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Kate Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby” is a story that follows the themes of racism, sexism, and love through the characterization of both Désirée and Armand. A defining characteristic of the American South in the 19th century was racism. Racism is a belief or doctrine that there are inherent differences among the races that determine cultural achievement, it usually involves the idea of the one person’s race is superior to others. Racism is a driving force in “Désirée’s Baby,” and is a major characteristic in Armand.
He is a violent and abusive slave owner where when it was revealed that his child was possibly not purely white, he casts both Désirée and his child out. One of the major themes in “Désirée’s Baby,” sexism, is the way in which Armand treats Désirée because of her gender. When both Armand and Désirée figure out that their baby is of mixed origin, Armand quickly turns the blame onto Désirée and denounces her.
We never truly know where he bases his assumptions, but due to the social structure in the south, Armand can attack and blame Désirée without any consequence. Through Armand’s and Désirée’s relationship the readers learn that the consciousness of race affects all levels of society and can create tragic results.
In “Desiree’s Baby,” the couple falls in love instantaneously, and is emotionally connected meaning when he is happy, she is happy and when he is sad, she is “miserable enough to die.
” Armand met Desiree when she was eighteen when he rode past her as “she stood one day against the stone pillar” (Chopin 431). He “fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot” (Chopin 431) their love was so sudden where he hardly knew her but they both still got married quickly and had a son. Monsieur Valmondé wanted to make sure that Désirée’s unknown origin was to be considered by Armand before making the hasty decision to get married but did not care much over her unknown origins because he was so much in love. He decided himself that he would give her his own last name if she did not have a family name of her own. Not only Armand is blinded by his emotions, Desiree was strongly pushed by her emotions also. She wasn’t just affected by her own emotions, the emotions of her husband swayed her thoughts, “This was what made the gentle Désirée so happy, for she loved him desperately. When he frowned she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God” (Chopin 432). In the story, we can slowly infer that Armand loved Désirée’s outer beauty, not her inner beauty. To him she was only a trophy wife in his eyes. Armand not only see her an object, but also also as a blank page where he is able to form her in any shape that he is able to due to that fact that she has no known background. This somewhat gives him more dominance over her because she has no family that could be angered by the way he will treat her. When he finds that his child is not of pure white blood, he goes out of his way to discard the trophy.
Like many southern plantation owners, he saw the color of his slaves also affect the color of their souls; however, conversation between Désirée and Madame Valmondé indicates that he made time for La Blanche, a slave that we can infer through her name that she possibly mixed and is light skinned enough for Armand. The conversation points out that there is a sexual relationship between Armand and La Blanche when Désirée says the cries of the baby were loud enough that “Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche’s cabin’ (Chopin 432). Désirée seems to be fine with the fact that there is a sexual relationship between Armand and La Blanche. The birth of the baby caused Armand to be in a happy mood, not allowing anything negative to penetrate his happiness. Désirée found that “Marriage, and later the birth of his son had softened Armand Aubigny’s imperious and exacting nature greatly” (Chopin 432). For instance, Désirée tells Madame Valmondé “…he hasn’t punished one of them—not one of them—since baby is born. Even Négrillon, who pretended to have burnt his leg that he might rest from work—he only laughed, and said Négrillon was a great scamp. Oh, mamma, I’m so happy; it frightens me” (Chopin 432). The birth of the baby boy is softening Armand’s personality and his cruelty towards his slaves. This change in personality that fears Désirée could only make readers assume that she believes that Armand could snap and this happiness that everyone is experiencing could be dismissed anytime soon.
Originally, Armand was in awe with his newborn son, but that soon turned into hatred as the child’s skin turned darker. He refuses to believe Désirée, despite her multiple attempts to show him that she is under pure white heritage. He did not once throughout the story consider if the child’s skin was a result from him and not from Désirée because he was considered white passing. After her many attempts of changing his mind through their child, he tells her “‘It means,’ he answered lightly, ‘that the child is not white; it means that you are not white,’” (Chopin 433). When they separate, she feels as she died emotionally and not physically. After Désirée denies being of African descent, and writes to Madame Valmondé for help where she responds that she and the baby should return home to the Valmondé estate. However, her letter does not reach Désirée in time when Désirée finally understood the significance of her child’s features and being accused of being black by Armand, the guilt in her caused her to walk into the bayou, killing herself and the baby.
