The latest installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:
“Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin
At the start of Chopin’s compact but impactful 1892 story, an abandoned orphan (Desiree) of unknown parentage is discovered in Louisiana bayou country. Adopted and raised by the Valmonde family, Desiree matures into a beautiful woman; she is eventually wed to the lovestruck Armand Aubigny, whose family name is “one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana.” Desiree takes up residence at the Aubigny family mansion, L’Abri, a “sad looking” and shudder-inducing edifice reminiscent of Poe’s House of Usher:
The roof came down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemn oaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far reaching branches shadowed it like a pall. Young Aubigny’s rule was a strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master’s easy-going and indulgent lifetime.
Chopin’s story broaches a subject central to American Gothic fiction: racism and slavery. Aubigny’s sadistic, diabolic treatment of his slaves (he’s described at one point as seemingly possessed by “the very spirit of Satan”) forms the backdrop to the main narrative’s family drama. When the titular newborn shows evidence in his features of possessing black blood, Desiree is perplexed, but the proud Aubigny is revolted, and viciously rejects his wife and child: “He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul.” Distraught over Aubigny’s cold-hearted turn, Desiree takes her baby and disappears into the “deep, sluggish bayou” (where she presumably drowns herself and the child). But Chopin (who was an admirer of Guy de Maupassant) gives a final, surprise twist to the plot, when Aubigny (in the Gothic tradition of the discovered document) finds an old letter from his mother to his father that reveals it was he, not Desiree, who passed the mixed blood along to their baby.
In a mere handful of pages, Chopin manages to convey the sense of a sweeping Gothic saga (anticipating Faulkner’s chronicle of the Sutpen family in Absalom, Absalom!). This tightly-woven tale makes for one of the strongest and most representative selections in Crow’s anthology.