Meta-Discussion on Kate Chopin’s Short Story "Désirée’s Baby" with the Application of Four Theoretical Concepts

Term Paper, 2016

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Use of Gender as an Analytical Tool

3. Gender Bias in “Désirée’s Baby’’

4. Color and Race: Double Consciousness
4.1 Is there a General Definition of Race Color?
4.2 Racism and Color in “Désirée’s Baby’’

5. The Concept of a Nation

6. Nation and Nation State in “Désirée’s Baby’’

7. The Correlation of Nation, Race and Gender

8. Conclusion

9. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Literary theories offer a new way of reading, understanding and interpreting texts. Their development helps to understand the various ways of how people read texts. By applying theories to texts while we read, we get a different point of view, which offers us a diverse insight or a whole new perspective on the topics discussed in the texts. A text cannot only be read according to one theory, but rather it must be assumed that several theories can be useful for analyzing a text.

This term paper is a meta-discussion on Kate Chopin’s short story “Désirée’s Baby’’ in reference to four theoretical texts, which to a greater or lesser extent, can be applied to the short story of my choice.

The first step will be to illustrate the theoretical concept of gender postulated by Joan W. Scott, followed by the application of this theory on Chopin’s short story by examining gender bias.

Secondly, I will explain W.E.B. Du Bois concept of double consciousness and Edward Telles theory of color race. These concepts will, then, insofar it is possible, be applied to “Désirée’s Baby’’.

Thirdly, the concept of a nation in the understanding of Jean-Jacques Rousseau will be analyzed. Therefore his ideal nation state will particularly be taken into account and this is followed by scrutinizing the short story for his theory to be applied to. At last, I want to point out the correlation between the represented concepts and what questions can be raised when reading the short story and applying the different theories.

In addition to developing an interpretation, this meta-discussion has the aim to exhibit that the application of a theory can produce a meaningful discussion.

2. The Use of Gender as an Analytical Tool

The theoretical concept Joan Wallach Scott offers in her article “Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis’’ contains the notion that gender is culturally constructed and derives from perception as well as it demonstrates power relations, most notable the submission of one sex by the other one (1067).

The term gender is not predetermined by biological or natural factors, though it is to say that we cannot entirely break free from physical differences, but it is about the “perceived difference’’ and not the “actual difference’’. Physical appearance or the fact that women can bring a child into the world, should ideally not be taken into account when using the term gender (Scott 1067).

Based on this perceived difference, gender involves four elements such as cultural symbols, normative concepts, notion of politics and a reference to social institutions and organizations and subjective identity. Cultural symbols evoke multiple representations whereas the normative concepts restrict and contain the interpretations of the symbols (Scott 1067). The notion of politics serves to shatter the notion of fixity in a way that it discovers the nature of the debate or repression which leads to the binary gender system. The element of subjective identity entails the image we have of ourselves, that is our identity as a result of an interaction between socially constructed norms and our embodied lives (Scott 1068). Societies insert in our heads some view of how we should be and we accept these ideas and live a life mediated by them. The four elements mentioned above, have an influence on our social attribution and expectations and are the reason for the classification into “man’’ and “woman’’.

Regarding the fact that the term gender demonstrates power relations, we need to look where the legitimation is coming from. In Scott’s article it is mentioned that sexual-related differences are used to legitimize relationships of power (1069). Society takes obvious biological differences and uses them to construct meaning about social relations, therefore sexuality serves as a cause for gender inequalities (Scott 1069). The act of reading social implications from literal presentations of women and men include the consideration of differentiation to establish meaning and the primary way of signalizing differentiation is sexual difference, i.e. men are known to have greater muscular strength and women are renowned for their weakness (1072). In regard to the above stated aspects, we need to ask ourselves why we divide humans into two categories. Where did this classification into “man’’ and “woman’’ arise and is it possible to break free from the cycle of gender — power?

Scott cites a traditional theory to this question which says that the different spheres of men and women might go back to women’s parity. Their ability to bear children was associated with reproductive processes in the domestic sphere, i.e. to raise the family. Therefore one can say that reproduction is a “pitfall’’ for women, because it lead to their subordination (Scott 1058).

