This is a transcript of the documentary Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening. The program was produced by Louisiana Public Broadcasting and premiered on PBS on June 23, 1999.
On the eve of the 20th century, Kate Chopin confronted the fundamental dilemma of what it meant to be a woman. In a stream of stories and in her novel, The Awakening, she explored the unsparing truth of women's submerged lives.
Chopin's stories were set in Louisiana in the aftermath of war. It would be a landscape she would draw from memory in the final years of her life.
Kate Chopin's own story began four decades earlier, further north along the river.
St. Louis in the 1850s still harbored the spirit of a fur-trading town, but the city was expanding as waves of settlers passed through to the West.
Here on the Front Street levee, Captain Thomas O' Flaherty, an Irish merchant, furnished them with boats and supplies.
He had married Eliza Faris when she was only 16, but her family had fallen on hard times and needed financial support. She gave him legitimacy in the French Creole aristocracy.
In 1850 their daughter Kate was born.
They were doing well. Then fate intervened.
On November 1st, 1855, Thomas O'Flaherty joined city leaders in celebration of a new line of the Pacific Railroad. Just as the train crossed a bridge, the structure buckled under the weight. Ten cars plunged thirty feet into the river, amidst rain and lightning. Kate's father and 29 others were killed.
Kate was only five, in a household now run solely by women.
Her great-grandmother, Mme. Victoire Charleville, determined to take over her education. She taught Kate music and French.
The nuns at Sacred Heart convent took over her days, with an elite education for French intellectual women. It was unusual, given that most girls didn't go to school at all.
There she met Kitty Garesche, a classmate.Emily Toth: They had the kind of a friendship that a lot of girls have that really helps, helps them throughout life, having someone to tell secrets to and to share a lot of things with. It was the one lasting relationship throughout Kate's life.
But there were hardships. Civil War intervened.
Tragedies in the O'Flaherty household multiplied with the deaths of Kate's half-brother and Mme. Charleville.
Kitty's family was forced to leave town when it was learned her father was supplying the Confederates with guns. Kate and Kitty did not see each other for years.
When they finally came together again in the late 1860s, they were young women of marriageable age. "I do not think that Kate resembled her mother so much as her father," Kitty remembered, "She was an Irish beauty. Her eyes were brown and looked right at you."
Meanwhile, Kitty had decided to enter a convent. It was as if a curtain had fallen between them. The 1870's was a time of few choices for women. Kate's questioning of Catholicism and of women's roles came to the fore in her story, Lilacs.
Barbara Ewell: The story sets up this relationship, this tension between the need in people's lives for sensuality, for the physical, for that kind of innocence and physicality represented by childhood that Adrienne comes to recapture, Adrienne comes to recapture in her time at the convent. Set against that is a morality, the rigid morality of Catholicism which will not permit, which will not tolerate the juxtaposition of innocence and physicality, and sensuality... that you have to be innocent or you have to be sexual. You can't be both.
Kate chose another path and stepped into a world of social engagements.
Many were held at Oakland, the elegant country home of Louis A. Benoist. It was the heart of St. Louis's French Creole society.
At one of these gala affairs Kate met Oscar Chopin, the son of a wealthy Louisiana planter and a relative of the Benoist family.
On June 9th, 1870, they married and embarked on a three month tour of Europe.
By the time they reached Paris, the Franco-Prussian war had broken out.
On August 19 Kate despaired, "Rain still falling so Oscar went out alone and returned with the very sad news of the war. Never have the French armies suffered such repeated mortifications."
Oscar and Kate were forced to retreat to his native Louisiana and settle in New Orleans in the Fall of 1870.
It was a world unto itself.
She arrived in the city pregnant with her first child.
She recalled, "I can remember yet that hot southern day on Magazine Street in New Orleans... waking from out of a stupor to see in my mother's arms a little piece of humanity all dressed in white which they told me was my little son!"
Over the decade, five more children were born.
Kate's time in New Orleans offered characters and settings to explore.
But to Oscar, the city stirred only bitter frustration. Business at the Cotton Exchange was down forty percent. The aftermath of the war affected everyone, white and black alike.
Kate's fiction would explore some of the racial tensions that had swept through the city during and before her time there...
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese: With Chopin the dark crannies of the human soul were part of what is to be human. It was part of her war against platitudes. If you look only at the surfaces you're not going to begin to understand what people are about. It's a measure of both her talent and her character, her strength as a woman, that she didn't find the depths of the human soul, even human depravity, threatening.
Where Kate explored, Oscar leapt to take a stand. He joined a White League in opposition to black leaders and Union forces. On September 14, 1874, the League led a full-scale riot in New Orleans. It took a week for Federal troops to restore order.
