Last post, I wrote about the idea of race as a social construct in George Washington Cable’s “‘Tite Poulette.” Today, I want to examine another story set in Louisiana and how it highlights race as a social construct. To that end. I will discuss Kate Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby,” a story that originally appeared in Vogue in 1893. Like Cable’s story, “Désirée’s Baby” challenges the reader to question the construction of race in relation to social hierarchies.
While the end of “Désirée’s Baby” is where the turn occurs when we discover that Armand, not Désirée, is mixed-race, there are a couple of places throughout the story that comment on the issue before Chopin causes the reader to examine the issue of race explicitly at the end of the story. Specifically, the continual references to La Blanche (The White), one of Désirée and Armand’s slaves, creates a space to question the true meaning of race.
Hints of Armond’s relationship with La Blanche pepper”Désirée’s Baby,” and these hints eventually lead to a telling conversation between Désirée and Armond that recalls the conversation between Zalli and ‘Tite Poulette that I wrote about last post. In this exchange, questions about what is “white” and what is “black” arise. Before getting to this moment, though, I want to briefly summarize the plot to place this conversation within the larger context of the story.
“Désirée’s Baby” takes place in Antebellum Louisiana, again in much the same way that “‘Tite Poulette” does. However, the setting is Northwest Louisiana, Natchitoches Parish to be exact, an area with a large free person of color population along Cane River. Adopted by Monsieur and Mademoiselle Valmondé, Désirée grows up to be a beautiful lady, and Armand falls in love with her, and the two eventually marry. When Désirée has a baby, Armand and others start to notice that the child has distinctly “African” features and Armand accuse his wife of having “black” blood. He kicks Désirée and the child out of the house, and the mother kills her baby then herself. As Armand burns Désirée’s belongings and gifts to him, he comes across a letter from his own mother to his father that reads, “I thank the good 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” (144). The story ends with the above lines, leaving the reader to question the story’s meaning.
This is where the character of La Blanche, who only appears on the periphery and never on stage, comes into play. We can infer that La Blanche looks phenotypically white based on her name alone, and also on other aspects that I will discuss in just a minute. However, even with this appearance, La Blanche is Armand and Désirée’s slave. Along with her bondage, we can assume that Armand forces himself upon La Blanche. When Madame Valmondé comes to see Désirée’s baby for the first time. Désirée tells her mother about the child’s crying, even mentioning that “Armand heard him he day as far away as La Blanche’s cabin” (141). Désirée’s comment infers sexual interaction between Armand and La Blanche either consenual or not. Valmondé looks at continues to look at the child then at the quadroon nurse Zandrine, trying to put the pieces together, as the nurse looks out towards the fields, possibly towards La Blanche’s cabin.
Later, Désirée comes to the realization that her baby has “African” features when she begins to examine her child and “[o]ne of La Blanche’s little quadroon boys” who fans the child while he sleeps (142). Désirée notices the similarities, and the similarities between the children could reference the ongoing predatory relationship between Armand and La Blanche because he “quadroon boy” may be Armand’s. In this case, there is more that needs to be teased out, at least in relation to the institution of slavery and then, I would argue, in the institution of Jim Crow and sharecropping. Right now, though, I want to leave this here and move onto the conversation between Armand and Désirée that explicitly makes the reader question how we define “race.”
After she realizes the similarities between La Blanche’s boy and her own, Armand enters the room. Désirée asks her husband what the similarities mean, and he responds, “It means . . . that the child is not white; it means that you are not white” (142). Armand accuses Désirée of having mixed-blood, thus making her below his own position. We do not know Désirée’s lineage, so we can assume, at this point in the story, that Armand may be right; however, as the end of the story shows, he is not correct in his assumptions. Désirée responds to her husband by describing her features in relation to “whiteness”: brown hair, gray eyes, and fair skin. Concluding, she tells her husband, “Look at my hand; whiter that yours Armand,” to which her husband responds, “As white as La Banche’s” (143)
Armand’s comment causes ambiguities in regards to race. If La Blanche is physically whiter that Armand, doesn’t that mean that she is white? Obviously, Armand knows La Blanche’s lineage and that she has black blood, thus making her a slave. However, he does not know Désirée’s lineage. In this equation, the darker skinned individual becomes the “mater,” thus flipping the hierarchy that once placed the darker individual below the lighter skinned. In this way, Chopin challenges us as readers to think about the meaning of race, and she ultimately leads us to the conclusion that it is not biological but rather socially constructed.
In many ways, “Désirée’s Baby” recalls Cable’s “‘Tite Poulette.” I would also say that it could be read alongside George Schuyler’s Black No More, a novel that reverses the hierarchy of color.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. As well, follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Chopin, Kate. “Désirée’s Baby.” American Literature Vol. 2 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 140-144.