woman holding a baby walking out into the bayou

Désirée's Baby

by Kate Chopin

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Historical Context

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Post-Civil War Southern Society

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. government embarked on a plan called Reconstruction to rebuild the South and reunite the nation. Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877. During Reconstruction, the southern states set up new governments and revised their constitutions. All of the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union by 1870, but many northern Republicans objected to the efforts made by the legislatures of southern states to restrict the freedoms of African Americans. Reconstruction governments, however, founded new social programs and organizations, such as public school systems. Southern states also spent a great deal of money repairing their infrastructure—railroads, bridges, and public buildings—which had been destroyed during the war.

At first, African Americans were optimistic about their futures. In 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended equal citizenship to African Americans, and a few years later, passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed that the right to vote could not be denied because of race. African Americans took an active part in government, serving as delegates at state constitutional conventions and in Reconstruction legislatures.

Despite this greater equality, as early as 1866, southern states began passing Black Codes, which were laws that greatly limited the freedom of African Americans. Many African Americans were also still tied to the land through the system of sharecropping, by which a sharecropper worked a parcel of land in return for a share of the crop. Under this system, most African-American sharecroppers (as well as white sharecroppers) remained in poverty. African Americans had few economic opportunities to better their lives. Many were also threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, which opposed African Americans obtaining civil rights and used violence to discourage them. By the late 1800s, many African Americans felt the New South was beginning to look very much like the Old South. As Democrats regained control of southern state governments, they began to overturn the Reconstruction reforms. For instance, they devised methods of keeping African Americans from voting by implementing poll taxes and literacy tests. Southern states also passed Jim Crow laws, which called for the segregation of African Americans. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the standard of ‘‘separate but equal’’ facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment—a ruling that would stand until 1954. In response to such prohibitory measures, African Americans built their own social institutions and adopted different approaches to fighting discrimination. In his Atlanta Compromise speech of 1895, Booker T. Washington spoke of peaceful coexistence and his belief that African Americans and whites should cooperate for economic progress. His views that African Americans should concentrate on economic advancement, and not protest discrimination, angered other African Americans, who believed that African Americans should protest unfair treatment. Ida Wells-Barnett and W. E. B. DuBois brought attention to racial prejudice. Wells-Barnett urged African Americans to leave the South for the North, where there was less discrimination and violence perpetrated against African Americans.

The American Economy

The American economy was undergoing significant changes toward the end of the nineteenth century. A mining boom in gold and silver drew many Americans out west, and others chose to settle in the Great Plains, where they could find inexpensive land and rich soil for farming. The second industrial revolution, which began in the late 1800s, led to a period of explosive growth in U.S. manufacturing. By the mid-1900s, the United States was the world's industrial leader. Big business grew, as did the number of new factories. Many of the immigrants who were increasingly coming to the United States in the late 1800s were...

(This entire section contains 1024 words.)

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hired to work at these factories. As the United States population kept growing, doubling from 1860 to 1900, the number of farms tripled. Modern machines allowed farmers to produce crops much faster than they ever had before. However, the combination of more farms and greater productivity led to overproduction and lower crop prices. By 1893, because of a stock market panic, the United States had entered a depression.

The American Woman

In the late 1800s, women had greater access to higher education, but often found it difficult to obtain jobs. Women could obtain work in fields such as teaching, social work, and library management, but professions such as law and medicine were still dominated by men. Women denied careers often turned their energies to numerous reform movements. Many women took part in the temperance movement, which sought to make the production and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States. Many women also joined efforts to work for suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890 for this purpose. The states of Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming all gave women full suffrage in the 1890s.

Plantation Life

Although Chopin wrote all of her fiction well after the Civil War had emancipated African-American slaves, the setting of ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ draws on the well-known histories of plantation life in the antebellum South. Prior to the Civil War, the Southern economy relied on slave labor to work the many plantations and smaller farms. Cotton was the staple crop, and cotton plantations stretched from North Carolina all the way to Texas. Sugar cane and rice were also grown throughout much of Louisiana. Despite the fact that by 1860, less than 12 percent of the South's planters held more than twenty slaves, these wealthy people dominated Southern society. The richest planters lived in elegant mansions, often purchased fine goods from abroad, and sent their sons to Europe for the ''Grand Tour.’’ Despite such luxuries, many planters had little ready cash. Much of their wealth went to brokers, who bought their crops and sold them household goods and farm equipment.

The bulk of the work on the plantation was performed by slaves, though the plantation owner managed the plantation, assigned tasks to supervisors or slaves, kept records of business transactions, and worked with ship owners, bankers, and brokers. The plantation mistress also supervised the spinning, weaving, mending, housecleaning, and food preparation. More than 75 percent of African-American slaves worked on southern plantations. Adults and children alike worked long hours, both in the fields and in the slaveholder's house.

