“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat” (West. R). A woman who expresses herself about the issues she believes in can even today experience she is being provocative. However, we have come a long way since the days of the civil rights movement for women in the 19th century. Women through the ages have made their mark, such as Kate Chopin, a major prominent feminist novelist (Abrams, Harpham. 275). According to Kelsey Wessels, Chopin wrote about her feelings and felt women had a sexual appetite (Wessels. K). Chopin`s style in her novels show she is concerned about the realities of life. Further, referred to the term “realism”, which refers to a literary and artistic movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s (Abrams, Harpham. 275). Nevertheless, her topics were quite controversial for its time.
In Chopin’s short story, “Desiree’s Baby” published by Vogue in 1893. Chopin cleverly uses literary devices such as foreshowing, setting, irony and symbolism to highlight Desiree’s helpless situation. A woman who loves her husband in a time when women have no civil rights and slavery is still legal in the southern states of America. Chopin narrates the story in a third person, with Desiree as the protagonist. Through this character, she portrays a message that women are victims in a racial white man`s hegemony in America.
Women in the 1800s had no civil rights and were compared to criminals and idiots. Furthermore, regarded as property, and had no say in what their future ought to be. “According to Washington dispatches one of the features of the parade there is to be a float containing the figures of an idiot, a criminal, a woman and a baby, and the originator of this idea says that it will drive home a forceful argument. There is no argument here at all, but a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the status of women” (Chittenden. A. H, 1894). Many valiant women including Chopin campaigned for equality. ”When the Fifteenth Amendment proposed to prohibit denial of the vote on the basis of ‘race, color or previous condition of servitude,’ women who pushed for equal rights wanted to add the word ‘sex’ to the list. They lost this battle” (Hartman. D.W). However, Chopin used her novels to convey her message to the world, such as in “Desiree`s Baby”. The name Desiree has its origin in Latin, which translates to the newborn “Desiderius”, meaning desired, wanted child, and expected child (namedoctor). Chopin writes, “Desiree had grown into a beautiful, affectionate and sincere woman” (Chopin. 1).
The setting of ‘Desiree’s Baby,’ is set before the Civil War, and slavery is a cultural custom in Louisiana on luxurious plantations, owned by the upper classes. A time when women have no civil right. The story has a realistic element seen in the dark ending, when Desiree kills herself and her baby, and when Armand Aubigyny her husband finds out that, he is the one who has “black blood” in his ancestry. In “Desiree’s Baby” racism, sexism and classism are themes “weaved together” through Desiree marring Armand and having his baby” in a racist society. Desiree`s baby is biracial in a time when “one drop” of “black blood” was considered being black (African descendant). Desiree finds herself in a helpless situation as she is accused of being biracial. As the story unfolds, Armand must have known he was biracial; his mother dies when he is eight, so he should have remembered his mother. Did Armand know about the letter he finds at the end of the story? In addition, who is La Blanche? The story talks about La Blanche of looking like a white woman.
Armand hears the baby cry as far as La Blanche`s cabin, La Blanche meaning “white”. La Blanche is a biracial woman who can past of as white. This is depicted when La Blanche`s boy is fanning Desiree’s baby, and Desiree notices both children are of the same colour (Owens. R). Desiree is accused of being biracial, laughs hysterically when she is trying to tell Armand he is darker than her, yet Armand reply’s she is “ as white as La Blanche” (Chopin 3). Armand is a wealthy white man, which gives him complete control over all his possessions. That includes Desiree. Chopin demonstrates how helpless women are through the inequality between the genders in a racial society. Desiree is a white woman treated as a possession. Armand controls Desiree by providing her with beautiful expensive gifts, clothes, and gives her status and wealth through their marriage. “When he frowned she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God” (Chopin. 2). He shows power and control over Desiree when provided with a coloured nurse to look after their baby. Moreover, Armand can take all this from Desiree at any time. Besides, something he does in rejecting her and burning her belongings on a bonfire to remove all memory of her and the baby. Thus showing she is nothing more than a possession. Desiree`s disadvantaged circumstances gives her no choice but to leave Armand when he tells her to go. Desiree turns to the door and walks slowly hoping he would call her back, she takes their son and leaves never to return (Chopin 4).
