Constructions of Identity in Chopin's Short Story
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2115
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. That Armand believes himself to be superior to the slaves he owns is clear. He rules them strictly and ‘‘his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master's easygoing and indulgent lifetime.’’ However, his racist ideas more clearly express themselves in his treatment of Désirée after she bears him a child of African heritage. When Désirée first notices this—long after the neighbors, the slaves, and Armand has already done so—she goes running to her husband, demanding an explanation. He answers coldly, ''It means ... that the child is not white; it means that you are not white.’’ His refusal to speak with her in any depth on the matter shows both his anger at her but also his belief that she is now beneath him and that she is not worthy of his time. For she is white only on the exterior, and he casts her in the same category as his slaves; her skin is ‘‘[A]s white as La Blanche's,’’ he says, making a direct comparison between his wife and his slave. In the final exchange between husband and wife, Armand acknowledges that ''he no longer loved her, because of the unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name.’’ Such thinking clearly shows his own feelings about the worth of African Americans, but it aptly reflects those of his community as well; indeed, the gossip among the slaves and the ''unexpected visits from far-off neighbors who could hardly account for their coming’’ demonstrate the crisis that Désirée's baby has caused in the region. Thus, Armand's racism is seen, in part, as a product of his environment.
Not everyone, however, subscribes to such racist propaganda. Three people in the story espouse more enlightened views: Armand's father, Madame Valmonde, and Désirée herself.
In the story's final paragraph, Armand's father is revealed to be superior to standard ideas of racial inequity; he wed a woman of African descent. The Aubignys' joint decision, however, to hide this truth from Armand shows their understanding of the racism that most of their contemporaries feel. The excerpt from Madame Aubigny's letter reveals how keenly she and her husband both feel the effect of racism, and she tellingly chooses to refer to herself not as a person of African descent, but through her ascribed role in American society: as a member of ‘‘the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.’’
Madame Valmonde is another character who demonstrates the ability to look beyond the connotations of African blood. When she receives Désirée's letter, she clearly comes to the same conclusion as Armand—that Désirée is of African heritage. Her brief reply, which does not even attempt to refute such an assertion, speaks volumes. But she also wants Désirée and the baby to come home. She is willing to accept her daughter and grandson no matter their background and the stigma attached to it.
Lastly, Désirée emerges as a figure who does not hold those prejudices typical of her era and community. For when she first realizes her child has African characteristics, she assumes them to come from Armand; with her grey eyes, fair skin, and hands ‘‘whiter than yours, Armand,’’ she has never had any cause to question her ethnicity. Her pleading letter to her mother shows her need to be white, but she desires this not out of shame, but because she sees the race issue as separating her from her beloved husband. As long as her husband thinks she is of African descent, she knows he will not accept her. The proof of her character comes when she says to her mother,'' Armand has told me I am not white. For God's sake tell them it is not true’’; these words indicate her willingness to accept Armand, white or black.
The final irony emerges in the last lines of the story when Armand and the reader discover his true heritage. But even with these lines, Chopin shows the ambivalence of racism, for Armand is the only person in the story to act with abject cruelty—and it turns out that he is of African ancestry. As Barbara Ewell writes in Kate Chopin, ''Armand is the proud man who comes to know himself too late as the source of 'evil'—identified here with ... 'black blood.’’' Indeed, the story links Armand to that first source of evil—Satan—even before the last lines are revealed; after Armand realizes the truth about the baby ''the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold him in his dealings with the slaves.’’ With the revelation of the ending lines, however, the final image of Armand takes on greater relevance:
In the centre of the smoothly swept back yard was a great bonfire. Armand Aubigny sat in the wide hallway that commanded a view of the spectacle; and it was he who dealt out half a dozen negroes the material which kept the fire ablaze.
Armand's connection to the icon of evil shows that he was never worthy of Désirée, regardless of bloodlines. For Désirée is equated with God and goodness itself. Her very presence seems to Madame Valmonde to be the work of a ‘‘beneficent Providence." Desiree's feeling of foreboding— ''When the baby was about three weeks old, Désirée awoke one day to the conviction that there was something in the air menacing her peace''—further demonstrates her connection with an omniscient presence. Even Armand recognizes Désirée's divinity. When he tells her to leave L'Abri, he imagines ‘‘that Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back when he stabbed thus into his wife's soul.’’ As Arner assesses this scene, ‘‘By insulting and injuring Désirée, Armand believes that he hurts and insults God as well; he casts them both out of his house." Desiree is linked to a higher power of good, and is thus fundamentally incompatible with Armand.
Désirée, however, places her own attachment to Armand above all other concerns in her life, including the welfare of her child. Her sacrifice of her own life, and that of her child, reveals her basic inability to see an existence outside of her relationship with Armand; the love for her child is not sufficient. Désirée's actions rest in marked contrast to both Madame Valmonde's and Madame Aubigny's, whose maternal love remains strong throughout. As mentioned, Madame Valmonde is more than willing to have her mixed-ancestry daughter and grandson return to her home. Madame Aubigny's desire to keep Armand ignorant of her true heritage also shows that she elevates her son's best interests above all else. Monsieur Aubigny reiterates the strength of parental love; he stays in France to keep up this charade, renouncing, for a time, his homeland. Ironically, the Aubignys' decision to keep Armand uninformed about the truth, ends in no good for anyone. Armand grows up to become a cruel, prejudiced man, and his feelings of superiority lead to the destruction of his own child and the wife who "desperately" loves him.
According to Peggy Skaggs, ‘‘Désirée and several others [of Chopin's women] find a sufficient sense of identity in viewing themselves as prized possessions of the men to whom they belong.’’ Perhaps this sentiment is the key to Désirée's suicide and, in essence, the destruction of her infant. For Désirée has never truly had a place where she belonged, despite the love and welcome of the Valmondes. Monsieur Aubigny labels this source of discomfort early in the story when he reminds Armand of ‘‘the girl's obscure origins." Desiree's identity is always at stake, always at risk, and in the end, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff writes, Désirée:
loses her own tenuous grasp on the balance of life. For her there seems only one choice, one final boundary to cross: and the alternatives are measured by the line between civilization and the patient, hungry bayou that lies just beyond. Madness, murder, death—all these wait to claim the love-child who could not keep her stability in the face of life's inescapable contrarieties.
Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on ''Désirée's Baby,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.
Fairytale Features in Kate Chopin's "Désirée's Baby"
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4148
The presence of fairytale features in Kate Chopin's ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ is virtually unmistakable. What is perhaps less obvious is how they are used in the story as a basis for its exploration of the theme of appearance versus reality, a theme that is omnipresent in the traditional fairytale. The features are put to use for the purposes of the short story, but their presence raises expectations in the reader that are potentially incompatible with those of a realistic short story. The result is a rather complex tension between these expectations and the possibility of their being realized in a non-fairytale world—a tension that contributes substantially to the interest of the story.
This juxtaposition of two frames of reference provides a case study in the sort of "intertextuality" that Bernd Lenz has referred to as genre cross-reference (Gattungswechsel) and which has also been referred to more traditionally as "contamination." It can only be used effectively when it is certain that the reader is acquainted with the conventions of the basic genres and can recognize the conflict between the two frames of reference. To describe the effect produced, Lenz suggests the extension of Bakhtin's notion of the dialogic to include the possibility of multiple genre voices in a text. The dialogic results from the fact that one set of expectations reflects on and essentially undermines the other.
The primary expectation raised by the fairytale is that there will be a happy ending, that the hero(ine) will overcome adversity and everything will turn out well. But this is obviously not the case in ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’—the story leads on inexorably to tragedy. Thus at the level of plot structure the theme of appearance versus reality is introduced directly into the story as a result of the inevitable conflict between the expectations the reader has on the basis of the fairytale framework invoked and the realities dictated by the inflexible social context providing the backdrop for the story. The death of Désirée seems to show that intractable social problems are the reality and the expectation that they can be solved within the traditional folktale framework is just appearance. But the dialogic does not terminate with the death of Désirée. Chopin offers the reader a second ending. The story begins with an interesting combination of two well-known folktale motifs—the wished-for child and the foundling. These are both motifs in the sense of Lüthi since they entail a particular plot kernel and raise certain specific expectations in the reader; the reader typically knows what such motifs should lead on to.
The wished-for child usually comes under "magical" circumstances to a woman who has virtually given up hope of ever having a child. The motif where the wished-for child is female is familiar from both the Grimms' tales ‘‘Sleeping Beauty’’ and ‘‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.’’ In ‘‘Sleeping Beauty’’ the child's coming has something to do with the intervention of a magical frog, and in ‘‘Snow White’’ there is a spell involving drops of blood on the snow. When the wished-for child is a daughter, she is of extraordinary beauty and this beauty is a significant factor in determining her fate—but the daughter, as the story's heroine, is also largely passive, someone who waits and accepts what fate has in store. In the two fairytales mentioned above, this passivity even involves a magical sleep during which the heroine awaits the arrival of the prince.
In ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ the motif is introduced according to pattern:
Madame Valmondé abandoned every speculation but the one that Désirée had been sent to her by a beneficent Providence to be the child of her affection, seeing that she was without child of the flesh. For the girl grew to be beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,—the idol of Valmondé.
The heroine, Désirée, is largely passive in her behavior throughout the story, and there are also suggestions of the sleep feature. Her future foster father finds her ''lying asleep in the shadow of the big stone pillar,’’ and she is found by Armand, her future husband, standing ''against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before.’’
