The Importance of the Distinction of Social Class and Racial Stability in the South in Desiree’s Baby, a Short Story by Kate Chopin
It is stories like this one that should have turned the southern racial and social structure on it’s head. It should have forced the people who subscribed to these racist principles to ask themselves, how fundamental are the differences between black and white people if they never had reason to believe that Monsieur Aubigny was multiracial? If his family could be successful and participate in high society, then it would stand to reason that there is no biological differences between these white socialites and their slaves. In my opinion, “Desiree’s Baby” troubles notions of southern social class and racial stability by illustrating the importance of these distinctions at the time, while simultaneously proving how insubstantial and trivial they are.
Monsieur Aubigny and Madame Valmonde are horrified by the thought that Desiree might not be white. Instead of realizing that race does not change a person or make them less worthy, Monsieur Aubigny denounces all feelings for Desiree and wants nothing to do with the baby. When Madame Valmonde sees the baby she is obviously shocked saying, “That is not the baby!”(Chopin,1073). Desiree, who is completely oblivious to why her mother is so appalled, assumes she is referring to the baby’s growth. The author intentionally makes it clear that Desiree does not initially recognise what makes the baby different, and is only wary when she sees that everyone is treating her and the baby differently. This is intentional to show how truly superficial this racial division is. Desiree can not live with herself when she finds out that she and the baby may not be white, yet she had never noticed it until Monsieur Aubigny pointed it out.
In the story, Desiree was described as “beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,–the idol of Valmonde.”(Chopin,1072). Her mother remembers in this paragraph how Desiree came to her, and how she grew up to be a perfectly respectable young woman, despite her unknown origin. She goes on to recall Monsieur Aubigny’s immediate love for Desiree and how he too was able to ignore her lack of family name. It is clear that they are able to ignore Desiree’s unconventional presence in their high society lives, and even insist that this makes no difference in her temperament or beauty. There is a distinction made here about the great difference between low-born white people and people of color. Madame Valmonde says she loves her daughter all while indifferently noting that Monsieur Aubigny is harsh and strict with “his negroes”(Chopin,1073). There is no tie between the two for the people of this time period. Monsieur Aubigny’s love for Desiree originally suggests a more educated and liberal worldview, yet he is cruel to Desiree when he finds out that their baby is multiracial. These racial constructs and etiquettes they live by are illogical and are driven by notions that have no place in reality.
Like most of the stories we have read so far, “Desiree’s Baby” is written in a way that would have been acceptable at the time, but is now considered insensitive and racist. Although the short story speaks to the ludicrousy of the rigid Southern social and racial structure, it accurately portrays the racist reasoning of the people it’s depicting. You have to analyze the story carefully to see the critique of the social class and their perception of race. In conclusion, “Desiree’s Baby” complicates the social class and race relationships of the south by depicting a situation that accurately conveys the ambiguity of these constructs.
The Racial Profiling Desiree’s Baby
Have you ever noticed that race plays a major part in some peoples lives? In the story, Desiree’s Baby, you will see how race affects a relationship between the mother and father of a mixed baby. The protagonist is a white woman named Desiree who was found abandoned as an infant on a doorstep. Because Desiree’s baby appeared a different race, it broken up Desiree and Armand’s marriage.
Kate Chopin’s story, “Desiree’s Baby” is a story that is mainly about race. When Desiree gives birth to her child, the intended audience begins to become aware that there is a mystery about the child’s race. There are other characters noticeable LaBlanche’s which also serve to raise concerns about the baby’s racial identity. The author builds a mystery to provoke the characters and the reader’s concerns about race.
This story is about a woman that was abandoned when she was just a baby and was found by Madame Valmonde and took her in as her own. Armand was a boy that had just moved to the U.S. from Paris, he has met Desiree before but did not notice her again until she was older. She was as beautiful as she can be, and he instantly fell in love with her. Armand and Desiree were married, and they had a child which was a boy. When the baby was about three months old, Desiree starts to notice that her baby boy’s skin is different. Which means that he could possibly be a different race.
Madame Valmonde had not seen Desiree and the baby for four weeks and decides to go visit them. “This is not the baby!” she exclaimed, in startled tones” (Chopin 2). Madame Valmonde reacted like this because she noticed the baby changed since the lase time she saw him. Armand notices it as well and tries to make Desiree believe that she is the reason for her son being a different race.
He immediately avoids Desiree and the baby and even ask her to leave with the baby because the baby was not completely Caucasian. “Some weeks later there was a curious scene enacted at L’Abri. In the centre of the smoothly swept back yard was a great bonfire” (Chopin 4). Armand did this, so he could burn everything that reminded him of Desiree and the baby. While in the middle of burning the things that reminded him of them he found a letter from his mother to his father. The letter stated, “But, above all,” she wrote, “night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery” (Chopin 4). All along Armand was part black and did not know it. The author uses detailed words in “Desiree’s Baby” to describe the theme, message, and intentions to captivate the reader’s feelings about the story. Race played a significant role in this story. The baby’s racial profile changed how Armand felt about Desiree.
