Kate Chopin, Désireé’s baby
I read Kate Chopin‘s short story “Désireé’s baby” (1893) back in March when Kirsty mentioned it in her comment on my last Chopin post, but I didn’t blog it then. However, when it appeared a couple of weeks ago as a Library of America selection, I felt its time had come. But, what to say? It is, in a word, gut-wrenching.
The first short story to create a lasting impression on me was Guy de Maupassant‘s “The necklace” (1884). It was that short story, really, that launched my enjoyment of short stories. I found them particularly appropriate for my student days when I couldn’t justify reading a novel but wanted some escape from set texts. I was consequently interested to read in the Library of America’s introductory notes to “Désireé’s baby” that Chopin has been compared to such writers as Maupassant and Flaubert. I can see the connection.
“Désireé’s baby” starts off gently – and, more to the point, innocuously:
As the day was pleasant, Madame Valmondé drove over to L’Abri to see Désireé and the baby.
It made her laugh to think of Désireé with a baby. Why, it seemed but yesterday that Désireé was little more than a baby herself…
We then discover that Désireé had been an abandoned baby and brought up by the childless Madame Valmondé and her husband, hence I suppose her name. As this (very) short story unfolds, subtle hints of something not quite idyllic are introduced. A young man of an old wealthy family, Armand Aubigny, falls in love with and insists on marrying the nameless, but now 18-year-old Désireé. He fell in love “the way all the Augibgnys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot”. What an odd image to use for love eh?
Then we hear that Aubigny is a strict master of his estate. The home is “sad-looking” with its roof “black like a cowl” and “solemn oaks” growing near it. And, more telling, under his rule “his negroes had forgotten to be gay, as they had been during the old master’s easy-going and indulgent lifetime”. Set against this is Désireé in her “soft white muslins and laces”, so we are not surprised when we read that
Marriage, and the birth of his son, had softened Armand Aubigny’s imperious and exacting nature greatly. This was what made the gentle Désireé so happy, for she loved him desperately. When he frowned she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God. But Armand’s dark, handsome face had not often been disfigured by frowns since the day he fell in love with her.
Now, there is a clue to the dénouement in this excerpt, but if you don’t know the plot I’m not giving it away. All I’ll say is that Chopin’s writing is superb in the way she uses imagery and irony to subtly set the scene and leave the clues so that the conclusion, though shocking, meets Amanda Lohrey’s criteria for endings.
In less than 6 pages, Chopin explores a complex set of themes, including the psychological and social ramifications of young love, old wealth, race and gender, with a clarity that is breath-taking. I’m not surprised that it is a much-anthologised and studied story.