Désirée’s Baby by Kate Chopin
In Désirée’s Baby by Kate Chopin we have the theme of identity, racism, gender and shame. Taken from her Bayou Folk collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after first reading the story the reader realises how important the title of the story is. By associating the baby solely with Désirée and not with Armand as well, Chopin succeeds in mirroring Armand’s attitude to the baby. In Armand’s eyes, due to the mixed racial heritage of the child, the baby is Désirée’s responsibility and not his. As far as Armand is concerned, the child’s mixed race comes from Désirée and not from him and as such he wants no involvement with either Désirée or the baby. However as the reader learns at the end of the story there is a sense of irony about Armand’s decision.
It is also from the beginning of the story that the reader realises that Chopin is exploring the theme of identity. Through the narrator the reader learns that neither Madame nor Monsieur Valmondé know Désirée’s true identity. Despite speculation as to who may have left her at Valmondé nobody knows who her parents are or where she may have come from. Rather Madame Valmondé views Désirée’s arrival as an act of Providence and treats Désirée just as if she was her own daughter. By having so little known about where Désirée comes from, Chopin succeeds in adding some mystery to the story. This lack of knowledge about Désirée also serves to lead the reader to believe (until the last paragraph) that it is Désirée who is of mixed racial heritage and not Armand.
Chopin further explores the theme of identity when Madame Valmondé visits Désirée and she holds the baby up to the light. Désirée thinks her mother is doing so because she is surprised at how big the baby has grown but it becomes clear to the reader that Madame Valmondé can see (and wants to confirm in the light) that the baby is of mixed racial heritage. It is also interesting that Zandrine turns her face away from Madame Valmondé when she is holding the baby, the reader suspecting that Zandrine is fully aware that the baby is not white and as such is also aware of the consequences that face Désirée. Also in many ways Désirée’s identity (or at least her perception of who she is, a white married woman) is taken away from her later in the story by the knowledge that the baby is not white and the assumption that she is the one who is from a mixed racial heritage.
There is also some foreshadowing in the story which is worth noting. Chopin describes Armand’s home (L’Abri) as ‘a sad looking place’, with a roof that is ‘black like a cowl’, surrounded by ‘solemn oaks’ and ‘far reaching branches that shadowed it like a pall.’ These descriptions are important as by drawing imagery more associated with death or darkness, Chopin is in some ways preparing the reader for what happens later in the story (the discovery that the baby is of mixed racial heritage and the possible death of both Désirée and the baby by drowning). It is also interesting that L’Abri when translated into English (from French) means ‘the shelter.’ It is possible that Chopin is deliberately being ironic. A shelter is commonly associated with a place where someone feels safe or protected, yet on discovery of her child’s mixed racial heritage, rather than being protected by L’Abri and Armand, Désirée has to leave.
There are also traces of racism in the story. There is the obvious fact that Armand ignores the baby based solely on the child’s skin colour. There is also the fact that Armand beats the slaves on his plantation. If anything it is possible that Armand views his slaves as inferior to him. This perceived superiority that Armand feels over black people would have been common in the American South at the time that Chopin wrote the story, with most white people considering those who were black or of mixed racial heritage to be inferior. Désirée herself by her reaction to the baby’s skin colour and her subsequent conversation with Armand is only too aware of the significance of skin colour to society. She knows that it is impossible to remain in the relationship with Armand due to the shame that having a mixed race child will bring on Armand and his family name. It is for this reason that Désirée asks Armand should she leave.
Chopin also explores gender roles in the story, particularly the role of the female. From the beginning of the story the reader becomes aware that Armand can give a socially accepted legitimacy to Désirée by giving her his name. This is significant as Chopin may be suggesting or highlighting to the reader the subservience of not only Désirée but women in general at the time that the story was written, reliant on the male to provide legitimacy or validation. It would appear that by having Armand’s name, Désirée is in turn being accepted by society. The fact that Désirée also asks Armand should she leave also suggests that not only does she feel shame but that she is subservient to him. It is on his decision that the matter is resolved. Just as there is a sense of inequality between black and white people in the story, there is a sense that women too are not equal to men. It may also be important that Madame Valmondé never criticizes Armand over Désirée leaving. Again this could suggest that the role of the female (at the time the story was written) was to accept any decisions made by the male, not to question them.
By revealing at the end of the story that it is Armand who is from a mixed racial heritage, Chopin succeeds in again introducing irony into the story. However there is no sense that Armand will change, despite being aware of his heritage. Rather any evidence (his mother’s letter) that reveals his true identity (mixed race) is to be destroyed in the fire along with Désirée’s belongings. It is quite possible that Armand is driven by fear. By destroying his mother’s letter he may be hoping that his own true identity will not come to light.