Kate Chopin’s short story ‘Désirée’s Baby’ gives the reader a highly negative analysis of the social conventions regarding race and gender of the South before the Civil War. Walker exposes the dishonest and duplicitous hypocrisy of the South’s attitudes to gender and to race and, furthermore, it is a story that is superbly constructed with the genuine truth about the central male character in the story cleverly delayed by Chopin until the final word of the story which shows us the truth about Armand’s own genetic background.
Chopin through her plot and choice of words encourages the reader to see Désirée as a tragic mulatta –a stereotypical character in the pos-war popular fiction of the South. At the very start of the story, when Armand expresses his intention to make Désirée his wife, Chopin warns the reader about her unknown racial background:
Monsieur Valmonde grew practical and wanted things well considered: that is, the girl’s obscure origin. Armand looked into her eyes and did not care. What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana? (Chopin 94).
Pegues (5) refers to “Désirée’s situation of double colonization” – and he means her colonization as an ostracized mulatta, and her colonization because of her gender. Well before anyone in the story notices anything amiss about the baby’s skin skin color, Chopin hints to the reader that all is not well in the marriage. Armand, although outwardly loving and affectionate, seems to come and go as he likes (because he is a man) and Chopin makes it obvious to the readers that Armand spends most of his free time with La Blanche in her cabin. It is clearly implied that Armand is having a sexual relationship with La Blanche. Désirée is presented as being completely unaware of this until late on in the story. Why does La Blanche sleep with Armand? Because in the time of slavery Armand owned her – she has no choice because of her race and her gender, and so Armand happily has sex with her and has clearly had children by her, but he can never consider marrying her. As a reward for having sex with her owner, La Blanche lives in her own cabin and does not have to live with the other slaves. She also does not have to work. The cabin also serves as a conveniently private place for Armand to have sex with La Blanche. This highlights the difficulties of race and gender, because the only reason La Blanche is treated like this is because she is a woman and, by a chance of genetics, her skin is fairly light for a slave of African origin – further suggesting that in her ancestry miscegenation has occurred.
Désirée innocently says at one point about the loudness of her baby’s crying, “Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche’s cabin” (Chopin 94) without realizing why Armand was in the cabin in the first place. As we read on it becomes clearer that for all his wealth and status Armand is not a very good or moral man. Pegues (12) writes this about Armand’s behavior as a plantation owner::
Paradoxically .Armand’s decision to whip or not whip his slaves is portrayed not as a deliberate decision including reflection on its consequences, but as a mere whim depending on his mood.
Here the word ‘paradoxically’ is used because the final word of the story reveals that “the abusive slave owner Armand is himself already a Negro by the laws and customs of the South.” (Durrell, 246) and that the whole story is about Chopin has written the story to reverse “the reader’s assumption that ‘Désirée’s Baby’ is yet another narrative of the tragic mulatta.” (Durrell, 246).
But why does Désirée wander off into the wilderness of the bayou with her baby in her arms to kill both herself and the child? Even before the final word of the story there exists the possibility that it is Armand’s genes that have contributed to the baby’s dark skin color. Chopin wants to reveal the lack of empowerment that women have in a patriarchal society and, according to its conventions and assumptions, it must be her fault because she is a woman of “unknown origin.” Armand says to Désirée, with all the confidence that a man has in a patriarchal society, “It means, he answered lightly, that the child is not white; it means that you are not white” (Chopin 96). Désirée replies, “It is a lie; it is not true, I am white!” (Chopin 96). Through Armand’s reply Chopin reveals the distorted attitudes to race and gender in the South: “As white as La Blanche’s, he returned cruelly; and went away leaving her alone with her child” (Chopin 96). Once again Chopin reveals the privileged position Armand has as a man and as a white man: he will have sex with La Blanche but he will not marry her because of her skin color. As Wenlock (181) puts it so succinctly, “Kate Chopin realistically depicts the cruelty and horror of a social structure that totally denies power to women, children, the poor and, most of all, to blacks.” Earlier in the story, the reader and Désirée experience an uncanny foreshadowing of this moment, because she notices that her baby and one of La Blanche’s children look astonishingly alike.. Chopin (95) describes the situation: “One of La Blanche’s little quadroon boys—half naked too—stood fanning the child slowly with a fan of peacock feathers. Desiree’s eyes had been fixed absently and sadly upon the baby.” As she stares from the child to her baby and back again, she realizes how similar they look: “She looked from her child to the boy who stood beside him, and back again; over and over” (Chopin 96). Their similarity, of course, is because they have the same father.
He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelty and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul. (Chopin 97).
Here Chopin neatly summarizes Armand’s hypocrisy as a man and as someone who, at this stage of the story, thinks he is “white.” Désirée’s suicide shows that her race and gender lead to her destruction. Stein (34) comments on the end of the story that “Chopin leaves her readers with sheer bleakness here, even questioning whether a loving and effectual God would allow such misery and social iniquity as she depicts here.” The final pessimism of this story is saved until the last word of the last sentence when Chopin forces the reader to re-assess the entire story, as Armand Armand reads a letter from his mother to his father:
I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery. (Chopin 98).
The racism and patriarchal narrowness of the South is revealed to be meaningless, since Armand, so secure and confident in his own gender and his own sense of race, is revealed to be of African descent too. The difficulties of race and gender are shown by Chopin in this story to lead to La Blanche being sexually exploited and, more alarmingly, to the death of Désirée and her baby.
Chopin, Kate. “Desiree's Baby.” Voices Among Women. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009. 93-98. Print.
Durrell, John. ‘Regionalism in American Literature.’ Kalaidjian, Walter B. The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism. 2005. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 242 – 260. Print.
Pegues, Dagmar. ‘Fear and Desire: Regional Aesthetics and Colonial Desire in Kate Chopin’s Portrayals of the Tragic Mulatta Stereotype.’ Southern Literary Journal, Volume XLIII, Number 1, Fall 2010. 1 – 22. Print.
Stein, Allen I. Women and Autonomy in Kate Chopin’s Short Fiction. 2005. New York: Peter Lang. Print.
Wenlock, James P. The Facts on File: Companion to the American Short Story, Volume 2. 2010. New York: Infobase Publishing. Print.