Social Sensitivity

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Chopin sympathizes with the plight of Black people during the Civil War era and she particularly sympathizes with people of mixed blood. She does not moralize in the story, but she does emphasize the evils of slavery and how it degrades both slaves and slave owners. There is nothing attractive about plantation owners like Armand who consider themselves racially superior. They have false pride. Armand, as the epitome of the cruel slave owner, is unable to feel human connection.

Armand believes in his superiority, both as a Creole and as a Caucasian male, and he believes that racial superiority alone gives him the right to own others. Ownership, in the mind of Armand, means exploiting not only the land he acquires but the slaves and the women he "acquires" as well. When Armand confronts Desiree with her "deception" and compares Desiree to La Blanche, Chopin highlights the ambiguity of the slave system. This is a system that permits white men to own women, both Black and white, and that permits and indeed facilitates sexual union between white males and Black females, which then produces a mixed race which is then doubly oppressed by the the miscegenation that follows. Armand considers La Blanche acceptable as a concubine but unworthy as a wife. Then, when Desiree produces a child with mixed blood, he considers her unworthy as well. He is so conditioned to project inferiority on others that he cannot face his own possible responsibility. The children of mixed unions are outcasts in a culture based on white supremacy. White supremacy degrades the character who exploits, as well as those who are exploited. In Armand, Chopin creates a portrait of the stereotypical southern planter who is unable to feel love and is incapable of seeing the truth behind appearances.

Chopin explores the theme of a woman in search of her own identity by presenting a world in which both Blacks and women are subservient to white men; Chopin makes a direct comparison between female bondage and slavery. Desiree has no identity apart from her husband and, in fact, she chooses death when he no longer wants her. Her self-worth is tied to Armand, and she thus is disgraced when she believes that she has brought shame to his family. Neither Desiree nor Armand truly knows how the baby came to have Black blood because neither of them know their true ancestry. Clearly, Armand is in control and so Desiree takes the blame.

Armand is clearly portrayed as the villain in the story and Desiree as the victim, but Chopin makes the reader question whether Armand is not a victim too. Perhaps he is enslaved by the same social system that enslaves women and Blacks. Because Armand has been conditioned to believe that he is superior and that he has the right to use people for his own benefit, he too becomes prey to tragedy. Living in such a system gives Armand the right to ownership but it denies him insight into the human condition and shared responsibility. Thus, he is denied the happiness of equitable connection.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: Cotton is the primary crop for many southern farmers. Its price fluctuates greatly. Cotton production, however, is on the rise, and by the mid-1890s, more than twenty million acres of cotton are harvested.

Today: The price of U.S. cotton fluctuates between $0.47 per pound up to $1.13 per pound. The United States remains the world leader in cotton exports, with 6.8 million bales sold abroad in 1999-2000.

1890s: By the end of the 1890s, American farmland comprises about 841 million acres. Of this acreage, almost 44 percent of farms are located in states east of the Mississippi River and 56 percent are in states west of the Mississippi River. Around 10.2 million Americans work in agriculture.

Today: By the mid-1990s, American farmland comprises about 972 million acres. Of this acreage, only about 21 percent of farms are located in states east of the Mississippi River and almost 79 percent are in states west of the Mississippi River. Today, farming makes up less than 2 percent of the United States' total annual gross national product. Around 3.6 million Americans work in agriculture.

1890s: By the middle of the decade, Louisiana's population is just over 1,100,000, which includes 559,000 African Americans.

Today: By 1998, Louisiana's population is around 4,400,000, which includes 1,400,000 African Americans. Of the total population, 15 percent of Louisiana's residents are employed in farm-related work.

1860: In the antebellum years, the majority of African Americans in the south are enslaved. In 1860, slaves make up 34 percent of the southern population while free African Americans—around 260,000—make up about 2 percent of the southern population.

1890s: By the time Chopin writes ‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ slavery has been outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment.

Today: Most nations throughout the world have abolished slavery, although it is still practiced in some parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. The Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights in London estimates that forms of servitude affect more than 200 million poor people.

1890s: In 1896, 130,334 African Americans in Louisiana cast their votes.

Today: There are 902,000 African Americans in Louisiana who are of voting age.

1890s: In 1896,125,000 American families have estates valued at $50,000 or greater. This is out of total population of around 70 million people.

Today: Only 6.5 percent of Americans have a net worth greater than $100,000. There are 16.5 million American families with an income of $50,000 or greater, out of a total population of just over 101 million families. Of the families in this income bracket, 14.8 million are white.

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