Post-Civil War Southern Society
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. government embarked on a plan called Reconstruction to rebuild the South and reunite the nation. Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877. During Reconstruction, the southern states set up new governments and revised their constitutions. All of the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union by 1870, but many northern Republicans objected to the efforts made by the legislatures of southern states to restrict the freedoms of African Americans. Reconstruction governments, however, founded new social programs and organizations, such as public school systems. Southern states also spent a great deal of money repairing their infrastructure—railroads, bridges, and public buildings—which had been destroyed during the war.
At first, African Americans were optimistic about their futures. In 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended equal citizenship to African Americans, and a few years later, passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed that the right to vote could not be denied because of race. African Americans took an active part in government, serving as delegates at state constitutional conventions and in Reconstruction legislatures.
Despite this greater equality, as early as 1866, southern states began passing Black Codes, which were laws that greatly limited the freedom of African Americans. Many African Americans were...
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"Desiree's Baby" is a work of social realism set in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, just after the Civil War. Chopin is known as a local colorist, so the setting plays a large role in establishing the story's tone and in helping develop the characters. Chopin's story is a cultural study of place: Natchitoches Park is the home of Creoles, people of French descent and native birth who were often of mixed French and African-American blood. Creole French culture, which is itself a blend caused by the movement of peoples and the mixing of races, influences the story, and Chopin makes it known that the people of this Southern town pride themselves on their heritage.
The Creoles of Natchitoches Park represent the Southern aristocracy and stand in sharp contrast to the slaves who work the plantations. Chopin creates a world of contrasts, a division of black and white that not only distinguishes the townspeople but demonstrates the rift that tears lives apart and leads to tragedy. Armand Aubigny sees a strict dividing line between black and white, and he clearly equates black with evil and white with good. The distinctly French culture, set apart from the slave culture, helps define Natchitoches Park as a closed community, a community where people are of closed minds and rely on well-established conventions. Armand is the perfect example of a man whose thoughts and actions are controlled by time and place. Typical of Southern landowners in this small Louisiana...
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Setting and Local Color
At the time of publication of Bayou Folk, which reprinted ‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ Chopin was primarily seen as a local colorist. This designation was partially due to the fact that Chopin wrote about the Cajuns and Creoles of Louisiana. This world, members of which had distinct cultural traits, was relatively unknown to northerners and even other southerners. The Cajuns were descendants of French settlers in Acadia, Canada. They had been driven from Canada in the 1600s, and came to settle in Louisiana, where their name—Acadians—was mangled into the name they are still known by today—Cajuns. Creoles are white people descended from early French and Spanish settlers, or people of mixed French or Spanish and Black descent.
The prevailing French atmosphere is apparent in the story. All of the characters descend from French immigrants, as evidenced by their names, both first and last. Désirée (also a French name) grows up in a household where ‘‘French was the language spoken,’’ and Chopin employs relevant French phrases. Armand's plantation derives its name, L'Abri, from the French word for shelter. Armand even spent the first eight years of his life in Paris. These details help build up the insular world of the Louisiana bayous.
Several critics of ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ have charged that the ending is a trick ending, or an O. Henry ending, so-named...
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Kate Chopin examines both the social and physical characteristics of this Louisiana community. Unlike local colorists such as Sarah Orne Jewett, William Faulkner, and George Washington Cable, however, Chopin does not focus on the historical significance of the past but rather she focuses on the social significance of the present given its historical legacy. She places her characters in a social setting and dissects their thoughts and actions accordingly.
Local color is one of the qualities that makes Chopin's stories so realistic. That she knows well the community she writes about enables her to create believable characters. Chopin relies heavily on imagery and symbolism to give her characters depth and to give their emotions validity. She uses color images to highlight the social divisions between black and white and she uses biblical images to equate Desiree with God, Armand with Satan, and to draw associations between darkness and evil and lightness with good. She also uses images of natural disaster to reveal the brutal nature of the passion shared by Desiree and Armand. Armand's passion is particularly unrestrained, like a force of nature, and as such it is both destructive and potentially devastating. Chopin describes Armand's passion as being "swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles." The image of fire occurs again in the story after Desiree leaves and Armand attempts to rid...
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Chopin sympathizes with the plight of black people during the Civil War era and she particularly sympathizes with people of mixed blood. She does not moralize in the story, but she does emphasize the evils of slavery and how it degrades both slaves and slave owners. There is nothing attractive about plantation owners like Armand who consider themselves racially superior. They have false pride. Armand, as the epitome of the cruel slave owner, is unable to feel human connection.
