The Antebellum south, or merely the word plantation, conjures images of white, columned manses shaded by ancient oaks bowed beneath the weight of Spanish moss and centuries. Somehow these monuments of Greek revivalist architecture sparkle in their ivory-coated siding, even while the trunks of their aged arboreal neighbors hide under layer upon soggy layer of dense, green lichen. The white house is a reflection of the inhabitants, its cleanliness in the damp, soiled environment standing as a stark reminder of the hegemony governing the lives of those living not in the house, but hidden nearby. L’Abri, the plantation home of the Aubigny family in Chopin’s Desirée’s Baby, is yellow and has a foreboding black roof made more sinister by the gloomy shadows cast by its requisite antiquated greenery. L’Abri is not unlike any other antebellum mansion of the pre-Civil War era; it represents its inhabitants.
The mansion is excellently presented as an example of how little authority color truly wields without an underlying power structure to give it substance. While race figures prominently in Desirée’s Baby, the story is an exemplary specimen for the application of Marxist criticism. Marxist criticism is the recognition of “inequalities in power between characters” (Gardner 146). It purposes to “expose the inequalities that underlie all societies” (Gardner 146). These inequalities can have multiple sources, though often the main source is race. But is race a biological reality? Miles posits that races are imagined, in that they “have no real biological foundation” (26). Miles further observes that differentiations between groups are “simultaneously inclusive and exclusive” (27) as the characteristics describing one group stand in contrast to another group. The destructive nature of racial categorization is in the claims that biological types determine “the endowment and behavior of individuals” (Miles 28) depending on their race, and that conflict between them is the “consequence of their biological constitution” (Miles 28).
Furthermore, race can be used to argue that there exists a natural hierarchy that determines positions of inferiority, and by extension, superiority (Miles 28). These assertions give credence to the ownership of slaves and the race-based denial of rights, and are foundational to the idea that the mixing of races is unnatural and even destructive. But race mixing is not mixing if race does not exist as a biological category. While science can find ways to assign race, those categories are blurred as races blend and eventually they will disappear. As a danger to the idea of race, blending is anathema to the superior category. Plantation life was a microcosmic picture of the idea of a need for segregation, wherein each category was given “its own territory within which its distinctive capacity for ‘civilization’ can be realized” (Miles 30).
But Chopin gives an excellent (and perhaps accurate) portrayal of the lack of any real biological basis for what constituted race in Antebellum Louisiana. Chopin describes Armand as dark (402), and Desirée points out to Armand that she is fair-skinned and whiter than he is (403). The baby is “their child” (Chopin 403) when Armand reveals the ‘truth’ to Desirée, but is Desirée’s child alone only four paragraphs later as she decides to leave (Chopin 404), notwithstanding the actual biological basis upon which the child’s parentage is based. Desirée walks away with the “golden gleam” (Chopin 404) of the sunlight in her brown hair, taking nothing with her, as befitting her new-found but false identity. She does not take the beaten path, but instead walks through the newly-harvested October fields (Chopin 404), again behaving in a way that befits the new category with which she now identifies.
Desirée’s biology belies the reality that she now accepts as “the stubble bruised her tender feet” (Chopin 404), and she does not know to walk where the branches will not shred her delicate clothing. If Desirée were actually black in the Antebellum south, she would know these things from early childhood. Desirée disappears “among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the bank of the deep sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again” (404). Desirée’s disappearance is not only her physical departure from L’Abri; it is the disappearance of the white woman that was Desirée. And none of these circumstances is decided by biology, but by what Marxists refer to as a “struggle for power between different social classes” (Gardner 145). Chopin is delivering a message that power transcends race.
What sets Desirée apart in terms of her subjugation by Armand? It is not race, but the lack thereof. Desirée is unable to hide anything about herself because her origins are unknown (Chopin 401). She is a willing captive to Armand as a result of her love and her marriage, but she is not an unwilling captive to race; she is an unwilling captive to her otherness. She does not have doubts about her race, but must live with the reality that “Armand has told me I am not white” (Chopin 404). Because her origins are unknown and she does not have a name, she must acquiesce to the whims of Armand, who had at first decided to be unconcerned about “the girl’s obscure origins” (Chopin 401). Armand is the power here. He makes all of the decisions regarding the lives of those within his circle of power, and he does so because he is allowed to do so. Madam Valmondé has even decided to be unconcerned about Armand’s questionable origins.
It is interesting that Desirée’s mother perceives evidence of the baby’s blackness (Chopin 402), but does not explore the possibility that Armand’s blood is the cause. Madam Valmondé is part of the power structure and victimizes her own daughter, whom she claims to love deeply and sees as a gift from “a beneficent Providence to be the child of her affection, seeing as she was without child of the flesh” (Chopin 401). Had Desirée been a child of the flesh of Madam Valmondé, she would have been accepted, and Madam Valmondé could have exercised her superiority over Armand and the unanswered questions of his origins. It is remarkable that no one questions Armand’s pedigree even though his mother lived and died in France (Chopin 401). Armand’s mother is perhaps one of the more interesting subjects of Marxist study in the story. One cannot help but wonder why Chopin portrays Monsieur Aubigny as “easy-going and indulgent” (Chopin 403).
