creative storyteller.
After finishing school, she took two years off and became the belle in St. Louis Society in which her mother, Eliza, was so fond of. It was during this time that Kate started being criticized for her rebellious life style. She would be seen walking around the city unaccompanied, and even smoking.This was a period in time when her behavior was not considered as a norm among high society. Women were treated as second class people. They could not vote or have an open opinion on any thing other than the duties of a wife. Why was Kate not allowed to walk alone? Why was she not allowed to smoke or present herself as she grew to be? What were the duties of a wife according to Kate Chopin? After all, three widows; a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother raised her. She grew up with women making decisions about their lives, and on tales of women being dominant and strong. Some of her influencing may also have come from the school she attended. The nuns were strong and durable, and showed her women could be in charge of their own lives.
Many critics believe this is when Kate became rebellious of the way women were treated. But her first account of rebellion came in 1860 when the union flag was placed on her home. She became known as “the little rebel” when she tore the flag down. Her age and a neighbor prevented her from being arrested. So her rebellious acts did not start as a young lady. It was years of female influences and the fact that there was no male influence in her life over a long period of time. Some of her strength may in fact have come from the endurance of so many tragedies. Many critics believe that a combination of these things is when her roots in feminism began to show.
Not really accepting the fact that women had social limitations, Kate was relluctant to do what was expected of her to find a husband. In 1870, at the age 19, Kate married the son of an established Creole family. Oscar Chopin, six years Kate senior, met her when he moved to St. Louis to look for work. He became a young cotton broker, and also handled sales, finances, and supplies for the plantation owners.
Oscar was not the typical husband. He allowed Kate a lot of freedom. Even with the freedom Kate felt she was trapped into doing what was expected of a woman.
Kate and her husband had settled in New Orleans for nine years. During this period of time six children were born: Jean, Oscar, George, Frederick, Felix and Leila. Oscar, job as cotton commissioner had started having problems. In 1880 when the business failed, the family moved to Cloutierville, Louisiana.There, Oscar opened a general store and continued to over see plantations. Here in Cloutierville Kate was able to meet a variety of people by helping her husband at the general store. Kate later uses her experiences with the French, Negro, Spanish, and English culture to write about. She gained the reputation of being a regional writer from this experience.
Oscar never fully adjusted to the new location. He contacted Malaria and eventually died of complication in 1882. (Kolaski) the following year Kate, perhaps, enjoyed the attentions of a married neighbor until she returned to St. Louis in 1884. (Howard) Shortly after returning to St. Louis to live with her mother, her mother dies. Abandoned and hurt by the cycle of illness and death, that had changed her life in such a short period of time, Kate began to doubt herself as a person. (Ker)
Her neighbor and a family friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, suggested she find comfort from he losses by writing. He encouraged her to explore the thoughts and concerns through writing as a means of expression (Hoffman).
In 1889, at age 39, Kate began to write. Her emotional experiences of turmoil of deaths, doubt, and self-exploration became the strengths absorbed by her characters. Her background and being culturally orientated began to show in her writings. It is this experience that allowed her to use cultural dialect in her material.
Her first poem, “If It Might Be,” was published in a Chicago periodical. Some scholars interpret the poem as a desire to join her husband in heaven (Koloski). It was her first published story, “A Point at Issue!,” that began her career as a writer. Kate had written many poems and short stories, but in 1883, she published what became her best short story, “Desiree’s Baby.” It is a story about a lady abandoned as a baby and is adopted and raised by a family of loving and caring people.After marring, her husband accuses her of having black decent because the baby was born with dark skin. It was after he orders Desiree to leave that he finds a letter left by his mother explaining that he is the one of mixed race.This piece represents some the culture she learns about different cultures while working in the general store with her husband, Oscar.
In 1897, “A Night in Acadie,” shows her “increased concern for the plight of women in ‘Victorian-era America'” (May and Trosky). Now to truly understand what is meant by ‘Victorian -era America’, we should take a glimpse into what was actually expected of women during this period of time.
During this era, women had to know and abide by the duties of a wife; which was having the privilege and pleasures of rendering a happy home. They had to avoid all causes for complaints from their husbands. You had to be more agreeable at home to your husband than in the public eye. When walking the streets, she had to do it quietly. She could not laugh loudly or do anything to attract the attention of passers-by. Before accepting an invitation to a public place with a man that you are only acquainted with, another lady had to be invited also. On every occasion, the woman had to be suitably dressed for that occasion. There were rules for receptions, dinner parties, and musicals. The woman had to be well informed of her expectations. This caused women to put their needs aside and adapt to the needs of their husbands and what society expected of them.
In 1897, she starts the “Awakening.” You can see a lot of Kate’s lifestyle coming to life in this story.She always managed to connect several important and original themes within her work that always presented unique ideas to the public (Diniz). But to represent all that was immoral in society, and to demonstrate a flair for rebellion, this story, “The Awakening,” was on the edge of acceptability, and was constantly rebuked.
