woman holding a baby walking out into the bayou

Désirée's Baby

by Kate Chopin

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Critical Overview

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‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ which for decades was the only piece of writing for which Chopin was known, was first published in the inaugural issue of Vogue in 1893. The following year, it was reprinted in Bayou Folk, Chopin's first collection of short stories. Chopin's publisher marketed it as ‘‘several tales drawn from life among the Acadians and Creoles of Louisiana.’’ The collection included character sketches, stories about domestic dramas, stories about defiant women, as well as children's tales.

The original print run of Bayou Folk was a respectable 1,250 and over the next sixteen years, it was reprinted several times. That the land about which Chopin wrote intrigued Americans was immediately obvious from the first review to appear in the New York Times (reprinted in Emily Toth's biography). Under the heading, ‘‘Living Tales From Acadian Life,'' the reviewer devoted all but two sentences of the review to an often-erroneous discussion of Louisiana life and culture. The review, however, was the first national critique of Chopin as a short story writer:

A writer needs only the art to let these stories tell themselves. It is not an art easily acquired, but Kate Chopin has practiced it with force and charm in the several stories of her agreeable book.

The word charming was to appear in many of the some one hundred press notices that followed publication of Bayou Folk, which established Chopin as a new and important writer. Laudatory reviewers from national magazines commented on Chopin's artistry. The Atlantic Monthly reviewer asserted, ‘‘In this work we have a genuine and delightful addition to the ranks of our storytellers.'' Nation wrote, ‘‘Her pen is an artist's in choice of subject, in touch, and in forbearance.’’ The Review of Reviews as stated in Toth's biography, Kate Chopin, A Life of the Author of 'The Awakening,' called Bayou Folk ''decidedly one of the best volumes of short stories which has appeared for some time.’’ Several reviewers also saw in Chopin's work the influence of short story masters such as Guy de Maupassant. Wrote a reviewer for the Pittsburg Bulletin and reprinted in Toth's biography, Chopin's ‘‘dramatic effects are worthy of that artist.’’

Some reviewers did call out ''Désirée' s Baby'' as a stand-out in the collection. As Toth points out in her biography, Rosa Sonneschein, publisher of a new magazine called The American Jewess, wrote in 1895 that the story was the ''most remarkable'' of all those in Bayou Folk, and one which ‘‘set the critics wild with enthusiasm.’’

For the most part, however, reviews focused on the ‘‘local color’’ aspect of Chopin's work instead of its literary merit, which disappointed the author. As reprinted in the Toth biography, she wrote in her diary, ''I am surprised at the very small number [of reviews] which show anything like a worthy critical faculty.’’

In the decades following Chopin's death, her body of work went generally unnoticed. Thanks largely to the efforts of the critic Fred Lewis Pattee, who repeatedly anthologized ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ in collections he brought out, that story was still known to an audience. In his historical survey, The Development of the American Short Story, published in 1923, he laments the critical neglect of her work. He wrote, ‘‘Without models, without study or short-story art, without revision, and usually at a sitting, she produced what often are masterpieces before which one can only wonder and conjecture.’’

Despite the efforts of Daniel Rankin, Chopin's first biographer, who wrote Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories in 1932, Chopin remained unfamiliar to most readers until the late 1960s and...

(This entire section contains 810 words.)

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early 1970s, when she was ''rediscovered,'' primarily due to the publication of her scandalous, now classic novel,The Awakening.

In the ensuing decades, scholars have devoted a good deal of attention to Chopin and her master short story. Recent criticism of ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ has certainly been more in-depth and provocative than early reviews. Many scholars, however, continually remark on Chopin's reliance of a trick ending to achieve the dramatic effect and some continue to see it as an example of local color. Some critics have directly answered these charges. Cynthia Griffin Wolff contends that ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ develops the most pervasive theme of Chopin's fiction, the vulnerability of life itself. ‘‘Read quite independently,’’ writes Griffin in The Southern Literary Journal,

"Désirée's Baby" may be judged a superb piece of short fiction—an economical, tight psychological drama. However, seen in the more ample context of Chopin's complete work, the story accrues added significance as the most vivid and direct statement of her major concern—the fiction of limits.

Other critics also cite the story for the issues it raises, such as that of identity, as well as evidence of Chopin's careful craftsmanship. As such, ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ will certainly remain at the forefront of Chopin's fine body of work.

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Essays and Criticism