Kate Chopin and the Fiction of Limits: "Desiree's Baby"

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For many years, "Desiree's Baby" was the one piece of Chopin's fiction most likely to be known; even today, despite the wide respect that her second novel has won, there are still readers whose acquaintance with Chopin's work is restricted to this one, widely-anthologized short story. Rankin, who did not feel the need to reprint "Desiree's Baby" in Kate Chopin and Her Creole Tales, nonetheless judged it "perhaps ... one of the world's best short stories." (1) Unfortunately, Rankin left future critics a terminology with which to describe the value of this and the other studies in Bayou Folk: it had the "freshness which springs from an unexplored field--the quaint and picturesque life among the Creole and Acadian folk of the Louisiana bayous." (2) In short, it was excellent "regional" work--hence limited to certain circumscribed triumphs.

Critics' tendency to dismiss Chopin's fiction as little more than local color began to diminish by the late 1950's; nevertheless, old habits died hard. "Desiree's Baby" continued to be the most frequently anthologized of her short fictions, and while the comments on it strained after some larger tragic significance, the definition of that "tragedy" was still formulated almost exclusively in "regional" terms. Claude M. Simpson introduces the tale in his collection with a brief essay on the local color movement and concludes that the story draws its effect from a reader's appreciation of the impartial cruelties of the slave system. (3) Several years later, in another anthology of American short stories, Eugene Current-Garcia and Walton R. Patrick give Chopin credit (again as a regionalist) for daring to touch upon the forbidden subject of miscegenation; and, of course, the story they select to illustrate Chopin's particular talent is "Desiree's Baby." (4)

Other critics, still acknowledging the importance of regional elements in the tale, seek to discover the reasons for its persistently compelling quality by examining the structure. Thus Larzer Ziff observes that "the most popular of Mrs. Chopin's stories, while they make full use of the charming lilt of Creole English and the easy openness of Creole manners, concern themselves, as do Maupassant's, with some central quirk or turn in events which reverses the situation that was initially presented." (5) He cites the conclusion of "Desiree's Baby" as an example: "So, characteristically, does the Chopin story depend on a twist." (6) Taking a similar view, Per Seyersted remarks the "taut compression and restrained intensity" of the tale and then notes (with some asperity) that "the surprise ending, though somewhat contrived, has a bitter, piercing quality that could not have been surpassed by [Maupassant] himself." (7) Yet, in the final analysis, these judgments are no more satisfactory than those that grow from the more narrow definition of Chopin as "local colorist": if significant effects are seldom achieved merely through a deft management of dialect and scenery, it is also the case that a "trick" or "surprise" conclusion is almost never a sufficient means by which to evoke a powerful and poignant reaction from the reader.

Thus "Desiree's Baby" remains an enigma. We still tend to admire it and to demonstrate our admiration by selecting it to appear in anthologies; yet the admiration is given somewhat grudgingly--perhaps because we cannot fully comprehend the story. The specifically Southern elements of the story seem significant; however, the nature of their force is not clear. The reversal of the situation that concludes the tale is important (although to a discerning reader it may well be no surprise), but, contrary to Seyersted's remarks, the story's full impact patently does not derive from this writer's "trick." And while the story has been accepted as characteristic of Chopin's work, it is in several ways unusual or unique--being the only one of her fictions to touch upon the subject of miscegenation, for example. …

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