The use of the foundling motif to introduce the child is an especially interesting feature since it effectively eliminates the magic from the wished-for-child motif—though the possibility of ‘‘Providence'' is not ruled out—and makes it suitable in the context of the more realistic short story. It demystifies the motif, but at the same time it also brings along a different sort of mystery. Foundling children in the fairytale turn out to be superior in one way or another despite their unpromising beginnings—for example in having extraordinary strength, luck, or beauty—and the uncertainty of their origin conceals an important secret about their parentage, one that will turn out to be significant in the course of the story. The motif thus also introduces the conflict between appearance and reality on the character level: the reader is primed to expect that there is more to the child than appearances suggest, that the answer to the open question of origin will reveal some important hidden reality. The standard expectation is that the child will turn out to be of interesting parentage, and this expectation is manipulated by Chopin in a very ingenious way.
Désirée is identified as the heroine both as a result of being embedded in the above motifs and also because of her association with brightness and, of course, with gold—typical associations identifying the folktale heroine:
Désirée is surrounded by images of whiteness. Recovering from labour, she lies ''in her soft white muslins and laces, upon a couch.'' She stands next to Armand ‘‘like a stone image: silent, white, motionless’’ after she has given him her mother's letter and is awaiting his reaction. On the day she walks into the wilderness around the bayou, she wears ''a thin white garment''; her hair radiates a ‘‘golden gleam’’ in spite of its brown color.
As Lüthi points out, ''gold is a sort of summum bonum in the fairytale.’’
Given the basic framework offered by the two opening motifs and the identification of the heroine, the story then appears to continue as a realization of one of the basic folktale plot structures involving what Thompson has referred to as a ''banished wife or maiden.’’ Such banished wives undergo various setbacks after once having found their prince—they are typically maligned and/or persecuted—but the expectation is always that they will overcome all adversity and achieve lasting happiness.
It is common in these stories that the heroine should be discovered by a passing "prince" and that the prince should experience what Lüthi has termed the ''shock effect'' of beauty. He offers an example of this feature from a French-Canadian fairytale of the Our-Lady's-child type, one belonging to the above group:
One day when the prince happens to come down to the kitchen and gets a look at the beautiful girl, he stops in the middle of the staircase as if his shoes were nailed down. ‘‘He found her unbelievably beautiful; he stared at her. He could neither go back up nor continue descending.’’ Finally, however, he does turn around and goes straight to his mother. ''You have to know, the girl that you' ve just taken on—she'll be my wife.'' ‘‘Your wife!" "Yes." "You can't marry someone like that ..." "She's beautiful." "She is beautiful, but that's all she has—beauty ..." "I'll send her to school, I'll have her taught...’’ And it goes according to the wishes of the son.
The parallelism with the corresponding scene in ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ is clear:
It was no wonder, when she stood one day against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before, that Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her there, had fallen in love with her. That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot. [...] The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles. Monsieur Valmondé [her foster father] grew practical and wanted things well considered: that is, the girl's obscure origin. 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? [...] then they were married.
The question of origin is still hovering in the background—it has not ceased to be significant. Before the heroine ''lives happily ever after,'' there must be some complication, and the open question is sure to be relevant to the continuation of the story. In the banished-wife group of tales this complication is closely connected with childbirth. In the above-mentioned Our-Lady's-child type, the heroine must allow her newly-born child to be taken away and herself to be accused of killing him or her (Innocent woman accused of eating her newborn children). In the maiden-without-hands type, the wife is calumniated in a falsified message sent to her absent husband saying that she has just given birth to an animal child (Calumniated wife: substituted letter), and in the three-golden-sons type the elder sisters substitute a dog or a cat for the newly-born child and accuse the heroine of having given birth to it (Animal-birth slander). As a result, the heroine is banished by her scandalized husband. But everything works out. Regardless of what bad things seem to be true of her, they are only appearance, just as is the possibility that her happiness is forever a thing of the past. The heroine, the figure associated with brightness/gold, will ultimately come into her own.
The coming of the child of the title also offers the basis for the complication in ''Désirée's Baby''—for the (temporary) adversity that the heroine must experience before everything is put right. Just as in the case of the fairytale husband who cannot accept an animal child, in the social context of the Chopin story there seems to be no way of resolving the difficulty raised by Armand's aversion to having a non-white child. The open question of the origin of the heroine now also appears to be answered for it offers an obvious explanation of the fact that the child is not white: the heroine must be of mixed race. But such a conclusion conflicts with the identification of the heroine with brightness/gold and with the expectation that an accused heroine must be innocent whatever the accusation. In line with expectation, Désirée is banished by Armand, but whatever guilt might be associated with having a non-white child, it cannot be that of the heroine. And like the fairytale heroine who knows she has been falsely accused, Désirée is convinced that she cannot be responsible for the child's being of mixed race:
‘‘It is a lie; it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are gray, Armand, you know they are gray. And my skin is fair,’’ seizing his wrist. ''Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand.''
The obvious doubts about the guilt of the heroine encourage the reader to look for a solution for the complication which would—in line with the traditional fairytale pattern—establish Désirée's innocence and reunite her with a repentant husband. Chopin thus tempts the reader with a possible way of resolving the conflict—one that widens the cleft between appearance and reality on the plot level because it seems to show further that folktale solutions are untenable, that their effectivity is only appearance. What if the baby is not the real baby, what if there has been some mistake? The author toys with the reader here by suggesting two possibilities. The first possibility is offered by what is more a legend than a fairytale motif but it is widespread in the folklore of Western Europe: that of the changeling (Wechselbalg). Supernatural beings may abscond with a natural child and leave one of their members in its place. The child is at first not recognized as a substitute, but certain characteristics point to the fact that it is not really the natural child. It has a voracious appetite—often drinking the mother dry—and it develops physically in unexpected ways, e. g. it has an overly large head, it does not speak, or it just does not grow. But when its existence is recognized, it can be exorcized and the natural child is returned. In ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ this motif is just hinted at. The question of the appetite of the child is introduced: Désirée speaks of the child as ''the little cochon de lait.'' And it is obvious that there is something physically unusual about the child. Désirée's mother exclaims ‘‘in startled tones’’: ''This is not the baby!'' (ibid). Désirée is the last to note that something is amiss. The child is, of course, not a changeling, and the problem cannot be gotten rid of in this manner. The child eats voraciously—but it grows, and its unusualness must be explained on some other basis. A trick has been played on the heroine, but not by supernatural forces.
The second possibility offered avoids the supernatural by suggesting something parallel to the substitution of the animal child mentioned above. Chopin hints that the nurse La Blanche, a slave of mixed race, might somehow be behind a substitution. Only when Désirée compares the baby with one of La Blanche's children does she see what the others already seem to have noticed: ‘‘She looked from her child to the boy who stood beside him, and back again; over and over.’’ The reader grasps at straws, but this possibility also fades.
The reader looks to a solution involving a substituted child because of the persistent expectations raised on the basis of the "banished wife or maiden" pattern. Somehow, as heroine, Désirée must be able to overcome adversity and live happily ever after with her prince and her child. We expect that the heroine will be falsely accused and may even be temporarily separated from husband and child, but since she is the heroine the insolubility of problems will turn out to be appearance only, and the story will end happily. For the reader, the only remaining possibility for resolving the conflict and leading to a happy ending appears to be the still-open question of the heroine's origin.
Even in the context of the fairytale, however, it is possible to have an unhappy ending. This leads to what Jolles has termed an "anti-fairytale" (Antimärchen), a fairytale that ends tragically through no fault of the hero(ine). Röhrich argues that such anti-fairytales are somehow unsatifactory because they violate the most basic convention of the genre. But such stories do occur and the only requirement that normally has to be met is that the reader must be given suitable justification for the disappointment of the usual expectation. Such justification is difficult to provide on the basis of the Jolles definition, but for Röhrich, whose definition differs from that of Jolles, an anti-fairytale is a fairytale where the plot is carried by a negative hero, and a negative hero gets what he deserves.
In ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ there are actually two endings to the story. The first would simply be that of the anti-fairytale in the Jolles sense, and the story might have stopped when the question of origin was "answered." The heroine does not live happily ever after with prince and child but instead dies, committing suicide, and the tragic ending occurs through no real fault of her own. But the reader has also been given actual reasons to expect that the story might end as an anti-fairytale in the Röhrich sense. Clearly Désirée is not a negative heroine, but the story hints right from the introduction of the "banished wife" pattern that something is amiss in the constellation of figures—that there are very complex questions of appearance and reality involved, not only with Désirée but also with her prince. Désirée has the typical features of fairytale heroines (her beauty and her association with brightness/gold), and she is the figure the story follows. A prince, on the other hand—especially one not syncretized with the hero—need have no particular features at all. The prince normally has a kingdom, but whatever positive features are assigned to him are subsidiary to his function of being the heroine's prince, and thus he may have any arbitrary set of decorative ones. But he should not be associated with negative features, and presumably not with those of darkness. The obvious apparent exceptions to this generalization are the various "animal bridegrooms" that occur in such stories as ‘‘Beauty and the Beast.’’ But here the folktale is again playing with appearance and reality, just as in the case of ''The Frog King.’’ The beast is really a handsome prince enchanted by the forces of evil. When the enchantment is broken, the truth comes to light—and in many cases, the reality is apparent to the heroine long before.
Armand, Désirée's "prince," is rich and handsome, and has a "kingdom," but he is:
associated with darkness from the outset. His estate is a place of terror and his house inspires fear [...] The house, in other words, functions as a symbolic projection onto the landscape of Armand's personality. Armand himself is described, with more than a hint of irony in the first adjective, as having a ''dark handsome face.''
