Samuel Hersh is currently an undergraduate English major at Kent State University, in addition to a Women's Studies minor. Having been born with an academic heart, he is starting his undergraduate thesis on the changing image of masculinity in WWI literature. Besides focusing on school, Sam is also a passionate artist, exploring themes such as loss, disillusionment, and the modern human condition in his two-dimensional compositions. He hopes to one day attend graduate school to complete a Ph. D. in literature with a focus in gender and sexuality.
A Woman Who Knows Her Place:
Self-Awareness in Sylvia Plath's Poetry
The emergence of confessional poetry on the American literary scene in the 50s and 60s marked a distinct break with the past. From before the 20th Century, modernism had a firm grip on literature; there was an increasing awareness of the world and humanity’s place in it. The authors writing in this time period commented on the new world they found themselves in. Writers such as Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner illuminated different aspects of the changing human condition of the new modern world. The most important development of the modernist movement was T. S. Eliot’s Impersonal Theory of Poetry. This theory, adopted for the majority of the movement, sought the depersonalization of the poetry genre. He declared that it is through the extraction of the poet and his experiences that make poetry universally relatable, beautiful, and able to tap into the collective subconscious of literary history.
It was not until the confessional movement that the personal experience was reintroduced into the literary poetic scene. Authors rejected this impersonal style of poetry and opted to explore real aspects of human life; death, suicide, love affairs, and human sexuality were depicted in a way that shamelessly exposed aspects of the human experience usually not discussed in society. One of the most famous of these poets was Sylvia Plath. An important American poet, Sylvia Plath was a talented and prolific writer that is categorized as a confessional poet, and often seen as one of the founding members of the confessional movement, along with Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and W. D. Snodgrass. Though most importantly, Sylvia Plath is almost always referred to as a feminist—a woman ahead of her time that, through her poetry, was able to cast off the shackles of patriarchal society.
This reading of Plath as a feminist revolutionary is challenging because critics make the mistake of reading her works through today’s feminist ideals; feminist critics expect to read Plath as a feminist hero and therefore find evidence to support this claim. This observer-expectancy effect alters the reading of her work. Plath is indeed a feminist writer, though for different and less grand reasons. Much of her work actually exhibits a female voice that, in the end, makes no advancement for herself, no final grab for womanly independence. What her speakers do exhibit is a strong and unwavering voice. In Plath’s poetry, the speaker, though often thwarted for her search for autonomy or self-rule from the patriarchal society she inhabits, clearly speaks on her environment and the culture in which she lives. Through a seemingly paradoxical combination of both the new criticism and historical lenses to view Sylvia Plath’s work, it can be concluded that her writing is indeed intrinsically feminist, not because her speakers find independence from the patriarchal society in which they function, but because they are cognizant of the fact that they live within such a society, and comment on their position in this social paradigm.
During her career, Plath published two volumes of poetry, The Colossus and Ariel, and the novel The Bell Jar. Known for her intimate subjects and striking, often harsh diction, Sylvia Plath’s poetry has been analyzed through a variety of critical lenses. One such lens is Ecocriticism. Reading through her oeuvre, one cannot help but notice the large use of nature imagery. The time in which Plath was writing was one where environmental concerns were just emerging on the nation’s social radar. In many of her poems, “Plath expresses the ecological idea that death is often linked to alienation from one’s environment and fellow creatures, whereas life requires interaction with one’s environment and other beings” (Knickerbocker 4). Critics see her works as tied to the environment around her; she shows her “concern about industrialization and the destructive consequences of modern, technological life” through describing the results of a life stripped of nature (Knickerbocker 5). Another critical lens frequently applied to her work is biographical. Sylvia Plath’s life has been romanticized and glorified by the media and literary community. Her depression, suicide, and ‘madness’ have been glamorized as an artist driven insane by her restrictive society and overbearing male influences. In addition, “in Plath studies, the starting point can never simply be the criticism of the works of Plath, but [the] biased quartet of Ted Hughes, Otto Plath, and the mad woman in the attic” (KUMLU 174). With this view, her work can never truly stand-alone; she is always seen as under the shadow of some imposing force in her life—either her father, her husband, her madness, or her society. Because of this, many critics, when analyzing Plath, force onto her and her life the type of analysis they use on fictional literature. They view her as a tragic heroine destroyed by her environment, and therefore, “no other writer or poet has been labeled [as] often as ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘mad’ by scholars who do not have the slightest education in psychology or psychopathology” (KUMLU 173). Viewing her work in this light is inherently wrong and blatantly sexist. They strip her work of its magnitude and spirit, labeling it simply as the ravings of a madwoman.
