Interracial marriages (miscegenation) and their progenies have been a cause of dissent for African-Americans in both pre and post-civil war era. Whites considered themselves as superiors, and their treatment towards black was brutal and totally unjust. Even after decades of slavery abolishment Act, blacks were not given the equal rights in the White society. Though free from slavery in the constitution; blacks were still considered slaves by Whites at heart, and not only among whites, blacks were facing the issues of racism within their race as well. Passing as whites and hiding their racial identity was the easiest yet the riskiest solution they had to survive with dignity in the society. This issue has been the central theme for many of the regionalist writers of the time, such as Kate Chopin (a pre-civil war writer) and Charles Chesnutt (a post-civil war writer).
Chopin’s “Desiree Baby” is the pre-civil war story, based entirely on the concept and consequences of miscegenation. Though the era is of post slavery, the story contains the elements of slavery to enhance the injustice faced by blacks in the society. Chopin brilliantly characterized her antagonist Armand Aubigny as a brutal white slave owner, who is proud of his race and his family name. Armand is the complete embodiment of the upper-class ‘White’ men in late nineteenth century, to whom race is above all relations and feelings. Comparatively Chesnutt’s post-civil war story “The wife of his youth” is the story of free birth male protagonist Mr. Ryder, who escaped slavery to have a dignified life in the well-established White society. Both of these main characters in these short stories share many common traits, yet have many differences among themselves, but are the perfect epithet of racial ideology in that era.
Armand is portrayed as the only name bearer of a well renowned Aubigny family and the owner of a plantation. Due to his wealth and brought up he had developed a proud and very dominating nature. When he was real young, he fell in love with Desiree, and never bothered to confirm Desiree’s true identity, despite knowing that she was a foundling, commenting “what if she is nameless, I will give her the name, that is the proudest…” Chopin used this pride as the irony of Armand’s life by revealing the truth in the end. Till the end of the story Armand never fails to display his male chauvinism. He was the bread earner of the family, thus was more like a boss to his wife, instead of a life partner. And as he was wealthy enough he never had to struggle for his living, thus never realized the pain of his slaves. He was the most brutal slave owner that his slave even forgot to “gay.” Whereas Mr. Ryder is portrayed as a handsome young boy (named Sam Taylor), who was a free birth and married to a black slave. He belonged to a low-income family, and when his parents tried to sell him as a slave, he ran away. Throughout his life, he faced a real hard time. He spent all his youth learning and grooming himself so that he may have a better living and acceptance in the society. In fact, he adopted a new identity as “Mr. Ryder” to pass as white and avoid his previous darker reality.
Both Armand and Mr. Ryder were married, but the difference was, that Armand was married to a white lady, ‘having fair skin, bright eyes, beautiful feature…’ to whom he accused of being black. While Mr. Ryder was married to a woman, who was not only a slave but was in actual pure black, “as black that when she smiles one can undoubtedly notice that her gums were blue as well…” And this racial origin of their wives turned out to be the cause of discord in their lives.
Armand was a pure racist, and never miss a chance to degrade his slaves, yet he maintained a sexual relation with his slaves and may have Quadroon off springs with one of his slave named “La Blanche.” He was never emotionally involved with any of his slaves, in fact, for him, his slaves were his property, and he felt no shame in using them to increase his plantation’s population. For him, black was the color of shame, and he often used their reference to insult his wife, calling her ‘as white as La Blanche.” While Mr. Ryder though never had any physical relation with any lady, but intend to marry a beautiful widow Mrs. Dixon- one of the members of Blue Veins Society. As he had struggled a lot to become the Dean of the Blue vein society, for him Mrs. Dixon was no more than a way to a secure future life in the World.