But—the story suggests—this too may only be appearance. After Désirée comes he brightens up and begins to treat his slaves well. But the darkness is not just appearance—it is the reality. The animal bridegroom undergoes no real transformation. The prince is thus somehow unsuitable.
For Röhrich, an anti-fairytale (Antimärchen) is a fairytale where the plot is carried by a negative hero, but even though the prince is not syncretized with the hero here, whenever the features associated with a basic role are negative when they should be positive or neutral it implies and offers justification for a negative ending. Still the death of Désirée cannot be a real ending for the story, however. Even if it is to be an anti-fairytale there remain other expectations that have been raised by the fairytale framework and not yet fulfilled. The question of the origin of the heroine still hovers in the background, for unlike the situation with the negative features associated with Armand, no indication is given that the apparent truth of the accusation raised against Désirée can be anything other than appearance. The question of origin must be answered more satisfactorily to conclude the story. There is thus the second ending.
Critics have found fault with this feature of the story because it appears to be an unexpected trick ending. That Armand should accidentally stumble across a letter from his mother to his father indicating that she was of mixed race, and that thus Armand and not Désirée is responsible for the baby's not being white, may seem too good to be true. But the reader conditioned to the conventions of the fairytale is prepared for this ending. After the death of Désirée the ending is open because the obvious explanation for the race of the baby must be wrong: an accused heroine must be innocent. Yet even if Désirée were responsible for the race of the child, the ending would still be open from the point of view of the reader, since she is innocent in a second sense. She has done nothing, and it is clear that Armand has perpetrated a villainy against her. The prince not only has negative features but has been syncretized with the villain, and the fairytale also raises expectations about villains. The question of origin must be answered more satisfactorily—and the villain must be punished.
The villainy is elaborated on in Armand's attempt to burn everything associated with Désirée and the baby. Since he is clearly identified as the villain he could be punished, e. g. by having the house burn down around him, but this would not answer the still-open question of Désirée's origin. His punishment in the story is more appropriate to the deed and at the same time the question of origin is answered, at least to the satisfaction of the reader. Armand finds out that in order to expunge the guilt, he would have to expunge himself. Given the fairytale framework, the reader is satisfied both with this punishment and because the obvious answer to the open question—and the guilt of the heroine—have been shown to be only appearance.
But in the context of the dialogic, this second ending also has additional significance. The innocence of the heroine has been established and at the same time the villain has been punished, but the ending of the story is still an unhappy one. One appears to be left with the conclusion that folktale solutions to real social problems are unviable, even if the heroine is innocent and the villain is punished. The primary expectation one brings to a fairytale, that there should be a happy ending, is disappointed. But the note that Armand finds also suggests that perhaps it would not have had to have been, that if Désirée had really responded like the typical fairytale heroine, everything might have worked out after all. In the course of the story, Désirée only acts once—in committing suicide. The typical fairytale heroine, cognizant of her own innocence, would not have given up. Instead she would have bravely accepted the necessity of suffering and patiently waited for everything to work out—and it would have. The writer suggests that the same might have been the case with Désirée. She could have returned to Valmondé, as her mother urges, and waited. The reader is not told what Armand's reaction is to finding the note, but perhaps, Chopin suggests, even a villain might turn into a repentant husband. The note indicates that Armand's parents clearly found a solution to comparable problems and lived happily ever after. The note might not just have been the punishment for the villain but also the basis for disenchanting the "animal bridegroom." There is no way of knowing. The first ending remains, though the second questions its inevitability. The circumstances that lead to the suicide of the heroine—the first ending—argue that fairytale solutions to real social problems are unviable. But the second ending, reflecting on the first, asks if they are really as unviable as it seems.
For a normal short story, the second ending would presumably be unnecessary. The fact that the baby is of mixed race would both explain and be explained by the open question involving the heroine's origins, and in the world of the short story, villains do not have to be punished. But the second ending—that demanded by the fairytale framework—both lays bare the arbitrary injustice of the racial mores of the society portrayed and suggests that they might not be as inflexible as it would appear. At the conclusion of the story the tension between the two frames of reference remains unresolved; the genre dialogic continues to raise questions about the necessity of Désirée's committing suicide, the villain status of Armand, and even the inflexibility of the social context. To see the ending as anything other than an integral part of the story is to fail to appreciate how ingeniously Chopin makes use of the juxtaposition of the two frames of reference—the genre dialogic—and to what end. It is not very clear in what sense the story could be successful despite its ending rather than because of it. The second ending follows from the fact that traditional fairytale conventions are used in a short story that ends tragically. Without the second ending the use of such conventions and the expectations they raise would be simply an irrelevancy, and the story would not evoke the interest that it does.
Source: Jon Erickson, ''Fairytale Features in Kate Chopin's 'Désirée's Baby,'’’ in Modes of Narrative: Approaches to American, Canadian and British Fiction, edited by Reingard M. Nischik and Barbara Korte, Konigshausen & Neumann, 1990, pp. 57-64.
Semiotic Subversion in "Désirée's Baby"
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5396
At first ‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ published in 1893 by Kate Chopin, seems no more than a poignant little story with a clever twist at the end. Yet that does not fully explain why the tale is widely anthologized, why it haunts readers with the feeling that, the more it is observed, the more facets it will show. In ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ Chopin, best known as the author of The Awakening, has created a small gem, whose complexity has not yet been fully appreciated. As I explore that complexity, my broader goal is a theoretical one: I plan to show not only that a semiotic and a political approach can be combined, but also that they must be combined in order to do justice to this story and to others like it, stories that lie at the nexus of concerns of sex, race, and class.
A semiotic approach to the work reveals that, despite its brevity, it offers a rich account of the disruption of meaning, and that the character largely responsible for the disruption is Désirée Aubigny, who might on a first reading seem unprepossessing. She is a catalyst, however, for the subversion of meaning. When the semiotic approach is supplemented by a political approach, it can be seen that, in particular, Désirée casts doubt on the meaning of race, sex, and class. In this drama of misinterpretations, she undermines smugness about the ability to read signs, such as skin color, as clear evidence about how to categorize people.
The disruption culminates when Désirée, whom everyone considers white, has a baby boy who looks partly black. When she is rejected by her husband, Armand, she takes the infant, disappears into the bayou, and does not return. Armand later finds out, however, that he himself is black, on his mother's side. Désirée, though unintentionally, has devastated him by means of these two surprises, one concerning her supposed race and one concerning his own.
Using a combined semiotic and political approach, my analysis consists of four steps: I trace how the surprises to Armand disrupt signification; question whether they are actually as subversive as they first appear; shift the focus more definitively to Désirée to show how the story associates her with certain enigmatic, subversive absences; and, finally, discuss how the story criticizes, yet sympathetically accounts for, the limitations of Désirée's subversiveness.
The story takes place in an antebellum Creole community ruled by institutions based on apparently clear dualities: master over slave, white over black, and man over woman. Complacently deciphering the unruffled surface of this symbolic system, the characters feel confident that they know who belongs in which category and what signifies membership in each category. Moreover, as Emily Toth has observed, in the story the three dualities parallel each other, as do critiques of their hierarchical structures.
Within this system of race, sex, and class, the most complacent representative is Armand Aubigny. Confident that he is a white, a male, and a master, he feels in control of the system. In order to understand how his wife challenges signification, we must take a closer look at the surprises that Armand encounters.
The tale begins with a flashback about Désirée's childhood and courtship. She was a foundling adopted by childless Madame and Monsieur Valmondé. Like a queen and king in a fairy tale, they were delighted by her mysterious arrival and named her Désirée, ''the wished-for one,'' ''the desired one.'' She, like a fairytale princess, ''grew to be beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,—the idol of Valmondé.'' When she grew up, she was noticed by Armand, the dashing owner of a nearby plantation. He fell in love immediately and married her. She ‘‘loved him desperately. When he frowned she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God.'' They were not to live happily ever after.
Soon after the story proper opens, Armand meets with the first surprise. He, other people, and finally Désirée see something unusual in her infant son's appearance. She asks her husband what it means, and he replies,''It means ... that the child is not white; it means that you are not white.'' Désirée writes Madame Valmondé a letter pleading that her adoptive mother deny Armand's accusation. The older woman cannot do so but asks Désirée to come home with her baby. When Armand tells his wife he wants her to go, she takes the child and disappears forever into the bayou.
Thus, Armand's first surprise comes when he interprets his baby's appearance to mean that the child and its mother are not white. What seemed white now seems black. Désirée, with the child she has brought Armand, has apparently uncovered a weakness in her husband's ability to decipher the symbols around him.
Ironically, Désirée's power comes from the fact that she seems malleable. Into an established, ostensibly secure system she came as a child apparently without a past. As a wild card, to those around her the girl appeared blank, or appeared to possess non-threatening traits such as submissiveness. Désirée seemed to invite projection: Madame Valmondé wanted a child, Armand wanted a wife, and both deceived themselves into believing they could safely project their desires onto Désirée, the undifferentiated blank screen. Actually, however, her blankness should be read as a warning about the fragility of representation.
One aspect of Désirée's blankness is her pre-Oedipal namelessness. As a foundling, she has lost her original last name and has received one that is hers only by adoption. Even foundlings usually receive a first name of their own, but in a sense Désirée also lacks that, for her first name merely reflects others' "desires." In addition, namelessness has a particularly female cast in this society, since women, including Désirée, lose their last name at marriage. Namelessness connotes not only femaleness but also blackness in antebellum society, where white masters can deprive black slaves of their names. Although Désirée's namelessness literally results only from her status as a foundling and a married woman, her lack of a name could serve figuratively as a warning to Armand that she might be black.
