The interaction between different races and the dynamics thereof have pervaded literary discourse for a long period as evidenced by the short story “Désirée’s Baby” which was written by Kate Chopin in 1892. In this omniscient narration, the reader is introduced to the extremities that characterize the relationship between whites, blacks, and mixed-race communities. Chopin utilizes characterization and the relationships between various characters and ethnicities to bring out the themes of racism, gender roles, and identity (Trotman 130).
Themes in “Désirée’s Baby”
Racism is portrayed through various characters from different races. White people are dominant over the mixed-race and blacks. The Valmondes and Aubignys, for example, own land and slaves. Armand marries Désirée because he considers her to be white from the color of her skin and does not care about her ambiguous origin. He intends to bestow on her one of the most prestigious names in the community – Aubignys (Chopin, Wilson, and Seyersted 241). The whites also despise other races. This explains why Monsieur Valmonde is uncomfortable with the vague origin of little Désirée and Armand also rejects his black child.
Black people are depicted as despised and oppressed slaves. When Madame Valmonde goes to visit her adopted daughter at the L’abri she observes that Armand is so strict with the Negroes that they have forgotten what it means to be happy. Désirée tells Madame Valmonde that Armand has refrained from punishing his slaves since the birth of his son thus implying that the slave-owner is normally inhuman to them. Similarly, when Désirée is heading towards the bayou at sunset, the blacks are still working in cotton farms. They also help Armand burn items that remind him of Désirée towards the end of the story. Moreover, they are objects of ridicule as Armand sarcastically tells Désirée that their son is as white as the son of La Blanche’s (Chopin, Wilson, and Seyersted 244). In essence, black people are slaves and objects of ridicule in this society.
The title of the short story, “Desiree’s Baby”, is also an indicator of another race that exists in this society – the mixed-race or Creoles – who are represented primarily by Désirée’s baby and secondarily by Armand. This race results from unsanctioned sexual relationships between blacks and whites. Armand is unwilling to accept a black child because of societal opinions just as his parents deny him knowledge of part of his parentage. Mixed race persons are also not perceived positively by the whites. This is indicated by what Armand tells Désirée when they are arguing over the baby. He says, “… it means that you are not white” (Chopin, Wilson, and Seyersted 243).
Thirdly, the theme of gender roles is evidenced in the way women and men relate (Warlock 181). Women are subservient to men and pander to male desires and whims. Désirée tells her adopted mother that Armand has become so happy after the birth of his son that she is worried – apparently because the change has been unexpected. Moreover, the narrator observes that Désirée loves Armand so much so that when he is happy she thanks God for him, but when he reverts to his old irksome self, she trembles (Chopin, Wilson, and Seyersted 242).
Moreover, women live and enjoy life at the pleasure of men. For example, Armand is not even willing to listen to Désirée’s pleadings and arguments because she obviously has no right to argue with him. Armand callously allows his wife and child to leave. Similarly, Armand’s mother is prevented from revealing to her son that she is black (Chopin, Wilson, and Seyersted 245). The male gender is also depicted as being in control and free do as it pleases. Chopin subtly suggests that Armand exploits women sexually, especially La Blanche. The first indication is when Désirée tells her mother that Armand can hear his son crying while at La Blanche’s cabin. The next implication is when Armand likens his son to La Blanche’s boy. Perhaps, Armand is the father of La Blanche’s son too.
Thirdly, identity is also an important theme in this short story. From a gender perspective, a male child is valued more than a female one because of the paternalistic ideals that pervade this society. Moreover, male gender owns and controls the female one. In terms of race, non-whites are not highly regarded and are either house servants or slaves. For example, although Désirée has a whiter complexion than her husband, bearing a black child only means that she is not white and does not qualify to marry the ostensibly white Armand. The same reasoning pattern informs Armand’s parents’ decision not to reveal his mother’s identity to him (Chopin, Wilson, and Seyersted 245).
Chopin utilizes both main and fringe characters from all races and identities to elicit the themes of racial relations, gender roles, and identity in “Désirée’s Baby.” Through Armand and Désirée the reader learns that there are clear demarcating lines on the roles and social status of each race. Moreover, women are totally dependent on men and are status symbols that can be done away with when need arise. Finally, this short story raises identity issues relating to different races and especially the ambivalent status of the mixed-race as represented by Désirée’s baby and Armand, who ironically rejects his own blood (Trotman 134).
Chopin, Kate, Edmund Wilson, and Per Seyersted. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 2006. Print.
Trotman, James. Multiculturalism: Roots and Realities. Bloomington, IN Indiana
University Press, 2002. Print.
Warlock, Abby. Companion to Literature: Facts on File Companion to the American Short
Story. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2010. Print