Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010
Kate Chopin, “Desiree’s Baby”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Vogue (4 January 1893); collected in Bayou Folk (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1894)
Kate Chopin, born Katherine O’Flaherty to Thomas O’Flaherty and Eliza Faris in 1850, was immensely popular during the thirteen years she published fiction. Best known today for her novel The Awakening, she began publishing in 1889 as a poet and author of short stories. Forced to support her family by her pen after her husband’s sudden death, Chopin, like many other women writers of the period, published in popular magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and Vogue. Her first novel, At Fault (1890), sold well, but her short stories and later collections of these stories, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), boosted her popularity. In her fiction, Chopin continually challenged the limits of what publishers would accept, and she never hesitated to discuss controversial issues such as unhappy marriages (“The Story of an Hour”), miscegenation (“Desiree’s Baby”), and adultery (“The Storm”). Though she was successful for many years, the publication of The Awakening (1899) offended many readers and her popularity suffered as a result. After her death at fifty-four, her works lapsed from print. Not until the 1950s did scholars begin to reexamine Chopin’s works, and by 1970 her critical recovery was complete.
Chopin’s story “Desiree’s Baby” was one of her most popular works prior to the publication of The Awakening. Heavily influenced by Guy de Maupassant, considered by many to be a master of the short story and known for his intense and sometimes snap endings, “Desiree’s Baby” has an intricate plot and surprising denouement. Though Chopin does not use real names, places, or events, the story is plausible in every way.
Set on the bayou plantation L’Abri, “Desiree’s Baby” gives readers a look into the lives of the newly married Desiree Valmonde, a foundling child, and her slave-holding husband, Armand Aubigny. Desiree is the adopted child of the Val-mondes and is of unknown lineage; still, Armand is content to extend his family name to Desiree. Desiree soon gives birth to a son. Armand, who has always been a harsh master to his slaves, becomes gentler and calmer in his behavior toward them. But the bliss Armand and Desiree experience ends when the baby’s skin begins to darken. Initially, Desiree says nothing about it, knowing it is an indication that the baby may not be purely white. Once Armand raises the question of the baby’s race, however, he becomes cold toward Desiree and finally banishes his wife and child from their home, placing the blame on Desiree for their child’s racially mixed appearance. Desiree’s adoptive mother offers to take her back, but Desiree disappears into the bayou with her son. The story ends with Armand, who has again begun to treat his slaves harshly, burning everything that reminds him of Desiree and the baby in an attempt to erase all trace of them from his life. In the final moments of the story, however, he finds a letter from his mother that reveals he is a mixed-race child.
Students studying Kate Chopin should read her biographical sketches, as Chopin put much of her own life into her works, but also should be aware that Chopin’s life and writings sometimes work in opposition to one another: Chopin grew up on a plantation with slaves, yet she inveighed against slavery; happily married, she wrote stories about troubled marriages. Current critical reception of her works will also be helpful in illuminating her writings.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. A riveting and shocking story, especially for its time, “Desiree’s Baby” addresses topics that were controversial, including miscegenation, patriarchal marriage, and racial bias. Especially for readers unfamiliar with customs and standards in the Old or New South, it was provocative, heart wrenching, and a sharp indictment of social hypocrisy. It treats several hot-button issues for students to question and research, particularly miscegenation. The antebellum Louisiana setting allows Chopin to discuss the sexual exploitation of slave women, a closely related subject students may also choose to investigate. Students interested in this topic should especially look in the story to the character of the slave woman La Blanche, whose name means “white woman.” Further, students should question just how La Blanche’s son came to be described as a “little quadroon boy” by exploring the possibility of a forced or coercive relationship between Armand and La Blanche, an unfortunate but common occurrence at the time.
- 2. Another topic for students to research is the role of women in the story, in particular that of Armand’s mother, whose letter her son chances to read. What does the letter reveal? In addition to information about Armand’s ancestry, what attitude does it reveal about misogyny and the authority of women? Chopin also questions the recklessness of judging someone for a lack of family history: Desiree may have an unknown background, but she is not the one whose background is mixed. Armand ironically passes for white. How common in American literature was the plot of racial “passing” at the time “Desiree’s Baby” was published? How were such stories as “Desiree’s Baby” and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson received by contemporary reviewers?
- 3. Chopin presents the marriage of Desiree and Armand as initially blissful, which is an unusual depiction of marriage in her works. Why is their happiness short-lived? Because Armand believes it is Desiree’s “fault” their baby is racially mixed, she takes the baby and disappears. What alternatives were available to her? Desiree’s biracial baby must have been fathered by a slave, or so the skewed logic of the period would insist. What other explanations are possible? After her disappearance, Armand reverts to his old abusive ways. Is Armand personally responsible for his misbehavior, or does Chopin condemn patriarchal marriage as an institution and/or a society that would condone such misbehavior?
Per Seyersted, ed., The Complete Works of Kate Chopin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006).
Compiles virtually all of Chopin’s writings and includes biographical and bibliographical data.
Heather Kirk Thomas, “Kate Chopin: A Primary Bibliography, Alphabetically Arranged,” American Literary Realism, 28 (Winter 1996): 71-88.
Includes all of Chopin’s writings, excluding personal correspondence.
Suzanne Disheroon Green and David J. Caudle, Kate Chopin: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Works (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999).
A comprehensive bibliography of scholarly publications about Chopin and her works from 1976 to 1997, with introductory essays by Green, Caudle, and Emily Toth.
Emily Toth, Kate Chopin (New York: Morrow, 1990).
An authoritative chronicle of Chopin’s life based on all documents available at the time.
Toth, Unveiling Kate Chopin (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999).
A more intimate portrait of Chopin based on recently discovered diaries and manuscripts.
Toth and Per Seyersted, eds., Kate Chopin’s Private Papers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).
Offers a chronology of Chopin’s life, her private correspondence, her diary, and a scholarly bibliography and list of Chopin’s complete writings.
Annetta M. F. Kelley, “French Cherries on Cordon Bleu Cakes: Kate Chopin’s Usage of Her Second Language,” Louisiana History, 34 (Summer 1993). 345-356.
Discusses Chopin’s use of French phrases and their relevance to her characterizations.