As we look back at ‘Desiree baby,’ Armand was happy in his marriage with Desiree until he had a son. Desiree was more like a victory for him, that ‘he attained what he like.’ In the late nineteenth century, women were considered as mere housewives. They have no other role in the society and for them being married was the sole way to a secure life. For them, their husbands were like gods, and to obey them was their foremost duty. In Desiree, Armand got the perfect submissive, who was also a symbol of social standings for him. Armand always had a very triumphant attitude towards life, in fact when he had a baby boy with Desiree he grew more proud with the thought of having a legitimate son who will carry forward his name and his race. But when he realized that his son was not pure white, but more like a quadroon slave kid, all his love turned into anger and hatred. This childbirth plays a vital role in altering and modifying Armand’s identity. On the contrary, Mr. Ryder was never actually happy in his married life. Ever since he eloped from his past, he never intended to return, even though he promised his wife to come back to her. For him going back to his wife was returning to his darker doom and sacrificing all his struggles for a happy life. In the whole course of this short story, he was playing a dual role, one as Sam Taylor running from his past, and one as Mr. Ryder hopeful for a bright future. He struggled a lot to develop a new identity in this society but was always fighting an inner battle of identity.
Again another similarity between Armand and Mr. Ryder that played a vital role in identity appraisal was their wives. When Armand realized that his baby was a quadroon, he accused his wife of being black by birth and turned her away. Though there was no evident proof of Desiree being black, he never bothered to investigate. Ironically, for him, he was as pure as driven snow and Desiree was no more than a stain on his family name and his personal self which he wanted to wash away. All his love for Desiree was merely based on her White self, but as soon as he assumed she was impure, he kicked her out of his life. Moreover, he even arranged a bonfire to burn all her belongings, including the Corbeille (the gift basket he gave her at the wedding as a ritual). This basket is important in the story, because it is the symbol of love and marriage in the beginning, but turned to be a symbol of destruction and breakup of marriage by the end, and most importantly became the source of revealing Armand’s real identity. Though Armand’s wife was not black, the idea of she being black was enough for him to turn her away. Like wisely Mr. Ryder was ashamed of his wife’s black identity and considered it as a threat to his future, thus decided to turn her away and move on with Mrs. Dixon. But as per Chesnutt’s perfect script, the day Mr. Ryder was about to propose Mrs. Dixon the story takes a twist, and his old wife Liza appeared on his doorsteps, looking for her Husband who left her 25 years ago with a promise to return. Even after listening to her story he never intended to accept her as his wife because of the fear of loss of his new identity and social respect. But as his wife had remained loyal to him all her life, a sense of guilt developed in him that turned him uneasy and difficult to survive. He first turned her away, but before taking any final decision, he planned to take the advice of his Blue Vein Society’s members by dissembling his story as someone else. Only after having approvals from his fellows he revealed that it was his story and accepted Liza as Wife of his youth. On the whole, both men in these stories were ashamed of their wives racial origin which was a threat to their identities. But on the contrary planes, Armand rejected his wife and kicked her away to protect his social standings, while Mr. Ryder accepted his wife despite the loss he will face at the hand of this doom.
Lastly, the final stroke on Armand’s identity revelation occurred when he discovered a letter from his mother to his father, stating that she is pleased that Armand will never know that his mother belonged to a cursed race, and he is not pure by blood. This revelation is the irony of Armand’s life, shattering his pride into pieces. But over here as well, Armand chose his social pretentions over his real identity. By the end of the story only he knew that he was impure, but even after being at fault, he never admitted his reality and instead let the blame stay on the shoulders of his wife of being black and let her suffer. Similarly Mr. Ryder faced this identity crisis too, but on the contrary, he accepted his wife in the end and turned out to be a protagonist of the story.
Chesnutt and Chopin both emphasized on the same struggle but with different ideologies. Mr. Ryder and Armand both have identity issues, but as Mr. Ryder was aware of whom he is throughout the story and deliberately hid his real self, Armand in the course of benightedness led a life full of false pride. And even in the end, he kept continuing his fake, pretentious life for his personal comfort. Mr. Ryder had a self-realization whereas Armand never accepted the fact. Thus with the thorough analysis, it is evident that both the characters with all their similarities and dissimilarities are in constant combat with others and within themselves to hid their real identities and to attain, secure and maintain the false ones, and are somehow even successful in doing so.