Désirée's Baby Themes
The main themes in “Désirée’s Baby” are racism, gender, and hypocrisy.
- Racism: Armand’s cruelty, both toward Désirée and those he enslaves, is based on entrenched ideas of race. Ironically, Armand himself turns out to have Black ancestry.
- Gender: The misogyny of the society Chopin depicts is clear from Désirée’s experiences both before and after the birth of her child.
- Hypocrisy: Throughout the story, hypocrisy marks race, gender, and class hierarchies, thus revealing exactly how harsh and arbitrary such divisions are.
Chopin’s story depicts the clear and systematic racism of antebellum Louisiana and, by extension, the United States as a whole. Before leaving L’Abri, Désirée has led the same privileged life as those born into the upper-class South, though she was a foundling. This existence is possible because she is white. Armand, her husband, is the epitome of a vain, cruel plantation owner of the period. He mistreats the enslaved people who work for him, though the presence of Désirée and the birth of their baby both temporarily ameliorate his behavior. Armand was supposedly madly in love with Désirée, but the moment he concludes that the baby—his own baby—is not white, he coldly rejects both of them, not only encouraging Désirée to leave their home but also not having the slightest concern as to what will become of their child.
The mere fact of a society based on race slavery is cruel enough, but one might think that some measure of kindness would be possible even toward those who are regarded as inferior based on their skin color. Armand, however, seems to lack even the smallest capacity for basic human compassion. Racism extends to those whose ancestry is only a fraction Black. Among the enslaved people at L’Abri, Armand’s estate, are “quadroons” (an outdated term for those with one-quarter Black ancestry) and other people of mixed white and Black descent. In fact, Armand himself is mixed-race, as is proven by his mother’s letter at the end of the story—and yet this does not induce him to treat others with care.
Armand treats Désirée as a possession even when he is in love with her and still believes she is white. The dysfunction and oppression of the time period’s patriarchal society—and the way it affects the intertwined aspects of race, gender, and sexual relations—is clear from a simple detail. Désirée tells Madame Valmondé that the baby’s voice is so loud and clear that Armand can hear it “as far away as La Blanche’s cabin.” This is stated in such an offhand, matter-of-fact way that some readers might miss its significance. What, one might ask, is Armand doing in La Blanche’s cabin? In all probability, he seems to be having a sexual relationship with La Blanche, and because he enslaves her and has power over her, it is impossible for the relationship to be fully consensual. This act was quite common in the antebellum South, and it accounted for enslaved people of mixed ancestry on many plantations of the time period.
What might be somewhat unusual in this case is that Désirée openly refers to the fact that Armand was at the enslaved woman’s quarters, though she does not say the reason for his presence there. The wives of slave owners were usually quite aware of their husbands’ activities with enslaved women, but for the most part, they did not speak so openly of these relationships.
Chopin’s story thus reveals the powerlessness of women on several levels. Désirée, though married to Armand, has no power when he rejects her for his belief that she isn’t white. But even when she was the mistress of his house—and supposedly the love of his life—she had little power to change his behavior toward other women. Enslaved women like La Blanche are doubly powerless: they are not free, and in some cases, they are forced to have sex with the very men who enslave them.
Hypocrisy encompasses and forms the basis of both...
(The entire section is 1,181 words.)