Analysis of Desiree’s Baby by Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin’s Desiree’s Baby is a powerful story about race, class, and the norms of society. The story was set in a period before the American Civil War. During that time, in Louisiana and the rest of the South, society viewed African Americans as being less than human. Consequently, Armand and Desiree both held this belief.
At that time, society was set up in a way which black men and women were at a position below that of white women. In turn, white women were second in class to white men. This social structure lends insight into Armand Aubigny’s disownment of Desiree and the baby.
When Armand came to believe that Desiree was black, he fell out of love with her just as quickly as he had fallen in love with her. When Madame Valmonde saw Desiree’s baby, she noticed the baby’s African American features right away. It is apparent that she came to this realization when “[s]he scanned the baby narrowly, then looked as searchingly at Zandrine” (James and Merickel 104).
She then exclaims how the child has changed and grown. The child was obviously of African American decent and therefore Armand concluded that so was his wife. Along with his son’s physical features, Desiree’s mysterious past may have also lead to Armand’s conclusion. He did not even consider then that he could have had African American roots.
The Social Hierarchy
A further examination of the social hierarchy held then, reveals that black women held a position at the bottom of society. Next in line were black men. After black men were white women. Desiree fell into this category. Desiree’s baby was black and therefore the child's status was lower than that of white females. At the top hierarchy were white men. Armand believed himself to be white and therefore he was at the top of the social chain.
Norms of the Society
Considering the norms of society, Armand’s decision to disown Desiree and his baby was probably common. He had one of the oldest and proudest family names in Louisiana. Armand wanted to maintain his social status and his believed to be untainted bloodline.
This is the reason why Armand disowned his wife and son and burned their belongings when Desiree left. Therefore, according to the historical context of the story and by Armand’s argument for disowning Desiree and the baby, he believed his reasoning was valid since black slaves were not believed to be human.
Armand Makes Desiree Leave
Armand no longer considered Desiree to be his wife or their son to be his child. The child then became Desiree’s baby. Armand believed both Desiree and her baby were black and thus subhuman. Armand was no longer in love with Desiree because of the “unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name” (James and Merickel 106).
In turn, Desiree’s utter despair caused her to leave with her child. Strangely, she did not return to Madame Valmonde’s home but walked away from her husband and home with her child into the bayou. Desiree never returned as if her physical absence paralleled her lost social status.
The Brand of Slavery
Society forced Desiree to conform to a set hierarchy and as a result, Desiree became subhuman. Armand held to the same view of society, that African Americans were less than human, and, therefore, he destroyed his family because of this view.
At the end of the story, Armand finds out through an old letter that his mother was black. His mother “belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery” (James and Merickel 106). This means he is black. Therefore, in actuality, Armand is no different from the wife and child he disowned who he believes are black.
Armand’s cruelty to Desiree shows that Desiree was also a type of slave. When Armand would frown, Desiree would tremble and when he was happy, she was happy. Desiree’s actions were similar to that of Armand’s slaves.
Desiree followed Armand’s orders with little resistance, as when he told her to leave. Desiree was a slave to both Armand and society. This is the claim that Chopin is attempting to make through this story. Chopin’s work of fiction about race, class, and societal norms was indeed a powerful story.
- Reading Literature and Writing Argument by James and Merickel (3rd edition).