American Literature Kate Chopin
by
Bernard Koloski
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0007

Introduction

In the United States and abroad, Kate Chopin (b. 1850–d. 1904) is recognized as one of America’s essential 19th-century authors. Her fiction is widely taught in universities and secondary schools. It is explored in hundreds of scholarly books, essays, and dissertations—as well as in the popular media. It has been made into plays, films, songs, dances, graphic fiction, and an opera. And it has been translated into twenty-some languages. But it was not always so. Chopin was born Catherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri, to a mother of French descent and a father born in Ireland. She grew up speaking both French and English and studied at a Roman Catholic academy with nuns schooled in French intellectual traditions. In 1870 she married Oscar Chopin, traveled to Europe on her honeymoon, and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. She bore five sons and a daughter. In 1879, after her husband’s business failed, the family relocated to the Natchitoches area of northern Louisiana, but in 1882 Oscar died, and shortly after Chopin moved with her children back to St. Louis, where she interacted with a group of progressive philosophers, journalists, editors, educators, and others. She began writing fiction in the late 1880s, drawing on her intimate knowledge of the lives of Louisiana Creoles, Acadians, African Americans, Native Americans, and other groups. Her novel At Fault (1890) received little attention, but she had significant success with her short stories, placing nineteen of them in Vogue, twelve in Youth’s Companion, and others in the Atlantic Monthly, the Century, Harper’s Young People, and additional magazines. She published two collections of stories, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), both of which were praised by book reviewers. About a third of her hundred-some short stories were published in, submitted to, or intended for children’s or family magazines. By the late 1890s, Chopin’s fiction was popular among American readers. But her novel The Awakening (1899) was denounced by reviewers, who called it “unhealthy,” “sordid,” “vulgar,” and “poison”—in part because it dealt with extramarital sex—and Chopin’s work was mostly ignored for half a century, experiencing a remarkable revival beginning only in the 1960s, long after her death. Today, Kate Chopin’s novels and stories are celebrated for their graceful, sensitive treatment of women’s lives and are discussed by scholars exploring gender, race, literary genres, and an array of other subjects.

General Overviews

Readers new to Kate Chopin have a choice of good materials for coming to know her work, including materials by scholars from France, Norway, the United States, and Great Britain. Chopin became popular for our times only in the 1970s, after her fiction was championed first by a Frenchman, then by a Norwegian, and then by feminists and others in the United States and United Kingdom. For the next twenty-five years, scholars occupied themselves writing introductions to her work, and many of their efforts remain valuable today. Seyersted 1969 is the most influential and the best place to begin, because it identifies many of the subjects, themes, and approaches that have dominated Chopin scholarship for decades. Skaggs 1985 and Ewell 1986 offer clear, straightforward, rewarding readings of Chopin’s fiction. Walker 2001 ties Chopin’s fiction closely to her life. Perrin-Chenour 2002, writing in incisive French, outlines a unified approach to understanding Chopin’s breaks with mainstream thought in the 1890s. The Kate Chopin International Society website draws upon the insights of dozens of scholars and is a trustworthy starting point, especially for readers attuned to the Internet. And Beer 2008 gathers together fresh essays by practiced British and American scholars that bring newcomers up to date on the field of Chopin literary criticism.

  • Beer, Janet, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Kate Chopin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    An especially strong collection of Chopin critical essays by eleven experienced scholars from the United Kingdom and the United States. Explores both the novels and the short stories, as well as important subjects and themes, including childhood, race, fashion, and literary innovation. Approaches range from biography to contemporary French feminist theory. An excellent orientation for scholars new to Chopin studies.

  • Ewell, Barbara C. Kate Chopin. New York: Ungar, 1986.

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    A persuasive study presenting Chopin as social critic and artist. Explores in detail the novels and most popular stories. Insightful and balanced in presenting the career of the writer and the development and significance of her fiction.

  • Kate Chopin International Society.

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    The website of the Kate Chopin International Society, a network among scholars and a bridge between scholars and others, offering readers new to Chopin accurate, accessible, up-to-date information on her works, subjects, themes, and biography—and providing scholars extensive bibliographies in English, German, Portuguese, and Spanish, along with a guide to Chopin archives and news about academic conferences and Chopin’s fiction featured in popular culture.

  • Perrin-Chenour, Marie-Claude. Kate Chopin: Ruptures. Paris: Belin, 2002.

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    Inspired by the passion of Cyrille Arnavon, who translated The Awakening into French in 1952 and guided the Norwegian Per Seyersted to his groundbreaking work on Chopin, Perrin-Chenour describes Chopin’s explorations of transitions in history, literary themes and styles, and epistemology. She argues that Chopin was successful with her early local-color efforts but ahead of the times with her later broader ones. An important volume. Available only in French.

  • Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

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    By far the most influential book about Kate Chopin’s works. Discusses in depth Chopin’s novels and many of her most popular short stories, placing them in the realm of women’s literature. Describes Chopin’s life and the literary influences on her and points to subjects and themes that maintain their relevance and resonance today. A singularly important study—accessible for students; critical for scholars.

  • Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

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    A solid, brief study of Chopin’s fiction focused on the dilemmas of women searching for love, autonomy, and a new position in society.

  • Walker, Nancy A. Kate Chopin: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

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    A biographically focused discussion of Chopin’s work, with explorations of many of her short stories and essays. Includes two chapters on Chopin’s life before she began her writing career.

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