The complexity the term gender implies can be useful when applying gender as an analytical tool. It is an own theoretical discourse to be applied to history which then offers new perspectives on old questions. Therefore, gender allows us to decode meaning and to understand the interactions between humans (1070). Due to closer examination of established notions and concepts it will lead to rethinking history and is thus productive and constitutive for concepts like the public sphere, citizens and emancipation. Allegedly gender-neutral domains can be questioned in respect of the method used to construct gender and what impact it has on the situation of men and women (Scott 1073-1074). This gender knowledge then serves as a base for the process of gender equality, but this can only be successful if we detach ourselves from the concept of a natural order or natural roles for men and women.

3. Gender Bias in “Désirée’s Baby’’

Joan W. Scott’s gender concept can be reasonably applied to Kate Chopin’s short story as it has, among others, gender bias as theme. In the nineteenth century, at the time when the story line of Desir é e ’ s Baby takes place, women were inferior to men and therefore defer to them. Society assigned women with the role of the subordinate human, whereas men were the head of the family.

Armand Aubigny and Désirée’s clearly followed the social construct of gender roles in their marriage as the lines “[w]hen he frowned she trembled’’ and “[w]hen he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God’’ outline (Chopin 553). Another indicator of the application of the gender concept is Désirée’s statement: “Armand is the proudest father in the parish, I believe, chiefly because it is a boy, to bear his name; though he says not,—that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know it isn’t true’’ (Chopin 553). Thus it appears that Armand judges the worth of his child according to its gender, since it is a normative concept constructed by society that the male descendants are the ones to carry on the family name and aristocratic heritage, i.e. a girl would not be as powerful, for women usually accept the name of the man.

When reading the short story with reference to Scott’s gender theory, one can discern the traditional gender relation of men and women which dominated back in the nineteenth century.

4. Color and Race: Double Consciousness

The excerpt “Of Our Spiritual Strivings’’ of the book The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois has the themes race and color as its main subject matters. Du Bois deals with the hierarchy of the races which obtains in the United States in the twentieth century, i.e. the subordination of the Afro-Americans and also their self-awareness within this nation.

The self-reflection of the Afro-Americans is mirrored, i.e. it is not purely their own perception, but rather merges with the image others have of them. As Du Bois states: “the Negro is […] born with a veil, and gifted with second sight* in […] a world which […] only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.’’ (8).

It seems that to ascertain their identity, Afro-Americans have two different opinions on themselves, i.e. their own and that of the society. They cannot discard the image society wants to convey of them. It lies in the back of their head and appears to be firmly fixed in the social structure of the United States. Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness’’ (8) for that.

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body’’ (Du Bois 8).

The color line has always something to with prejudice. In my opinion, the message W.E.B. Du Bois wants to convey is that we need to dismiss the anchored stereotypes we have of different races and to only judge a person, not by the characteristics of their race, but of the characteristics of the individual itself.

What does the color of your skin say about you as a person? It tells us where you come from but does not define who you are or what abilities you have, moreover, what kind of opportunities you should be entitled to.

Du Bois argues that emancipation is the key to eliminate the double consciousness, that is to say, the general ideal of freedom, ideal of liberty and the ideal of education (13). However, the disappointment of the black ideals and the social problems such as social degradation, ignorance, poverty and prejudice led to a lowering of these ideals. The aim was a “unifying ideal of Race’’, i.e. the merging of the ideals into a human brotherhood (Du Bois 13). At last and in relation to the preceding quote, it can be deduced that race is, alongside gender, a social construct.