Armand believes in his superiority, both as a Creole and as a Caucasian male, and he believes that racial superiority alone gives him the right to own others. Ownership, in the mind of Armand, means exploiting not only the land he acquires but the slaves and the women he "acquires" as well. When Armand confronts Desiree with her "deception" and compares Desiree to La Blanche, Chopin highlights the ambiguity of the slave system. This is a system that permits white men to own women, both black and white, and that permits and indeed facilitates sexual union between white males and black females, which then produces a mixed race which is then doubly oppressed by the the miscegenation that follows. Armand considers La Blanche acceptable as a concubine but unworthy as a wife. Then, when Desiree produces a child with mixed blood, he considers her unworthy as well. He is so conditioned to project inferiority on others that he cannot face his own possible responsibility. The children of...
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Compare and Contrast
1890s: Cotton is the primary crop for many southern farmers. Its price fluctuates greatly. Cotton production, however, is on the rise, and by the mid-1890s, more than twenty million acres of cotton are harvested.
Today: The price of U.S. cotton fluctuates between $0.47 per pound up to $1.13 per pound. The United States remains the world leader in cotton exports, with 6.8 million bales sold abroad in 1999-2000.
1890s: By the end of the 1890s, American farmland comprises about 841 million acres. Of this acreage, almost 44 percent of farms are located in states east of the Mississippi River and 56 percent are in states west of the Mississippi River. Around 10.2 million Americans work in agriculture.
Today: By the mid-1990s, American farmland comprises about 972 million acres. Of this acreage, only about 21 percent of farms are located in states east of the Mississippi River and almost 79 percent are in states west of the Mississippi River. Today, farming makes up less than 2 percent of the United States' total annual gross national product. Around 3.6 million Americans work in agriculture.
1890s: By the middle of the decade, Louisiana's population is just over 1,100,000, which includes 559,000 African Americans.
Today: By 1998, Louisiana's population is around 4,400,000, which includes 1,400,000 African Americans. Of the total population, 15 percent of Louisiana's...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Define the nature of Armand's strengths and weaknesses.
2. In what ways does Armand's cruelty result from socially approved racist attitudes that defined the South in the nineteenth century? What other factors contribute to make him cruel?
3. Describe the nature of Armand's love for Desiree. Describe the factors that contribute to his love for her.
4. Identify those indications in the story that suggest Armand knows all along that he, and not Desiree, has mixed blood.
5. Why do you suppose Armand is willing to marry Desiree even though her ancestry is unknown? What, if anything, does this reveal about his character?
6. Can you identify Chopin's references that link Armand with evil? How do these references differ from those that identify Desiree with good?
7. What message does Chopin wish to convey by titling her story "Desiree's Baby"?
8. What are the motivating forces that cause Desiree to disappear into the bayou?
9. How does Desiree's motherly love compare with that of Madame Valmonde's?
10. Who do you think is the narrator of this story? How do you determine this?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. "Desiree's Baby" is said to be an example of Howellsian (after the style of William Dean Howells) realism. Explain this concept, and elaborate on how Chopin succeeds in portraying ordinary people with ordinary problems.
2. Choose one of Chopin's other stories, such as "A Lady of Bayou St. John" or "La Belle Zoraide," and compare and contrast how the themes of love and devotion are handled in that story and in "Desiree's Baby." Include an answer to the following question: "Is devotion to an ideal more satisfying than love itself?"
3. Define irony, and examine how Chopin's use of irony in the story leads readers to a deeper understanding of her meaning.
4. Research how the political environment changed for women in the years following the Civil War. What political decisions were made that helped women move out of their position of servitude?
5. In the story, Chopin uses imagery to help characterize Armand and Desiree. Explore different types of images Chopin uses (biblical, color, etc.), and discuss their symbolic connotations.
6. Write a paper that explores the kinds of bondage which result from racism and sexism. Include historical facts and political decisions that have attempted to define and correct longstanding racial and sexual inequities.
7. Through an examination of Chopin's works, it appears that she made a woman's search for identity as her primary focus. Using Desiree as the...
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Topics for Further Study
Find out more about plantation life in the antebellum South. Based on this research, do you think the portrayal of L'Abri is accurate with regards to Louisiana's history?
Chopin has been noted for her exploration of a woman's search for identity. Do you find evidence of such investigation in ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’? Why, or why not?
