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Désirée's Baby

I have frequently worked on Désirée's Baby, the celebrated short-story by Kate Chopin, and I was recently surprised not to find anything about it on the Net. Just a few things about Kate Chopin herself, about her works in general or The Awakening.
So, as I had a few notes ready in my computer I tought I might as well do something with them.
 

Contents
A plan for the commentary on Désirée's Baby
The narrative points of view
Armand Aubigny
The growing importance of the race issue throughout the story
Old Monsieur Aubigny
The Deep South in Désirée's Baby
So, here is a possible plan for the study of the short story, but there are many others.
The story being incredibly rich, it can be studied from many different angles.
Plan for the commentary on Desirée's Baby
 

1°) The narrative techniques.

            a) The use of French words and the local color genre.

  b) The narrative points of view.
  c) The fall and its preparation :
                     - The ominous character of l'Abri.
                     - The clues indicating the baby is black.
                     - The clues making it possible for Armand to be black.
2°) The characters.
 a) Armand's racism and how it can be explained.

 b) Old Monsieur Aubigny

 c) Madame Valmondé's generosity.

 d) Désirée herself.

3°) The background of the story.

             a) The luxury of the way of life.

   b) What we learn about slavery.
Conclusion :  The short story enhances the cruelty and stupidity of racism.
 
 
Here are now some elements of this plan. 
As some were meant to be essays in their own right, there might be a few repetitions.
THE NARRATIVE POINTS OF VIEW.
 

 The short story falls into three parts, and each part is seen through a different point of view. First we see things through Mme Valmondé's eyes. We enter her stream of consciousness as she remembers how Desirée was found, how Armand Aubigny fell in love with her and the conditions of the wedding. It is through her sympathetic eyes that we see l'Abri and the baby for the first time. We can share her joy at Désirée's happiness as well as her apprehension concerning the baby.
 Then, from line 66 to line 141, it is through Désirée's eyes that we  live her tragedy. As she becomes the victim of a stupid, horrible racism we can thus share her anxiety, her fear and her pain.
 At last, from line 142 to the end  we can observe a curious scene enacted at l'Abri. This time, the point of view is objective, and if our attention focuses on Armand, we do not share his feelings, we can only imagine them. Thus as we remain at a distance, as we can't identify with him, we are in a position to judge his cruel and stupid racism.
 

ARMAND AUBIGNY
 
He is the young man Désirée has fallen in love with. We se him through Mme Valmondé's eyes at the beginning of the story : passionate, he has fallen in love "as if stuck by a pistol shot", but exacting, imperious, cruel towards his Negroes. There is something mysterious about his childhood. He has lived in Paris for the first eight years of his life, his mother having refused to come and live in America. It is only after her death that he and his benevolent father came back to Louisiana. Happiness has transformed him, and Désirée can rejoice in the fact that "he hasn' t punished one of them” since the birth of his child. This enables us to imagine the whippings, the everyday beatings his slaves had to endure.
 Then, as it becomes apparent that his baby has black origins, his attitude changes. "The old love light " vanishes from his eyes,  "the very spirit of Satan" takes hold of him in his dealings with the slaves." In fact his cruelty has all come back to the surface and of course since Désirée's origins are unknown he deduces from the fact that the baby is not white, that Désirée is not white. This is for him a sufficient reason to reject her, to deny all the love he had felt for her. He feels hurt, his honor has been tarnished, he feels cheated even though Monsieur Valmondé had "wanted things well considered" before the wedding. He should have known there was a risk of such a surprise in marrying Désirée. But just as his passion had blinded him then, it blinds him again in his hate for "the race cursed with the brand of slavery".
 We can be quite sure he hasn't felt any remorse after the young woman's death. We can see him at the end of the story methodically burning all the priceless elements of the "corbeille", as if he wanted to purify himself from his momentary association with a woman who was not white.
 We can then only imagine his torment at the discovery of  the truth. We can suppose that this hate which has driven Désirée to suicide will turn against himself.
 But we can also wonder how such a violently strong form of racism can have developed in a man whose own mother was probably a quadroon. We must remember that he was eight when she died, that he probably didn’t remember her very well and that he was brought up in France where the race issue at that time was much less acute. Then why had he become that racist? His father having been a benevolent and easy-going man, it doesn't seem logical. So, we can suppose that, unconsciously, he more or less remembers his own personal link with blackness and tries, all the more strongly as it is unconscious, to deny it, to erase it from his life. The harder he is with his Negroes, the more he feels different from them.
 Kate Chopin wrote her stories just before Freud published his most famous books about the unconscious. But we can explain Armand's behaviour by referring to the unconscious today. Such attitudes did exist in a region which was plagued with a racism so strong  that for the majority of the white people, to have a drop of black blood was considered the worst of things. Armand is certainly a true to life character, an unfortunately common type at the time.
 
