Kate Chopin’s brief but mesmerizing story opens in medias res, with Madame Valmonde preparing to visit her adopted daughter, Desiree, recently married to the wealthy Louisiana plantation owner Armand d’Aubigny and even more recently delivered of a baby girl. Then, in a series of flashbacks, the narrator reveals Desiree’s uncertain origins as a foundling, her beauty as she grew to womanhood, and Armand’s passionate proposal of marriage. The narrator then returns to the present and, using briefl y effective images, sketches the hierarchical plantation system of whites, quadroons, and blacks. Using Mme. Valmonde’s perspective, the narrator reveals that the baby does not look white—and so the tragedy of this story moves rapidly to its completion.
It is difficult to imagine a reader who would not be horrified and disgusted by the results of the racism and sexism that permeate this story. No one could believe that Armand Aubigny’s inhuman cruelty to his wife, Desiree, and his child is warranted. The only real uncertainty for the reader concerns Armand’s foreknowledge of his own parentage: Did he know that his mother had Negro blood before he married Desiree, or did he discover her revealing letter later on? If he did know beforehand (and it is difficult to believe that he did not), his courtship of and marriage to Desiree were highly calculated actions, with Desiree chosen because she was the perfect woman to be used in an “experimental” reproduction. If their child(ren) “passed” as white, Armand would be pleased and would keep the marriage intact. If not, Desiree, the foundling, would be the perfect victim to take the blame.
This may seem to be judging Armand too harshly, because the narrator does describe his great passion for Desiree, so suddenly and furiously ignited. Certainly Armand behaves as a man in love. But Chopin inserts a few subtle remarks that allow us to question this, at least in hindsight: “The wonder was that he had not loved her before; for he had known her since his father brought him home from Paris, a boy of eight, after his mother died there.” It does seem unlikely that a man of Armand’s temperament would conceive this sudden intense desire for “the girl next door,” a sweet, naive young woman whom he has known for most of his life. Right from the beginning, Chopin also reveals details about his character that are unsettling, even to the innocent and loving Desiree. The basic cruelty of Armand’s nature is hinted at throughout the story, particularly regarding his severe treatment of “his negroes,” which is in notably sharp contrast to his father’s example.
Armand’s reputation as a harsh slave master supports the presumption that he has known about his own part-Negro ancestry all along. He did not learn this behavior from his father, who was “easy-going and indulgent” in his dealings with the slaves. The knowledge that some of his own ancestors spring from the same “race of slavery” would surely be unbearable to the proud, “imperious” Armand, and the rage and shame that this knowledge brings would easily be turned against the blacks around him. In much the same way, when Armand realizes that his baby is visibly racially mixed, he vents his fury viciously on his slaves, the “very spirit of Satan [taking] hold of him.”
Modern readers will find many disturbing aspects to this story. The seemingly casual racism is horrifying. Feminists are likely to take exception (as they sometimes do to Chopin’s The Awakening) to Desiree’s passive acceptance of Armand’s rejection of her and his child and her apparently deliberate walk into the bayou. Suicide is not the strong woman’s answer to the situation, but Desiree is definitely not a strong woman. What she does have is wealthy parents who love her and are willing to take care of her and the baby. Why does she feel that she has to end her life? Gender and class roles and structures were so rigid in this period that it was impossible for a woman to cross those lines very far; the racial barrier was the most rigid of all. No mixing of black and white blood would ever be condoned in that society, so Desiree’s baby would never find acceptance anywhere. Desiree is not able to see a viable way out of her terrifying situation, and her view is not entirely unrealistic, considering her time and place. As she has done in her other stories, Kate Chopin realistically depicts the cruelty and horror of a social structure that totally denies power to women, children, the poor, and most of all, blacks.
Chopin, Kate. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Edited by Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Koloski, Bernard. Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996.