Do you understand why Désirée took the course of action she did at the end of the story? Explain your answer.
Do you think if Désirée had chosen to return to her family home with her child, they would have been able to have any kind of normal life? Why, or why not?
How do you think Armand feels at the end of the story? Do you think he will continue to embrace his racist views, in the light of his knowledge regarding his own ancestry?
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Some of the short stories that portray a woman's sexual nature and her situation in marriage include "La Belle Zoraide," "A Respectable Woman," "The Story of an Hour," "The Kiss," "Her Letters," "An Egyptian Cigarette," and "The White Eagle." These stories appear in the collection entitled Bayou Folk, set in Louisiana, and they highlight similar problems and concerns. "La Belle Zoraide," for instance, deals not only with the theme of passion but with the theme of miscegenation; it focuses on the plight of a young mulatto girl who falls in love with a black man and the tragic effects it has on her life. Reading these other stories can lead to a better understanding of Chopin's fiction and help readers appreciate the complexities of cross-racial sexual connection.
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What Do I Read Next?
Chopin's The Awakening (1899) was controversial because of its frank treatment of an adulterous affair as well as the subject of female sexuality. Largely unread throughout most of the 1900s, it was rediscovered in 1972 and has since become a classic.
"The Necklace’’ (1884) by Guy de Maupassant, who is considered to be France's greatest short-story writer, includes a ‘‘trick ending’’ that has tragic results.
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was a New England writer working at the same time as Chopin who was also considered a local colorist. ''The Revolt of 'Mother'’’ (1891) tells a funny but serious story of a Massachusetts farm wife's assertion of independence.
Sarah Orne Jewett is another of Chopin's contemporaries who wrote regional fiction. Her collection of sketches about life in a fictional Maine coastal village, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), is an acclaimed example of local color.
O.Henry is the master of the ‘‘trick ending.’’ His story ‘‘The Gift of the Magi’’ (1905) is perhaps the most well-known of those stories with an ironic reversal at the end. It tells about a young couple who, despite their poverty, want to give each other a fine gift on Christmas Eve.
Mark Twain's 1894 novel Pudd'nhead Wilson is a story about miscegenation (cohabitation, sexual relations, or marriage between persons of different races) in the antebellum South. A...
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For Further Reference
Bloom, Harold, ed. Kate Chopin. Modern Critical Views series. Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. Gives critical information of Chopin's work. Includes analysis of the themes and styles in Chopin's short stories.
Boren, Lynda S., and Sara de Saussure Davis, eds. Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou. Southern Literary Studies series. Louisiana State University Press, 1999. Includes fourteen essays analyzing Chopin's work. Includes detailed biographical information in addition to offering a range of perspectives on the historical and social significance of Chopin's fiction.
Jones, Anne Goodwyn. Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936. Louisiana State University Press, 1981. A discussion of Southern women writers who lived and produced fiction during the same era as Chopin. Can be used as a source for comparisons of themes and styles with those of Chopin's.
McSherry, Frank D., et. al., eds. Civil War Women: The Civil War Seen through Women's Eyes in Stories by Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, Eudora Welty, and Other Great Women Writers. 1990. Provides insight into works by Chopin and other women who write on similar themes and offer insights into women's social problems during the Civil War years.
Sollors, Werner. Neither Black nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. Oxford University Press, 1997. Sollors discusses the theme of...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Arner, Robert D. ‘‘Pride and Prejudice: Kate Chopin's ‘Désirée's Baby,’’’ in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring 1972, pp. 131-40.
Ewell, Barbara. Kate Chopin. Ungar Publishing, 1986.
Pattee, Fred Lewis. ‘‘The Revolt of the ‘Nineties,’’’ in The Development of the American Short Story: A Historical Survey. Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1923, pp. 309-36.
Rankin, Daniel. Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932.
Review in Nation, June 28, 1894, p. 488.
Review of Bayou Folk, by Kate Chopin, in Atlantic Monthly, April 1894, pp. 558-59.
Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Twayne Publishers, 1985.
Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin, A Life of the Author of ‘The Awakening.’ William Morrow and Company, 1990.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. ‘‘Kate Chopin and the Fiction of Limits: ‘Désirée's Baby,’’’ in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1978, pp. 123-33.
Bannon, Lois Elmer. Magnolia Mound: A Louisiana River Plantation. Firebird Press, 1984. This book examines plantation life and the economic system of slavery in the old South.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Kate Chopin, Modern Critical Views. Chelsea House, 1987. This volume is a collection of critical essays...
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