The Architect of His Own Destruction
We all have secrets and insecurities and we all make mistakes. Many of us do our best to hide our imperfections with the hopes that no one may ever know of our flaws. Problem is our biggest enemy already knows. You see, we can hide from the rest of the world but there is no escaping one’s self. Most people don’t realize that there is no greater battle than the one going on inside of you. In the story, “Desiree’s Baby” by Katie Chopin, we are introduced to Armand. Armand is a man full of resentment towards himself and his hidden truths. He in turn, allows himself to blame others for his dismay, when in reality he is his own enemy. “Desiree’s Baby” conveyed Armand’s self-hatred and denial in the way he treated others and these themes ideally brought into play; the conflict, man vs. self. In the story, “Desiree’s Baby” the themes of denial and self-hatred are impeccably demonstrated through the utilization of literary elements such as setting and the inner conflict of the antagonist; Armand.
In the times of racism and slavery, being black was the burden that no one wished to endure. Having been black in those times meant inferiority, it meant being uneducated, enslaved and owned by the “superior” race. Whites were in charge and anyone of African descent were discriminated against; this meant people of biracial descent also. “Desiree’s Baby” was in fact, set in this time of oppression of the black race and this setting helped to develop its themes of self-hatred and denial. Armand; a white man and a slave owner, held a secret grudge against his slaves. Not the usual biased grudge of a white man to a slave but something greater, deeper even. In the story, Armand’s wife, Desiree implies that her husband was a cruel and unkind slave owner. While talking to her mother Desiree states: “he hasn’t punished one of them-not one of them-since the baby is born,” (Chopin, 2). Although she never names her husband as a bad master, she does insinuate her husband’s past dealing with his slaves. This may not seem of any great significance because most slave owners were uncouth when dealing with their slaves but as the story progresses Armand’s actions are accompanied by a greater purpose— vindication. He was a man set out to prove himself “white”. His cruelty and vengeance of his slaves wasn’t caused by his hatred for them, but actually his hatred for himself and the part of him that was connected to them. Although Chopin does not expose Armand’s African roots until the very last sentence of the story she cleverly foreshadowed the fact. The revelation of a mixed child as well as Armand’s sudden vengence for his slaves and the fact that his skin had been darker than his wife’s were all indications of his negro roots. It was obvious that Armand had in some way known of his true blood line but his fear of not being fully white triggered his denial and self-hatred.
Furthermore, had this story taken place in current times the thought of being partially black may not have had such an effect on Armand. In more modern societies people are accustomed to the concept of mixed races and things such as biracial dating but Armand did not have the luxury of this acceptance. It was either deny it and hate himself secretly or be exposed and lose the respect and life he had worked so hard for. Therefore, the fact that this story was set in a time when being black or half black or even a quarter black was socially unacceptable helped to justify its themes of denial and self-hatred.
Moving on, Chopin employed Armand’s character into the theme by creating a conflict between him and his self. As mentioned previously Armand was fearful of who he really was and subsequently took his anger out on his slaves and wife. “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.” (Chopin, 3). This quote from the story reflects the irony of Armand’s behavior towards his own wife. After the discovery that his child had African blood Armand blamed his wife; accusing her of being mixed. He assumed that God had been cruel and unjust to him when ironically he had been the cruel and unjust one; to Desiree. This quote was drawn from Armand’s thoughts that he had been justified in treating his wife in such a way after God had treated him so horribly. This man, although very aware of his wrong doing was far too conflicted within himself to care for anyone else. In the story, Armand goes from a man deeply in love with his wife to a man who can barely stand to be around her or their child. His wife nor his child were the actual cause of his resentment. It was caused by his insecurities and the fact that being around them only made it worse. In the story, there were many conflicts but Armand’s battle with himself had the strongest effect. Had he admitted that he was the one to blame the story may have had a different ending.
The story ends with the confirmation that Armand was indeed the one with African blood but it had been too late. Armand, so full of denial had told his own wife to leave and as a result she took her child and possibly ended both of their lives. He lost his family and his happiness because he was a fearful man. He did not know how to love himself so there was no way for him to love anyone else. “Armand looked into her eyes and did not care. He was reminded that she was nameless. What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?” (Chopin, 1). The misconception of his love for her is abundant in this quote because the moment her origin came into question Armand no longer felt so shameless. He may have known deep down inside that he bared the blood of a black ancestor but it was easier to blame Desiree. After all, she nor anyone else knew her true lineage. Armand could not accept his roots so he acted in a cowardly manner. He blamed his wife and lost his family but it only solved half of his problems. His son was no longer around to spark the curiosity of others or stir up gossip but that wasn’t the real problem to begin with. The absence of his son did not change his lineage or rid him of self-hatred and denial.