Armand Aubigny is like other southern men where he bases worth of a human being on the mere fact of their skin color and their gender. During the 19th century, many men upheld the belief that women are subordinate to men and if their bloodline is tainted with black blood then they are less than subhuman. Armand is the master of the L’Abri plantation where he plays the roles as a strict owner who treats his slaves harshly, the narrator even comments by saying the “negroes had forgotten how to be gay’ (Chopin 432). When we read the short story we can tell that Armand also clearly rules the home and the environment is portrayed. As a husband, Armand clearly rules the home. The way he acts changes when the baby is born, but the reasons why can be questionable. Désirée observes, “Armand is the proudest father in the parish, I believe, chiefly because it is a boy, to bear his name; though he says not,—that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know it isn’t true’ (Chopin 432). This leads readers to believe that Armand placed the worth of his baby by their gender. To Armand, a male probably meant that the Aubigny name was sure to continue on. However, once Armand discovered that his child had black blood, he became cruel and makes sure that his wife and child is no longer welcomed in the L’Abri. He even goes out of his way to burn all of their items they left behind.
Armand comes to harbor fear about his marriage with Désirée due to his strong believe that she is mixed, causing her to complete tarnish his family name. Armand thought “Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul. Moreover, he no longer loved her, because of the unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name” (Chopin 433). Throughout the story Armand is blinded by his emotions, in the beginning he was blinded by his love for Désirée and later was blinded by his hatred of the black race. His emotions were so intense, it was only in the end that he realised how wrong he was about Désirée’s heritage. On the other hand, Désirée’s mother, Madame Valmondé, tells her in a return letter, ”My own Desiree: Come home to Valmondé; back to your mother who loves you. Come with your child” (Chopin 433). In the return letter we see that Madame Valmondé truly loves her daughter no matter what, even if she is of mix race or not. During the time period that the story takes place in it was not proper for women to leave their husbands. When a woman even a woman of wealth became married, all of her possessions become her husband’s property. However, her mother encourages her to leave Armand so he can obtain true happiness again in the Valmondé estate where her loving mother lives. She is an opposite force in Désirée’s life than Armand is.
At the beginning of the story, Armand ordered a corbeille which is something that acts as a dowry, but is given by the groom to the bride. The contents of it wasn’t revealed until Armand has them burned. The corbeille included silk gowns, laces, embroideries, bonnets, and gloves. These items offer a stark contrast between Armand’s attitude towards Désirée in the beginning until the end of the story. His hatred is so strong that nothing is able to nudge the barrier, that is, until he reads his mother’s letter that he found while burning the items that belong to Désirée and their child. His mother wrote “But, above all… night and day, 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 434). Through the letter he learns that he is actually in fact part black due to his mother’s origins that was kept secret from him all his life. If he knew the mere fact that he was part black due to his mother, he could have prevented himself to see a person’s race as being more important than their personality. His emotions overpower him, and in what seems to be a desperate attempt to save face, he breaks and destroys any trace or connection he had with Desiree. The readers can tell that his emotions overpower him the burning of the items is a way for him to destroy any connection he had with Désirée previously.
In the story of “Désirée’s Baby” it covers many of the issues over race, gender, and societal views many try to uphold. However, the main problem that the story comes across is Armand’s pride overpowering his love for his wife. Armand Aubigny is somewhat a victim of society and the institution of slavery. .He held too much pride in his family’s name and how he had it all. His whole life revolved around his last name and himself. Désirée truly did love her husband Armand, who in return originally did seem to love her, but was later to be shown that his power and family name meant more for him. The ending of the story made Armand’s actions become ridiculous because he was what he was very against of. The problem in the story could have been solved and Désirée’s death could have been prevented if he only realized that family name is not what makes us who we are.
Kate Chopin sets her story in pre-Civil War Louisiana, where she goes over the troubling past and the ongoing racism that many endured in the United States. By showing Armand’s racism towards his wife and child, who he originally loved dearly, she explores the deeply rooted racism that many of the elite southern whites had. Désirée’s pitiful and desperate pleas to her husband highlights another element of Chopin’s story about women’s roles and the need for more rights.
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