One of the critical lenses most often applied to Plath’s work, though, is historical. Sylvia Plath’s timeline is settled right in the height of women’s repression in American society; it was the period after WWII when women had gone running back to the home. Because of this historical context, her work is often read as a woman battling against social injustice. Critics argue that “ [t]he bulk of her aesthetic production reflects the ideologies of the Civil Right Movement and its aim to elevate the cultural autonomy of women” (Mahdi 93). The fundamental problem with this analysis is the fact that Sylvia Plath died before the revival of feminism in the 60s that would eventually turn into the second wave feminism. What critics are doing here is casting their own ideals and motives onto her work that are not truly there; they attempt to derive authorial intent by pushing her work up almost a decade into the era of female dissent against the patriarchal system.
A historical perspective when interpreting Sylvia Plath’s work is crucial; one can never strip away the influence a poet’s environment has on her writings. What needs to be avoided at all costs though is the urge to generalize a poet’s work solely on that historical context. What many critics fail to do is see beyond the madwoman archetype Plath has evolved into; they focus on specific poems she has written that can be interpreted in such a way, failing to recognize that in her large body of work, she also has poems that possess “happiness, achievement, and power” (KUMLU 173). This is why, to temper such a strong historical setting Plath fits into, a new critical lens must also be applied. New criticism argues for a piece of writing, most often a poem, to be analyzed as a “self-sufficient objects [sic]” in hopes to achieve “a more ‘objective’ criticism focusing on the intrinsic qualities of a work” (Baldick 225). This critical lens, though slightly out dated, can provide very useful tools when analyzing Plath’s work. The time period around when she wrote, and the myths of Sylvia Plath perpetuated by the media and critics themselves, call for a more unbiased view of her work. After looking at her poems in a more objective—new critical—way, focusing on the internal structures such as imagery and metaphor, then can one situate them in the historical context in which they were written for even more illumination.
What Plath excelled at was being a keen observer of her time. “Plath recognized the social constructs of the late fifties and early sixties” (Mahdi 95). This observance carries over to her poetry, where her speakers act as chroniclers of their time. Much of her work carries this theme of awareness; her speakers are often observers of their own settings, and record what they see and experience. One such poem that exemplifies this theme of self-awareness is “The Applicant”. The poem’s concrete plot tells of an unnamed man applying to literally buy a wife. The speaker, the salesperson, pushes on him both the purchasable wife, and his own identity. The speaker demands to know if the applicant is broken, asking if he has a “glass eye, false teeth, or a crutch…Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch” (Plath 3-5). Later, the speaker notices the man’s lack of identity: “I notice you are stark naked. / How about this suit— / Black and stiff, not a bad fit. / Will you marry it? / It is waterproof, shatterproof…Believe me, they’ll bury you in it” (Plath 19-25). She finishes by offering a woman to make him whole, saying that the wife he is buying will make everything all right. She will be a “living doll, everywhere you look. / It can sew, it can cook…My boy, it’s your last resort” (Plath 33-39).
