Short Fiction Story

Kate Chopin (1851-1904) is known for her short stories and novels that explore the theme of the Other in the patriarchal society – women, African Americans and Creoles. In 1879-1884 she lived in Louisiana and absorbed the Creole culture and specific atmosphere of the South, which became the source for her writings (2).The short story “Desiree’s Baby” (also called “The Father of Desiree’s Baby”) reflects the peculiarities of Chopin’s style and interpretation of the Southern, local colour theme. These alternative titles curiously point out to the three pivotal characters of the story: Desiree, her husband and the father of her baby, and the child. The action takes place in Louisiana on the slave-owning South. Desiree is an orphan, adopted by childless plantation owners Valmondes, who was found as a toddler near their plantation. She is married by Armand Aubigny, the young owner of the neighbouring plantation. Desiree falls deeply in love with Armand and bears a child; still, after Armand recognizes that the baby is not white, he accuses his wife of being non-white and to turns her out of house and home, while she walks away together with the child back to Valmondes’ estate. However, when Armand is burning the remaining Desiree’s things, he finds a letter that says that his mother was black.Therefore, the theme of this text is the racial prejudicialness of the South, exemplified by the fate of a hapless mother and her child. Chopin develops the so-called Natus Æthiopus motif, characteristic for Southern writers. In this region slaves were black, slave owners were white descendants of Europeans; black women, working on plantations or as maids in the house, were inferior in status, and white men could have relations with them without marriage. The children of these connections also became slaves.Thus, gradually there emerged a third race: neither black, nor white, yet both – Creoles. If a white woman bore a Creole child, this caused wonder and doubts in her origin or fidelity (meaning that one of the child’s ancestors was black). In the prejudiced slave-owning society this wonder turned into a Gothic horror that ruined the lives of everybody involved. As Sollors points out, “underneath the Gothic machinery, however, one still recognizes the issues of the past in their transformation: atavism explains a child’s color, but in a cultural context in which it could be asserted that black and white must never be related in a family structure” (3, 66). This unspoken rule is violated in Desiree’s case, so that she is ostracized from the respectable society. Sollors calls this short story a “decidedly modern version” of Natus Æthiopus motif (ibid).However, despite the unexpected ending, this story reinforces the traditional oppositions, which cannot be reconciled. Desiree is white, kind, loving and innocent, while Armand has a dark face and a cruel nature, eventually he is black and vicious. The story also reinforces traditional social schemes: Desiree’s status of an orphan allows to suspect her of being of black origin; marital infidelity is not mentioned at all, although it is very probable that Desiree’s baby and the Quadroon servant boy are similar not only in their skin colour, but also because they have the same father, Armand, who has relations with La Blanche. Similarly, Desiree may have been pregnant by a black man and thus bore a non-white child. When Armand turns her out, Desiree obeys without a word, reinforcing the traditional family structure.The story is told by the narrator, who in turns adopts the point of view of major characters. In the beginning, the events are told in Madame Valmonde’s perspective who visits Desiree. In the episode with examination of the baby under the window light, the point of view is shifted to Desiree, as she watches her mother and does not understand her worries, glowing with family happiness. After that Desiree’s point of view continues to dominate, with minor shifts to Armand’s viewpoint, which becomes dominant in the final paragraphs. These narrative shifts allow the author to add internal psychological motivation to the characters’ actions and make the narration more personalized, partially neutralizing the fairy-tale colouring of the story.The idea of racial intolerance that ruins families and lives is reinforced by symbols. For instance, the name Desiree meaning “desired” points out that she exists only in relation to the love and desire of her husband; she bears the child as a result of this desire. As soon as “the old love-light seemed to have gone out” from Armand’s eyes, she no longer exists, and her exile is the only logical outcome (1).  Also quite symbolic are the similes describing Armand. At first he falls in love “as if struck by a pistol shot” and passion swallows him like “like a prairie fire” (1). When deciding Desiree’s fate, his actions as he explains them to himself are described in terms of violence: “he stabbed thus into his wife`s soul”, “unconscious injury”, “last blow at fate” (1). In the final paragraphs he starts a fire, like the one that once lit passion for Desiree in his heart. This repetition emphasizes the cruel side of his nature, which is violent even in love. The great bonfire at the end symbolizes his attempt to burn and erase from memory relations with Desiree. But as the found letter indicates, this will hardly be possible.Impressive is Desiree’s departure in white clothes symbolizing innocence with sunlight forming a kind of a golden aureole around her head. She goes into the deserted field (that probably denotes her future loneliness and abandonment), with sharp stubble wounding her feet and causing physical pain that signifies her mental suffering.Armand’s decision might seem quite predictable in the traditional white patriarchal society. But Chopin presents it against a different background. The childless Valmondes adopt a girl with unclear origins and then accept her back with a quadroon child; Armand’s father leaves to France and marries a mulatto woman who bears him a son (perhaps that’s why they don’t return to the prejudiced Louisiana and stay in the liberal Paris, until she dies). However, Armand fails to accept a quadroon son, which makes him destroy his family life.This story emphasizes the value of tolerance and the injustice of racial discrimination, which was not an abstract notion in the 19th century. We live in the multicultural society that learned the lesson of racial equality, however, stories like Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby” remind us about tolerance is not an abstract phenomenon, but a matter of personal choice and constant awareness of the equality of all people, despite their differences.


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