The patriarchal culture of the West perceived and treated women as second-class citizens during the nineteenth century. In other words, many white women were legal U.S. residents and supposedly better off than slaves but they faced similar systematic discrimination wherein they belong to a master-slave relationship in their families where the masters are the males. Kate Chopin captures the unfair treatment of women within their own families in “Désirée’s Baby.” Désirée Valmonde marries and bears Armand Aubigny’s son. At first, they live a blissful life until the baby begins looking like a mixed-colored child and Armand starts treating his wife and son with detachment and cruelty. Women share the same social status as slaves since both suffer from subjugation, objectification, and discrimination in their relationships, although the story ends with an ironic tragic ending that criticizes the inhumanity of gender and racial oppression.
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Women are like slaves who are completely under the domination of their male family members. Armand immediately disregards his love for Désirée and their son after learning they have colored blood. Désirée notices the sharp changes in her husband’s behavior: “He absented himself from home; and when there, avoided her presence and that of her child, without excuse” (Chopin). Suddenly, she and her son are invisible and unworthy of communication and warmth. Armand does not physically hurt his family but he is likewise cold to his slaves when he deals with them as if he is the “very spirit of Satan” (Chopin). He acts like God who can treat slaves and women any way he pleases as he dominates them using his social, economic, and political power as a white man. Furthermore, Armand controls Désirée like a master would. She asks him if he approves of her departure and he says, “Yes, I want you to go” (Chopin). His agreement is not due to his wife’s autonomy but because he intends for her to leave in the first place after bringing an “unconscious injury…upon his home and his name” (Chopin). Without commanding her, he controls her decision by making her feel unneeded and unloved. She then leaves not of her own volition but in compliance with what Armand truly desires. Désirée reflects the conditions of a dominated slave in her own marriage.
Besides domination, women are comparable to slaves in their objectified status. Slaveholders own their slaves including their children, thus, La Blanche’s children serve Armand and his family too. Slave owners eradicate the inherent human value and rights of their slaves. In a parallel relationship, men objectify women by expecting them to follow traditional passive wife and mother roles. Emily Toth notes that a patriarchal culture expects women to fully submit to their husbands (207). Désirée wants to make her marriage work but when Armand says she should leave, she obeys him. She takes the separation a step further through possibly committing suicide and filicide for she believes Armand would be happier without them existing anymore. Désirée is an object with only particular social roles and deviations including being black are considered immoral and unacceptable. Apart from the subservient mother and wife role, women experience objectification as sex slaves. Chopin suggests that Armand sleeps with a female slave after “[hearing his son’s cries]…as far away as La Blanche’s cabin” (Chopin). Armand has sexual relations with his slave since he thinks he owns them like he possesses Désirée. Women are like slaves when their society treats them as objects and not as independent human beings.
Women share the same fate as slaves as both experience discrimination in their close relationships. Blacks are enslaved due to racial discrimination, while women become second-class citizens because of their gender. Armand completely forgets his love for Désirée since she is a mere woman. She already calls to him “in a voice which must have stabbed him, if he was human. But he did not notice” (Chopin). His ego and need for control are more important than the love of his wife and son since women are replaceable to him. Furthermore, Armand immediately thinks the worse of Désirée. He assumes she is black even without solid evidence and he does this for she is a woman. He would demonstrate the same inferior treatment to his slaves whom he would hurt at the slightest provocation. Armand discriminates against Désirée as he would all women and slaves.
Finally, the story illustrates the irony that patriarchy does not only limit women but also men and often with tragic consequences. Armand follows a complete male stereotype in his aggression to his slaves. Consequently, he has unhappy slaves and a gloomy estate where the “roof came down steep and black like a cowl” (Chopin). His need for male domination produces an unsatisfying life for him as a master. In addition, Armand’s social discriminations lead to his loss of true happiness. Roslyn Reso Foy notes that the “birth of his child and the love of his wife soften him temporarily and perhaps offer him a psychological reprieve” but after knowing that he is the black one and not his wife, “he is finally purged of his painful past but is now left to face an uncertain and tragic future” (223). Armand loses everyone he loves and who loves him dearly only because he is a sadist when it comes to enforcing his racial and gender discrimination.
Women went through the same dominated, subjugated, and discriminated social status as slaves even in their own personal relationships. In the absence of equal social standing, Désirée withers under the isolation she felt from Armand and soon prefers death to a miserable family life. “Désirée’s Baby” demonstrates the tragedy of women’s conditions in the nineteenth century and the inescapable inhumane consequences of racial and gender discrimination.
- Chopin, Kate. “Désirée’s Baby.” 1893.
- Foy, Roslyn Reso. “Chopin’s ‘Désirée’s Baby’.” Short Story Criticism, edited by Joseph Palmisano, vol. 68, Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=horrygtc&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1420056298&it=r&asid=112c82797000bc0339348867697353c3. Accessed 25 Mar. 2017. Originally published in The Explicator, vol. 49, no. 4, Summer 1991, pp. 222-223.
- Toth, Emily. “Kate Chopin and Literary Convention: ‘Désirée’s Baby,’.” Short Stories for Students, edited by Jennifer Smith, vol. 13, Gale, 2001. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=horrygtc&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1420037580&it=r&asid=3f1776b5b3b6a406aeb17e6092a9e4f5. Accessed 25 Mar. 2017. Originally published in Southern Studies, vol. 20, no. 2, Summer 1981, pp. 201-208.