Chopin told a story of a cowardly man. A man who allowed himself to live a lie in order to be whom everyone else believed him to be. “Desiree’s Baby” was a story of many themes and literary elements but self-hatred and denial played a key role in the outcome. From the title alone it is easy to assume that the story would be about the child but the child played only a small part. The setting and conflict in this story helped Chopin to develop the themes of denial and self-hatred thus giving emphasis to the antagonist. Armand did his best to hide who he was but as usual his biggest enemy already knew. He hid his secrets and insecurities but in the end he destroyed himself. In closing, Armand may have hidden his secret well but the words; “night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.” will always be with him. (Chopin, 4.)
Symbolism, Setting and Sexism in ‘Desiree’s Baby’
The miscegenation and racism which Kate Chopin’s short story “Désirée’s Baby” centers upon resulted in a daring piece of work by a female writer in the 19th century. These central themes are also linked to the story’s setting, symbolism, and references of sexism – all interconnected one way or another. In fact, it is Chopin’s manipulation of setting and use of careful, progressively changing descriptions that makes the sociological content of her narrative become especially prominent and potent.
As “Désirée’s Baby” begins with a flashback, readers are given a brief yet detailed introduction of Désirée’s background, which only begins when she is found as a toddler by Monsieur Valmondé “at the gateway” of his estate. This “gateway” with its “big stone pillar” plays a significant role in building up the story. Not only is it where Désirée had been found, but it is also the very spot where Armand Aubigny falls in love with her eighteen years later. This “gateway” therefore symbolizes the beginning of significant changes in Désirée’s life; it can be inferred as an opening to another stage in her life, such as her first entering into the Valmondé family and later entering a married life with Armand Aubigny.
The Aubigny’s mansion, the L’Abri, is also introduced with vivid descriptions which outlines its daunting appearance. Although the word L’Abri is French for “the shelter”, the mansion is described to resemble all images related to death, so it is probable that the mansion is intended to represent “the shelter” of the afterlife. The very sight of it causes Madame Valmondé to “shudder”; and in her defence, the L’Abri is described to be “a sad looking place”, much like the notion of a funeral or graveyard, as they are the common “sad” places that would cause one to tremble. Moreover, the striking comparison of the steep roof to that of a black “cowl” gives the impression of Death’s hood, and the “thick-leaved, far-reaching branches” of nearby “big, solemn oaks” are depicted to “shadow” the house “like a pall”, which is a covering placed on top of coffins. All of these ominous descriptions hint on both the disturbing elements that exist within the mansion as well as the inevitable death which awaits the protagonist.
Through this house that is symbolic of death and desolation, Kate Chopin reveals the owner’s “imperious and exacting nature” – which is one of the aspects that the L’Abri’s disturbing appearance symbolizes – along with the affectionate and sincere Désirée’s passive disposition. “When he [Armand] frowned, she [Désirée] trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God”: these sentences establish the relationship between the two, highlighting Désirée’s distinctly inferior manner as she treats Armand like a being worthy of taking as much as he pleases whilst she only gives without asking for anything in return. This shows that Désirée behaves according to the era’s allocated role of a woman who is entirely submissive to her husband, the dominant white man, whom is entitled to behaving as he wishes without concerning with the feelings of his own wife. This sexist insinuation is emphasized when Armand’s demeanour changes from that of a loving husband, to a hostile and antagonistic one. “He absented himself from home… without excuse”, and in spite of this shift in personality that causes Désirée to be “miserable enough to die”; “she dared not ask him to explain”. It portrays the position of the 19th century wife who, regardless of her troubles, had no right to question her husband’s actions or confront him about it.
Furthermore, when Désirée does finally confronts Armand regarding the issue which has stirred the entire L’Abri household as well as their neighbours, Armand does not hesitate to place the blame of their son’s mixed blood on his wife. He uses patriarchy as a weapon to protect his honour and as a means of concluding the problem without placing himself in any light of suspicion. Even as Désirée attempts to argue and defend herself against this baseless accusation, the “courage” she musters in this nerve-wrecking moment is ultimately “unwonted”, as the strength of male-dominance is too great to fend off.
In the end, Désirée leaves with her quadroon child but only after asking Armand if she should go. So, from an overall perspective, it can be inferred that Désirée’s behaviour throughout the story reflects the stereotypical female who does not make her own choices and instead waits for others to decide for her. She begins with waiting to be discovered from the shadows of the “big stone pillar” and taken in by the Valmondés as a toddler, then marries the man who sweeps her off her feet eighteen years later, and finally allows her husband to decide on his own, with no notion of a fair trial or a discussion, on the fate of their marriage.