This poem is one of entrapment; the speaker is ensnaring the man and woman into an arrangement they want no part of. She tells the man to “Stop crying” when he comes to apply for the wife (Plath 8). In addition, the never visible female figure has as little control against the speaker as the male does. She is never truly there, just a shadow talked about. She is only seen in what she can do for the applicant, “a hand…To bring teacups and rollaway headaches / And do whatever you tell it” (Plath 10-13). In the end, the two figures marry to the speaker’s hypnotizing mantra: “marry it, marry it, marry it” (Plath 40). Through all of this, the speaker controls both the man and woman’s actions. The speaker sees the man’s tears and the woman’s emptiness, yet does nothing to ease their discomfort or enable them to go free. The themes of expectations, lack of identity, and hollowness in this poem are reflections of the restrictive era in which they were written. Plath remarks here on the repression rampant in the society in which she lived, though she goes a step further that is important to note. In this poem she gives the vital—yet often left out—male perspective. The era in which Plath was writing was just as restricting in the expression of males as that of females. Plath’s comment “can be seen as an exhibition of ironic self-reflection in response to the widespread cultural objectification of women [and men] as mere commodities” (Mahdi 97-98). The poem’s marriage of two unwilling stereotypes is a parable for the real men and women of the time forced into the traditional roles they did not want to wear.
Another poem in which the speaker shows just as much self-awareness is “The Disquieting Muses”. In the poem, the speaker is lamenting to her absent mother about the “three ladies” that watch over her at all time (Plath 14). She tells that they were there from the day of her christening, “Nodding by night around my bed, / Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head” (Plath 15-16). Through her life she was always “In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed / Godmothers, and [the mother] cried and cried” (Plath 30-31). Finally, in the end of the poem, the speaker relents to their constant presence and accepts to never being part of the mother’s world; the “mother, / Floating above me in the bluest air / On a green balloon bright with a million / Flowers…bobbed away / Like a soap-bubble as [she] called: Come here” (Plath 41-47). “The Disquieting Muses” tells the story of the speaker being trapped in a world she does not want to inhabit. These haunting ladies follow her around and influence how she acts, socializes, and connects with the people around her. Yet she speaks of these figures with a fondness; she uses caring language such as ‘ladies’, ‘muses’, and ‘godmothers’. She feels trapped by the ladies’ influence, but grows accustomed to it and mildly accepts it as her fate. Again, as with “The Applicant”, after analyzing the poem from within, it can be squarely situated into its historical context. “The Disquieting Muses” is representative of women as a whole being born into the ignorant bliss of gender roles and limited self-expression. Her mother calls to her to join the “green balloon bright with a million / Flowers and bluebirds”, a symbol for the idyllically unaware happiness that her mother inhabits about the real world, though she blew away before the speaker had time to join her. The speaker, in the end, is left with the muses—the silent on lookers who have exposed the speaker to self-knowledge. She realizes the hollowness of the world her mother inhabits and the gender pigeonholes girls are thrust into in society, though what is striking is she does not want this knowledge. While in the end taking the company of her muses, it is with sorrowful acceptance. She truly wants the happiness that comes along with the ignorant bliss about her place in society.
What calls out for attention in these poems, “The Applicant” and “The Disquieting Muses”, is the end result of the main characters, and the concept that the speakers are fully cognizant of the choices they are making. Both poems result in a failure of the characters to adopt their own sense of selfhood and agency. “The Disquieting Muses”, where the main character is the speaker, culminates in an acceptance of fate; she relents and gives up on her attempts to rejoin her mother in the sphere of ignorance. This does not, though, signify the speaker has gained her independence. She does not want the knowledge the muses bring her; she wishes to rejoin the “green balloon” of unawareness, being happy in the traditional roles of society (Plath 43). Then, in “The Applicant”, the main characters are completely controlled by the speaker, a demanding and unrelenting interviewer, bound to force upon them the roles that she thinks they should adopt. Both are forced into a marriage of gender positions that they do not want to participate in; the man ultimately loses his sense of self completely, and the woman is unable to form one in the first place. The speaker forces on them the roles of the stoic, unfeeling man, and the all-giving wife, ready to “do whatever you tell it” (Plath 13). In both poems, the presence of a feminist message is hard to find; both end in a lack of independence and the acceptance of traditional social roles—with one speaker wishing to embrace them and the other openly advocating for them. But what is inherently feminist is the fact that the speakers recognize the restrictions of the patriarchal system are even there. There is a self-awareness the speakers possess, they can see themselves in the historical context and recognize their own oppression. The speaker in “The Applicant” is actually forcing these gender responsibilities on the two people for their own good. She is cognizant of the system they live in and knows that to survive, they have to accept the roles society expects of them; she proclaims “it’s your last resort” (Plath 39). In “The Disquieting Muses”, the speaker is also aware of her place in the patriarchal system; she wishes with all her might to regain the ignorance everyone possess around her. She knows that life would be much better not knowing her own oppression, but her muses will not let her forget.
