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.
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