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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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8. Regional Realism   

8. Regional

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Charles W.
- Kate Chopin
- Charles
- Mary E. Wilkins
- Joel Chandler
- Bret Harte
- Sarah Orne
- Alexander Posey
- Mark Twain
- Zitkala-Sa
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Kate Chopin (1851-1904)

Thomas Anshutz, a rose (1907)
[2582] Thomas Anshutz, A Rose (1907), courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marguerite and Frank Cosgrove, Jr. Fund, 1993 (1993.324). Photograph © 1994 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kate Chopin Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Writing at the end of the nineteenth century at the height of the popularity of "local color" fiction, Kate Chopin introduced American readers to a new fictional setting with her evocations of the diverse culture of Cajun and Creole Louisiana. But while much of Chopin's work falls into the category of regionalism, her stories and especially her novel, The Awakening, are also notable for their introduction of controversial subjects like women's sexuality, divorce, extramarital sex, and miscegenation.

Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a socially prominent, financially secure family. Her mother, Eliza Faris, descended from French Creole ancestors, and her father, Thomas O'Flaherty, was an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune as a merchant in St. Louis. Chopin learned to speak both French and English in her home and was sent to Catholic school. At the age of nineteen she married Oscar Chopin, a French Creole from a Louisiana planter family. After a glamorous European honeymoon, the couple settled in New Orleans, where Oscar went into business as a cotton broker and Kate became active in the city's social life. Her fluency in French and southern sympathies ensured that she fit easily into New Orleans society.

When the cotton brokerage business failed in 1879, the Chopins relocated to Natchitoches Parish in rural Louisiana, where they intended to operate one of Oscar's father's cotton plantations. But by 1883 Oscar Chopin had died of swamp fever, leaving Kate Chopin a thirty-two-year-old widow with six children to support and limited financial resources. After running the plantation on her own for a year, Chopin returned to St. Louis, where she moved into her mother's house and began writing poetry and short stories. Drawing on her experiences in New Orleans and Natchitoches, Chopin created realistic depictions of the distinctive customs of the region and captured the cadences and diction of Louisiana speech in her dialogue. By 1893, she had published her first novel, At Fault, and placed stories in such prestigious venues as the Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, and Century. In 1894 she published an extremely successful collection of short stories, Bayou Folk, and followed it up with another volume of stories about Louisiana entitled A Night in Acadie.

While her stories have been praised and frequently anthologized since their publication in the 1890s, critics today generally agree that Chopin's masterpiece is her 1899 novel, The Awakening. Taking up Chopin's recurring theme of the conflict between social constraints placed on women and their desire for independence, the novel tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a Creole woman who gradually awakens to her own dissatisfaction with her identity as a wife and mother. Focusing on her own needs and desires, Edna daringly flouts social conventions by moving out of her husband's house and entering into an adulterous affair. Due to its controversial subject matter and its sympathetic portrayal of its unconventional heroine, the novel provoked hostile reviews from critics who dismissed it as "trite and sordid" or even "perverse" and "vulgar." While Chopin did not completely abandon her writing career in the wake of The Awakening's harsh reception, she was upset by the criticism and her literary output diminished. She died five years later of a cerebral hemorrhage. The Awakening sold poorly in its own day and was largely ignored until the mid-twentieth century, when it was recognized as a masterpiece of feminist and realist literature.

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