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Kate Chopin, Désireé’s baby

October 8, 2010
Kate Chopin

Chopin (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

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.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2010 12:48 am

    I’ve read quite a lot of Chopin – I have the Library of America collection (and I’ve read most of it) and also read a couple biographies. Yes, I went on a Chopin kick a few years ago – don’t remember why. Desiree’s Baby is one of her best but keep reading – they’re all soooo good, complex, lush. It may be time to revisit – hmmmmmmm??

    • October 9, 2010 1:01 am

      Thanks Bekah. I’ve just read The awakening and two short stories, and haven’t been disappointed yet! Maybe I’ll download some onto the kindle as I think at present I might focus on short stories for the kindle as it’s my out and about read….

  2. October 9, 2010 12:53 am

    Just checked my Kate Chopin paperback collection (bought years ago for university). Desiree’s Baby, not selected for study, is in there, so thanks for the tip.

    • October 9, 2010 1:02 am

      You’re welcome Guy. Let me know what you think. One could certainly write a major treatise on just this work I think. It’s one of those tight pieces in which pretty well every word is put to work.

  3. October 9, 2010 1:47 am

    I’ve read this story. It’s such a good one. I like Chopin’s stories. I think she is very good at writing those endings that are so hard to get right.

    • October 9, 2010 12:49 pm

      Yes, I agree. I’d happily read more … seems like just the thing for the Kindle actually. The ending was great … I love how she did it and didn’t labour it. Nothing is laboured in the story – it is so tight and yet so “full” if you know what I mean.

  4. October 10, 2010 8:20 pm

    I have read a few of her stories-I think she is very good at creating at atmosphere of a kind of lost world in a few pages-I see her as a short story writer of the second order-Below Mansfield, Woolf, de Muapassant, Chekhov but above O Henry!-I enjoyed your post a lot

    • October 10, 2010 8:32 pm

      Thanks Mel. You know, I haven’t read short stories by Mansfield and Woolf, though of course I’ve read other Woolf. I finally bought a Kindle a month or so ago and I decided that the next thing I’ll read (download) will be some Mansfield short stories. You haven’t changed my mind. Why do you put Chopin just below them – can you put your finger on it or is it just something you feel when you read them?

  5. October 10, 2010 8:43 pm

    I think Chopin has a narrower range than the other writers I mentioned-I think her characters are not quite as well drawn-though the rank I have given her is still quite high,

    • October 10, 2010 9:43 pm

      I wondered if that was it – you think she’s a bit of a “one-note” writer? Fair enough – I can see that. As for characters being well-drawn, I’d have to read more of the ones you are comparing to see whether I agree! Certainly in this short story, the characters are sketched rather than drawn in any detail, but that works for me because I see them more as representative and I think gives us enough about them for the story to work. It is such a short, tight story. (But I’ll reserve judgment until I read Mansfield)

  6. October 10, 2010 10:48 pm

    I don’t want to say anything for fear of giving it away, but…
    a) Horrible!
    b) For the first time in weeks, I feel relieved that I’m single.

    • October 11, 2010 1:24 am

      Oh dear … that’s not the intention but it just goes to show that there are challenges in all of life’s choices!

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