But he sees only what he desires. Before the wedding 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?'' On this virgin page Armand believes he can write his name, the name he inherited from his father or, more broadly, the patriarchal Name of the Father. In addition, as a father, Armand wants to pass on that name to his son. Before he turns against his wife and baby, she exclaims: ‘‘Oh, 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. I know he says that to please me’’ (emphasis added).
The approaching downfall of Armand's wife, and hence of his plans for his name, is foreshadowed by the relationship between Désirée's blankness and another name, that of the slave La Blanche. The mulatta's name refers to the whiteness of her skin, but ‘‘blanche’’ can also mean ‘‘pure’’ or ''blank,'' recalling Désirée's blankness. La Blanche is Désirée's double in several ways. Neither has a "proper" name, only a descriptive one. During the scene in which Armand rejects his wife, he explicitly points out the physical resemblance between the women:
‘‘Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand,’’ [Désirée] laughed hysterically.
''As white as La Blanche's,'' he returned cruelly...
The story also links the two women through their children, for the mistress first notices her son's race when she compares him to one of La Blanche's quadroon sons. And perhaps Armand is the father of La Blanche's son. The two women—and even their sons—may have parallel ties to Armand because of the possible sexual connection between slave and master. So much doubling hints that the slave's racial mix has foreshadowed that of the mistress.
Because La Blanche's name refers to her in the visual but not the racial sense, her appearance illustrates the contradiction of a racial system, that is based on color but does not consider visual evidence conclusive. In this discourse a person who looks white but has a ''drop'' of black ''blood'' is labeled black. As Joel Williamson says, the ''one-drop rule'' would seem definitive but in fact leads to the problem of ‘‘invisible blackness.’’
Miscegenation, which lies at the heart of the contradiction, marks the point at which sexual politics most clearly intersect with racial politics. Theoretically either parent in an interracial union could belong to either race. Nonetheless, ‘‘by far the greatest incidence of miscegenation took place between white men and black female slaves.’’ Even when the white man did not technically rape the black woman, their relationship tended to result from, or at least be characterized by, an imbalance of power in race, sex, and sometimes class. Ironically, descendants of such a union, if their color was ambiguous, embodied a challenge to the very power differential that gave birth to them.
‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ calls attention to the paradoxes that result from miscegenation and the one-drop rule. La Blanche and Désirée look white but are considered black, while ''dark, handsome'' Armand—whose hand looks darker than theirs—is considered white. Désirée's entry into the symbolic system forces Armand to confront the contradiction he ignored in La Blanche, another white-looking woman. A form of poetic justice ensures that the same one-drop rule that enables him to keep La Blanche as a slave causes him to lose Désirée as a wife. After the first surprise, Armand sees Désirée's blankness as blackness, not blanche-ness.
It is crucial to note that Désirée is disruptive, not because she produces flaws in the signifying system but because she reveals flaws that were already there. Long before her marriage, for instance, Armand was considered white and La Blanche was considered black. In a sense, Désirée acts as a mirror, revealing absurdities that were always already there in the institutions but repressed. Her blankness has reflective power.
In another sense, Désirée's potential as a mirror was one of her attractions for Armand, for he wanted her to bear a child that would replicate him—in a flattering way. Armand blames and smashes the mirror that has produced a black reflection. An outsider observing Armand's generally harsh treatment of slaves might, however, see his baby's darkness as another instance of poetic justice, the return of the oppressed.
Similarly, if the baby's darkness comes from his mother, whom Armand dominates, then the child's appearance represents the return of another oppressed group, women. To reproduce the father exactly, the child would have to inherit none of his mother's traits. In a metaphorical sense the first surprise means that Armand learns that his son is not all-male but half-female. The infant is an Aubigny but has inherited some of Désirée's namelessness as well, for we never learn his first name (nor that of his double). More generally, paternal power, the name of the father, seems to have failed to compensate for the mother's blackness or blankness.
To blame someone for the baby's troubling appearance, Armand has followed the exhortation, ‘‘Cherchez la femme.’’ In particular, he is looking for a black mother to blame. He is right to trace semiotic disruption to Désirée, but the trouble is more complex than he at first realizes.
The end of the story brings the second surprise—black genes come to the baby from Armand, through his own mother. Early on, readers have learned that old Monsieur Aubigny married a French woman in France and stayed there until his wife died, at which point he brought eight-year-old Armand to Louisiana. Only after Désirée and her baby have disappeared and her husband is burning their belongings, do he and the readers come across a letter from his mother to his father: ‘‘ ...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.’’ As Joseph Conrad suggested, the ‘‘heart of darkness’’ lies within the self: the letter unveils Armand's ‘‘dark, handsome face’’ to himself.
At this point, several shifts occur. One takes place between wife and husband. For Armand, his wife was originally a screen onto which he could project what he desired. When he found a black mark on the screen, he rejected it. Now he has learned that the mark was a reproduction of his own blackness. The mark, which he considers a taint, moves from her to him.
Another shift takes place between sons and fathers. As Robert D. Arner implies, Armand at first rejects his baby for being the child of a white man and a black woman but then finds that the description fits himself. With blackness, the half-female nature attributed to the baby has also moved to Armand. An inter-generational shift occurs between women as well as men, for the role of black mother has gone from Armand's wife to his mother.
Thus two surprises have profoundly disturbed Armand. As in the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave, these two surprises have shaken the structure of white over black, male over female, and master over slave. Armand, the figure who seemed to belong to the dominant race, sex, and class, is shown to be heir to blackness and femaleness and to belong to the group ‘‘cursed with the brand of slavery.’’ The repressed has returned and drained meaning from the established system of signification.
Nevertheless, these surprises are less subversive than they first appear. The fact that they shake Armand's concept of meaning and punish his arrogance does not mean that they actually change the inequality of power between the sexes, between the races, or between the classes, even on his plantation. Armand might be less sure of his ability to tell black from white, but he probably will not free his slaves. Moreover, through the traumas experienced by Armand, the story invites readers to pity the suffering caused by inequalities of power but not to wonder how those inequalities could change. In other words, the surprises are more disruptive in a semiotic than a political sense; they endanger the system of signification more than the system of domination.
The text directs sympathy less toward black characters than toward characters on the margin between black and white. The story urges us to consider it a pity that Désirée and Armand, brought up as white, must undergo the trauma of receiving the news that they are black. But we are hardly urged to pity the much larger number of people who have lived as enslaved blacks since birth. The implication is that being black might deserve no particular sympathy unless a person was once considered white. The broader effects of race and its relation to slavery remain unexamined.
The problem arises in part because Chopin is using the Tragic Mulatto convention, which appears repeatedly in American literature. It is often easy for white readers to identify with the Tragic Mulatto, because she or he is typically raised as white and only later discovers the trace of blackness. Yet the invocation of "tragedy" introduces problems, partly because it implies resignation to the inevitable. The very idea of a Tragic Mulatto also suggests that mulattoes may be more tragic, more deserving of pity, than people of purely black ancestry.
Moreover, the very notion of pity is inadequate as a political response and can even have a conservative effect. The limitations of pity are best observed by looking at the traces of sexism that, like traces of racism, appear as a residue in the text. The parallel between racism and sexism in the story is complicated, because insufficient concern for blacks and slaves corresponds to excessive concern for women. Excessive concern can be debilitating for women by defining them solely as victims.
When Désirée walks away, apparently to her death, the tale most strongly urges readers to show such concern for women. This arises because of the sympathetic way in which the entire story has represented her. She is good: ''beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere.’’ She is appealing: ‘‘'Armand,' she called to him, in a voice which must have stabbed him, if he was human.’’ She is vulnerable: ‘‘Her hair was uncovered and the sun's rays brought a golden gleam from its brown meshes ... She walked across a deserted field, where the stubble bruised her tender feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin gown to shreds.’’ This doe-like character joins a long line of women who, by dying at the end of a story or a novel, call forth readers' tears. In particular, Tragic Mulattoes tend to be mulattas.
But scrutiny of such endings raises the discomfiting possibility that they rely on feminine vulnerability in order to move readers. A strong, rebellious, surviving heroine might not provide such tidily tragic closure. I am not suggesting that Désirée's pain should be presented less sympathetically; rather, I am questioning the implication that a less vulnerable woman would deserve less concern.
The connection of pity with race, class, and sex is noteworthy in the double of Désirée's baby—La Blanche's quadroon son. In contrast to Désirée's bruised feet, his bare feet are described merely as coming in contact with a polished floor, for the story presents only Désirée as suffering from the lack of sturdy shoes. Here the stress on feminine vulnerability combines with the acceptance of black slavery, as if it were a pity for a person such as Désirée to suffer: a member of the weak sex, someone who at least used to belong to groups that do not deserve such treatment—the race with ''a golden gleam'' in their hair and the class with the right to ''tender feet.’’
For these reasons, even though the meanings of race, sex, and class are threatened by Armand's surprises, those two events do not seriously disturb the system of power relations. The story invites sympathy for Désirée partly on the sexist grounds that feminine women are weak and on the racist grounds that white members of the master class do not deserve to be treated like black slaves.
Twentieth-century readers may be troubled to find that Armand's surprises have a less subversive effect than at first seemed possible. The ideologies behind them can be better understood if placed in historical context. Because the story is set in the era of slavery, its verisimilitude would falter if Armand suddenly reformed and freed his slaves. We must also consider the era in which the story was written and originally read, for the late nineteenth century in the United States was marked by a rebounding prejudice against blacks. Attitudes towards women also differed substantially from those of the late twentieth century: even the women's movement drew on notions of female purity and martyrdom that sound strange today but were part of nineteenth-century discourse. Thus it would be anachronistic to expect more subversiveness from the traumas experienced by Armand.
