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Desiree’s Baby–Kate Chopin

Like most of Kate Chopin’s story, “Desiree’s Baby” ends with an O. Henry-worthy twist. In this case, after an idyllic childhood and courtship, Armand and Desiree marry. They are young, beautiful, wealthy, and devotedly in love. What could make their bliss more profound? How about a baby?

When the baby arrives, however, matters take a turn for the worse. Shortly after its birth, the baby begins to exhibit physical characteristics that indicate some measure of African blood. Never does Chopin suggest that Desiree has been unfaithful to Armand. Apparently such a notion is inconceivable to Armand as well. Instead, the implication is clear: the foundling Desiree, despite her appearance, had black blood within her. This revelation turns Armand utterly against his beloved bride and child. In despair, Desiree walks away, baby in arms, and drowns herself in the bayou.

Only later, as he is ridding the house of all reminders of his tainted wife and child, does Armand discover the letter, penned by his mother, in the back of a desk drawer. Here, the mother identifies herself as “a member of the race cursed with the brand of slavery.” Apparently, Armand had his own heritage to blame for his baby’s “defect.”

The theme of race-mixing runs throughout this story for the attentive reader. Various slaves in the story are referred to as mulatto (half black), quadroon (quarter black), and yellow (light skinned). One old slave woman is called “La Blanche” (White). Desiree points out, during Armand’s attacks, that he is darker than La Blanche. We initially dismiss this observation as the comparison between the darkness of an active, outdoor man and a more sheltered woman, but eventually we perceive the comparison to be significant.

By itself, this story underscores the ugly history of slave owners making concubines of their female slaves. It foregrounds the bigotry of Chopin’s own day that demanded a person with “one drop” of African blood be considered wholly black. That, by itself provides interest to the story, but there is more. Chopin, especially in the words of the found letter at the story’s close, invokes the powerful legacy of a perversion of Genesis 9:20-28, the so-called Curse of Ham, in American thought and writing.

This story, in which Noah curses the descendants of his grandson Canaan to be servants to the descendants of Shem and Japheth, morphed over the centuries to become a pretext for the enslavement of African people, the apparent progeny of Ham. The development of this notion, one of the most persistent rationales in favor of slavery, is expressed in various ways. However, it typically conflates ideas of blackness, sexual sin, and evil. The idea behind the Curse of Ham or its after effects can be found in a wide swath of writers. We find it in James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Zora Neale Hurston, and, here, in Kate Chopin.

I would not want to reduce the study of literature to a study of the culture that produced it, but it is intriguing to move in the opposite direction. That dedicated Christians could so badly misread the Bible as to adopt the Curse of Ham as an explanation of black skin and a rationale for endless slavery strikes me as terribly sad.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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