Catherine O’Flaherty, later known as Kate Chopin, was born on February 8, 1850 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was an Irish immigrant and her mother had cultural ties to Louisiana and French Canada. She was raised to be bilingual in English and French.
She lost her father in a railroad accident, lived through the Civil War in St. Louis, and attended the Academy of the Visitation (and Academy of the Sacred Heart). In 1870 she married Oscar Chopin, a well-to-do Louisianan with a French father. After the wedding the couple embarked on a grand tour of Europe then settled in New Orleans. Chopin lived for some time in Louisiana, but moved back to St. Louis after Oscar’s death. Not long after Chopin’s return to Missouri, her mother died. Chopin’s doctor suggested that she take up writing as therapy. Chopin found notoriety as a short story author, publishing 19 of her stories in Vogue Magazine (yes, that Vogue Magazine), but her writing never earned her a significant income. She used her experiences in Louisiana to bring her work to life, especially in her most famous novel The Awakening, which attracted mixed reviews during her lifetime. A book critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said this of The Awakening:
The science of the human soul and its operations is instinctive in Kate Chopin. In her creations she commits unutterable crimes against polite society, but in the essentials of her art she never blunders. Like most of her work, however, “The Awakening” is too strong drink for moral babes, and should be labeled “poison.”
I am not sure if the critic is endorsing the book or not. Certainly G.B. thinks the book is well-written, but concludes the review by saying it is “too strong drink.” It is easy to understand why turn-of-the-century St. Louis might find Chopin’s work hard to swallow. The focus of the novel is the identity crisis of a married woman. On her path of self-discovery, the main character rejects her husband, engages in affairs (emotional and sexual), and, after it all seems to fall apart, drowns herself in the sea. When The Awakening was published in 1899 Chopin was already a noted author known for writing stories about passionate people. The Awakening was different because of its sympathetic treatment toward its immoral characters. Chopin’s writing career took a hit after The Awakening—it was her second and final novel. Chopin would die just a few years later in 1904, unexpectedly succumbing to a brain hemorrhage at her home (4232 McPherson Avenue) after a day of visiting the St. Louis World’s Fair—she was 54. After her death, Chopin’s work fell into obscurity—large-scale interest in her life and work would not reemerge until the 1960s.
I decided to include Kate Chopin as another St. Louis (or St. Louis-related) author to close out National Novel Writing Month. Yesterday I wrote about Mark Twain‘s Life on the Mississippi. Below is Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour,” originally published in Vogue in December 1894 under its original title “The Story of a Dream.” It was published the following month in St. Louis Life.
“The Story of an Hour”
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.
It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing. Her husband’s friend Richards was there, too, near her. It was he who had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard’s name leading the list of “killed.” He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message.
She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.
There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.
She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.
There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window.
She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her, as a child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams.
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.
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.
Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will—as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been.
When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: “free, free, free!” The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.
She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial.
She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.
There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow- creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.
And yet she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!
“Free! Body and soul free!” she kept whispering.
Josephine was kneeling before the closed door with her lips to the keyhole, imploring for admission. “Louise, open the door! I beg; open the door—you will make yourself ill. What are you doing, Louise? For heaven’s sake open the door.”
“Go away. I am not making myself ill.” No; she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window.
Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.
She arose at length and opened the door to her sister’s importunities. There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory. She clasped her sister’s waist, and together they descended the stairs. Richards stood waiting for them at the bottom.
Some one was opening the front door with a latchkey. It was Brently Mallard who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack and umbrella. He had been far from the scene of accident, and did not even know there had been one. He stood amazed at Josephine’s piercing cry; at Richards’ quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife.
But Richards was too late.
When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills.