Disruptions of Meanings in Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby”
Despite its brevity Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby” offers a rich account of the disruptions of meaning within literary texts. Such disruptions were achieved by Chopin through the use of Desiree Aubigny. The possibility of such is evident if one considers that Desiree Aubigny [as the main protagonist] enabled a more complex understanding of the meanings embedded within the concepts of race, sex, and class.
In lieu of this, what follows is an analysis of Desiree Aubigny in Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby”. In this drama of misinterpretations, Desiree undermines certainty about the ability to read signs [e. . skin color] as clear evidence about how to categorize people. The disruption culminates when Desiree, whom everyone considers white, has a baby boy who looks partly black. When she is rejected by her husband, Armand, she takes the infant, disappears into the bayou, and does not return. Armand later finds out, however, that he himself is black, on his mother’s side. This, though unintentional has devastated him by means of these two surprises, one concerning her supposed race and one concerning his own. In order to fully understand this, it is necessary to present an analysis of how the story unfolds.
The story takes place in an antebellum Creole community ruled by institutions based on apparently clear dualities [master over slave, white over black, and man over woman]. Complacently deciphering the unruffled surface of this symbolic system, the characters feel confident that they know who belongs in which category and what signifies membership in each category. It is important to note that within the story the aforementioned dualities parallel each other as critiques of their hierarchical structures. Within this system of race, sex, and class, the most complacent representative is Armand Aubigny.
Confident that he is a white, a male, and a master, he feels in control of the system. However, such confidence will later be challenged by his wife Desiree. In order to understand how his wife challenged the hierarchical representation of signification [and hence that of meaning], we must take a closer look at the surprises that Armand encounters. The tale begins with a flashback about Desiree’s childhood and courtship. She was a foundling adopted by childless Madame and Monsieur Valmonde. Like a queen and king in a fairy tale, they were delighted by her mysterious arrival and named her
Desiree. It is important to note that Desiree means “the wished-for one” or “the desired one”. Desiree in this sense was depicted like a fairy-tale princess who “grew to be beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,-the idol of Valmonde” (Chopin, 1995, p. 160). When she grew up, she was noticed by Armand, the dashing owner of a nearby plantation. He fell in love immediately and married her. She “loved him desperately. When he frowned she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God” (Chopin, 1995, p. 162). They were not to live happily ever after, however.
Thus occurs the initial subversion of meaning resulting from the reversal of the accustomed “happy ending” that usually concludes such fairy tales. It is important to note that the short story initially started with the depiction of the figures [Desiree and Armand] in such a fashion as that of fairy tale figures despite of such an initial description and depiction of their situation, the ending [or rather the later parts of the story] shows that such an ending as that which is warranted by such stories which takes the aforementioned form [fairy tale stories] was to be subverted within the aforementioned tale.
Soon after the story proper opens, Armand meets with the first surprise. He, other people, and finally Desiree see something unusual in her infant son’s appearance. She asks her husband what it means, and he replies, “It means . . . that the child is not white; it means that you are not white” (Chopin, 1995, p. 163). Desiree writes Madame Valmonde a letter pleading that her adoptive mother deny Armand’s accusation. The older woman cannot do so but asks Desiree to come home with her baby.
When Armand tells his wife he wants her to go, she takes the child and disappears forever into the bayou. Thus, Armand’s first surprise comes when he interprets his baby’s appearance to mean that the child and its mother are not white. What seemed white now seems black. Desiree, with the child she has brought Armand, has apparently uncovered a weakness in her husband’s ability to decipher the symbols around him. Ironically, Desiree’s power comes from the fact that she seems malleable. Into an established, ostensibly secure system, she came as a child apparently without a past.
As a wild card, to those around her the girl appeared blank, or appeared to possess nonthreatening traits such as submissiveness. Desiree seemed to invite projection [as Madame Valmonde’s desired child, Armand’s desired wife]. Both [Madame Valmonde and Armand], however, deceived themselves into believing they could safely project their desires onto Desiree, the undifferentiated blank slate. Actually, however, her blankness should be read as a warning about the fragility of representation. One aspect of Desiree’s blankness is her initial namelessness.
As a foundling, she has lost her original last name and has received one that is hers only by adoption. Even foundlings usually receive a first name of their own, but in a sense, Desiree also lacks that, for her first name merely reflects others individuals’ desires. In addition, namelessness has a particularly female cast in this society, since women, including Desiree, lose their last name at marriage. Namelessness connotes not only femaleness but also blackness in antebellum society, where white masters can deprive black slaves of their names.
Although Desiree’s namelessness literally results only from her status as a foundling and a married woman, her lack of a name could serve figuratively as a warning to Armand that she might be black. Concerning sex, race, and class, Desiree upsets systems of meaning but-by failing to connect the personal with the political-stops short of attacking hierarchical power structures. Disruption of meaning could lead to, and may be necessary for, political disruption, but Desiree does not take the political step.
Instead of attacking the meaningfulness of racial difference as a criterion for human rights, Desiree takes a more limited step as she reveals that racial difference is more difficult to detect than is commonly supposed [e. g. through physical traits]. In this view, suffering can result if people classify each other too hastily or if, having finished the sorting process, people treat their inferiors cruelly. However, the system of racial difference, with its built-in hierarchy, persists. In this system, superiority is still meaningful; the only difficulty lies in detecting it.
The importance of Chopin’s aforementioned story is thereby evident if one considers that it presents three reasons [unconsciousness, negativeness, and lack of solidarity] to help explain why Desiree does reveal her society’s lack of knowledge but fails to change its ideological values, much less its actual power hierarchies. She poses so little threat to the dominant power structures that she holds a relatively privileged position for most of her life. Yet subversiveness need not be bound so tightly to traits such as unconsciousness that makes it self-limiting.
Desiree’s existence as enabling the subversion of meaning must thereby be taken seriously if one is to consider that Chopin through the aforementioned character and her story enabled to show that explicit meanings although necessary are not sufficient means for understanding the underlying conditions implicit in existence. In a sense, Desiree serves as a reminder for individuals to continually consider what lies beneath the implicit assumptions that generates meanings [and hence stereotypes or modes of classification] within society.