Until the end of the story, Kate Chopin continues to use descriptions of the setting as a symbolism of death. The day and hour Désirée leaves with her child is an “October afternoon”, whereby October, which is correlated to autumn, represents the end – and in this case, possibly the end of the lives of Désirée and her baby. “The sun” which was “just sinking” depicts a similar image and appeal of death. Moreover, the “deserted field” which Désirée crosses with her child to flee Aubigny’s plantation symbolizes her escape from the racist society and into the desertedness of isolation. Just as how society at the time had been isolating slaves and all those who were deemed inferior to the white dominant race, Désirée now chooses to isolate herself and her baby from this unjust world – perhaps forever.
The Glass Ceiling in Relation to Happiness
“The Yellow Face,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and “Désirée’s Baby,” by Kate Chopin, both touch on themes such as racism, gender equality, hypocrisy, and identity. These stories can best be understood through one another and, when juxtaposed, reveal a greater theme. In these stories the female character is seeking approval of the male character, in order to foster her own happiness.
One similarity is that both stories involve secret pasts. In “The Yellow Face,” we know that Effie was previously married and has a child from said marriage. Supposedly, both the husband and child passed away due to yellow fever, and their death certificates were burned in a fire shortly thereafter. Effie fled America to escape from the heartache. It was there in England that she met Mr. Grant Munro. We learn that they have been happily married for three years, yet something has recently caused Effie to become distant. That something is Effie’s daughter, who is not actually deceased, but rather living in the house down the road. Désirée also lacks a definite history in “Désirée’s Baby.” The Valmondés adopted her, after finding her sleeping near the front porch of their estate, without knowing of her parents or any other family. After she grew up, she married Armand Aubigny and together they had a child. The problem with their child, however, is that he shares the skin color of many of the quadroon boys on the plantation. This causes a strain on the relationship of the couple, whom both happen to believe that they are purely of white descent.
Irony is a prevalent characteristic of both Doyle and Chopin’s stories. It is puzzling as to why Lucy wears a yellow mask in “The Yellow Face,” as opposed to a white one. She is merely trying to cover the color of her skin with complete disregard to what color she becomes and what that will imply about her. Lucy’s inner struggle with her racial identity most likely stems from the fact that her mother is hiding her from the world, because she neglected to mention that she was married to an African-American. We can also examine the paradox of Lucy’s name. “Lucy” is often associated with things such as light, and air, as well as white-ness or pure-ness. Lucy, in contrast, is part African-American, and not only is her skin dark, but she is kept in the dark as well.
Furthermore, in “Désirée’s Baby,” Armand forces his wife to leave because of her bloodline, only to find out that he also has African-American lineage. The stigma of inter-racial marriage can be explored here in both stories. During the time period that these stories are set, interracial marriage was an uncommon practice. Therefore, from “Désirée’s Baby” we can understand why Effie is afraid to share the news of her child’s survival with her husband in “The Yellow Face.” She is concerned that he will abandon her because her child is not white.
Désirée’s greatest desire is to please her husband, and she even tells her mother that she is so happy that it scares her. She describes the feeling as, “When he frowned, she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God” (Chopin 178-179). Effie also shares this desire, which can be seen when she says to her husband, “God forgive me, I feared that I should lose you, and I had not the courage to tell you. I had to choose between you, and in my weakness I turned away from my own little girl” (Doyle 385). Both stories highlight the fact that the women are most concerned with pleasing their husbands in order to maintain their own happiness.
After the birth of the child, Désirée pleads for her husband not to send her away because she is in love with him, and he is the source of her happiness. Chopin writes, “He absented himself from home; and when there avoided her presence and that of her child, without excuse … Désirée was miserable enough to die” (Chopin 179). Désirée’s happiness varies jointly with that of her husband. Effie’s reaction is not as volatile as Désirée’s; however, we can see the downward progression of her sadness and depression as she continues to keep the secret of her daughter from her husband. The more listless and upset Mr. Munro becomes, the more timid Effie is in speaking with him.
“The Yellow Face” ends quite pleasantly, whereas “Désirée’s Baby” does not. At the end of the story, Doyle writes, “He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned to the door” (Doyle 386). They then proceed to go home, where they can discuss their new situation as a family. On the contrary, Désirée is sent away at the end of “Désirée’s Baby.” She takes the child with her, but is still severely upset and hurt by her husband’s disapproval and newfound anger. She writes a letter to her mother after Armand confronts her about not being white, saying, “I shall die. I must die. I cannot be so unhappy, and live” (Chopin 180). Désirée experiences a much more passionate range of emotion in her response to her husband’s emotions; however, upon comparison we can see that Effie experiences similar emotions as her husband.