Style and Technique
Chopin has been described as a local colorist, and certainly most of her stories are set in a particular geographical area that she examines socially and physically. Unlike such local colorists as Sarah Orne Jewett and George Washington Cabel, though, Chopin did not write to preserve the past, nor did she focus on the conflict of past and present that characterizes the typical local color story. Further, her work shows no nostalgia for a previous era. Only five of her stories lack a contemporary setting, and “Désirée’s Baby” demonstrates no fondness for the antebellum period.
The carefully defined setting is, rather, a laboratory. What happens when one puts certain characters in a particular world? Like a scientist, Chopin observed their reactions and reported her results without obvious emotion. Significantly, she called this story “Désirée’s Baby,” not “Désirée,” as though seeking to deflect sympathy from the central character. Also, the baby is the crucial ingredient in this experiment: Give Armand and Désirée a child of color and then watch how they behave.
They behave badly, each blaming the other. Neither knows the truth, but because Armand is the more powerful, Désirée is disgraced and banished. Chopin does not moralize; she merely reports. That clinical detachment makes the final lines all the more forceful, as the reader grasps the enormity of Armand’s mistake.
"Desiree's Baby" is a work of social realism set in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, just after the Civil War. Chopin is known as a local colorist, so the setting plays a large role in establishing the story's tone and in helping develop the characters. Chopin's story is a cultural study of place: Natchitoches Park is the home of Creoles, people of French descent and native birth who were often of mixed French and African-American blood. Creole French culture, which is itself a blend caused by the movement of peoples and the mixing of races, influences the story, and Chopin makes it known that the people of this Southern town pride themselves on their heritage.
The Creoles of Natchitoches Park represent the Southern aristocracy and stand in sharp contrast to the slaves who work the plantations. Chopin creates a world of contrasts, a division of Black and white that not only distinguishes the townspeople but demonstrates the rift that tears lives apart and leads to tragedy. Armand Aubigny sees a strict dividing line between Black and white, and he clearly equates Black with evil and white with good. The distinctly French culture, set apart from the slave culture, helps define Natchitoches Park as a closed community, a community where people are of closed minds and rely on well-established conventions. Armand is the perfect example of a man whose thoughts and actions are controlled by time and place. Typical of Southern landowners in this small Louisiana town and at this time in history, Armand relies on appearances to distinguish Black and white, evil and good.
The Southern town is certainly an appropriate setting for the emergence of the egotistical plantation owner who defines power by the color of his skin and by the quantity and quality of his possessions. Armand is a planter, and he is deeply influenced by the prestige of land ownership. The story takes place in the late nineteenth century, just after the Civil War when the South continued its struggle with the deep divisions in its social system. Divisions existed between Blacks and whites, landowners and slaves, and men and women, and through her insightful portrayal of setting Chopin succeeds in highlighting the tragedy of these divisions. The racial politics that defined these times and pervaded small-town Louisiana undermined the self-esteem of all those who were subjugated by their sex or skin color.
Many changes took place in the social environment during the late nineteenth century, and while Chopin deals with topics years before they became central to political thought, she was...
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