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Kate Chopin wrote in the Victorian Age of the nineteenth century. Her subjects shocked the readers; often, her stories were not published because of the subject matter. Racism, marriage, women's roles in society, adultery--these issues found places in her stories.
In "The Story of an Hour" and "Desiree's Baby," both heroines, Louise Mallard and Desiree Aubigny, face problems in their marriages. Each woman has to confront an unsatisfactory resolution to her dilemma.
Louise Mallard, a pretty, young woman with a heart problem, discovers that her husband has been killed in an accident. Initially grief-stricken, she finds an unusual feeling welling up inside her:
When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under the breath: "free, free, free!"
Her grief becomes secondary to her realization that she is free from the restraints of marriage. Over-protected and sheltered because of her illness, Louise is overjoyed that she will be able to make her own decisions. She loved her husband sometimes, and she knew that he loved her. But this was different. Freedom was happiness.
As Louise and her sister walk down the stairs, the door opens and it is her husband. Louise falls to the floor, dead from "the joy that kills." [Through Chopin's use of dramatic irony, only the reader knows what that real "joy" is.]
In Desiree's story, this young wife tackles a completely different problem in her marriage. Desiree was abandoned as a child and adopted by a loving couple, the Valmondes. At the age of 18, she has become a beautiful woman, courted by a handsome, young aristocrat, Armand Aubigny. Mr. Valmonde shares Desiree's background with Armand, but at this time, nothing matters but his love for Desiree.
After they are happily married, Desiree gives birth to a son. Armand is ecstastic about his son until the child begins to show sign of Negroid features. The child is bi-racial. When Desiree realizes that her child is a mulatto, she believes as does everyone that it is her unknown heritage that must be the problem. Armand banishes both she and the baby from the house. Desiree wanders off into the bayou and leaves the reader with an unknown outcome.
Armand foolishly burns everything that had to do with the baby and Desiree. While doing this, he discovers a letter from his mother to his father:
'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.'
It is Armand that is bi-racial. Because of his arrogance, he lost everything that mattered to him.
Both women struggle in their marriages. The men in the relationships were dominant. The women were there to serve the man. Few men asked or even cared about their wives' opinions. This was particularly true in the "Old South" when women were to be cherished, but not included in decisions. To these men, women were made to serve their husband.
Louise and Desiree loved their husbands. However, one wanted freedom, and one was forced to freedom. Each woman's outcome satisfied no one, not even the reader.
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