The short story “Desiree’s Baby” was published in 1893, in “Vogue”. Its first title was “The Father of Desiree’s baby” to focus on Armand’s identity and origin. The story touches important issues that plagued the South of that time such as racism, the position of women, gender inequality. “Desiree’s Baby” is one of only two major stories Chopin set in antebellum Louisiana, portraying woman character whose life is ruined by a cruel and deeply-seated racism, but intellectual readers of the day would have been aware of the complex cultural history in the background of the plot” (Nagel, 208). Indeed, unconventional Chopin frequently turns to the themes of freedom and autonomy and depicts characters who usually contradict the societal norms. In addition, she is well-known as a local colorist and her works, which demonstrate the life and culture of the French Creoles, who influenced her own life from the early childhood growing up with Creole mother and then living in southern Louisiana. Historical context and setting play a vital role in the understanding of the protagonist’s actions as well as his Creole origin.
When dealing with the story, it is important to understand the term creoles. Chopin’s father was an Irish immigrant and her mother was a Creole. Her husband, Oscar, was also a Creole cotton trader. Influenced by the Creole surroundings and heritage, Kate Chopin often depicted Creole characters in her stories. She described their manners, way of life, and dialect. When she married, she moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, the place which gave the background information for her short story “Desiree’s Baby”. Actually, “Creoles are some combination of French, Spanish, and/or African descent who lived primarily in the French Quarter and Bayou Saint John areas of New Orleans. The wealthy class owned plantations along the Mississippi River and lived there as well” (Cruz, 431). Some of them were the descendants of French and Spanish slave owners as well as slaves; others were the offspring of the free man of color and Spanish or French emigrants during the era of colonization. The term creole defines a person who has his origin in the New World. From Portuguese and Spanish, it can be translated as “create” and refers to those who were first born in America and was neither Black nor White but a mixture of these races. The European colonizers also used this word to call their offsprings.
Actually, Creoles with partial African background considered themselves different from other slaves and were treated with less prejudice in the antebellum New Orleans. Due to their light skin, numerous Creoles could pass for the whites. “The aristocratic prejudices found in Louisiana plantation settings and unique cultural confluence in New Orleans provided a rich ecology for Kate Chopin to weave conflicts, mores, intolerance and a search for truth into a classic American story about race” (Cruz, 431). The setting of the story includes two plantations, Valmonde and L’Abri, which are situated on the Cane River in Natchitoches Parish. Historically, Creoles of color could be found near that river because they owned plantations.
In the course of the story, Chopin hints at Armand’s biracial origin but emphasizing the whiteness of Desiree. She describes the woman resting in “soft white muslin and laces” and wears “thin white garments” (Chopin). When Desiree talks to Armand, she is depicted “silent, white, and motionless,” and her hand is whiter than that of her husband. On the contrary, Armand has a “dark, handsome face,” thus; consequently, the final revelation of his being biracial is not a surprise. Armand can be called a Creole with partial African background because he was the offspring of a black French woman and an American man, a plantation owner. Actually, the story is infused with creole references. First, the use of French words and phrases such as L’Abri, “Mais si, Madame”, Valmonde, etc. Secondly, Desiree was taken by Madame Valmonde to improve her life, which was common for families in creole culture.
Nowadays, the Cane River is an area inhabited by a community with strong Creole culture. It is made up of French, Africans, Spanish, and Native Americans mixed in the early eighteen century. There are also many Creole communities within Natchitoches Paris, who still own historic plantations. Louisiana Creole is a variety of the French language spoken by the Creole people of Louisiana. This language also includes some elements from Spanish, African, and Native American elements. Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday in English) is a carnival that takes place in Louisiana when people praise their Creole origin. Due to the fact that there were both black and white creoles, nowadays, people in New Orleans can have both black and white relatives. During the time of slavery, it was typical for a white creole to have a usual family and a white wife as well as a black mistress. However, in New Orleans today, black creoles make a significant group and take active participation in its political and cultural life.
The historical background of the story is, undoubtedly, the time of slavery. As a slave owner, Armand is very cruel and merciless unlike his father who was described as “easy - going and indulgent”. “On the level of social custom, racial matters were taken very seriously in Louisiana, especially for a wealthy aristocrat living on a well-established plantation, and the story must be read in that context” (Nagel, 148). The story is written twenty-seven years after the abolition of slavery; however, Armand strictly observes the moral code of behavior and racial division. It means that people continue to treat African Americans as being less than human beings. “Race relations in Louisiana were governed by the Code Noir originating in Paris in1685 to standardize the treatment of slaves in the French colonies in the Americas. When those regulations were imposed in Louisiana in 1724, they represented a unique set of rules that required that all slaves owners to be Roman Catholic, that all slaves be educated in the same religion, and that all sexual contact between the races was strictly forbidden” (Nagel, 208). Marriages between people of different races were strictly forbidden, which is exemplified by the relationship of Armand’s father and mother who had married in France, where the Code Noir was not observed. That is why Armand is so disappointed with the fact he had created the family with a woman of mixed race.
The society of that time had a hierarchical structure, and white males were at the top of it. Thus, taking into consideration the fact that the baby was black and the low position of women, Armand’s decision to kick them out was common and appropriate. Indeed, he is believed to have one of the oldest names in Louisiana, thus, he wanted to maintain his high social status because miscegenation was unaccepted, “Unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name” (Chopin). It can be concluded that racial prejudices were deeply rooted in the society because Desiree decides to die than live with the thoughts of being black.
Chopin’s works greatly depends on the settings she chooses and the settings were familiar to her personally. “Desiree’s Baby is not an exception because the story is set in Louisiana and incorporates elements of racial distinction as well as the reference to Creoles. “Desiree’s Baby” derives much of its depth not only from its subject matter but from the deft manipulation of its artistry, within which small touches and subtle suggestions create a wave of meaning that culminates in the tragic irony of the conclusion” (Nagel, 148). Historical context helps to understand why Armand’s great love and passion is quickly shifted to hate and ferocity when he realizes that his baby has the African origin, and how people are restricted and limited by the social boundaries and the code of behavior. Chopin was interested in psychological realism and tried to demonstrate how people in Louisiana treated universal issues regarding their specific values prevalent in Creole culture. Chopin did not have nostalgia for the past and had no intention to idealize the picture of South, particularly such notions as race, gender, and class relations.
Chopin, Kate. "Desiree's Baby." PBS. PBS. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.
Cruz, Bárbara C. “Making Sense of "race" in the History Classroom: A Literary Approach”. The History Teacher 42.4 (2009): 425–440. Web. 31 Jan 2016
Nagel, James. Race and Culture in New Orleans Stories: Kate Chopin, Grace King, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and George Washington Cable. University of Alabama, 2014. Print.
Nagel, James. The American Short Story Handbook. UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2014. Print.