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At a glance, ‘Desiree’s Baby’ published in 1893 By an American writer Kate Chopin, depicts the miscegenation in Creole Louisiana during the antebellum era. The Antebellum period in American history is generally considered to be the period before the civil war and after the war of 1812. The technological advances and religious and social movements of the Antebellum Period had a profound effect on the course of American history, including a population shift from farms to industrial centers, sectional divisions that ended in civil war, the abolition of slavery and the growth of feminist and temperance movements.
Though Kate Chopin is known to be a writer of American Realism and naturalism, the story ‘Desiree’s Baby’ is strenuous to classify, because it is extremely short. Kate Chopin often wrote about subjects that were extremely sensitive, and many of them still strike as a nerve in the United States today. In this story Kate Chopin highlights a compelling critique of the class and racial prejudice that permeated the behaviors of Antebellum South.
There are many perspectives to the story including racial and ethnic abuse, shades of patriarchy and discrimination by class. There are also political and semiotic panoramas to this story, according to Ellen Peel.
In addition, through the relationship between Desiree and Armand, Chopin expounds the precarious status of both those without a family and those of biracial descent. Undoubtedly, the story despite of its brevity, highlights the disruption of meaning. The character mainly responsible fo this disruption is, Desiree. She acts as a synergist to the whole subversion of meaning.
The whole political and semiotic perspective, combined together gives the looming shadows of race, sex and class discrimination. According to Ellen Peel, this whole charade of disruption reaches its climax when Desiree, who everyone including her knew as white, gives birth to a baby boy that has shades of black. She is eventually rejected by her husband due to the fact that she belongs to a black race. Later in the story Armand, Desiree’s husband reveals that he himself is black from his mother side. The story takes place in an antebellum Creole community. Looming shadows of patriarchy, slavery and racism were the accepted and adopted crisis of that era. Everyone had accepted the categorized and distributed system.
Racism was at its peak and the worst part about it was that the undermined people had accepted this fact, as mentioned in the story, “Negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master’s easy-going and indulgent lifetime.” Furthermore, as Emily Toth has inferred, in the story of the three dualities parallel each other. Clearly, the symbol of the multifaceted society is the character Armand Aubigny. He is self-confident because of some minor yet major facts encapsulating him being white, being a male and being a master over several slaves. In order to get a grip on how this poignant story depicts various perspectives and drawbacks lets follow through the whole story. The tale begins when Madame Valmonde is going Desiree and her newly born baby. On her way, she reminisces about when Desiree herself was a baby. Monsieur had found her asleep at the gateway of Valmonde.
Though many people believed that a band of Texans had abandoned her, but Madam Valmonde stuck to the theory that providence sent her this child as she lacked any children of her own. Like a queen and king in a fairy tale, they were delighted by her mysterious arrival and named her Désirée, “wished-for one,” “the desired one.” The beginning of the story points towards no bitterness but a good and happy side to the story. Though the racial and slavery crisis were tremendous but the fact that even the masters of that particular society adopted a homeless child, knowing that she belonged to a black origin, shows signs of kindness and humanity. It also depict the ulterior motives behind adoption, which was the lack of her own children. But neither in the beginning nor in the end, has it ever mentioned the feelings of resentfulness from mother to her daughter or vice versa. Desiree seemed a blessing in disguise for them and they raised her as their own daughter.
Desiree grew up to be beautiful, gentle and affectionate and sincere too. She turned out to be exactly like their perfect daughter. Skipping the eighteen years of Desiree’s life, Chopin has directly jumped to the love part of the story, where Armand Aubigny saw Desiree standing next to the stone pillar of the gateway and he falls in love with her instantly. Although, he had known her for years since first arriving from Paris after his mother’s death. “That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot. The wonder was that he had not loved her before; for he had.” This love part of the story, highlights many things. The way it is shown that Armand fell in love with Desiree delineates the male dominance and pride in that society. It also depicts the lack of maturity and a bit ruthlessness in the prescribed culture. Monsieur Valmonde takes a practical approach and wants Armand to get ensure first that Desiree origin was unknown but Armand is so deeply in love with her that he doesn’t care about her origin. He decided that even if she hasn’t a family name, then he would give her his own and soon as depicted in the story, they get married.
