The Significance of the Letter. Temporality in "Désirée's Baby" by Kate Chopin


Term Paper, 2018
15 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Excerpt

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Main Part
2.1 “Désirée’s Baby”: Temporal Structure and Anachronies in the Story
2.2 Interpretation of Temporality in the Story- The Significance of the Letter

3. Conclusion

4. List of Works Cited

5. Graphs

1. Introduction

Kate Chopin’s “The Father of Désirée’s Baby” or in short “Désirée’s Baby” has so far mostly been analyzed in terms of its racial implications and its engagement with such topics as racism, passing, and miscegenation. No specific research has been done on the temporality in the story and its significance for the interpretation of the story. When reading through the short story, it becomes clear that the construction of chronology is questioned in the story and that the most important feature is the letter. The letter as a medium as such is already ambiguous in its temporality, as it has a different relation to chronology than the fictional narration. The letter and the information it conveys first have to be written and sent, before the information can be passed on. But the letter also may be read over and over again. Thus, the letter in itself constitutes the possibility of a disruption of the chronology that usually underlies a narration. However, in this particular short story, the letter, revealing the “truth,” is placed at the very end. The usual chronology of tensed time and metrical time is thus even more questioned. It can be said that only through this ambiguous temporal role of the letter as being in two times at the same time and through presenting the option of being read at all times, the plot of the story works in the first place. The letter simultaneously ‘participates’ in two temporalities: As the content of the letter is at the beginning, it is the origin of the problem, but it is only found by Armand at the very end and is, therefore, at the same time the solution to the conflict.

The significance of the unique properties of the letter as making the entire plot possible in the first place is important to analyze. Therefore, after explaining the most important vocabulary concerning temporality in narration, I will look at the temporal structure of the short story and Chopin’s use of analepses in order to convey background information on the characters. I will also engage with significant other features of the story in terms of time vocabulary. In the last part of my paper, I will combine my findings on the temporality in the story and an interpretation to show how the construction of chronology is questioned, especially with regard to the letter, but also other themes in the story, and what these findings might reveal on the overall interpretation of the story.

2. Main Part

2.1 “Désirée’s Baby”: Temporal Structure and Anachronies in the Story

In her short story “Désirée’s Baby,” Kate Chopin works with a third-person omniscient narrator who tells the story from the diegetic present. It is clear that what the narrator tells, for him/her lies in the past. The entire story that is told is in the past from the narrator’s view, therefore, the narrator’s present lies after the events of the story. The narrator’s present is the diegetic present, all else is past. In order to analyze the temporal structure of the text, I will go through the text to point out analepses and ellipses. But first, a short explanation of the terminology used is necessary.

What I refer to in this chapter is the temporal ordering or “the relationship between events in the story […] of the represented world, and their arrangement in the discourse […] which articulates them” (Ireland 591). In Gérard Genette’s terms, the story, simply put, is “what is told”, while the discourse is “’how’ the story is transmitted” (Shen 566). Genette called differences that occur on the discourse level compared to the story level anachronies. These can either appear as “analepsis, prolepsis, and co-occurrence” (Ireland 591). An analepsis is a flashback: “It signals the retrospective evocation of an event […]” (591). In “Désirée’s Baby” there are only analepses and jumps between earlier and later pasts, seeing that the entire story lies in the past for the narrator. So, in this short story there clearly is an anachrony or discordance, as the discourse level or how the events are represented in the plot do not always correspond to how it happens chronologically, or, in other words, the narrative/ temporal sequence of the events on the level of the story and their position on the discourse level do not concur. The discourse time or narrating time is measured in words/pages or hours of reading, while the story time or narrated time reflects the “temporal duration and chronology of the underlying plot” (Fludernik 608). If the length of text is much smaller than the act time, meaning a certain time span is left out, which is the case in “Désirée’s Baby”, then this is called an ellipsis (De Toro 135). This actually occurs more than once in the story and can be seen in the fact that the short story is only four pages long, but covers the events of more than eighteen years. Furthermore, there is the distinction between the A-Series and the B-Series of temporality, which is also important to consider in terms of narrative. These are two different ways of ordering events in time, as described by the English philosopher John McTaggart. A sense of temporality in a narrative is not only established through the use of different tenses (which corresponds to the A-Series), but sequential order is also established through the “logical relations ‘earlier than’ and ‘later than’ […]” (Banfield 593). The before-after relations then correspond to the B-Series, which can be found in phrases like “18 years before” or “some weeks later” in the short story. This way of establishing or constructing chronology can, therefore, also be seen in “Désirée’s Baby”; however, the chronology is disrupted several times by the aforementioned analepses. In the following, I will describe the plot/discourse and its most important distinction from the story level as well as Chopin’s use of analepses.