He is a slave owner who married a woman of a different race overseas and asserted his white superiority over her, which is evident in her letter at the end of the story (Chopin 405). She credits God with having given her the ability to hide the reality of her inferiority from her son (Chopin 405). She is lost in the shame of her otherness. She has been so fully convinced by her perceived superiors of her inferiority that she sees the ability to hide her true nature as a gift from her creator.
To Monsieur Aubigny’s hidden wife, this is as much a gift as Madam Valmondé’s child of affection. One must question why Aubigny moved to France to marry this woman. And what was the arrangement that allowed her to stay hidden? Did she commit suicide? Is the letter that Armand is reading a final word from her before taking her own life? Note that this was only “part of an old letter” (Chopin 405), which leaves the true nature of her death unknown. This is power beyond ownership of chattels or social superiority; this power is God-like. Aubigny has happy slaves and is an indulgent tyrant, but to what dark magic has he subjected his French wife? Even if she is dying from something natural at the writing of the letter, it is remarkable that she perceives such powerlessness in herself.
Armand is not as devoted as his mother to God. He finds that God has “dealt cruelly and unjustly with him” (Chopin 404) when he discovers that all is not as it seemed. Armand has a beautiful wife who “loved him desperately” (Chopin 402) and “asked no greater blessing of God” (Chopin 402) when he smiled. He has inherited a plantation and slaves to work it. He is rich and possesses the legacy of a good name. Yet in unmitigated spite of all that he has been given, Armand finds God unjust. His world has been suddenly and completely turned on its head because he has reason to believe that his child has inherited inferiority, never guessing that he himself is the source in more ways than one. Armand is a name similar to Adam, and Chopin seems to model him in part after the biblical first man.
With the expulsion of Desirée, L’Abri is reminiscent of the biblical garden east of Eden, with the exception that Armand remains. The Mosaic account of the creation of man includes a guideline for marriage, with the command that “they shall become one flesh” (NASB, Genesis 2.24). A married couple in this sense should be regarded in the same manner as a child and parent – inseparable by nature, regardless of wounds or emotions. This is a picture that does not give place to the other as each partner is regarded equally.
It should be noted here that the name Desirée is a French articulation of desire, and it was Adam’s desire that inspired God to give him a mate (NASB, Genesis 2.20). But Adam failed to regard his wife as equal to himself, standing by as she was tempted and choosing not to intervene (NASB, Genesis 3.6). In witnessing her deception and choosing not to intervene, Adam has made Eve the other. He has separated himself from her. Armand allegorically models the actions of Adam, but he gives himself the God-like power to expel his Eve from the garden, while choosing to ignore his own nature. Adam was Armand’s example in choosing to act in spite of all that he had been given, and in Adam’s attempt to fool God into believing that he had been blameless (NASB, Genesis 3.11), he set up a struggle for power.
Armand falls easily into this struggle. It is not a stretch to believe that he has doubts about his own race. Exiling Desirée is a tactic that Armand uses to maintain his hegemony. He does not have a foundation of support apart from the societal acceptance of slavery and white superiority. Desirée and Madam Valmondé are victimized by the very system that they tacitly support. They support it both by their participation as landowners and probable slave-holders and by their acceptance of it even when it forces them to accept inferiority. The superstructure of power in their society is so strong that it can be enforced with nothing more than words, even when those words have no basis in biological fact. It is not the taint of the wrong skin color that makes Desirée a tragic figure; it is her support of a tainted system from which she benefitted until it turned on her.
Skin color is a biological reality, but it has been manipulated in support of hegemony. The Antebellum south stood as a physical representation of the realities of race. Large, sparkling, white houses stood proudly fronting the large plantation estates of the white owners therein, while the dark-skinned slaves abode in small, mean cottages hidden in the rear. Kate Chopin depicts a plantation mansion in her short story Desirée’s Baby with a paint color that is darker than the standard, modeling the color of the inhabitants. Nonetheless, the Aubigny family is powerful, benefitting from a superstructure that assigns power by the perception, rather than the reality, of skin color. While race is an important feature of the story, Chopin has written a work that is perfect for a Marxist critique.
Chopin, Kate. “Desirée’s Baby.” Anthology of the American Short Story. Ed. James Nagel. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. 121-135. Print. ISBN: 978-0-618-73220-3 Gardner, James. Writing about Literature: A Portable Guide. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. Print. ISBN: 978-0-312-60757-9 Miles, Robert. “Recent Marxist Theories of Nationalism and the Issue of Racism.” The British Journal of Sociology 38.1 (1987): 24-43. Web. 9 Jun. 2012. New American Standard Bible. Trans. The Lockman Foundation. New York:
Oxford UP, 1971. Print.
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