Some of these problems can be mitigated, however, by thinking more carefully about the text—or rather about what is missing from the text. Shifting the focus more definitively to Désirée discloses certain enigmatic, disruptive absences.
Almost everyone who has written on the story has mentioned, favorably or unfavorably, the concluding revelation about Armand's mother. This final twist recalls the surprise endings of Guy de Maupassant, who strongly influenced Chopin. While evoking sympathy for Désirée, the twist essentially turns backward to tradition and male power: the very presence of a plot twist may reflect Chopin's inheritance from de Maupassant, a literary forefather; in the ending the focus of narrative point of view is Armand, upholder of conservative values; and the female character earns sympathy largely through a sentimental convention—through powerless, victimized innocence. In fact, my discussion itself has so far concentrated on surprises undergone by Armand, a figure of male conservatism. I agree with Cynthia Griffin Wolff that we should cease analyzing the surprise ending and look elsewhere.
Instead of concentrating on the ending, with its conservative, male orientation, we should turn to Désirée, who is absent from the ending. Although submissive, the young woman does have some power. Her boldest action is disappearance, but she does act. While she neither desires nor anticipates the havoc she wreaks, she does catalyze the entire plot.
Through Armand, we have already started to see how the meanings of race, class, and sex are crumbling. Désirée offers two greater challenges to meaning, because she may not be wholly white and because she may not die in the bayou. These are enigmas, in the sense used in S/Z, and they remain inconspicuously unsolved, both for readers and, apparently, for other characters. The enigmas are silent, formless absences that cannot be found in any specific location.
To begin with, Désirée may be black—and thus a black mother—after all. If she is black, that mitigates some of the racism I discussed earlier. Instead of being a white character who deserves sympathy for unjust treatment that includes the accusation of being black, she is a black character whose unjust treatment, minus the accusation, on its own account deserves sympathy. Whether or not Désirée is black, the impossibility of knowing her race reveals the fragility of meaning more than Armand's knowable race does. The presence of a traditional, male-oriented twist located at the end of the story veils a troubling, female-oriented absence—of knowledge based on skin color or on writing—that has no particular location.
Désirée's is troubling in another way as well. The tale says, ‘‘She disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again,'' but it never actually says she dies. Just as it is possible that she is partly black, so it is possible that she (with the baby) is alive. If so, that survival mitigates some of the sexism I discussed earlier. Désirée deserves sympathy even if she does not pay for it with her life. In addition, if she does not kill herself, she is saying in effect that life is worth living even if she is black and has lost Armand's love. Indeed, by escaping she has freed herself from those who once projected their desires on her. Even if she does kill herself and her child in the bayou, it is significant that the deaths are absent from the text, because in this way the work allows some hope, however slight, for the race, class, and sex the characters represent. Like the impossibility of knowing Désirée's race, the impossibility of knowing her death offers a challenge to complacency about knowledge.
As the two unsolved enigmas suggest, the challenge to meaning, like Désirée, tends to operate negatively, through nonsense. She sometimes cries out unconsciously and involuntarily or remains completely silent. These traits appear in the scene where she notices her baby is black:
" Ah!" It was a cry that she could not help; which she was not conscious of having uttered ...
She tried to speak to the little quadroon boy; but no sound would come, at first. When he heard his name uttered, he looked up, and his mistress was pointing to the door.
She at first seemed no threat to the signifying structure she had entered, but the very inarticulateness of this blank card reveals that the system of signification sometimes breaks down.
By creating Désirée's enigmas—the possibility that she is black and the possibility that she and her baby are alive—Chopin to some extent resists the racism and sexism to which she was urged by much in her historical moment. It is important that the enigmas are not just difficult but decipherable puzzles that, when solved, would clearly state that Désirée was black and alive. Instead, the enigmas have the elusive indeterminacy typical of Désirée.
As we have seen, Armand first thinks his wife is white, but he decides he has misinterpreted her. He thinks his wife is black and solely responsible for their son's blackness, but again Armand finds he has misinterpreted. Although unsettling, both incidents leave intact the hope that knowledge can correct misinterpretations. Yet the absences associated with Désirée erode some of that semiotic hope. Because the readers—and probably the characters—never know whether she is partly black and whether she survives the bayou, the story throws into question the very possibility of knowledge, at least in some cases.
It would be satisfying to end on that note, but I must add that Désirée still disrupts the practice of domination less than semiotic practice. While sympathetic to her, Chopin reveals the limitations of some of the character's values. Of course the author does not hold twentieth-century beliefs; yet she is far enough from Désirée's antebellum era to present a critique indicating that the young woman, as a product of her society, has internalized so many of its values that she can never fully attack it. Chopin subtly indicates that, in spite of the disruptiveness of Désirée's enigmas, her subversiveness remains limited, for three main reasons.
To begin with, Désirée is excessively dependent on the unconscious. She is "unconscious," in the sense that she is unaware. For example, Désirée is the last to realize that her child is not white, and it never occurs to her that her baby's blackness comes from her husband. On another level, she often seems unaware of herself, driven by her own unconscious. Her actions after discovering the baby's race seem trance-like, as if in a dream—or nightmare. And, as has been shown above, she sometimes cries out involuntarily. On still another level, Désirée's lack of political consciousness could also be seen as a kind of "unconsciousness." None of this detracts from her raw power, but uncontrollable power can be as dangerous to those who wield it as to others.
The second restriction on Désirée's subversiveness comes from a certain negative quality. Through her silence (and inarticulateness), through the story's silence about her enigmas, and through her final absence, she disrupts her society's signifying system by revealing its contradictions and meaninglessness. She does destroy complacency about knowledge. Yet all this is not enough. Destruction often must precede creation but cannot in itself suffice. Désirée creates nothing but a baby, whom she certainly takes away, and perhaps kills.
Even Désirée's destructiveness is limited, for she possesses another negative trait: she is ‘‘essentially passive.’’ She is discovered by Monsieur Valmondé, she is discovered by Armand, she is filled with joy or fear by her husband's volatile moods, and, while lying on a couch and recovering slowly from childbirth, she is visited by Madame Valmondé. Désirée is immersed in her husband's value system and never stands up to him, not even to interpret the meaning of his dark skin or the baby's, much less to criticize his racism, his sexism, or his treatment of slaves. When she finally acts, she pleads ineffectually with her husband, writes ineffectually to her mother, and then takes the most passive action possible—she disappears. Like the suicide of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, Désirée's disappearance is hardly a triumph.
The third weakness lies in Désirée's lack of a sense of political solidarity. She acts only individually or as part of a nuclear family, never as part of a broader group. She fails to acknowledge ties with anyone outside the family who belongs to her sex or to her newly attributed race and class. Her similarity to La Blanche, for instance, fills her with horror. In fact, in Désirée's final efforts to win back Armand she is seeking someone she thinks is her diametric opposite—a white male, assured of his place as master. The only exception to Désirée's final solitude is her baby. But even he cannot represent any kind of political bonding. Even if she does not murder him, nothing indicates that she sees him as linked to her in shared oppression.
Désirée' s individualism resembles that of other characters. For instance, the general condition of blacks and slaves never really comes into question. Madame Valmondé, like Désirée, regrets that one individual, Armand, treats his slaves cruelly, but not that he or other people own slaves in the first place. Instead of recognizing the institutional nature of exploitation based on race, class, and sex, Désirée and others seem to feel that problems stem from the lack of certain personal qualities, such as pity or sympathy. ‘‘Young Aubigny's rule was a strict one ... and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master's easygoing and indulgent lifetime.’’ Indulgence rather than emancipation is presented as the alternative to Armand's harshness. In a similar vein, individualizing love is shown as the ''antidote to the poison of Armand's racial abstraction.’’ His love for his wife and baby causes him to treat the slaves well for a while. This makes Désirée happy, but she does not question whether one man's moods should have such power over other people.
Chopin sympathetically but critically shows that her characters define problems in terms of the lack of individualistic qualities such as love and mercy, not in terms of the subordination of one group by another. I do not mean to say that individual virtues totally lack value, only that they may not suffice to solve certain problems. In short, though some characters feel pity for slaves, blacks, and women, the assumption that they are inferior goes unquestioned.
In this ideology, superiors should have a sense of noblesse oblige, but they remain superior. Concerning sex, race, and class, Désirée upsets systems of meaning but—by failing to connect the personal with the political—stops short of attacking hierarchical power structures. Disruption of meaning could lead to, and may be necessary for, political disruption, but Désirée does not take the political step.
Instead of attacking the meaningfulness of racial difference as a criterion for human rights, Désirée takes a more limited step: she reveals that racial difference is more difficult to detect than is commonly supposed. In this view, suffering can result if people classify each other too hastily or if, having finished the sorting process, people treat their inferiors cruelly. But the system of racial difference, with its built-in hierarchy, persists. In this system, superiority is still meaningful; the only difficulty lies in detecting it. It is no wonder that those viewed as inferior do not unite with each other.
Chopin presents these three reasons—unconsciousness, negativeness, and lack of solidarity—to help explain why Désirée does reveal her society's lack of knowledge but fails to change its ideological values, much less its actual power hierarchies. She poses so little threat to the dominant power structures that she holds a relatively privileged position for most of her life. Yet subversiveness need not be bound so tightly to traits such as unconsciousness that make it self-limiting.
