Short Story Sunday: Désirée’s Baby by Kate Chopin

For my second short story of the year, I again come back to an author I already know. Last year, I read Kate Chopin’s most famous work, her novella The Awakening. Aside from this, her main literary output is in short stories, so she became a natural choice for this series.

In “Désirée’s Baby,” Chopin sticks to her Louisiana setting, but this time with a stronger emphasis on slavery and racism. Even before making clear that these are the main themes of the story, she sets the scene with conspicuous depictions of household slaves before moving into the main plot. At first, I entertained the thought that their depiction was the casual aside of a southern white author, but it was actually a deliberate lead-in for the topics Chopin chooses to address.

The ending seems characteristic of Chopin in tone, but with a plot twist worthy of O. Henry. On the whole, this story is a to-the-point commentary on the peculiarities of American racism in Chopin’s signature style: a melancholy tale about a woman navigating society and motherhood. If you liked The Awakening, you’ll probably appreciate this, and if you haven’t read it, “Désirée’s Baby” is solid as a more concise introduction to the author.

What short stories should I add to my list? Let me know in the comments!

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

I picked this book as a Halloween horror read. What I got wasn’t quite what I expected. While I knew that Shirley Jackson also wrote about everyday and domestic life, her reputation for horror writing far eclipses the rest of her work. In this collection, most stories lean toward the everyday with twists that range from mysterious to creepy.

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It’s important to note that while this book is now known as The Lottery and Other Stories, it originally had a different title: The Lottery or, The Adventures of James Harris. The recurring character of James Harris is sprinkled throughout the book, and he lives a mysterious life. He is always at the peripheral of the lives of other characters, and only very loose connections allow us to form some kind of portrait of him and his life.

He is first named in the second story of the collection, “The Daemon Lover,” having jilted a young woman on their wedding day. Convinced that there is some mistake, she is determined to track him down, but never finds him. This sets the tone for his role in the collection. Whether he is truly supernatural or merely a fantastic conman is left unclear, and even the possible glimpses into his origin are opaque.

A notable aspect of Jackson’s writing is her addressing of racism. She writes of “benevolent” racism from white people who assume all black people are poor, and of neighbors who suddenly drop friends for getting too cozy with a mixed family. She depicts white middle-class “respectable” families with an unflattering eye, exposing the attitudes of those who think that not looking racist is more important than not being racist.

There is a solid mixture of short and long stories in this collection, the longest being “Elizabeth,” which begins around the halfway mark. Elizabeth is a worn-down literary agent having trouble with her business partner, and possibly the most fleshed-out character of the collection. Like many other characters we meet, she is ordinary, understandable, but not the sort of person one would call good. Her story meanders, leaving the reader with neither a positive or negative impression, only curiosity as to what will happen next. This is emblematic of Jackson’s style, which rarely calls on us to like the characters, only to be interested in their doings.

It’s understandable that this book is marketed under the name The Lottery, as the final story of the collection is her best-known short work, but the assumption that the other stories would be very much like it does a disservice to the versatility of Jackson’s writing. Personally, I’m more a reader of novels than of short stories, but I could nonetheless appreciate the quality of each story, and especially how they are curated to create a cohesive, representative body of work. I will definitely be checking out her novels, but I also wouldn’t be opposed to reading her other short story collections.

The Lottery and Other Stories is not what I would label a horror collection, although there are certainly a few horror stories tucked into it–“The Renegade” certainly threw me for a loop. More so than horror, though, it has an air of mystery and of the slightly off-kilter.

I recommend this book for anyone with an appreciation for short stories. With its balance between the normal and the abnormal, it holds something for everyone.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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