Living deeply in the roots of a society where slavery and racism is all-in-all, accepting a girl despite of her known origin highlights true signs of love as Armand doesn’t care before marrying whichever origin she belongs to. Another important universal truth and human nature has been highlighted here. Not only in the era of antebellum but since the world has started, it is but human nature to fight for what he truly loves and believe and there are so many examples and incidents in the history which show that once that thing is achieved, a person starts to lose interest in it and that is what is overshadowed by the intensified love. As soon as the story builds up its plot, a major transition is portrayed. Armand, other household staff and eventually Desiree too, see some unusualness in the complexion of the baby. She isn’t sure about the underlying problem and on confronting to her husband she finds out that the child is not while and hence she doesn’t belong to a white origin.
Desiree couldn’t believe him because this was a total disastrous surprise for her. The fact that is portrayed here is the significance of the facts. The issue regarding Desiree’s origin was already present but her husband didn’t care. But confronting the truth of her origin suddenly changed every bit of him. The narrow-mindedness and injustice of that society is delineated again. What if there’s some friend of mine and we are very much close. Someday if I find out, that he originates from a family who were slaves. Would it change anything between me and him? What if someone asks the same question from Armand? The difference would be obviously seen and that is the whole point and the major transition in the story. The reasonless transition of a character from being attached and so full in love with a person to rejecting her. As described by Ellen Peel, that there are moments of surprises and transitions in the story. So, the first surprise comes when he interprets his baby’s appearance, concluding the fact that the child and its mother are not white. This fact revealed a major flaw and weakness in her husband’s character.
There’s another perspective to this transition as well as it can be inferred that Desiree seems to invite projection: Madam Valmonde wanted a child so she got deceived by herself and the urge to be a mother. That doesn’t change the fact that she denied symbolism. She was a true believer and that too contradicts the writer’s beginning enlightenment. Secondly, Armand too got fooled by himself for believing that they could safely project their desires onto Desiree. In this manner, it is illustrated that even though Desiree didn’t look like from black origin but the discovery to her origin made her black. In this regard, a person who look white but has a tiny drop of black blood is considered black. As Joel Williamson believes, that the ‘one-drop-rule’ has a stand point but it eventually leads to the invisible blackness crisis. At this point in the story, two major panoramas can be looked upon too, miscegenation and disruptiveness. Disruptiveness is also a semiotic point of view explained by Ellen Peel. There’s a complex perspective to Desiree’s nature and its relevance to society.
She doesn’t herself produce flaws as the flaws were there before she was even born but the role she plays is to reveal them which makes her disruptive. Another major transition to the story presents itself in the end of the story. Armand finds out that the black genes come from the baby through his own mother who was black. After Armand kicks out his wife and child, in the abusive storm of racialism and cruelty, he comes across a letter to his mother by 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.” As Ellen Peel believes that the heart of darkness lies within the self and so do I, the letter, unveils Armand’s shadowed face to himself. At this point, a big shift occurs when Armand is actually is in a position where he left his wife and child. Also, Armand had rejected his own blood because he was a product from a white man and a black woman and after the unveiling of the letter he finds himself in the same place as his child.
This revelation shakes the whole picture of the story and the main dominant and brutal figure, Armand as he is now in the same position as his son. The famous quotation, ‘What does around, always comes around ‘: Could be the best way to explain his situation. Though the whole plot is shaken but that only highlights the issue of society at a micro level. Neither it describes the change factor nor does it propose any possible solution. In the nineteenth century, sexual relations between two people of different races, or miscegenation, bore a distinctly deprecatory connotation. As seen by the quadroon slave child who fans Désirée’s own baby, interracial relations did occur with relative frequency, but such children often ended up as slaves under the theory that even one drop of African or black blood made a person black rather than white. Likewise, many biracial people who happened to inherit pale skin and European rather than African features were able to incorporate at least temporarily into white society, passing for white if they chose. In Armand’s case, he did not even have to hide because he did not know his status.
