Introduction – Thesis Statement
The nineteenth century in literature implied various literary classifications, among which there can be mentioned the realism and naturalism. Kate Chopin explores these genres in her writings, and she employs bold themes such as racism, social conventions, or woman’s identity, making her an unconventional writer, appreciated for her writing style and for her original approaches to human matters. A defining feature of Chopin’s writing, which reveals from two of her short stories “Desiree’s Baby” and “The Story of an Hour” is irony.
Nothing is what it seems to be in Chopin’s short stories. As such, when Josephine is trying to protect her sister, Louise Mallard, by breaking gently to her the news that her husband has died, she has the noblest intentions at heart, of not upsetting her sister to death with this sad news, knowing that she suffered from a heart trouble. In fact, Louise took the news quite different than expected. It was not sadness that inundated her, but joy, genuine happiness, at the thought that she was free. This lasted but an hour, because her husband was, in fact, not dead, and he had returned home safe and sound, knowing nothing about the railroad accident that seemingly brought his death. In the end, the story revealed various angles of dramatic irony. It was not her husband who died, but she. The reason of her death was believed to be “the joy that kills”, but it was actually the pain of seeing that her thoughts of liberty were shattered: she was not a free woman, ready to open herself to the world, but a married one, living in an unhappy marriage.
Similarly, exploring racism, a theme that inspired the realist and naturalist writers in the nineteenth century, the author draws Desiree, an abandoned girl who was found and adopted by Madame Valmonde, who grew up into a charming woman, got married to Armand Aubigny (heir of one of the noblest families in Louisiana) and brought to life a black baby. Automatically Armand assumed that Desiree was half black, because of her “obscure origins” (Chopin 236). Because he is repugnant with Black people he lets Desiree go away with her baby, back to her adoptive mother who calls for her, just for understanding that in fact, it was him the one who had obscure origins, because his mother was half black.
Critics have been concerned with the idea of woman’s emancipation or the marital status or with the “social construction of domestic femininity in Victorian America” (Perkins Gilman 38), regarding Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”. The irony in this short story is linked with these concepts that gravitate around feminism. As such, Harrington observes the drama of the situation in the returning home of Mr. Mallard, considered death. Mrs. Mallard wanted him to be dead, therefore she enjoyed the news of his death. After a brief introspection she realized that she was better off her husband and she started seeing things differently, with hope and high expectations: “She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her () When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under the breath: ‘free, free, free!’” (Chopin 236). Mrs. Mallard was aware and pleased at the fact that her husband’s death was bringing her freedom, indicating that she was feeling trapped into the marriage. Dramatically for her, her husband is not dead and this causes her death.
The self – actualization caught Mrs. Mallard in a moment of awakening, of truly knowing what she wanted from life – to be a free woman. This ideal transforms into dust when her husband returns home and she dies for the sorrow of seeing that her dreams of freedom cannot come true.
Harrington sees the wit irony, the essence of the short story in the last phrase of “The Story of an Hour”: “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease – of joy that kills”, thinking that the pleasant surprise of seeing her believed dead husband alive caught her heart unprepared to resist this shock and she died (81). This reveals the social conventions of the time, for people considered that was proper for a married woman, in the Victorian ways, to suffer for the death of her husband and to be flashed with unbearable joy when learning that he is, in fact, alive. In an ironic fashion, Chopin reveals the hidden psychology of the nineteenth century women, who cross over the social conventions and discover themselves as who they really are, not as society wants them to be. Nevertheless, the author points, through that last sentence, that the society was unprepared to comprehend women’s individuality and that because of the routinely self – imposed social status quo the society was set to believe the version of a devoted wife whose heart cannot bear the excitement of joy of knowing that her husband is alive.
Through the tragic end that Chopin sets in her “The Story of an Hour”, the author mocks the society she lives in, showing the flaws of an obtuse community, unable to see beyond the unwritten rules imposed by the Victorian colonialism, insensitive to human feelings, emotions and psychology.
Chopin mocks the Moravians of the society in another one of her short writings – “Desiree’s Baby”. This time the author focalizes on the Racist America, pursuing the story of Desiree and her husband Armand. Because she was found, her birth origins were unknown and nobody knew who her real parents were. This determined Armand to believe that she was Black, when their son was born, showing clear signs that he was Black. Chopin punished Armand for his discriminative and abusive behavior against Black people (he stopped loving his wife and dismissed her when he understood that she had Black origins and he was brutal to the Black slaves that he owned), indicating that actually it was him who had Black origins and not Desiree.
Gubar reflects at Armand’s attitude towards the rejection of his baby. The author observes that the black baby reveals the fact that the man marks a limit between family and race. For him, the family is defined in terms of whiteness, not in terms of reproduction and if the newborn proves to be other than 100% white it is rejected. The author also indicates that the Armand’s rejection of his black baby reveals the supremacy of the (believed to be) white man over (believed to be) black woman, indicating also the gender roles in the society, not only racial considerations. Likewise, the rejection of the baby is perceived as the economic control of Armand over the mother and the baby and also, the “repudiation of paternity” (Gubar 209).
Men domination over women is therefore, one major theme in “Desiree’s Baby”, just as it is in “The Story of an Hour”. Nevertheless if in “The Story of an Hour” this precise idea determined the irony, in “Desiree’s Baby” the irony is given by the racism theme. Both stories treat women’s condition in the nineteenth century, but while Desiree is humble and she adopts the servile attitude of serving for her man and being a good wife, and the condition of the second – class citizen that society placed on women, Mrs. Mallard opposes to the idea of marriage and of being humble and having a servile attitude. The fact that in the end she cannot have this kills her. By contrast, Desiree suffers from the fact that her husband liberated her, believing that she was Black. These attitudes regarding women’s condition were viewed with a critical eye and irony by Chopin, who pointed out the reactions of her protagonists to seeing their dreams broken: one instantly dies (Mrs. Mallard) and one departs from her husband, who ironically later discovers his Black origins.
In relation to “Desiree’s Baby” Bercovitch and Patell consider the short story to be not ironic, but real – a page of realism centered on the racist America. The aristocratic Armand is black and the “obscure origins” Desiree is in fact white, just as she claims “I am white” (Chopin 30). Nevertheless, there is a situational irony in the short story, entrenched in the idea of the supremacy of the white aristocratic class. As such, the permanent repulsion and aggression that Armand pledged on Black people were actually directed to his own kind.
Again, the author uses the last sentence to splash her irony into the story. It seems to be her characteristic style of underlying the real nature of her characters (psychological in “The Story of an Hour” and biological in “Desiree’s Baby”) through a final sensational strike. Indeed, nothing is what it may seem to be in Chopin’s writing and she uses irony to express her criticism over a society that considered women and Black people second class citizens, respectively “cursed with the brand of slavery” (Chopin 241).
Bercovitch, Sacvan & Patell, Cyrus, R., K. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Volume Three Prose Writing, 1860 – 1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2005. Print.
Chopin, Kate. Complete Novels and Stories. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press. 1969. Print.
Gilman, Charlotte, Perkins. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s the Yellow Wall – paper. New York: Routledge. 2004. Print.
Gubar, Susan. Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press. 1997. Print.
Harrington, Ellen, Burton. Scribbling Women and the Short Story Form. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. 2008. Print.