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Kate Chopin

05 Dec 2016Personal Essays

Kate Chopin had a difficult life, full of deprivations and adversities, which were to great extent reflected in her mainly tragic short stories and novels. In fact, fiction writing was recommended to Chopin as a remedy against nervous breakdown she endured in her thirties , so it is clear that her experiences are imprinted in the literary works. Both “Desiree’s Baby” and “The Story of an Hour”  deal with the same problem of inequality, yet the former stresses both racism and sexism, whereas the latter focuses mainly on sexism, which, as the author’s biography shows, were important to Chopin as a regionalist, who worked on depicting the Creole culture.

“Desiree’s baby” is a narrative of love, rejection and prejudice, which begins with the description of a well-mannered, “decent” society and gradually turns to the depiction of worst sides of human nature. In the southern part of the United States, bloodlines were essential for determining social status and social placement, so the ‘purity’ of family must be maintained.  Being aware of this, Armand, a rich landowner, marries his childhood friend Desiree, whose family is well-respected by the society and takes its origin from France. Desiree is an ordinary girl, who was brought up in less noble manner, but nevertheless, she falls in love with Armand “as if struck by a pistol shot”(Chopin, 2005, at http://www.readbookonline.net). Of course, being mesmerized by his wife’s beauty, Armand becomes even happier after the birth of his child. His character softens and he even temporarily changes his attitude towards the slaves and stops punishing them for each triviality. His pride is underlined by his surroundings: “Oh, Armand is the proudest father in the parish, I believe, chiefly because it is a boy, to bear his name” (Chopin, 2005). In this sense, Chopin is quite realistic in depicting the creation of a typical Southern family of the late 19th century.  

Given that prosperous landowner families were at that time surrounded by a large army of slaves, responsible for providing for the household’s wealth, they felt particularly self-important because of their “whiteness” and nobility. Their daily life was saturated with, given that they they faced the group of opposed social background, bereft of freedom and basic civil rights. As a result, landowners necessarily asserted their authority and superiority when realizing the necessity of managing the crowd of slaves. Therefore, after noticing that his child has the physical traits of a different race, Armand becomes increasingly more isolated. His behavior is dictated exceptionally by the fear of social marginalization: “He absented himself from home and when there, avoided her presence and that of the child, without excuse” (Chopin, 2005).  Furthermore, he accuses Desiree of her “impurity” and sees that fact as a crime against his precious noble family.

Naturally, she obstinately denies her ‘non-whiteness’ and wonders how it is possible to abandon one’s child because of absolutely fantastic guesses and considerations. Finally, after being reduced to tears several times by Armand’s painful psychological attacks, Desiree decides to leave him and return to the parental home, but, being consumed by depressive thoughts, she commits suicide. As one can assume, the typical mother doesn’t really care about skin color her child has, she is simply committed to him with unselfish and altruistic love; so did Armand’s mother as well, who as the story ironically reveals, was a woman “cursed with the brand of slavery” (Chopin, 2005).

Armand makes the decision to lose his beloved wife and son for the sake of his family name: figuratively saying, Armand puts the lives of them on the altar of social respect and admiration. Interestingly, Chopin takes quite a prejudiced approach to male characters in the specified short story, probably because the most influential persons of her life were her mother and great-grandmother, two strong women, who managed to grow children without male support in the gendered society of the 19th century (Toth, 1990, p.256).  In addition, Chopin’s own spouse was incapable of maintaining the household’s stability so that she left with a huge financial debt after his death (Toth, 1990, p.269).

Naturally, Armand repents when he identifies the letter written by his mother of color, but also begins to blame God for the cruel injustice; “He though Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him and felt, somehow that he was paying him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul” (Chopin, 2005). Chopin presents the entire plot as a proof of men’s weakness, immaturity and cowardice: strong people are able to cope with themselves and are not absolutely dependent on public opinion. Paradoxically, in the epistle from his mother Armand reads that she is praising God for having married in such discriminative society and for having given birth to a beautiful son, so the author implies that women are much more valorous and devoted especially in terms of family values.

Similarly to the previous narrative, “The Story of an Hour” stresses gender inequality and criticizes androcentric imperative that makes a widow cry of joy immediately after learning about her spouse’s death. The short story begins with the appearance of a sad message in the Millards’ home. Mrs.Millards’ sister Josephine is informed that Mr.Millard has tragically died in an accident and, being aware of Mrs.Millard’s heart disease, conveys this message with caution. Instead of falling into grief, Mrs.Millard feels to certain degree apathetic, as the author shows : “She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms” (Chopin, 2003, at http://www.vcu.edu).

Furthermore, the story addresses mainly the reflections of Mrs.Millard upon her own widowhood and her unexpectedly indifferent considerations of whether it is necessary to grieve in the given situation. Instead of amplifying the grief by painful remembrances of the happy past, as most newly-widowed women do, the woman begins to develop her thought is the direction of new opportunities that are about to open after she has lost her husband. Furthermore, she realizes she has been merely a property over the years of her family life and has been living another person’s life: “There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself.

There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination” (Chopin, 2003). Similarly to the protagonist, Chopin often felt emptied by the monotonous domestic work and notably considered her imprisonment amongst the three pillars of cooking, child rearing and care about her husband a true burden (Toth, 1990, p.167). Similarly to “Desiree’s Baby”, the given short story implies Chopin’s negative expectations concerning men, who tend to impose their power to wives through turning their own gender into a monopolist of profit-making and paid job in general.

Mr.Millard’s death of a heart attack is therefore not surprising, as after repressing her joyful hysterics associated with the recently obtained freedom, she sees her allegedly deceased husband entering the house. The main character’s heart affliction might point to Chopin’s own week coronary system, which determined her comparatively early death at the age of 54 (Toth, 1990, p.289). The terminal disease, in this sense, symbolizes a another point of women’s vulnerability to the privilege of white male: given that 19th century females normally gave birth to 5-6 children over the course of the life, their health state substantially deteriorated and turned them into seniors at the productive age of 30-40, which made their dependence upon male breadwinners irreversible.

In “Desiree’s Baby”, at the same time, the author reflects her hidden suicidal ideations and intentions, associated with the inability of widowed Kate Chopin to surround her children with worthy care due to the overall devastation of their family plantation (Toth, 1990, p. 290). Her willingness to commit suicide was also associated with the inhibition of women’s social and economic activities she encountered when attempting to manage the plantation. As Toth writes, women as landowners received almost no respect in the local community and were ostracized by heir compatriots, i.e. Chopin was not able to survive and earn her living only because of gender prejudice (Toth, 1990, p.166).

As for the settings of both short stories, they are to great extent similar in terms of the depiction of the families from the “decent society”, or the upper middle class. “Desiree’s Baby” depicts the “Deep South”, where slavery was eradicated only at the very end of the 19th century; the second short story was also intended as an episode from the Southern life given the depiction of relatively warm spring: “ She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain in the air” (Chopin, 2003). In “Desiree’s Baby”, the main events also take place in spring, which symbolizes the necessity of refreshment and new interesting activities that can not be fully realized and “upgraded’ to the fruitfulness of summer.

To sum up, the author’s concerns about racial and gender equality are illustrated in both short stories, which appear similar in terms of the plotline, tragic outcome and the point of conflict, which is the oppression of woman’s personality. The episodes from Chopin’s biography such as heart disease, fact of encountering mainly irresponsible and weak males throughout the life are also implied in the narratives.

Works cited

  • Chopin, K. “Desiree’s Baby”. 23 Feb 2005, at  <http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/857/>.
  • Chopin, K. “The Story of an Hour” . 23 Nov 2003, at <http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/?>
  • Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.

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