Some people who passed as white, like Armand, even successfully entered the Southern ‘ruling’ class, which was not only putatively white but also rich from owning plantation lands. Meanwhile, whereas most people fell on one side of the social divide between black and white, those of mixed descent lived on the border of social acceptability. Thus, the quadroon boy serving the quadroon master is ironic but also representative of the biracial group as a demographic sector of the population. Another irony of Chopin’s story is that although Désirée is probably of Caucasian blood after all, only she and her innocent baby suffer from the accusation of miscegenation, whereas the mixed-race Armand Aubigny will probably not face any consequences for either his racial descent or his cruelty to his wife. This patently unjust state of affairs occurs not only because Armand will probably take the secret to his grave but also because, as Chopin informs us in the third paragraph, Désirée’s status is as much a question of familial class as of racial class. Although her presumed European ancestry places her above the slave class in the hierarchy of Louisiana, being white is not sufficient to place her in a class equal to that of the Aubignys.
Note also that although Armand can echo his father in forgiving a beloved woman for her societal status, Armand can never be his father’s equal because he cannot forgive her presumed racial heritage. By contrast, Madame Valmonde is portrayed as loving, kind, and eminently ethical in her refusal to condemn Désirée for her questionable blood. In addition to hinting at Armand’s family secret, Chopin hints at his cruelty toward his slaves and creates an obvious parallel between his treatment of them and of his wife, who was by the legal code of the era barely higher than property. Whereas his father is described as “easy-going and indulgent,” Armand lives too strictly by the social mores of his era and not enough by a true moral code. Despite her name, Désirée is only desired insofar as his standards are exceeded, and when he burns their wedding corbeille, it is the physical manifestation of the destruction of their wedding vows, in which he presumably would have promised to cherish and care for her until death. In this manner, his seemingly ardent love shows itself to be shallow and undeserving.
Another view to this story is a very different idea by Gary H, Mayer, who believes that this story originates and explains the general semantics or in other words, the story revolves around observation-inference confusion. An inference is nothing more than a mere guess which could be really destructible for anyone, according to Gary H, Mayer. According to him, the main sick character Armand, highlights a semantic error called ‘allness’, which happens when a person believes that he/she happens to know everything. Delving into the story, it can be seen that there’s a sequence of conclusions without any solid reasons by the characters. Adding icing to the top, it can also be delineated that the story represents a series of rational decisions. The decision of instantly falling in love. The decision of kicking Desiree and the child out of the house and most importantly the very first decision in the story where without any thinking, Desiree is fondled.
Another weakness of human nature can be seen if we take into account a much deeper perspective to the story, which is to judge people by appearance. Armand loved Désirée’s outer beauty, not her inner beauty. She was like a trophy to him. When the trophy became tarnished in his eyes, he removed it from its shelf and discarded it. He also rejected his child, for its skin exhibited a taint of impurity. Finally, like other Old South plantation owners, he viewed the blackness of his slaves as a defect that colored even their souls. However, conversation between Désirée and Madame Valmondé indicates that he apparently found time for La Blanche, the slave woman whose name (French for white) suggests that she was of mixed heritage, with light skin that made her a tolerable sexual object for Armand. Désirée, speaking of the loudness of her baby’s crying, says, “Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche’s cabin.”
To put it briefly, the whole panorama to this short little story contains versatility in it. The beauty of Kate Chopin is that she has presented this story as a symbol as well as a lesson that should be learnt. The extent of understanding differs for the readers as some readers would find it only a depressing tragedy. Unarguably, this story portrays the racial and gender based differences in the society. Though it should be mentioned that in the present day, this major issue has been eradicated to great extent but traces can still be found at a very micro level. Overall, the human weaknesses and tantrums and can cause to such differential crisis but society as we speak, has transformed into a better example of humanity.
Peel, Allen. “Semiotic Subversion in Desiree’s Baby.”
Pegues, Dagmar. “Fear And Desire: Regional Aesthetics and Colonial Desire in Kate Chopin’s portrayals of The Tragic Mulatta Stereotype.” Mayer, Gary. “A matter of behavior: A semantic analysis of five Kate Chopin stories.” Khamees, Raghad. “Desiree’s Baby.”< http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3088548-desiree-s-baby>
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