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“Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin Essay


Introduction

Desiree’s Baby, authored by Kate Chopin, is a bittersweet short story with an ironic ending. The plot centers on Armand, a wealthy landowner in Louisiana falls for and marries Desiree, a woman of unknown heritage. Later, the couple bears a son with a black skin color, which, according to Armand, comes from Desiree. However, in a twist turn of events, Armand learns that he has a French ancestry, which may have contributed to the child’s mixed heritage.

In this story, the author examines the theme of race and identity by hiding Desiree’s identity. Throughout the story, Desiree’s real identity is a mystery to both Armand and Valmonde who raised her. By disclosing Armand’s mixed heritage, which led to some form of identity crisis towards the end of the narrative, Chopin shows that knowing one’s cultural background is important in identity development. This research essay explores the theme of identity and the role it played in plot development in Chopin’s short story.

Culture and Identity

In the story, it is evident that knowing one’s identity and origin helps a person connect with the society. The lack of knowledge about a person’s origin affects one relates with others in the society, especially race relations. After Monsieur Valmonde adopts her, rumors emerge about her unknown identity.

Before her marriage, Valmonde tells Armand that “the girl’s obscure origin” could affect his social relations and standing leading to a hasty wedding (Chopin 3). In addition, after the baby is born, his black traits heighten the mystery of Desiree’s heritage. On the other hand, Armand’s aristocratic lineage and “dark, handsome face” do not raise suspicion that he could be from “the race cursed with the brand of slavery” (Chopin 5).

Critics argue that the story’s focus on “the quaint and picturesque life among the Creole and Acadian folk of the Louisiana bayous” (Rankin 124) is an indication mixed heritage can affect identity formation. In addition, the story contains “Southern elements and regional dialects” (Bloom 85), which indicates that Chopin is using a local interpretation to illustrate social relations in Louisiana. Thus, in the story, Desiree’s unknown identity prevents her from fully integrating into her new home and marriage.

Culture and identity also help one to develop a deep sense of the self. A person develops a sense of self-awareness through experience and culture. Initially, Desiree is depicted as white when adorning “soft white muslin and laces” (Chopin 4), but later Armand doubts her whiteness. She defends herself by claiming, “It is a lie; it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are gray” (Chopin 4).

Her sentiments show that, given her unknown heritage, she doubted her ‘whiteness’, which affected her ego. Moreover, Chopin describes her as a “silent, white, and motionless” (6) individual, unlike Armand, who comes from a wealthy aristocratic family and commands great respect and power.

Arner writes that Chopin’s “profound irony and reversal of racial identity” helps develop a sense of justice on the part of the readers (34). It shows that people with an inferior racial background develop a low self-esteem. In addition, Chopin’s association of “darkness with Armand and whiteness with Desiree” (Arner 36) symbolizes their true character and identity. However, Desiree’s unclear racial identity results in her underdeveloped sense of the self.

Culture and identity also define one’s destiny and condition in life. The human situation in the slavery era was determined by one’s ethnic background, where one race was considered superior to the other. In the story, Armand rejects the boy because of his skin color, which, he believes, makes the child inferior to him.

This forces Desiree to request Armand to leave to spare the child the humiliation and stigma. To convey their suffering, Chopin writes that Desiree, after leaving Armand, walks “under the live-oak branches across a deserted field where the stubble bruised her feet” (3). She treads along the “banks of the deep, sluggish bayou never to come back” (Chopin 5). The child’s black skin color wrongly portrayed her as one with an inferior racial identity, forcing her to leave Armand’s household.

Peel asserts that Chopin’s intention is to bring to the fore “the concerns of sex, race, and class” that dominated master-slave duality (223). The story illustrates the 19th century relationships between whites and blacks as well as between men and women. On the other hand, Chopin reverses racial identities to “confuse the borders of race, gender, truth, and perception” (Peel 229). To Chopin, human interrelationships blur racial and gender boundaries.

Knowledge of one’s culture helps a person to embrace his/her identity and lead an authentic lifestyle. Identity is a means of advancing one’s aspirations and interests. In the story, Desiree’s unknown heritage affects her social status; she receives blame for the child’s skin color and as a result, she is expelled from her home.

Because she did not know her identity, she was not able to pursue her dreams and interests. Despite her skin being “lighter than Armand’s” (Chopin 3), she faces cruelty from Armand. Moreover, she does not retaliate, but remains “stone image: silent, white”, which portrays her as submissive and powerless due to her black heritage.

