Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Kate Chopin's "Desiree's Baby"

Perhaps the most insistent indicator of the movement from local color to well-made story is the stories of Kate Chopin, who was more influenced by Maupassant's tightly unified stories than by the southern local colorists.  After reading Maupassant, Chopin wrote, "Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old-fashioned mechanism and stage trappings that in a vague, ununthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making."  Claiming that Maupassant escaped authority and tradition and spoke in a direct and simple way, Chopin says, "I like to cherish the delusion that he has spoken to no one else do directly, so intimately as he does to me."
Of the over forty stories published in Bayou Folk 1894) and Night in Acadie (1897), some of the best-known are relatively simple formal stories that are very close to the anecdotal stories or O. Henry.  For example, "Madame Celestin's Divorce" is a simple story on the Maupassant mode about lawyer Paxton who advises Madame to divorce her drinking, wife-beating husband.  The lawyer thinks he will then marry her.  He falls into the habit of dreaming of taking a wife.  But she meets him on the street and tells him that her husband is home and has promised to turn over a new leaf. "La Belle Zoraide" is touching story about a servant who falls in love, but her mistress does not want to lose her.  When the servant has a child, the mistress sends it away and tells her it is dead.  Servant pines away, caring for a bundle of rags.  When the mistress brings the baby to her, she will have nothing to do with it and lives to be an old woman with her bundle of rags.
"Athenaise" is more thematically complex, about a woman who marries and then regrets it and goes home.  Does not hate husband.  "It's jus' being married that I detes' an' despise.  I hate being Mrs Cazeau, an' would wan to be Athenaise Miche again.  I can't stan' to live with a man; to have him always there; his coats an' pantaloons hanging in my room; his ugly bare feet--washing them in my tub, befo' my very eyes, ugh!"  She goes back to him when she knows she is pregnant.  Also, more powerful and complex is "The Storm, about Bobinot and Calixta, and Alcee who comes and has sex with Calixta while Bobinot is in town and there is a storm. "When he touched her breasts they gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy, inviting his lips.  Her mouth was a fountain of delight.  And when he possessed her, they seemed to swoon together at the very borderland of life's mystery." At the end everyone is happy.  "So the storm passed and every one was happy."  Both her husband and his wife are content not knowing.
Chopin's best-known and most successful story is "Desiree's Baby," for in it the formal structure of the story and its Maupassant-like reverse ending is made more complex by the importance of the social issue on which it depends.  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 recent 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."
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," "The Cop and the Anthem," and "Tennessee's Partner," 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, O. Henry, and Harte because of its socially significant themes of racism and sexism, but its narrative structure may be no more complex.  Still, you might want students to compare these stories in terms of their ironic patterning and the relative complexity of their themes.

1 comment:

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