Désirée's semiotic subversiveness should be taken seriously. Her disruption of meaning may even be necessary, but Chopin skillfully suggests it is not sufficient.
Source: Ellen Peel, ‘‘Semiotic Subversion in 'Désirée's Baby,'’’ in American Literature, Vol. 62, No. 2, June 1990, pp. 223-37.
The Fiction of Limits: 'Désirée's Baby'
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3439
For many years, ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ was the one piece of Chopin's fiction most likely to be known; even today, despite the wide respect that her second novel has won, there are still readers whose acquaintance with Chopin's work is restricted to this one, widely-anthologized short story. Rankin, who did not feel the need to reprint ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ in Kate Chopin and Her Creole Tales, nonetheless judged it ''perhaps ... one of the world's best short stories.’’ Unfortunately, Rankin left future critics a terminology with which to describe the value of this and other studies in Bayou Folk: it had the ‘‘freshness which springs from an unexplored field—the quaint and picturesque life among the Creole and Acadian folk of the Louisiana bayous.’’ In short, it was excellent ''regional'' work—hence limited to certain circumscribed triumphs.
Critics' tendency to dismiss Chopin's fiction as little more than local color began to diminish by the late 1950s; nevertheless, old habits died hard. ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ continued to be the most frequently anthologized of her short fictions, and while the comments on it strained after some larger tragic significance, the definition of that ''tragedy'' was still formulated almost exclusively in "regional" terms. Claude M. Simpson introduces the tale in his collection with a brief essay on the local color movement and concludes that the story draws its effect from a reader's appreciation of the impartial cruelties of the slave system. Several years later, in another anthology of American short stories, Eugene Current-Garcia and Walton R. Patrick give Chopin credit (again as a regionalist) for daring to touch upon the forbidden subject of miscegenation; and, of course, the story they select to illustrate Chopin's particular talent is ‘‘Désirée's Baby.’’
Other critics, still acknowledging the importance of regional elements in the tale, seek to discover the reasons for its persistently compelling quality by examining the structure. Thus Larzer Ziff observes that ‘‘the most popular of Mrs. Chopin's stories, while they make full use of the charming lilt of Creole English and the easy openness of Creole manners, concern themselves, as do Maupassant's, with some central quirk or turn in events which reverses the situation that was initially presented.’’ He cites the conclusion of ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ as an example: ‘‘So, characteristically, does the Chopin story depend on a twist.'' Taking a similar view, Per Seyersted remarks the ‘‘taut compression and restrained intensity'' of the tale and then notes (with some asperity) that ‘‘the surprise ending, though somewhat contrived, has a bitter, piercing quality that could not have been surpassed by [Maupassant] himself.'' Yet, in the final analysis, these judgments are no more satisfactory than those that grow from the more narrow definition of Chopin as ‘‘local colorist'': if significant effects are seldom achieved merely through a deft management of dialect and scenery, it is also the case that a ''trick'' or ''surprise'' conclusion is almost never a sufficient means by which to evoke a powerful and poignant reaction from the reader.
Thus ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ remains an enigma. We still tend to admire it and to demonstrate our admiration by selecting it to appear in anthologies; yet the admiration is given somewhat grudgingly—perhaps because we cannot fully comprehend the story. The specifically Southern elements of the story seem significant; however, the nature of their force is not clear. The reversal of the situation that concludes the tale is important (although to a discerning reader it may well be no surprise), but, contrary to Seyersted's remarks, the story's full impact patently does not derive from this writer's "trick." And while the story has been accepted as characteristic of Chopin's work, it is in several ways unusual or unique—being the only one of her fictions to touch upon the subject of miscegenation, for example. We might respond to this accumulation of contradictions by assuming that a mistake has been made somewhere along the line—that the tale has been misinterpreted or that it is not really representative of Chopin's fiction. Yet such an assumption would not explain the force of those many years ofreaders' response; in the end, it would not resolve the persistent enigma of ‘‘Désirée's Baby.’’ Alternatively, we might try to understand why critics' judgments of the story have been so different, presuming such judgments to be insufficient but not, perhaps, fundamentally incorrect. But more importantly, we must expand our vision of the story in order to see precisely those ways in which it articulates and develops themes that are central to other of Chopin's works.
A majority of Chopin's fictions are set in worlds where stability or permanence is a precarious state: change is always threatened—by the vagaries of impassive fate, by the assaults of potentially ungovernable individual passions, or merely by the inexorable passage of time. More generally, we might say that Chopin construes existence as necessarily uncertain. By definition, then, to live is to be vulnerable; and the artist who would capture the essence of life will turn his attention to those intimate and timeless moments when the comforting illusion of certainty is unbalanced by those forces that may disrupt and destroy. Insofar as Chopin can be said to emulate Maupassant, who stands virtually alone as her avowed literary model, we might say that she strives to look ‘‘out upon life through [her] own being and with [her] own eyes''; that she desires no more than to tell us what she sees ‘‘in a direct and simple way.’’ Nor is Chopin's vision dissimilar to Maupassant's, for what she sees is the ominous and insistent presence of the margin: the inescapable fact that even our most vital moments must be experienced on the boundary—always threatening to slip away from us into something else, into some dark, undefined contingency. The careful exploration of this bourne is, in some sense, then, the true subject for much of her best fiction.
Certainly it is the core subject of ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’—a story that treats layers of ambiguity and uncertainty with ruthless economy. Indeed, the tale is almost a paradigmatic study of the demarcating limits of human experience, and—since this subject is so typically the center of Chopin's attention—our continuing intuition that this story is a quite appropriate selection to stand as ''representative'' of her work must be seen as fundamentally correct. What is more, if we understand the true focus of this fiction, we are also in a position to comprehend the success of its conclusion. The "twist" is no mere writer's trick; rather, it is the natural consequence—one might say the necessary and inevitable concomitant—of life as Chopin construes it.
At the most superficial level in ‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ there are distinctions that attend coloration, differences of pigment that carry definitions of social caste and even more damning implications about the "value" of one's "identity." The problem of race is managed quite idiosyncratically in this tale: we have already noted that this is the only one of Chopin's many stories to treat miscegenation directly or explicitly; however, we can be ever more emphatic—this is the only story even to probe the implications of those many hues of skin that were deemed to comprise the "negro" population. Yet from the very beginning Chopin focuses our attention upon this element with inescapable determination: she chooses not to use dialect conversation; she reduces the description of architecture and vegetation to a minimum—leaving only the thematically necessary elements. The result is a tale where the differences between "black" and "white" remain as the only way to locate the events—its only "regional" aspects, if you will—and we cannot avoid attending to them.
Yet for all this artistic direction, Chopin is clearly not primarily interested in dissecting the social problem of slavery (as Cable might be); rather, she limits herself almost entirely to the personal and the interior. Thus the dilemma of "color" must ultimately be construed emblematically, with the ironic and unstated fact that human situations can never be as clear as ‘‘black and white.’’
In the antebellum South, much private security depended upon the public illusion that whites lived within a safe compound, that a barrier of insurmountable proportions separated them from the unknown horrors of some lesser existence, and that these territorial boundaries were clear and inviolable. The truth, of course, was that this was an uncertain margin, susceptible to a multitude of infractions and destined to prove unstable. At its very beginning, the story reminds us of inevitable change ahead: Désirée is presumed to have been left ‘‘by a party of Texans’’—pioneers en route to the territory whose slave policies were so bitterly contested when it was annexed that they proved to be a significant precursor to the Civil War that followed. Chopin's touch is light: the implications of this detail may be lost to a modern audience, but they would have loomed mockingly to a reader in 1892, especially a Southern reader.
Even within the supposedly segregated social system there is abundant evidence of violation. ''And the way he cried,''' Désirée's remarks proudly of her lusty child; ''Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche's cabin.’’ What color is La Blanche, we might wonder, and what was Armand's errand in her cabin? ‘‘One of La Blanche's little quadroon boys ... stood fanning the child slowly,'' and he becomes a kind of nightmare double (perhaps a half-brother, in fact) for Désirée's baby—a visual clue to the secret of this infant's mixed blood; eventually, his presence provokes the shock of recognition for Désirée. ‘‘She looked from her child to the boy who stood beside him, and back again; over and over. 'Ah!' It was a cry that she could not help; which she was not conscious of having uttered.’’ None of the "blacks" is referred to as actually dark-skinned; even the baby's caretaker is a ‘‘yellow nurse.’’
In the end, only Armand's skin is genuinely colored—a ‘‘dark, handsome face’’ momentarily brightened, it would seem, by the happiness of marriage. And if this description gives a literal clue to the denouement of the story's mystery, it is even more effective as an index to character. Armand has crossed that shadowy, demonic boundary between mercy and kindness on the one hand and cruelty on the other. His posture towards the slaves in his possession has always been questionable—his ‘‘rule was a strict one ... and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master's easygoing and indulgent lifetime.’’ Little wonder, then, that when his wife's child displeases him, ‘‘the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him.’’ His inhumanity towards Désirée and the servants alike bespeaks an irreversible journey into some benighted region; and the bonfire, by whose light he reads that last, fateful letter, is no more than a visible sign of the triumph of those powers of darkness in his soul. Thus when Désirée exclaims wonderingly, ‘‘my skin is fair ... Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand,’’ her comment may be relevant to the parentage of each; however, within the context of the story, it figures more reliably as a guide to the boundaries of humane behavior.