Commenting on Chopin’s story, Sollors notes that the racial boundary between whites and blacks is blurry because “some slaves are part white, while at least a few masters have a black heritage” (637). In the story, Armand, who, as we learn later, is part black, enjoys a higher social status by virtue of his aristocratic lineage. Sollors further writes that “blackness and whiteness” (639) in the story are discordant with the reality, which explains the characters’ twisted fates.

Identity also defines one’s character and worldviews. Culture shapes a person’s attitude, values, and beliefs, which play a role in interpersonal relationships. Armand is described as being of a dark appearance, which alludes to his cruelty towards Desiree and the slaves working on his plantation.

In one instance, Desiree responds to Armand “in a voice that must have stabbed him, if he was human. But he did not notice” (Chopin 3). This depicts Armand as a person with no sense of morality partly because he was brought up in a wealthy family. His unjust attitude makes many to believe that “God was paying him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul” (Chopin 4).

This description shows that Armand’s “dark personality” does not originate from his ancestry, but “the evil he embraced and incorporated into his identity” (Fox-Genovese 8). In this view, Chopin shows that Armand’s ignorance of his cultural background made him embrace evil values and beliefs that are not part of his culture. Fox-Genovese further notes that the “yellow nurse woman” in the story alludes to the “elements of both light and dark” that shape an individual’s identity and behavior (21).

In the story, the theme of identity is apparent during Madame Valmonde’s visit to Armand to see the baby. She holds the child close to the source of light to see his skin color. In another instance, Zandrine hides her shock from Madame Valmonde on realizing that the child is black. Desiree’s identity, as a “white married woman” is affected when it becomes apparent that the baby has a black heritage (Bornarito 17). The realization that she might have a mixed heritage changes her self-concept to the extent that she agrees to leave Armand’s household.

Conclusion

In the story, Chopin shows how an unknown identity can affect one’s societal standing and individual aspirations. Uncertainty over her heritage made Desiree a subject of cruelty and social stigma. On the other hand, the truth about Armand’s mixed heritage shows how his lack of knowledge of his origin shaped his opinion of the black race. Thus, knowledge of one’s culture helps construct individual identity and shapes views, self-concept, and relationships with others.

Summaries of Three Sources

Arner, Robert. “Pride and Prejudice: Kate Chopin’s Desiree’s Baby”. The Mississippi Quarterly 25 (1972): 131-140. Print.

The article is a commentary on racial relations in Desiree’s Baby. It examines dualities in the short story, such as white vs. black and dark vs. light as well the yellow color. It also examines identity formation risks in the story and the advancement of the ‘social self’ at the expense of the individual ego.

Bloom, Harold. Kate Chopin, Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. Print.

The book is a collection of writings authored by literary critics of Chopin’s works. It also features Chopin’s biography and short stories, including Desiree’s Baby and the Awakening arranged in a chronological order. The literary critics comment on the romantic images, the plot, and the characters in Desiree’s Baby.

Peel, Ellen. “Semiotic Subversion in ‘Desiree’s Baby”. American Literature 62.2 (1990): 223-238. Print.

The article examines power relations in Desiree’s Baby, especially the oppression of women and blacks. In particular, the article analyzes the symbolism behind Desiree’s name, which means obsession with other people’s desires. The subversion of her desires leaves her devoid of her identity and interests.

Works Cited

Arner, Robert. “Pride and Prejudice: Kate Chopin’s Desiree’s Baby”. The Mississippi Quarterly 25 (1972): 131-140. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Kate Chopin, Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. Print.

Bornarito, Jessica. Chopin, Kate General Commentary: Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Print.

Chopin, Kate. Desiree’s Baby. New York: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 1893. Print.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “Between Individualism and Fragmentation: American Culture and the New Literary Studies of Race and Gender”. American Quarterly 42.1 (1990): 7-29. Print.

Peel, Ellen. “Semiotic Subversion in ‘Desiree’s Baby”. American Literature 62.2 (1990): 223-238. Print.

Rankin, Daniel. Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.

Sollors, Werner. Neither Black nor White yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.

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""Desiree’s Baby" by Kate Chopin." IvyPanda, 1 Apr. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/desirees-baby-by-kate-chopin/.

1. IvyPanda. ""Desiree’s Baby" by Kate Chopin." April 1, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/desirees-baby-by-kate-chopin/.


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IvyPanda. 2020. ""Desiree’s Baby" by Kate Chopin." April 1, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/desirees-baby-by-kate-chopin/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) '"Desiree’s Baby" by Kate Chopin'. 1 April.

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