THE GROWING IMPORTANCE OF THE RACE ISSUE THROUGHOUT THE STORY.
 
 At the beginning of "Désirée's baby", race doesn't seem to be an issue at all. It just seems to be a love story, race hardly appearing in the background. Coton Maïs is the only reference to slavery in Mme Valmondé's thoughts when she thinks of Désirée and of her own plantation.
But when she arrives at l'Abri, she thinks of the Negroes, regretting the benevolent days of the old master. And once inside the house, the race issue becomes more important. The nurse, Zandrine, is a yellow woman. We hear about La Blanche and Négrillon who "wanted to rest from work". Désirée tells us about Armand's softened manner, which lets us imagine his cruel rule before he had the baby.
Then little by little, we are given clues concerning the baby, clues which may indicate that the baby is not white. And then the whole atmosphere of the short story changes. Désirée's happiness is first threatened and then shattered. We then understand that the race issue is not an element in the background of the story but its main topic indeed.
Finally, when we come to the fall, to the final revelation we can realize that in fact, the race issue  was there from the start, which is why Monsieur Aubigny had to go and hide his love in Paris. Kate Chopin manages to convey her refusal of racism to us, to show us how stupid, absurd, dangerous it is to think one race is superior to the other.
 
OLD MONSIEUR AUBIGNY
 
In the first parT of "Desirée's Baby", we do not learn many things about Armand's father, but what we learn is essential. We understand that the Aubignys were "one of the oldest and proudest families in Louisiana". Then a young man, Monsieur Aubigny left his plantation, "l'Abri", for a trip to France. There, he met a French woman, fell madly in love with her, married her, had a son with her (Armand) and did not come back to Louisiana before her death. When he came back, Armand was eight years old.
Life on the plantation then was pleasant for his Negroes, because even if "l'Abri" didn't know "the gentle presence of a mistress", Monsieur Aubigny's benevolent nature allowed them to be happy.
It is only at the end of the short-story, when we read its very last word, "slavery", that we understand that in fact, Monsieur Aubigny had married not a French woman but one of his slaves and had lived away from Louisiana with her because such a union was totally impossible, unheard of at the time in the Deep South.
 
THE DEEP SOUTH IN DESIREE'S BABY
 
 In "Désirée's Baby", Kate Chopin tells us a very moving story which first seems to be a romantic love story, but whose main topic reveals itself to be slavery and racism. The narrative is set in Louisiana, and indeed we are going to see that it could not have been otherwise, that the race issue could not be absent from  the Deep South, however beautiful this region of the U.S.A might have been.

 We will first see how Kate Chopin evokes this beautiful setting, and then we will see how the race issue pervades it.
 We are indeed in the Deep South with its hot and humid climate. The afternoons are so hot that Désirée cannot but stay lying on her couch in her "peignoir ". The baby has to be fanned and the bayou, so typical of the area of New Orleans, is close by.
 From the beginning of the short-story, we know that we are in the world of the cotton plantations. Valmondé has an imposing gate with two great stone pillars, l'Abri is surrounded by "big solemn oaks", and we can imagine a park too. It is encircled by a wide gallery  and everything about it suggests wealth and an easy way of life for the masters.
 But this easy way of life of the white people, to which the Southerners were so attached in the Deep South only meant suffering and misery for their slaves of whose labor they lived.
 Slavery is indeed present in the story: first it is just evoked by the names of a certain number of slaves "Cotton Maïs", "La Blanche, "Zandrine", "Negrillon". Names which are not really names but rather nicknames and which show us the total lack of respect of the masters for their slaves. They were not even entitled to a real name! But little by little, slavery takes a greater place in the story. We are presented with the character of Zandrine, a mulatto and we can reflect on the fact that mulattos and quadroons were generally given better jobs than the others. The relative whiteness of their skin did not protect them from being slaves but they could be house-servants and usually didn't have to work in the fields.
 Then we can understand the intensity of racism in the Deep South.  Armand is good to the black people on his plantation only for a brief moment, at the beginning of his marriage to Désirée. It is because he is so happy that he can forget for a moment his resentment towards the blacks. But when he is his natural self, he is hard and cruel. Racism is so deeply rooted that Armand's mother has tried to hide from her son that she had black origins, denying thus her real self. It is so intense that a passionate love such as that of Armand for Désirée can be turned into a sort of cold hatred which will lead the young woman to commit suicide.
 Indeed, the Deep South at the time of slavery could seem a romantic haven for the white, rich people who inhabited it. But it was certainly a terrible place to live in for the slaves and Kate Chopin in "Désirée's Baby" shows us that the racism of which the Southerners were responsible could also destroy white people's happiness.

danielle.esposito@wanadoo.fr

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