When going through the plot/discourse in comparison to the story level and reconstructing how things must have happened chronologically one can see that there are two analepses (see graphs). The narrative begins with Madame Valmondé’s drive to L’Abri, which we learn later in the text, she had already visited four weeks earlier, before the start of the plot. As already mentioned, for the narrator all of this lies in the past. Hence, the entire story is written in the past tense. The first major analepsis is through Madame Valmondé’s memory of how Désirée was found when she was a toddler, which could be described as a first story in the story. The narrator then describes how she thought about the speculations of Désirée’s origin. This is in Past Perfect, as it lies even further in the past: “The prevailing belief was that she had been purposely left by a party of Texans, […]” (187). Within this analepsis though, there is a move away from this earlier past into a past that is closer to the events occurring after Mme. Valmondé’s visit. So, there is a complete ellipsis, Désirée’s entire childhood and upbringing with the Valmondé’s is left out. Basically, Chopin covers eighteen years in only one sentence: “For the girl grew to be beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere; the idol of Valmondé” (187). So, one day eighteen years after Désirée was found and taken in by the Valmondé’s, Armand Aubigny fell in love with Désirée as he was in the process of riding by. Then on the discourse level, there is a brief step back to further in the past to indicate that Armand had not loved Désirée before, although he had known her before, and to give background information on Armand who came from France when he was eight years old, after his mother died. Here it can be seen that Chopin again jumps back and forth between an earlier past and a past that is closer to the past at which the plot begins, while leaving out everything that happened in between. Next on the discourse level, it is mentioned that Monsieur Valmondé wanted Désirée’s “obscure origin” and that she was nameless considered, but that Armand did not care, as he had one of the oldest and proudest names in Louisiana. The corbeille was ordered and Armand and Désirée were married.

The second analepsis or second story in the story tells the Aubigny’s story, rather than Désirée’s. It is said that L’Abri was a sad-looking place and it had not seen a mistress for many years, Old Aubigny “having married and buried” his wife in France (187). Comparing this to the first analepsis, it is clear that Armand’s parent’s marriage must lie furthest in the past and comes first on the story level. This second analepsis is followed by a description of L’Abri and basically a comparison between an earlier past when the slaves were happy under Old Aubigny’s rule and this past (of Mme Valmondé’s visit) under Young Aubigny, when the slaves had forgotten how to be happy (187). This is when bigger analepses to further in the past end and there are only smaller referrals between different pasts. So, now in the plot line we are back to Mme. Valmondé’s second visit within four weeks, where we also started at the very beginning of the narrative. Désirée is described as recovering slowly from the birth of her son. As Mme. Valmondé looked at the baby, she seemed to notice a change in the child: ”’Yes, the child has grown, has changed’” (188).

Then there are several more ellipses in the plot. The story continues with “[w]hen the baby was three months old […]” (188). Désirée woke up to a change, first only subtle, but then also a change in Armand. Next, “[…] one hot afternoon […],” Désirée discovered in comparing her child to a quadroon boy that the baby was different in terms of skin-color (188). She then tried to speak to Armand who only told her that it means that she is not white (189). “When she could hold a pen […],” Désirée wrote to Madame Valmondé. Upon the arrival of the letter, Désirée went to Armand who then told her to leave, that day Désirée left with the baby, the reader later learns that all of this happened on “an October afternoon” (190). The narrator indicates that Désirée disappeared into the bayou, which might be an implication that she killed herself. The most important and telling part of the story, however, is at the very end. “Some weeks later […]” Armand is presented as burning all of Désirée’s belongings as well as the letters she sent to him during their engagement. Behind these letters Armand found an older letter from his mother to his father. The story ends with the revelation that Armand’s mother “[…] belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery” (190).

