Kate Chopinâ€™s short story â€œDesireeâ€™s Babyâ€ overtly and bluntly covers the topic of race relations and identity in America. Even in the pluralistic social milieu of Louisiana, being racially mixed is a taboo. The story also shows how the very concept of racial purity is a joke, a social construct and a manufactured category. Written in third person, the story opens with Madame Valmonde, Desireeâ€™s adopted mother, wistfully reflecting on how she found Desiree. Madame Valmonde then ponders the romance that blossomed between Desiree and Armand, who eventually had the titular baby together. Back to the present moment, Madame Valmonde approaches Armandâ€™s family estate, L’Abri, which is described as a â€œsad looking place.â€ The scourge of slavery still leaves its mark on Lâ€™Abri. Madame Valmondeâ€™s impressions of Lâ€™Abri presage the events that unfold in the story. Desiree also reveals that Armand has the tendency to treat his black servants cruelly, for she whispers to her mother, â€œhe hasn’t punished one of them–not one of them–since baby is born.â€ Yet Desiree notices her husbandâ€™s demeanor change, as he becomes more violent with his slaves. Desiree also senses that the household servants are talking behind her back. One day it dawns on her why: her baby looks like a â€œQuadroon,â€ a person who is a quarter black. The realization of her babyâ€™s mixed-race heritage drives a wedge between the couple, causing the racist Armand to abandon his wife, and causing Desiree herself to run away with her baby into the bayou. In this manner, Chopin reveals detail after detail slowly and with poignant irony, building tension in the narrative so that the very structure of the plot becomes integral to the theme of the story itself.
Armandâ€™s character becomes the central issue in the story, the symbol of racism in America. In one crucial scene, Desiree tries to reason with Armand, who cannot be reasoned with. Desiree speaks to him â€œin a voice which must have stabbed him, if he was human. But he did not notice.â€ The narrator here clearly starts to make the social commentary that is integral to â€œDesireeâ€™s Baby.â€ Chopin gently leads the reader towards a deft understanding of how troublesome Armandâ€™s attitude is, and how racism impacts generation after generation. The blindness with which Armand makes his judgments becomes ever more ironic when the reader discovers with Armand the truth about his heritage.
It is the way Chopin structures her narrative and plot that create the underlying suspense that drives the story forward. Chopin leaves little clues for the reader, almost making the story resemble a mystery. The first clue is the cruelness that Armand is prone to when dealing with his black slaves. Desiree loves her husband too much to notice, and slavery has become so entrenched in the southern society that Desiree has become desensitized. Yet Desiree is not so desensitized as to not care, for she is thrilled when her husband ceases to treat the slaves cruelly and is devastated when, upon suspecting that his baby is a Quadroon, Armand again resorts to projecting his self-hatred onto the slaves.
Armandâ€™s anger and aggression are directed at African Americans, as he is projecting his self-hatred onto them. Chopin structures the narrative in â€œDesireeâ€™s Babyâ€ in a way that gradually unfolds the truth about Armandâ€™s character. When Armand starts to suspect that his baby is not of pure white ancestry, his entire demeanor changes. Armand immediately accuses Desiree of being the one with black blood but Desiree seems to know better, claiming that her skin is â€œwhiter than yours, Armand.â€ Even though Desiree is the one whose biological parents remain unknown, Desiree herself seems to know that it is not her who has the black ancestor. Chopin builds into the tale â€œnarrative ambiguities,â€ which are resolved as the story unfolds and especially at the end (Gilbert, 2004, p. 1). Chopin shows also that Desiree herself is caught up in the racial prejudices of her time, feeling that she will â€œdieâ€ and that she â€œcannot be so unhappyâ€ if she were not pure white.
The way that Chopin reveals Desireeâ€™s own prejudices, it becomes clear that Desiree is merely expressing the social norms of her time. In fact, Chopin carefully draws attention to Desireeâ€™s whiteness: â€œShe was like a stone image: silent, white, motionless.â€ Yet it is not being white that Desiree cares about so much as it is securing Armandâ€™s love. The dichotomy of Desireeâ€™s reaction is what Peel (1990) describes as â€œsemiotic subversionâ€ and â€œdisruption of meaningâ€ in terms of the nature of race in American identity construction (p. 223). Desiree does not care if her baby is a Quadroon, but she does care that Armand is abandoning her because of it. Given that it is himself who has the black blood, Chopin also shows that Armand simply hates himself. Ironically also, Armand is the one that feels persecuted. He is the one who keeps slaves and treats them as less than human, and yet he feels hard done by. It is also ironic that Armand feels that God â€œstabbed thus into his wife’s soul,â€ as if God himself is black. Chopin saves for last the ultimate rally against the institution of slavery and all it entails for America: â€œhis mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.â€ Armand is the one who feels cursed by God, when in fact millions of slaves have endured the physical pain and dehumanization of the institution, the â€œbrand of slavery.â€
Moreover, Chopin also leaves a powerful lesson for the end of the story related to the nature of true love. Armand and Desiree had felt madly in love with one another, but theirs was described as being â€œstruck by a pistol shot,â€ and also like â€œan avalanche, or like a prairie fire.â€ These destructive analogies correspond with the destructive nature of Armandâ€™s weak character. On the contrary, the story ends with the exemplary behavior of Armandâ€™s own parents. In the letter, his mother speaks of the â€œblessing of her husbandâ€™s love,â€ a love that transcended racial prejudice. It is the order in which Chopin presents these key elements of the narrative that imbue â€œDesireeâ€™s Babyâ€ with its characteristic suspenseful structure.
Chopin, K. (n.d.). Desireeâ€™s baby. http://www.pbs.org/katechopin/library/desireesbaby.html
Gilbert, T. (2004). Textual, contextual, and critical surprises in â€œDesireeâ€™s Baby.â€ Connotations 14(1-3). http://www.connotations.de/article/teresa-gibert-textual-contextual-and-critical-surprises-in-desirees-baby/
Peel, E. (1990). Semiotic subversion in â€œDesireeâ€™s Baby.â€ American Literature 62(2): 223-237.
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