The life of Kate Chopin was an interesting tale of struggle and perseverance in an area of the country where things were quite difficult. Growing up around the turn of the twentieth century, Chopin had to put up with a difficult life in addition to the usual challenges that went along with being a woman at the time. Unlike in today’s time, women did not have many rights, nor did they have many opportunities when Chopin was growing up. As with the majority of great writers during that time, life experiences were important.
Not only did Chopin draw from her experiences to come up with story ideas and character ideas, but she took some very specific instances to create stories. Though all of her works had some elements of this held within, there are two works that specifically highlight some of her more difficult life experiences and speak to the overall struggle of women during her time. In her works, Desiree’s Baby and The Story of an Hour, readers get to not only read a great story, but also understand how one woman’s struggle to overcome can impact the way that she writes.
In order to understand the references in her work, a person has to understand exactly what she went to during various portions of her life. The one overriding theme in her life was loss. As evidenced by a article on Kate Chopin from A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, the woman had trouble keeping a man around in her life. This does not mean that she was divorced or had men leave her, either. Instead, almost every meaningful man in her life died in a difficult fashion.
Her father was one of the leading railroad men around the turn of the century and he lost his life on the rail when one of his tracks collapsed. Kate Chopin was only five years old at the time, so she had to live the majority of her life without a father figure. The bad luck did not stop there for Chopin, either. Her half-brother passed away from a rare case of swamp fever when she was young, as well.
When Chopin married a few years later at the age of 20, she had married a man who she thought would take the place of her brother and her father. He did her no favor by racking up a huge amount of debt and subsequently passing away from swamp fever, as well. Those things alone were enough to nearly drive her over the edge and created a really difficult life that was much harder than what most of her contemporaries had to go through. In a way, this set her up as a strong woman and prepared her to take on many of the challenges that faced women of her era, though. It is from this struggle that Chopin’s great works arose.
Another aspect of Kate Chopin’s life that must be taken into account is the racism and inequality that she had to face. She was of Creole origin, which was one of the factions of society that was looked down upon by everyone else around them. In Desiree’s Baby, these themes of racism are presented quickly and succinctly. In the story, things change dramatically when it is realized that her baby, and subsequently Desiree, are not actually white. The more telling thing is what follows in the book. It is telling that she tries frantically to convince her husband that she is white.
This is the most important thing to her. In the work, Chopin writes, “A quick conception of all that this accusation meant for her nerved her with unwonted courage to deny it. “It is a lie; it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are gray, Armand, you know they are gray. And my skin is fair,” seizing his wrist. “Look at my hand, whiter than yours, Armand,” she laughed hysterically” (Chopin, p.2).
Though this is not exactly how Chopin’s life went down, she does draw from her experiences. In addition to the idea of racism, one can view the desperation to keep a man around as a commentary on her life. Chopin lost many of the men in her life for various reasons and that can be seen in Desiree’s story. Not only is she distraught about the realization that she and her baby are not white, but she also worries that her man will leave her because of it. This is the most important thing for her character, so this might be an indication of what Chopin finds important.
Though the reference to her life can be seen in that story, it can be seen even greater in another one of her stories. The Story of an Hour is the most telling story that shows how much the author was impacted by the experiences of her life. Interestingly, the reader gets an indication in the first sentence of what the author is thinking. In that sentence, she writes, “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death” (Chopin).
Not only does her own experience of losing her husband play a role in shaping the story, but the pain of losing him also plays a role. She has been there in that situation, so she knows all too well that losing a husband is one of the most difficult things a person can go through. Though it is not exactly clear who the author is talking about in much of the story, there are times when it appears that she is representing herself in many of the lines.
At one point, Chopin writes of the struggle when she writes, “She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength. But now there was a dull stare in her eyes, whose gaze was fixed away off yonder on one of those patches of blue sky. It was not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought” (Chopin). From this, the reader can come away with some sense of what Chopin may have been going through with her experiences in her life. From the words, the struggle seems to be too much to overcome.
Overall, the two stories present different struggles, which is something that really shows how much she had to go through in her life. Most people would consider losing three men as big a challenge as any person should ever have to face. That was obviously not the case for Chopin, though. Her experiences shaped who she became in a number of different ways, including her struggles with female equality.
During her time, being a successful writer was not a given for a woman, even if that woman had all of the talent and resources to succeed in the business. While she was having to put up with all of the problems of her life, she also had to try to put up a fight against the people who refused to take her seriously. Her entire career was a struggle to balance the emotions that she had to face. She had to feel pain for what was going on with her husband, her father, and her brother, but she could not readily show that. It was a very brave move including her life experiences in her works because that was not exactly an accepted tactic. By doing that, she opened up herself to lots of criticism, but it was something that made her a memorable writer.
Overall, much of Kate Chopin’s life can be seen through her works. If a person takes the time to sit down and study her life, then they would see that she had to face a lot. From facing that adversity, she became strong enough to overcome some of the racism and the discrimination that plagued other writers during her time. She allows herself to show some emotion and to be a human, but she never lets her guard down so much that people can take advantage of her. That strength is reflected in her work and it’s the thing that makes them so interesting.
Chopin, Kate. The Story of an Hour. 1894.
Chopin, Kate. Desiree’s Baby. 1893.
“Kate O’Flaherty Chopin”, A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. I (1988), p. 176
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