The ending is foreshadowed many times throughout the story. “Young Aubigny`s rule was strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay” (Chopin.1), which depicts Armand is racist and cruel. Desiree says, “I`m so happy; it frightens me” (Chopin.2). Desiree suspects her happiness will not last, and when the baby was about three months old, she realizes something was about to change. “Desiree awoke one day to the conviction that there was something in the air menacing her peace” (…) It had only been a disquieting suggestion; an air of mystery among the blacks (…) then an awful change in her husband`s manner” (Chopin. 2), which shows Desiree is sceptical about her husband turning on her, though she does not know why yet. Desiree askes Armand, “look at our child, what does it mean” (Chopin.3)? Telling Armand that she is aware that their baby is biracial. “Then a strange, an awful change in her husband`s manner, which she dared not to ask him to explain. When he spoke to her, it was with averted eyes, from which the old love-light seemed to have gone out” (Chopin. 2), which means Armand has lots his love for Desiree after recognizing their son is biracial. “The very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his dealings with the slaves. Desiree was miserable enough to die” (Chopin. 2), which indicates that Armand is turning on Desiree though punishing slaves, who share the same “black blood” as Desiree. Who is innocently unaware of her ancestry, and without any evidence, Armand accuses her for being biracial.
It is ironic that Armand rejects Desiree for being biracial when under the circumstances; he is biracial. Moreover, after Desiree has left, Armand discovers a letter from his mother. “She wrote, (…), I thank God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery” (Chopin. 4). This exposes Armand`s notion that he is superior to Desiree and their baby through destroying his family and happiness, besides this makes Armand a despotic hypocrite.
The home of Armand L`Abri symbolizes the darkness of evil, as it is described having big oak trees that grew close to it, and shadowed the house like a pall (Chopin. 1). L`Abri is “rapped with a blanket” of an airy gloom. Desiree’s adoption mother, Madam Valmonde shudders at the sight of it. “The roof came down steep and black and like cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house” (Chopin. 1). Madam Valmonde remembers how L`Abri used to be when Armand’s father used to live there and now the house looks dark and wicked with Armand`s beliefs he is superior to Desiree that leads to the destruction of his family.
Stone pillars outside the house of Madam and Monsieur Valmonde symbolise a cold aristocratic racial culture. Desiree is found in the shadow of a stone pillar as a baby, by the charity of those who have more money and power than she does. Madam and Monsieur Valmonde of high society have given her an identity, which can change at any moment. Furthermore, when Armand sees Desiree once again in the shadow of the stone pillar, and again she is given a new identity and the mother of his child. Then having this new identity ripped from her by Armand’s mistaken belief that she is biracial. Desiree’s fine clothes given to her by Armand is symbolic for his wealth and material possessions. Desiree and her baby have no more value to Armand, which he demonstrates when he burns Desiree clothes and the baby’s cradle on the bonfire, showing that everything including his wife and child can be bought and destroyed at his own will. The bonfire symbolises Armand’s anger when burning and destroying the memory of Desiree and her baby at the end of the story. Yet, earlier in the story, fire is symbolic for his passion for Desiree. “The passion that awoke him that day (…) or like a prairie fire” (Chopin. 1), which indicates Armand has fallen passionately in-love with Desiree, a white beautiful young woman. Armand takes what he desires and disposes of it when it gives him no longer any value. Chopin is describing how white men in this racist sexist hypocritical society subject women to mental and physical abuse.
Chopin skilfully portrays women are victims in a dominant white-male racial society through the protagonist Desiree. Armand falsely accuses Desiree for having “black blood” in her lineage. Furthermore, women were mere possessions and had no civil right. It did not matter if one came from the upper social classes, as we learn from Desiree`s situation. Where Madam and Monsieur Valmonde are her guardians who can help her. Yet, Desiree writes a letter to her mother. “Mother, they tell me I am not white. (…) I must die. I cannot be so unhappy and live” (Chopin. 3). Desiree is so ashamed of being biracial that she would rather die than face life without the love and respect of Armand. Armand`s character demonstrates he is despotic, and the ownership men have over women. The irony is Armand is of African decadent and blames Desiree for it. In addition, a woman like Desiree at that time being “branded” biracial, was “damaged goods”. Chopin`s message to her readers is how men like Armand treat women unnecessary and unjustified. The irony of the story is Desiree`s name, meaning, desired wanted a child (namedoctor). Did Chopin cleverly choose the name Desiree out of irony and acerbity towards men like Armand? If this is the case, the plot in “Desiree`s Baby” appears to be inspired by Chopin’s contempt of how society treated women.