Underlying this insistent preoccupation with the literal question of color, then, is Chopin's ironic perception of the tenuous quality of such distinctions: it is simplistic to call "quadroons" and ‘‘yellows" "blacks" and "negroes." And if we move from this overt level into the labyrinth of the human soul, we will discover a man who has become lost in the wilderness of his own ''blackest'' impulses—a master who reverts to tyranny and is possessed by Satan, by the only absolute darkness in the tale. The lesser existence into which Armand sinks stems not from his Negroid parentage, but from a potential for personal evil that he shares with all fellow creatures (as the leitmotif imagery of salvation and damnation suggests). Thus the horror that underlies Chopin's tale—and the ultimate mystery of ''black and white'' as she defines it—is not really limited to the social arrangements of the Southern slave system at all.
A world of evil is one sort of wilderness that lies along the margins of our most mundane activities, but it is not the only horror that lies in wait. Our moments of most joyful passion, too, threaten us with a form of annihilation: to be open to love is to be vulnerable to invasions that we can neither foresee nor fully protect ourselves against. Thus Chopin's rendering of the love between Désirée and Armand is an insistent compression of opposites. Armand is supposed to have fallen in love at first sight: ‘‘That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot ... The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles.'' The difference in Armand's life between love and some other force—something equally turbulent but more reckless and cruel—is no more than a hair's breadth or the fluttering of an eye. Linguistically, the two forces cannot be separated at all.
In Désirée's case, the peril of emotional entanglement has different origins; yet if anything, it is even more dangerous. She has been God's gift to her adoptive parents, the child of love as her name implies, helpless and delicate and unable to comprehend anything but love in its purest manifestations, ‘‘beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,—the idol of Valmondé.'' Of the other side of love— of violence and baser passions—she is entirely innocent. In fact, innocence is her most marked characteristic, a kind of child-like, helpless ignorance. ''It made [Madame Valmondé] laugh to think of Désirée with a baby. Why, it seemed but yesterday that Désirée was little more than a baby herself.’’ Repeatedly, Chopin displays her infantine charm: Désirée couched with her baby, for example, ‘‘in her soft white muslins and laces,’’ looking like nothing so much as a child herself. The vulnerability of such innocence is captured in her naive questions, in her trusting tendency to turn to her husband who has rejected her, even in the fragility of her garments that were surely intended only for one whose life might be protected from harsh contingencies. When Désirée married, she came to live at her husband's plantation, L'Abri (The Shelter); and such a home seems right, even necessary, for this delicate creature, even though the physical realities of the estate belie its name.''The roof came down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemn oaks grew close to it, and thick-leaved, far-reaching branches shadowed it like a pall.’’ However, Désirée must accept this refuge at mere face value: she cannot bring herself to see the ominous possibilities in those ancestral trees that portend both life and death.
In the end, Désirée cannot withstand the shock of being forced to acknowledge the contingencies whose existence she has ignored for so long. When Armand's love slips into cruelty, when L'Abri echoes with sibilant mockery, Désirée loses her own tenuous grasp on the balance of life. For her there seems only one choice, one final boundary to cross; and the alternatives are measured by the line between civilization and the patient, hungry bayou that lies just beyond. Madness, murder, death—all these wait to claim the love-child who could not keep her stability in the face of life's inescapable contrarieties. ‘‘She took the little one from the nurse's arms with no word of explanation, and descending the steps, walked away, under the live-oak branches ... Désirée had not changed the thin white garments nor the slippers which she wore ... She walked across a deserted field, where the stubble bruised her tender feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin gown to shreds. She disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again.''
Much of the effect of this tale derives from the understatement that Chopin employs to render Désirée's annihilation and Armand's inescapable, internal hell. Even more, perhaps, the effect comes from the economy with which she captures the precariousness of the human condition—the persistent shadow-line that threads its way through all of the significant transactions of our lives. This is, perhaps, the most consistent theme in all of Chopin's fictions. We can see it in her choice of subject—preoccupation with marriage that may be either destructive or replenishing, the relationship between mother and child that is both hindering of personal fulfillment and necessary for full womanly development, and the convulsive effects of emergent sexuality. We can see it even more subtly (but more insistently) in her imagistic patterns.
As early as the first novel Chopin was already focusing on the implications of that margin between the bayou and the transient clearing of the domesticated plantation, although her management of this theme is less skillful than it will become in later works. Mélicent is charmed by Grégoire's Southern passion and inclined to suppose that it is harmless—merely a game. Similarly, she is intrigued by the tropical bayou and disposed to project her simple, uncomplicated imagination into its dark recesses: ‘‘The wildness of the scene caught upon her erratic fancy, speeding it for a quick moment into the realms of romance.’’ Very soon, Mélicent realizes that there is an unknowable, primitive force in the bayou's depth—something that both frightens and repels her. ‘‘Nameless voices—weird sounds that awake in a Southern forest at twilight's approach,—were crying a sinister welcome to the settling gloom.'' Eventually, she is shocked by a similarly ominous and irrational strain in Grégoire's passion for her, the hint of a potential for blind destruction. In both cases, Chopin demonstrates Mélicent's reluctance and innocence by showing her need to honor certain boundaries that society has drawn. She ventures out in the pirogue only once, shunning the bayou thereafter; eventually, she rejects the lover, too, by returning to the safety of her Northern home.
Much later, when she wrote The Awakening, Chopin would again employ this metaphor of margins (as she had throughout the many stories written between her first and second novels); and in this work the theme appears with consummate artistry. Here Chopin deals with the many implications of Edna Pontellier's emergent sexuality—both its positive and its destructive elements. The irresistible sensual call of the sun and sea echoes throughout the book to render the tidal pull of the heroine's nascent feelings; and throughout there is a linguistic insistence upon the significance of boundaries and of their violation. Indeed, the earliest descriptive passages announce the motif: we are at the beach where water meets land, sky meets water; and in the tropical white sun, demarcating lines waver uncertainly. ''[Mr. Pontellier] fixed his gaze upon a white sunshade that was advancing at a snail's pace from the beach. He could see it plainly between the gaunt trunks of the water-oaks and across the stretch of yellow camomile. The gulf looked far away, melting hazily into the blue of the horizon.’’ As the novel progresses, this initial statement of theme is expanded to include many paired possibilities— sleeping and waking, freedom and isolation, life and death—and the almost unendurable tension that is felt by all who must maintain at a balanced separation between the warring opposites in life is suggested by Chopin's repeated use of the word "melting."
The vision in all of Chopin's best fiction is consummately interior, and it draws for strength upon her willingness to confront the bleak fact of life's tenuous stabilities. Read quite independently, ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ may be judged a superb piece of short fiction—an economical tight psychological drama. However, seen in the more ample context of Chopin's complete work, the story accrues added significance as the most vivid and direct statement of her major concern—the fiction of limits.
Source: Cynthia Griffin Wolff, ‘‘The Fiction of Limits: 'Désirée's Baby,'’’ in Kate Chopin, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 35-42.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2499
Kate Chopin read widely, and recognized literary conventions when she saw them. In her diary entry for May 12, 1894, she writes of her neighbor Mrs. Hull's story, which involves
a girl with Negro blood who is loved by a white man. Possessing a noble character she effaces herself and he knows her no more. She dies of consumption.
The story is a theme ‘‘which Cable has used effectively,’’ Chopin notes, and adds that for herself, ''I have no objection to a commonplace theme if it be handled artistically or with originality.’’ But Mrs. Hull, sadly, lacks ‘‘freshness, spontaneity or originality of perception. The whole tendency is in the conventional groove.’’
Kate Chopin expected of Mrs. Hull, then, what she expected of herself: that conventional material be handled creatively.
In her writings, Chopin uses the term conventional only in its least favorable senses: lacking in originality, dutiful, derivative, trite. In her essay on the Western Association of Writers, for instance, she criticizes their conservative ‘‘clinging to past and conventional standards,’’ ignoring the real world outside ‘‘ethical and conventional standards.’’ She approves of Hamlin Garland's suggestion that ‘‘the youthful artist should free himself from the hold of conventionalism’’; she dislikes the representation of Edwin Booth through his letters, ‘‘expressions wrung from him by the conventional demands of his daily life.’’
But Kate Chopin recognized in her own fiction the artistic value of social convention, as a contrast with the independent and questioning qualities of her best characters. She also saw the uses of literary conventions: procedures or devices a writer takes over from earlier works. Any writer has a certain storehouse of forms and images to draw upon: techniques, plots, or characters which have been repeatedly used by numerous authors, often in different periods and with special modifications for the time. Still, in each period a convention must be accepted as conventional by the writer's audience: the audience must recognize the writer's shorthand, or much of the writer's meaning is lost.
Thus the shrewd author can use conventions as Kate Chopin did, to attract readers—and then to lead them beyond convention to new insights, beyond ‘‘that outward existence which conforms’’ and into ‘‘the inward life that questions.’’
Throughout her works, Chopin uses numerous literary conventions to present women and black people. In At Fault (1890), for example, the central female characters are distinguished by coloring and character, Thérèse Lafirme resembling the Fair Maiden and Fanny Hosmer approximating the Dark Lady, to use Leslie Fielder's terminology. As is conventional, the Dark Lady drowns, and the hero marries the Fair Maiden. The story has few surprises.
As for Chopin's early black characters, many of them fit the Contented Slave or Happy Darkey convention: see, for instance, ‘‘For Marse Chouchote’’ (1891), ‘‘The Bênitous' Slave’’ (1892) and ‘‘Old Aunt Peggy’’ (1892). Joçint in At Fault bears some resemblance to the Brute Negro; many minor characters provide local color. Although Chopin knew she was using conventional materials in these and other stories involving blacks, not all critics have recognized that fact. Richard Potter, for example, asserts that Chopin was not ‘‘in step with her times’’ and that her pictures of white brutality, paradoxical white attitudes, and the "curse" of slavery have not appeared in other southern authors until recent years.