Five years later, economic pressures finally forced the Chopins to move. In 1879, they retreated to Oscar's ancestral home in northwest Louisiana.
Here along the Red River in Natchitoches Parish lay remnants of one of the oldest French plantation communities in America.Emily Toth: She was plunked into a tiny town of 600 or 700 people. There really was just one long street and then fields. She never fit in.
The land became the central focus of Chopin's first novel, At Fault, and many of her short stories.
They dealt with the despair of Creoles ruined by the war.
They told of Acadians and former slaves gathering for weekly dances in the woods.
Barbara Ewell: There was great demand for short fiction at that period, and one of the genres that was most popular was the one known as "local color," which offered descriptions of the varied parts of the country, exotic parts of the country. It was pretty clear to her early on that it was her southern stories, her Louisiana stories that sold.
While the land inspired her imagination, her time there was limited.
A mere three years after they had arrived, Oscar became ill with malaria and died. It was fifteen days before Christmas.
Kate tried to hang on, taking over Oscar's place as manager of their plantation store, even keeping shop herself.
By 1884, legal matters were settled. Kate moved back to her native St. Louis, now a major commercial center.
Chopin seemed happy and the children were settled. Then on June 28, 1885, her mother, Eliza O'Flaherty, died. It was devastating. Kate felt she had lost her best friend.
She was now absolutely alone, with six children to support, the oldest of whom was fourteen. She had only a modest income.
In the 1880s, writing was one of few ways women could make a living, averaging some $l5 to $30 a story, and a few hundred for a novel.
At the age of 45, Chopin began her own journey towards becoming a published writer.Elizabeth Fox-Genovese: The writer she especially admired was the short story and novella writer, Guy de Maupassant, who perfected a kind of writing that she took very seriously.
"Here was life, not fiction".. she wrote in her diary. "Here was a man who escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes; and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw."
Her first work, a poem, appeared in January 1889. Soon it was her short stories that proved most successfull. Her social world expanded. Her home became a literary center.David Chopin: She used to have these Thursday afternoon soirées and all the poets and the writers and editors and people who happened to be in town were there.
She seemed to be thriving, but how much freedom did an artist really have? In 1897, Chopin was beginning her most ambitious novel, The Awakening.
The novel was set on Grand Isle, a fashionable resort for New Orleans' Creole elite. It is the story of Edna Pontellier, a discontented wife and mother. Her visit to the island and the sensuality of the Gulf trigger an awakening.Barbara Ewell: Its spontaneity, and its physical demands opens up Edna to places in her heart and in her soul she'd lost contact with, maybe had never known were there.
Barbara Ewell: I don't think any other writer of the period, certainly no male writer, and I don't think any other woman writer tried to understand what happens when a woman experiences her own sexual being and her own self. And of course, that's exactly the tragedy and the dilemma that Chopin is exploring in her fiction which is, what happens, how do you get past this, this bind for women that if you possess your own self, if you possess your own body, you know that the options the society offers you are marriage and death.
By novel's end, Edna has awakened to herself, but finds no place for that self in the world she knows. She swims out to sea till her strength is gone.
The question was whether Americans were prepared to read such emancipated fiction. There were a few positive letters, then the critical reviews came in.David Chopin: They destroyed her spirit when they came out with all this adverse reaction and one of the newspapers called it pure poison and not fit for babes, and there was an awful lot of criticism.
Barbara Ewell: Once you begin to push against those margins, against those limits, you begin to offend people. You begin to offend convention and expectations, and that's exactly what Kate Chopin ran into with The Awakening.
After the harsh reception of her novel, Chopin retreated into private life. She sank into obscurity.
There was a brief moment of optimism when the Louisiana Exposition, a World's Fair, came to St. Louis. On August 20th, 1904, Chopin visited the fair grounds.David Chopin: Right there at her door step were representatives from nations from over the globe, and there were lights, and there was action, and there was dancing and there were things to see and things to do and you can understand why she would like to put a lot of time in over there on that midway.
It was a hot day and she returned exhausted. That night she had a stroke.David Chopin: I believe she died on a Monday, and I think Dad was the last one to see her alive. But he spoke of her with such pride.
Barbara Ewell: What drove Kate Chopin was her passion for writing, and her willingness to let writing take her into places that she had never been herself, necessarily. And certainly, the literary traditions out of which she came had never really gone.
It was in the late 20th century that her writings were really recovered. They came back into print, and they were newly recognized and appreciated by critics, and taught in schools, and that's what brings a writer back into currency.
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