4.1 Is there a General Definition of Race Color?

Since the concept of race is socially constructed, it poses the question whether the definition of race color is a general one and therefore fixed or whether it differs depending on various aspects. To answer this question, we can refer to Edward Telles’ text “The Social Consequences of Skin Color in Brazil’’. Telles argues that the definition of race color is “depending on the classifier, the situation, or the region’’ (9). Moreover, he compares the classification system in the United States with that of Brazil, which additionally confirms the theory that race color is “relational and subject to redefinition in different cultures’’ (Telles 10). As it is stated, the definition of blackness is much more narrowed in the United States than in Brazil (8). The Brazilian classification system even allows people of African descent to integrate themselves into intermediate categories of colors. This makes it possible for some to evade being labelled as black (Telles 10). As opposed to this, mixed-race people in the United States are simply black (Telles 11).

4.2 Racism and Color in “Désirée’s Baby’’

Kate Chopin’s short story “Désirée’s Baby’’ also takes up the theme of racism and Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness can be applied to the short story. As the story takes place in the South of the United States in the nineteenth century, a time where slavery came with the territory, it was common practice to base the worth of a person on his or her race.

Armand Aubigny, for he was a typical plantation owner, was very strict and under his command “his negroes had forgotten how to be gay’’ (Chopin 552). When he detects that his child has black blood, which makes him draw the conclusion that his wife must have a black in her family tree, his son and wife are no longer welcome at his plantation (Chopin 554). Armand is scared of his good reputation as his wife “had brought [injury] to his home and his name’’ with her mixed racial origin (Chopin 554).

This makes me come to the result that he cannot dismiss the ideology of society. It is difficult to break free from the social conventions which developed and entrenched itself over the centuries. According to this, people rather tend to follow the ideology of the masses than to be rated as a marginal. Armand cannot discard the prejudice he has of people with black ancestry, more precisely and to allude to Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness, he sees his family not with his eyes, but with the eyes of society, i.e. his consciousness is influenced by societal conventions. You could say that he sees through dimmed glasses by perceiving the worth of his family through the eyes of society. By applying the concept of dimmed glasses, I refer to the layer which lies between the consciousness of society and the pure consciousness of oneself, i.e. the line between limited perception and unobstructed view. It seems like white people cannot surmount the difficulty of looking past this layer because they never experienced the other side, to put it another way, do not want to come in contact with the other race.

Du Bois postulates a similar theory by arguing that “the Negro is […] born with a veil, and gifted with second sight’’ which in return implies that only white people have a restricted perception and only black people have a double consciousness. This second sight of seeing oneself through the eyes of others, or “gift’’ as Du Bois calls it, can evoke disparagement and hence acquiescence as well as arouse opposition and therefore turmoil (8).

Until the last passage of the short story, Armand Aubigny is the ideal example of someone who does not have the so called second sight or double consciousness, as he is believed to be of American chastity. We do not get to find out his reaction to the message that he has mixed racial ancestry as the story ends at this point.

In contrast to this, a transformation in the consciousness of Désirée can be observed. At the beginning, Désirée is not aware of her mixed racial origin, since she was adopted as a very young child and her appearance does not indicate it, for she has brown hair, grey eyes and fair skin (Chopin 554). With Désirée not knowing that her husband or herself might have black ancestry, it never occurred to her that her child is considered to be black. That is the reason why she reacts astonished, when she first realizes that her child looks like one of the “quadroon boys’’ (Chopin 554) from La Blanche, which means that his physical appearance is this of a person with mixed racial ancestry. Her anxiety becomes noticeable in her facial expression as it is described as a “picture of fright’’ (554). Noticing the color difference of her child’s skin, she is caught in a cleft stick, where she comes to question the ideals of her life and asks herself where her place in the social structure is (Chopin 554-555).

Until then, you could say there was no double consciousness involved as Désirée’s self-reflection and that of her child’s has only taken place through her eyes and not through the eyes of society, i.e. the image she had of herself and her child was not prejudiced with the perception or ideology of society.


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Meta-Discussion on Kate Chopin’s Short Story "Désirée’s Baby" with the Application of Four Theoretical Concepts
University of Würzburg
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Kate Chopin, meta-discussion, theoretical concept, short story
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Chiara Widera (Author), 2016, Meta-Discussion on Kate Chopin’s Short Story "Désirée’s Baby" with the Application of Four Theoretical Concepts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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