Monday, May 9, 2016

Kate Chopin, "Désirée's Baby"--Short Story Month, 2016-Day 9

This was Chopin's most successful story during her lifetime and remains her most famous story, receiving renewed attention since the advent of feminist criticism. However, many critics feel they must apologize for or justify the story's trick ending, for it suggests Chopin's most important literary forefather, Guy de Maupassant.  Emily Toth claims that Chopin goes beyond the Maupassant convention; Peggy Skaggs says that the ending is more complex and more revelatory of Chopin's view of life than it may at first seem; and Cynthia Griffin Wolff is only willing to compare Chopin's vision to Maupassant's by  claiming that both focus on the "inescapable fact that even our most vital moments must be experienced on the boundary--always threatening to slip away from us into something else, into some dark, undefined contingency." (Toth, Emily.  "Kate Chopin and Literary Convention:  `Désirée's Baby'."  Southern Studies 20 (1981): 201-08; Skaggs, Peggy.  Kate Chopin.  Boston:  Twayne, 1985; Wolff., Cynthia Griffin.  "The Fiction of Limits:  `Desiree's Baby'."  Kate Chopin:  Modern Critical Views.  Ed. Harold Bloom.  New York: Chelsea House, 1987.)
The story begins with the introduction of Désirée with a baby, which motivates a return to the past and the reader's introduction to Désirée herself as a baby and thus the central mystery of her origin.  There is really no reason for Désirée to be a foundling in this story except to provide the mystery of her parentage and thus to throw a shadow over her own child's ancestry.  The motif of "shadow" introduces the story's most significant pattern.  Désirée is not only found in the "shadow" of a big stone pillar, but eighteen years later while lying asleep in that same shadow--as if she has never moved--she is seen by Armand (the prince in this abortive fairy tale) who falls in love with her, "as if struck by a pistol shot."
The importance of paternal names is introduced very early, for Armand does not care that Désirée is nameless (The name her foster mother has given her suggests that simply she was desired), for this means he can all the more easily impose his own family name--one of the oldest and proudest in Mississippi--on her when they marry.  And indeed Désirée says Armand is particularly proud that the child is a boy who will bear his name.  Armand's home shows little of the softness of a woman, suggesting instead the strictness of a male monastic life, with the roof coming down steep and black like a cowl and with big solemn oaks whose branches shadow the house like a pall.  The "shadow" metaphor is further emphasized by Désirée's growing suspicion that there is some air of mystery about the house and by her efforts to "penetrate the threatening mist" about her.
Like "Cask of Amontillado" and "The Cop and the Anthem,"  Chopin's story is structured to illustrate a point or lay bare a hidden truth, rather than to "realistically" present events motivated by "as-if" real characters.  "Désirée's Baby" may seem more important or serious than the stories of Poe and O. Henry because of its socially significant themes of racism and sexism, but its narrative structure may be no more complex. 

Tomorrow: Eudora Welty, "A Memory"

1 comment:

Louise said...

I am really enjoying this series. (And I'm so pleased May has 31 days!) Thank you. Louise