While these are important subjects in Chopin, they are also significant in Grace King and especially in George W. Cable, who was writing fifteen years before Chopin. Kate Chopin's originality lies not in her use of the themes Potter mentions, but in her combination of these themes with a criticism of the role of women. In The Grandissimes (1880), Cable criticizes white women for their ineffectuality; in her stories, most notably in ‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ Chopin explains the powerlessness of women, both white and black, through using the Tragic Mulatto convention.
The Tragic Mulatto, or Tragic Octoroon, convention is more often than not based on the idea that racial inheritance determines character. A reductio ad absurdum of this idea appears in Roark Bradford's This Side of Jordan:
The blade of a razor flashed through the air ... Her Negro blood sent it unerringly between two ribs. Her Indian blood sent it back for a third slash.
But better and more thoughtful writers like George W. Cable, William Faulkner, and Kate Chopin recognize that it is not a person's inherited race which determines character, but society's reaction to race. In other words, environment plays a major role in shaping an individual's character.
The Tragic Octoroon, whether in life or art, has a divided inheritance. In the most conventional literature, the Tragic Octoroon has a constant conflict between the passions (inherited from the black side) and the intellect (from the white portion). The male Tragic Octoroon is militant, rebellious, and melancholy, much like Harriet Beecher Stowe's George Harris in Uncle Tom's Cabin; the female is beautiful and, usually, self-sacrificing—like Stowe's Eliza. She is often seen on the auction block, as in William Wells Brown's Clot el (1853) and Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon (1859), and her closeness to the white beauty ideal makes her the perfect vehicle for creating pity and terror in a white audience.
The male of mixed blood has never been so interesting to writers as the female—and indeed, the term ''octoroon'' is rarely applied to men. Conventionally, the white-appearing female could be recognized as octoroon through a few vestiges of her black ancestry, most notably (as in Boucicault' s The Octoroon) the bluish tinge in her nails and the faint blue mark in the white of her eyes. As with Stowe's Eliza, the octoroon's hair is as straight, her features as keen, and her feet as dainty as any Caucasian woman's.
In ‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ Chopin appears to be writing about the tragic octoroon, female—until the dénouement reveals her actual, unconventional theme.
For more than half a century, ''Désirée' s Baby'' (1893) kept Kate Chopin's name alive. When The Awakening (1899) was condemned for alleged immorality and its author ostracized most of her other works quickly faded from view. Only ‘‘Désirée's Baby'' remained continuously in print, a staple of short story collections, and so well-known that its plot is sometimes confused with The Awakening's. But like most short stories, ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ has attracted very little serious attention: to date, only articles by Robert D. Arner and Cynthia Griffin Wolff.
Arner's criticism of the story concerns its multiple ironies, and the human need for love to overcome rigid racial differences. Arner discusses, briefly, the relationship between character and environment, but much of his article is devoted to the tale's imagery: contrasts between light and dark, oppositions between God/Providence and Satan. Arner sees ‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ correctly, as a mixture of the Uncle Tom's Cabin and Clarissa Harlowe traditions, both traditions with enormous popular appeal.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in contrast, is more concerned with the story's psychological aspects. She notes that critics have, mistakenly in her opinion, attributed the tale's tragic significance to its "regional" qualities, or to the sudden twist at the end. To Wolff, the core of ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ is the tension between stability and impermanence, the shadowy line between humane behavior and the human potential for evil.
‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ is, of course, ironic, symbolic, regional, and psychological. Yet neither Arner nor Wolff, nor the other critics who have made briefer comments on the story, have seen it as a political analysis of slavery. ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ is not simply the story of one master and his wife; its power derives from what it says about slavery and character, about women and blacks in a patriarchal society—and what it says is grafted upon literary convention as a vehicle.
‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ written in late 1892, is about a foundling discovered by M. Valmondé, whose wife had despaired of having a child. Désirée grows up to be beautiful, gentle, affectionate, and sincere. Armand Aubigny, riding past her home, falls violently in love with her and marries her, despite her unknown origins.
A short time after Désirée gives birth to a baby boy, all is changed, for Armand notices that the child is not entirely white in appearance. Armand ignores Désirée, or speaks to her cruelly. Soon he tells her that she is not white. When Désirée's adopted mother asks her to come home and bring the child, Désirée leaves Armand—but turns toward the bayou instead of home, and is never seen again.
After burning Désirée's effects, Armand finds a letter from his dead mother to his dead father. The mother gives thanks for her husband's love, and to
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.
In the final ironic reversal, then, it is Armand—the master of the plantation—who is black.
‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ is about environment, the effect of slavery on men's character. It is also about the parallels between roles of women and blacks (or ''persons of color''). Chopin shows that color caste and economic superiority develop certain unenviable but inevitable qualities in the white masters. She admired Emerson, who wrote of the slave owner that he enjoyed
the existence, beside the covetousness, of a bitterer element, the love of power, the voluptuousness of holding a human being in his absolute control.
Armand has this unchecked power, and a disposition to go with it: his is an ‘‘imperious and exacting nature'' prone to violence in thought and action. Even his falling in love comes ''as if struck by a pistol shot.’’ His plantation is funereal and forbidding, too long without ''the gentle presence of a mistress,’’ since old M. Aubigny, Armand's father, had stayed with his wife in France. Désirée's presence does not moderate her surroundings, although falling in love improves Armand's temper: his ''dark, handsome face had not often been disfigured by frowns since the day he fell in love with her.’’
Toward his slaves Armand is harsh, cruel. He finds his identity in possession and domination. But with a son to follow him, he can relax his iron grasp on his slaves. As Désirée reports happily to her stepmother, since the boy's birth her husband has not punished a single slave—not even one who pretended to burn his leg in order to avoid work. But after Armand thinks he has discovered mixed blood in Désirée, ‘‘the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his dealings with the slaves.’’ His attitude toward his wife parallels his actions toward his slaves.
Armand's Satanic conduct associates him, as do his funereal surroundings, with the powers of darkness, in contrast with the whiteness of Désirée. Like the angelic feminine figures of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction, Désirée is constantly seen in white. When she leaves, her white feet and white gown are torn—reminiscent of Elizags escape in Uncle Tom's Cabin and the trials of Christian saints. White and black are thus signs of morality, not of race.
Désirée's whiteness stands for the code of behavior she represents: femininity, submission to a father, then to a husband. The wife's love for her husband is like the mother's love for her child—supposed to be unconditional. While Armand's love depends on his belief that Désirée is white—he no longer loves her when he feels she has injured his name—her love for him is independent of his behavior.
Moreover, the virtues expected of women—in particular, submission—are those required of blacks in a slave society. Women are expected to love unconditionally, and obey their fathers or husbands. Blacks are to obey unconditionally, and love their masters devotedly. Désirée does not object to Armand's sending her away. The slaves do not rebel, though under Armand's iron rule, ''his Negroes had forgotten to be gay, as they had been during the old master's easy-going and indulgent lifetime.’’
It was the old indulgent master, Armand's father, who broke the color taboo, marrying a woman considered black. Armand appears to have a sexual relationship with La Blanche, one of his slaves, but he violates no social rules: he simply takes his right to her because he is master. The responses of the two men reveal the complex interrelationships of sex and race. The easy-going master is the unconventional husband; the man who is imperious in one sphere is equally demanding in the other, for in each case he requires mastery.
In the end Armand, not Désirée, is the tragic octoroon. The signs of Désirée's whiteness that Armand rejects are the conventional ones: her brown hair, ‘‘long, silky’’ with ‘‘a golden gleam’’; her gray eyes; her white hand, ‘‘whiter than yours, Armand.’’ According to literary convention, her proximity to whiteness is supposed to bring Armand's sympathy.
But Armand himself has the qualities of the Tragic Octoroon male: he is militant, rebellious, melancholy, at the mercy of his fierce passions. Chopin prepares her readers for one set of conventions—the female ones—and then surprises them with the male set. The story may be read as a deterministic unfolding of Armand's character, but with Chopin the relationship between race and behavior is more ironic, and more complex. Ultimately we do not know where she stands on the connection between racial inheritance and character.
What is noteworthy about "Desiree'sBaby" is the double characterization of Armand: through his behavior to his wife and to his slaves. The reader sees what Harriet Beecher Stowe also showed: slavery destroys not only the slave's character, but also the master's. Chopin shows that patriarchy limits the development not only of the wife, but also of the husband.
''Désirée's Baby'' is, in essence, a political and psychological analysis of a master's character. What Désirée gives birth to is a new kind of knowledge, a new standard of judgment. The narrator's eye is the conventional eye of society, that judges men by their power, and women by their beauty. But Chopin uses the literary conventions of the Tragic Octoroon to show what judgments are most significant. Désirée has the physical qualities of a Tragic Octoroon, but Armand has the more important psychological traits.
Finally, Chopin seems to be saying that to judge on appearances is hardly enough: reliance on convention, either in literature or in life, can mislead and enchain. Armand, who judged by appearances rather than essence, and who was sensitive to male power but not to female emotions, destroyed his own happiness. Armand is a credit to neither of his races, and the last word of the story is "slavery."
Source: Emily Toth, ‘‘Kate Chopin and Literary Convention: 'Désirée'sBaby,'’’ in Southern Studies, Vol. XX, No. 2, Summer 1981, pp. 201-08.