woman holding a baby walking out into the bayou

Désirée's Baby

by Kate Chopin

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Style and Technique

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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.

Setting

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"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...

(This entire section contains 624 words.)

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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 perceptive enough to recognize that these problems existed at the time and that they plagued the people in these small Southern communities. Natchitoches Park provides a setting in which Chopin can expose and explore social problems inherited literally from the slave system. The tragedy of both Armand's and Desiree's life makes the evils of the slave system painfully clear. In addition to dramatizing how beliefs about race can disrupt and destroy, the story illustrates the fact that the races were mixed by slavery and that physical appearance is not the sole indicator of race.

"Desiree's Baby" deals with both the nature of slavery and the nature of love. The closed Creole community is a place where convention and prejudice can overrule affection. Setting plays a large part in driving Chopin's love theme because, in this town and in this time, society considers women, as well as Blacks, to be second-class citizens. Armand loves Desiree as a possession and Desiree loves Armand because he gives her the sense of identity and the sense of place she wants. The setting of the story helps deliver Chopin's message that women at this time in history were enslaved just as surely as were Black people.

Literary Qualities

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Kate Chopin examines both the social and physical characteristics of this Louisiana community. Unlike local colorists such as Sarah Orne Jewett, William Faulkner, and George Washington Cable, however, Chopin does not focus on the historical significance of the past but rather she focuses on the social significance of the present given its historical legacy. She places her characters in a social setting and dissects their thoughts and actions accordingly.

Local color is one of the qualities that makes Chopin's stories so realistic. That she knows well the community she writes about enables her to create believable characters. Chopin relies heavily on imagery and symbolism to give her characters depth and to give their emotions validity. She uses color images to highlight the social divisions between Black and white and she uses biblical images to equate Desiree with God, Armand with Satan, and to draw associations between darkness and evil and lightness with good. She also uses images of natural disaster to reveal the brutal nature of the passion shared by Desiree and Armand. Armand's passion is particularly unrestrained, like a force of nature, and as such it is both destructive and potentially devastating. Chopin describes Armand's passion as being "swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles." The image of fire occurs again in the story after Desiree leaves and Armand attempts to rid himself of her by burning her belongings. To Armand at this point, Desiree is clearly an obstacle. The fire not only illustrates Armand's passion but also his intent to destroy everything that threatens his image of the perfect world.

It is ironic that Armand creates a world that revolves around his white supremacy, condemns Desiree for destroying it, then ends up responsible for the destruction of his world himself. Chopin's ironic perspective surfaces in other places in the story as well. There is irony in the name of Armand's mistress, La Blanche, for instance. She looks white, but she is in fact of mixed blood. She is a slave, and the child she has with Armand will never have his father's respect or enjoy the privileges afforded to whites in Southern society. There is irony in the fact that Armand is dark and evil yet considers himself white and good and that Desiree in fact is light and good but is cast from the world as dark and evil. In these ways Chopin deconstructs the traditional assignment of values and dualistic thinking which reduces human beings to either/or categories and thus is blind to the complications of character and human interaction.

Through the use of subtle foreshadowing Chopin anticipates a tragic ending, though she does not reveal the nature of the tragedy until the end of the story. The images of dark and light, evil and goodness, as well as the ironies that surface throughout the story fit together in the end when Chopin gives the story an ironic twist. While many critics credit Chopin with creating a surprise ending, other critics suggest that the ending comes as no surprise at all. The irony that Armand's blood causes the baby's skin color is in fact metaphorically akin to the point that male prerogative in treating humans as objects is in fact a cause of social injustice.

Because in this story it is Armand and not Desiree who has Black ancestry, we have to wonder whether Armand knows all along that he is of mixed blood and whether such knowledge matters. If Armand is indeed powerful, based on his social position as a white, aristocratic, male landowner, then he certainly has the ability to blame Desiree and banish her. The truth of his ancestry in no way affects his social status because he has the ability to conceal it. However, by creating this twist to the story, Chopin reveals the futility and ambiguity of a social system of oppression based on clear dualities and false appearances.

Themes and Characters

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Chopin handles themes that were too threatening to be accepted in her own time. In "Desiree's Baby," she explores a woman's search for identity as she examines her sense of place in a time in history when women, like blacks, had yet to gain the rights and privileges awarded to white men. Desiree appears to have no identity of her own; that becomes clear at the beginning of the story. She is a foundling, belonging to no one. She takes on the identity of the Valmondes when they adopt her into their family, and she takes on the identity of Armand Aubigny when she becomes his wife.

