Désirée’s Baby


Kate Chopin

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Désirée’s Baby Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Kate Chopin's Désirée’s Baby. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin was born as Katherine O’Flaherty to an Irish father and a French mother. Her father was a well-respected businessman and her mother a well-connected woman among the French community in St. Louis, Missouri where Chopin grew up. Chopin was one of five children, but the only one of the children to live into adulthood. While her father died in 1855, Chopin maintained a close relationship with her remaining family members—her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother. Chopin was an enthusiastic reader from an early age, and her love of poetry, fairy tales, and religious stories showed her literary passion. She married at age 20 and moved with her husband, Oscar Chopin, to New Orleans. The couple had six children, the last of which was born when Kate was 28. She was a young mother, and her early adulthood was devoted to married life. After the births of her children, Chopin’s family moved to Cloutierville, a tiny community in Louisiana. This setting became the source of inspiration for much of Chopin’s writing, particularly her exposure to and interest in the Creole culture that features in her stories. Oscar Chopin died in 1882, and while Kate attempted to run his business, which was drastically in debt, she abandoned the attempt after two years and moved her family back to St. Louis to rejoin her mother. Unfortunately Chopin’s mother died a year later, and Chopin suffered from depression after this succession of losses. Chopin turned to writing as a solace and a way to process her experiences, and by the 1890s she was writing and publishing frequently. She received little critical success during her lifetime, despite the recognition she has received posthumously. Her work was overlooked due to its local ideas and imagery, or resulted in controversy for its portrayal of women’s roles. Most criticized was her 1899 novel The Awakening, which is now recognized as an important early feminist text. Chopin died in 1904 at the age of 54 from a brain hemorrhage.
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Historical Context of Désirée’s Baby

Chopin’s work is directly influenced by Southern Creole culture. This culture is the product of the immigration of French and Spanish immigrants into Louisiana prior to the Louisiana Purchase (1803). Later immigrants have contributed to the culture and traditions of this region, but the term “Creole” arose to refer to person born in the colonies rather than their mother country. This culture was influenced by slavery in the United States. Prior to the Civil War, the American South was culturally organized around slavery as a racial caste system. White-skinned Creoles became wealthy plantation owners and also participated in the culture slavery produced. The Creole culture is often identified with a distinct language, which is a French and West African hybrid, demonstrating one aspect of the impact of the transportation of numerous African slaves into the region. Another historical aspect of Chopin’s work is its feminist themes. Many of Chopin’s progressive ideas and her exploration of the roles of women in society were rejected by the socially conservative environment in which her work was received. In this way, Chopin was ahead of her time. Feminism as a movement gained ground in the early twentieth century, accompanied by the publication of texts and works of fictions which explored many themes which had interested Chopin: gender inequality, the limited roles and opportunities available to women, the pressures of society’s expectations for women. Despite Chopin’s limited acceptance in her day, later literary critiques and feminist scholars have recognized both her creative genius and her progressive thinking on women’s issues.

Other Books Related to Désirée’s Baby

Chopin’s work is normally identified as American Realism and Naturalism. Realism describes an ideology that became prevalent in the mid-nineteenth century that literature should strive to depict events as they really are. This included selecting common subjects and placing poor or working-class characters at the forefront of stories. A later offshoot of Realism, Naturalism appeared in the 1880s through the 1930s. This literary movement focused on not only the realistic aspects of human experience, but on the role of the environment in shaping these experiences. Naturalism posits that humans are irreversibly impacted by their environmental conditions, whether urban, rural, economic, or psychological. Naturalism deals with stark realities, and often engages themes of poverty, racism, illness, and a variety of forms of corruption. Critical and influential Naturalistic texts include Emile Zola’s literary accounts of human sexuality and the stark novels of Thomas Hardy in which human fates are directed by the tragedies of nature and the weather. The Naturalistic aspects of Chopin’s work are clear. She deals explicitly with the brutal impacts of racism and how this culture shapes her characters. Some aspects of her work do differentiate from Naturalism, though. For example, the ominous descriptions of L’Abri and Armand in Désirée’s Baby give the story Gothic undertones. Gothic literature consisted of an earlier movement (mid-eighteenth century) that prioritized horror stories as a form of the popular Romanticism. Romanticism, another literary movement, focused on heightened human experience both in the form of terror and pleasure, and Gothic literature was able to achieve both extremes. Influential gothic texts include Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Chopin’s affinity for poetry, religious accounts, and fairy tales may have influenced the fatalistic quality of her work. Her stories tend to resolve with a sense of necessary completion, or an ironic twist, as in Désirée’s Baby when Armand’s discovery of the truth comes too late, which seems to be a moralistic punishment for his crimes.
Key Facts about Désirée’s Baby
  • Full Title: Désirée’s Baby
  • When Written: 1892
  • Where Written: St. Louis, Missouri
  • When Published: 1893
  • Literary Period: American Realism and Naturalism
  • Genre: Realistic fiction
  • Setting: Louisiana, mid-nineteenth century
  • Climax: Désirée and her baby set off into the Bayou never to return. Too late, Armand discovers a letter from his mother to his father that reveals his, rather than Désirée’s, black heritage.
  • Antagonist: The prevailing prejudice of the racist and sexist culture of the setting; Armand as a figure who holds these prejudiced beliefs
  • Point of View: third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for Désirée’s Baby

The Story of a Farm Girl. Désirée’s Baby bears interesting resemblance to a short story called “The Story of Farm Girl” by popular French writer Guy de Maupassant. In this story, a young farm girl has a child with a lover who abandons her. Years later, she and her husband cannot have children, but are able to adopt her long lost child as their own. Chopin’s work is considered an intentional transposition of this text.

Vogue Magazine. Désirée’s Baby was initially published in Vogue Magazine. While contemporary readers might identify this publication primarily with popular fashion, Vogue was founded in 1892 (just before Chopin’s inclusion) as a publication to celebrate “the ceremonial side of life.” It catered primarily to New York aristocracy.