So, after reconstructing how things must have happened chronologically, one can see that the biggest anachrony and disruption of the construction of chronology lies in Armand’s mother’s letter. Would the plot concur with the story level, then Chopin would have had to start with Old Aubigny’s marriage, which lies the furthest in the past chronologically. Somewhere in between Armand’s birth, the finding of Désirée and Armand’s mother’s death, Armand’s mother wrote the letter to his father containing the crucial information of Armand’s mixed-race background, the reader, however, only learns about the existence of this letter at the very end. Through the use of analepses and ellipses, the narrator gives the reader an insight into Désirée’s and Armand’s backgrounds, but the most important information is kept hidden until the end and is only revealed through the letter, the written word. Through the surprising twist at the end, one is left in shock and questioning one’s own ways of thinking and taking certain things as facts without really knowing them. Désirée’s “obscure origin” is hinted at several times and, thus, creates a sense of definiteness in the judgment that the baby’s mixed-race must be the result of Désirée’s racial background. It fools the reader into believing this, as the flashbacks only give the reader glimpses and no real or deeper knowledge of the actual background of the main characters, clearly not of Désirée’s origin, but also not really of Armand’s origin. Bauer in her article also points out that Armand’s background is “somewhat mysterious in that no one has met his mother […]” (165). Only at the very end, after the conflict already took a tragic ending, is the “true” information presented to the reader.

2.2 Interpretation of Temporality in the Story- The Significance of the Letter

As already mentioned above, there are several instances in which chronology is disrupted. The most important one is Armand’s mother’s letter. The temporal placement of the letter and the temporal figuration of the letter in the case of the mother’s letter is that it was written and sent before the start of the actual plot/discourse of the short story. The “knowledge” or the written word of Armand’s “true” racial background, therefore, was already among Armand’s possessions or at least physically existed the entire time, yet Chopin only lets him find it at the very end of the story. Chronologically seen, the letter or what the letter reveals lies before the events of the plot. The content of the letter, thus, contains the solution and simultaneously is the entire reason/origin of the plot and of the content of the story, as it contains information on Armand that Armand is not aware of. So, the content of the letter or what the letter reveals, the writing and sending of the letter all happened before Armand even married Désirée, yet Chopin puts the letter at the end of the plot, through which she questions this construction of chronology in tensed time (A-Series temporality) and metrical time (B-Series temporality). The fact that this information of Armand’s racial heritage was already in this letter way before the start of the plot and that the letter was already there the entire time, basically waiting to be read, but that the moment when it is read is placed at the very last moment in the plot, disrupts the chronology normally assumed as fixed. So, the existence of the “knowledge” or the content of the letter is crucial for the temporal progression of the plot and how things happen in the plot. But in a way, this also shows that this “knowledge” is independent of time (which indicates the B-Series) and that it cannot be changed.

It is clear, however, that only through the ambiguity/the contradiction in the temporality of the letter, the entire story works. The content of the letter is the very first information that is the basis for the entire plot to happen and makes the problems possible. Only because of the “fact” that Armand is of mixed-race, the baby is of mixed-race, but this is only revealed in the letter, yet at the same time the letter is only found by Armand and presented to the reader at the very end, therefore, the letter has/ participates in two times simultaneously. Furthermore, the letter as a medium as such already contains an ambiguous temporality, as it first has to be written and sent by the sender and then has to be received and read by the receiver. So, there is already as such a displacement of time, a postponement in the transfer of information in the medium of the letter. The letter has a different relation to chronology as the fictional narration. So, only the uniqueness of the medium of the letter, as ‘participating’ in two temporalities simultaneously, and the coincidental aspect of the letter make the plot as it is possible, as the letter could have also been found earlier by Armand. The fact that the letter can be read again and again throughout time and that the information contained in the letter has been available the entire time, but is only revealed at the very end through a coincidence, reveals a disruption of chronology and questions the construction of this. The construction of chronology is based on A-Series/tensed time and B-Series/metrical time, the letter here, however, reveals this as constructed through its unique properties (sender-receiver moment) as well as through its placement at the very end. Whereas the information contained in it is the actual origin/basis of the plot, had this information been placed at the beginning, the events would not have happened the way they did. The plot is, thus, dependent on the temporal placement and figuration of the letter. Therefore, it can be said that this also shows that time itself or how we perceive time is a construct and that grammatical tenses and the belief in a present are constructions. In a way then, the plot of the story also points towards the construction of “truth” as something fixed and that what this apparent “truth” is based on, is itself a construct. Armand is convinced that he “knows” the “truth” of his “whiteness,” but this “truth” is in the end turned around, which shows that these “truths” can change, as they are based on constructs (categories of “whiteness”/ ”blackness”).

[...]

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Details

Title
The Significance of the Letter. Temporality in "Désirée's Baby" by Kate Chopin
College
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Grade
2,3
Author
Year
2018
Pages
15
Catalog Number
V500479
ISBN (eBook)
9783346029119
Language
English
Tags
Temporality and Narrative, Kate Chopin, Désirée's Baby
Quote paper
Katharina Gerhardt (Author), 2018, The Significance of the Letter. Temporality in "Désirée's Baby" by Kate Chopin, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/500479

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