Constructions of Identity in Chopin's Short Story
As early as 1923, the scholar and critic, Fred Lewis Pattee, wrote that Kate Chopin ''must be rated as genius, taut, vibrant, intense of soul.’’ Despite his whole-hearted endorsement, for the majority of the twentieth century, ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ was the only piece of writing by which Chopin was known. In fact, until the reprinting of The Awakening in 1972, her reputation rested upon the one story. With the "rediscovery" of the author in the past several decades, however, a host of literary critics have re-examined Chopin's body of work, including ‘‘Désirée's Baby.’’ While reviewers and readers of Chopin's day lauded the story, most emphasized Chopin's ability to bring to life the bayou Louisiana that she knew so well. Critics today find ‘‘Désirée's Baby'' a rich text filled with universal themes and careful authorial technique. As Robert D. Arner writes of the story, it is ''one of the best of its kind in American literature.’’
In certain ways, ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ is atypical of Chopin's body of work; it is the only story to concern miscegenation; it is the only story to feature a stereotypically ''cruel'' Southern master; it does not explore issues of female sexuality. However, as Peggy Skaggs points out in her book, Kate Chopin, with Bayou Folk—the collection from which ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ was taken—the author ‘‘seems ... to be moving toward the study of women in search of themselves,’’ which became her primary literary focus. ‘‘Chopin creates ... characters struggling to fulfill the needs for self-knowledge, for love, and especially for a place in life where they can feel they belong.’’
The title character, Désirée, truly belongs nowhere. Found abandoned in front of the gates to the Valmonde plantation when only a toddler, Désirée is taken in by the family. For a while she assumes their identity; she grows into a girl ‘‘beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere—the idol of Valmonde.’’ But the antebellum South offers few opportunities for women other than being someone's wife or mother, so Désirée marries and assumes the role of wife of Armand Aubigny. Her lack of individual identity is underscored by his treatment of her as a possession instead of a beloved but human partner. Armand shows his acceptance of this nineteenth-century belief when he brushes aside questions of Désirée's heritage: ''What did it matter about a name when he could give one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?’’ Though Désirée witnesses this trait in him, she doesn't understand it. She tells her mother:
Armand is the proudest father in the parish, I believe, chiefly because it is a boy, to bear his name; though he says not,—that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know it isn't true.
Such a statement directly implicates Armand as seeing his family—both wife and child—as reflections upon himself. The child, a boy, will carry his name, but a girl would only grow up to take on someone else's name, to become someone else's prized object, as did Désirée.
Thus, with her marriage, Désirée takes on a new identity, but she is unable to hold on to it for long. When the baby son of Désirée and Armand begins to show African characteristics, Armand assumes that Désirée, the child of unknown parents, has tainted his bloodline with that of African ancestors. His cruel spurning of her makes it clear that there is no longer any place for Désirée in his life, but Désirée also does not feel she can return home to the Valmondes, though they love her. Instead, she takes the baby, and the two disappear in the bayou. It is only through their deaths that Désirée and her child, both half-castes in a world where things are measured by black and white, find their final identities as tragic figures.
The role of identity also plays an important part in Armand's mental and emotional state. His identity is intrinsically linked to his idea of his racial superiority....
(The entire section is 17,597 words.)