When Desiree captures the attention of Armand Aubigny, he falls in love "as if struck by a pistol shot." This metaphorically fatal attraction is inextricably connected to her physical, sexual appearance. Armand Aubigny is capable of passion but not true love. Armand lives in a world where ownership determines social structure and women, like land and slaves, are possessions. Chopin forces us to examine whether it is possible for a young woman to have her own sense of identity in these circumstances. Desiree, a foundling, knows nothing of her past; she assumes the identity of those who care for her. Slaves were given the last names of their masters, and masters had sex with their slaves and fathered a generation of mixed blood offspring. As Armand's wife, Desiree assumes a position of servitude, much like that of a slave. Desiree so depends on her husband's approval that, when he rejects her, she no longer sees a place for herself in society. She therefore chooses to retreat from society rather than remain in a place where she feels unable to forge a name and a place of her own.

"Desiree's Baby" explores the theme of love in numerous forms. In contrast to the ephemeral nature of the passionate love Armand feels for Desiree is the strong maternal love Madame Valmonde feels for Desiree as a daughter. Madame Valmonde's love is unconditional. Unable to have children herself, Madame Valmode takes the baby girl she finds on the side of the road as a gift from God, the gift of "a beneficent Providence." Armand's mother appears to love him unconditionally also. Neither of these mothers lets social conditioning rule their feelings. Armand, however, does. His love for his child cannot withstand the assault to his social conscience any more than his love for his wife can withstand it. Whether Desiree lets social pressures rule her feelings remains uncertain. She certainly lets social pressures rule her actions. She chooses to end her baby's life with hers, believing she has no power to fight the social system or to gain back the respect she believes she has lost. In this way, Desiree re-enacts the not uncommon female slave choice to die with her baby rather than to live in slavery and raise her child to live in it.

Armand's mother plays a role here even though she never appears in the narrative; in fact, she died in Paris when her son was just eight years old. Armand's mother, French and proud, instilled in Armand a pride in his heritage. This way of thinking helps mold Armand into Chopin's stereotype of the Southern aristocrat. Armand becomes the cruel landowner and slave owner who exercises his superiority over all whom he considers beneath him.

Chopin's characters are sometimes criticized as stereotypes. Armand is indeed the stereotypical Southern plantation owner. He believes in his right to mastery and he believes in his right to exert his "power" over his slaves and his wife and child. Desiree, by contrast, exerts no power because she believes she has none. She remains passive, in a position of servitude, while Armand rules. Armand goes through changes during the course of his marriage, and these changes affect everyone around him. He is cruel to his slaves until after the birth of his child and then he treats them more kindly. Then, when he finds out that his child is of mixed blood, he reverts to his old ways, mistreating the slaves again, and becomes neglectful and even cruel to Desiree. If Armand represents the stereotypical slave owner, then Desiree represents the stereotypical Southern wife. She clarifies the social expectations of her as the mistress of the household and as an ornament on her husband's arm. Because her behavior reflects on her husband, she has an image to maintain, and that image conforms to set social standards and community expectations. When Armand marries Desiree, he claims he cares nothing about her status as a foundling; he believes that once he "acquires" her she will simply be one of his own. Armand defines himself as master and owner. He owns Desiree and he can therefore discard her, and this he does when he believes she has damaged his social position. He lets social pride rule his life.

Miscegenation is a theme in several of Chopin's short stories, and it illustrates the legacy of slavery and the futility felt by minorities struggling to survive in a system that operates on strict divisions between Black and white. After he discovers his child's ancestry, Armand compares his wife Desiree to his mistress La Blanche. Desiree is a possession just as La Blanche is a possession, and operating on the belief that Desiree has Black blood makes her more easily disposable. Desiree's Baby will no more have a place in Armand's world than will La Blanche's baby; both will remain social outcasts and neither child will have the benefit of Armand's name.

By dramatizing a world that divides itself into Black and white, Chopin explores the theme of good and evil. Is Armand evil in and of himself or is he a product, and thus a victim, of an evil society? Armand conforms to societal demands and he upholds his position in Southern aristocracy. Therefore, when Armand confronts the truth of his heritage, he must come to terms with these issues. He seems tormented and confused, and at once as tragic a figure as Desiree. Chopin's ironic perspective permits her to emphasize how the loss of identity applies to Armand too. If Armand's identity is linked to his belief that he is superior by virtue of his race, then the "discovery" at the end of the novel of his mixed ancestry strips him of his identity as surely as his mistreatment of Black slaves stripped them of theirs and his rejection of Desiree stripped her of hers. Armand is just as tragic a figure as is Desiree, who walks into the bayou and into social oblivion.

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