Kate Chopin’s tragically ironic short story “Desirée’s Baby” moves many of my students, as it never ceases to move me; it’s also a great way to suggest the idea that race is a construct the application of which can bear enormous consequences. If you haven’t read it, or don’t remember it (unlikely!), do read it before going on here (the link is above, at the title).
A number of my students do have trouble, though, working with the historical (yes, that’s the word I mean!) aspects of the text.
The story is set in antebellum Louisiana among Créole landowners. Desirée, the main character, is a foundling lovingly raised by a woman of compassion and wealth; she grows into a lovely young woman and catches the eye and heart of a young neighbor, also parentless (his parents have both died), the owner of a rich plantation, the owner also of the slaves that work it, whom he views with contempt and drives without pity. Always a somewhat sullen lad, he is brightened and blessed and made gentle by his marriage to Desirée, and she too is full of joy; the birth of their son should be the final element in the idyll. But then the whispers start, as the baby begins to evince signs of “mixed blood.” Who were Desirée’s parents? Armand is first shocked and then furious, feeling he is the victim of some cosmic joke. He falls out of love with his wife; she has no idea why. When he finally gives in to her frantic questions and informs her that he knows she is not white, she takes their son and runs distraught into the night, presumably to throw herself into the river and drown them both. There is a bit more to the story, but really, if you haven’t read it, go read it.
I have had students who were nonplussed that Desirée would take such a drastic action: Why didn’t she move Up North and get a secretarial job? Well, maybe she would drown herself, but why would she want to drown her baby? What’s Armand’s problem, anyway? (This last question is, actually, gratifying—that today’s students just don’t see what the big race fuss was about—at the same time that it’s maddening, revealing as it does readers who cannot find their way into the minds or realities of the characters.) As for the secretarial job…. I even had one student who wondered why the characters were riding horses all around, when they could have used their cars.
Yes, Desirée became hysterical. Today’s sentence was written by a male student, and I do like the fact that “hysterical” doesn’t present itself immediately to the male mind at the first sign of female distress: he might have the word ready, but he obviously doesn’t make the organic (pun intended) link between it and a female character.
We do say sometimes of the dead (dead people, dead ideas, dead institutions) that they’re “history.” I know this was not the intention here, but it is one way in which the sentence could have urged its legitimacy. Desirée, floating there in the Mississippi, is, alas, history. The American society where racial identity, or one particular racial identity, carried such dire consequences has also, slowly and painfully, become history, or mostly so: that’s wonderful. In this sense, Desirée as an emblem of a tragic time is now historical. That would have made a nice essay, actually.
But my student didn’t write that essay. He wrote an essay that staggered through the plot, making some fairly good observations and some fairly stupid ones, and reached some kind of pedestrian (and forgettable) conclusion.
The conclusion of the story, by the way, is breathtaking; readers who have empathized with Desirée throughout have such mixed emotions at the ending that they often have trouble expressing them. Ah, that’s as it should be.
Literature offers a chance to live, however briefly, someone else’s life, someone else’s time, someone else’s reality. In this way it is the most liberal, and liberating, of all the arts. But the necessary empathy isn’t automatically achieved: such a sensibility has to be developed through encouragement, experience, and access to relevant information. Some of my students have difficulty dwelling in contemporary characters as well as characters from earlier times, have difficulty shedding the realities and assumptions of their own lives to try on someone else’s. This is the worst kind of impoverishment: the impoverishment of the imagination. Teachers of literature attempt to ameliorate it, but the actual cure can be achieved only in the student’s own willingness to venture.