It is a story about a woman awakening to her own needs.The main character, Edna, learns to be her self and to do whatever she feels like doing. Because she is different from the average house-lady and unwilling to force her self into that role, Edna tries to escape the typical female existence by awakening to the idea that life and the world are hers as well as a man (Kearns).Edna does not love and want the things that she should have. The things she wanted to have and love, she could not because it was not morally accepted during that era. Here, again, you can see some of Kate’s lifestyle being incorporated in her work. The fact that she could not walk alone in the street and smoke in public at will, was what made Kate not accepted morally by society. Being her own person of her own free will was what Kate wanted and could not have.
Edna death was of her own free will. It was greatly criticized because of its sexual context. It was stated that Edna dies where she was born. Does this statement reflect on Kate’s life? Did she die, in a sense, when she decided to give up her acts of rebellion and self only to be born, in a sense, into a society that she was not comfortable with. The idea of being able to make your own decisions and to live the way, in which you are comfortable with, is an act of dying.
Her story, “The Awakening,” received a lot of criticism from the public. Kate’s writing had attacked the issues of early feminism, and had also portrayed unspeakable subjects of adultery and suicide. Some critics called her the “New Orleans Madame Bovary.”
Barbara Ewell praised it for its craft and damned it for its content. The novel was a scandal. On June 4, 1899, the Providence Sunday Journal printed, “Miss Kate Chopin is another clever woman, but she put her cleverness to a very bad use in writing “The Awakening”…. The worst of such stories is that they will come into the hands of youths, leading them to dwell on things that only matured
persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires (Petry). “The Awakening” is a novel full of symbolism; within each segment there is often a central and powerful symbol that serves to add meaning to the text and to underline some subtle point Chopin is making.
Art becomes a symbol of both freedom and failure. Edna tries real hard to became artist. She fails because her wings are not strong enough.
Birds are a symbol as well. The way they talk to each other, but also the y the fly away. The freedom they have in flight.
Can you see that clothes are a symbol as well you see that Edna is dress in the begins but as the story goes on and ends she is taking her clothes off. To feel the freedom
Learning to swim in a time that swimming for ladies was not looked upon, as something good is a symbol as well. Trying and doing it was as if she was set free of some things that bond her. It as if she got some type of power.
The moon is another type of symbol most people think of the moon is related to romance and sex. Edna has found that she is in love and she now feels the sexual desire to herself.
The ocean is a symbol of both freedom and escape. As Edna remembers her childhood home as an ocean. She finally escapes into the sea. The sound of the ocean calls to her, gives her peace throughout the book.
Sleep is an important symbol running through the novel. Edna’s moments of awakening are often preceded by sleep and she does a great deal of it. Many people feel that sleep is a way to escape the things around them. As always people do awaken, the either fined something new or exciting, or numb to their surrounding.
Negative responses caused Kate to be taken back. Because the response to the novel was so overwhelming, Kate was denied membership in the local art clubs. Some believed this is what caused Kate to give up writing. In the July 1899 edition of the Book news, Kate made a statement trying to justify her writings. She stated, “Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what happens. I never dreamed of Edna making a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had the slightest imagination of such a thing, I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over, and it was then to late” (Ballenger).
All the criticism given to Kate’s novel was not negative. It was stated, “…but all must concede its flawless art…in this new work, power appears…power born of confidence. There is no uncertainty in the lines, so surely and firmly drawn. Complete mastery is apparent on every page…in delicious English, quick with life, never a word too much, simple and pure, the story proceeds with classic severity through a labyrinth of doubt and temptation and dumb despair” (Petry).
The criticism, however damaging, did not stop Kate from writing as many critics believed. She went on to write two more stories, one of which is “The Storm”. It also displayed acts of feminine sexuality and passion. So, in a sense, all the negative criticism given to Kate Chopin did not stop her from writing about what she believed in. “The Storm, anticipated the work of English writer D.H. Lawrence with its frank depiction of two lovers’ infidelity during a thunderstorm. It was after writing this piece that Kate gradually abandoned her writing career.
Whether or not the book was actually banned is unclear. Facts show that it did disappear for a number of years. Emily Tooth’s biography shows the book was never banned; and she continued to be a valued member of the St. Louis society until August 1904. This statement raises questions to mind. If Kate received so much criticism from “The Awakening”, why would she continue to write another novel displaying similar sexual content?
After almost a century, America has finally accepted what is truly a novel great among its time. Fascinated by the things she enjoyed most about live: her individuality, being able to attend public places alone, and to make daily visits to a place she so enjoyed. Chopin died of a brain hemorrhage after a strenuous day at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where she had been a regular visitor. Kate Chopin died on August 20, 1904. She was remembered only as one of the southern local colorists of the 1890s until “The Awakening “was rediscovered in the 1970s as an early masterpiece of American realism and a superb rendering of female experience.
“Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer; than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”
AN AMERICAN WRITER