Even in her two most famous poems of rebellion and independence, “Lady Lazarus” and Daddy”, what is most important is the awareness the speakers have of their own place in society. These poems are some of her most violent poems. Each possesses imagery and diction that displays the speaker in a powerful and confrontational manner. Both poems are viewed as successful feminist statements of independence, with the speakers breaking free from male power. In “Lady Lazarus”, the speaker tells of her amazing ability to come back from the dead—“I have done it again. / One year in every ten / I manage it” (1-3). She takes on the role of performer, becoming a public spectacle. The speaker does it for the “peanut-crunching crowd”, saying “There is a charge / For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge / For the hearing of my heart” (Plath 57-59). Here, the speaker is purposefully performing for a crowd. She, “in a paradoxical way…has control over her body by putting it on display. She is able to control the viewing of her body” by taking charge of the situation (Boshkoff-Johnson 6). The poem “Daddy” has a very similar tone and subject matter as “Lady Lazarus”. In this poem though, the speaker is directly addressing her dead father; she is invoking his ghost in order to declare her independence from him. The speaker boldly states “You do not do, you do not do / Anymore” (Plath 1-2). She then launches into how she has been oppressed by him in the past, conjuring up images and references from the Holocaust—inhabiting this role of the oppressed to make her message that much clearer. She calls him “an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew. / A Jew to Dachau” (Plath 31-33). Then in the end she drives a stake through his “fat black heart” and dances on his grave, finally able to say “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Plath 76-80). The poem “Daddy” signifies the rebellion of a woman who through her life has always been obsessed with the image of her father, unable to function without his ghost observing what she does. Through her speech to her father the speaker is able to finally kill the image of him, releasing her from her persecution.
While both these poems have strong messages of independence and freedom from oppression, through closer analysis it can be concluded that both speakers in the end fail at their quest for liberation. “Lady Lazarus” ends in consumption: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air” (Plath 82-84). In this final stanza the “‘reader realizes that the speaker is powerless’” (Mahdi 104). The speaker is based solely on her physical identity as a woman. While she does take charge of the situation by becoming a performer and charging fees for a viewing, she is still seen only in terms of her body and is used as a form of entertainment on the public’s behalf. On the other hand, “Daddy” is a failure because the speaker self-destructs on her mission to destroy her father. In the poem, she “defines herself wholly in opposition to what she imagines him to be” (Rietz 429). Therefore, she is still obsessed with finding the image of what he is, because to her, she must be everything he is not. In this search for who her father is, she utilizes harsh language and striking diction rife with violence. This violence is consciously chosen by the speaker to cleanse herself of his overbearing and constricting possession of her, although the “violence, the daughter unleashes to liberate herself, risks, paradoxically, destroying her”, and in the end it does (Mahdi 100). The speaker bases her identity solely on what her father is not, that means that without the father figure being present to give her identity its basis, she then no longer exists. This destruction of both speaker and father signifies a connection between independence and death.
Though “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” are both failures in terms of their search for independence in patriarchal dominance, they are another key example of Plath’s profound observation of society. These poems are often hailed by critics that describe them as quintessential feminist works; Plath is finally able to destroy the concept of the patriarchy and come out the victor. Though as discussed above, both speakers fail at their search for freedom from the patriarchal system. Though what is successful, is the ability for the speakers to record the state of their society. “Lady Lazarus” discusses the role the female body has in American culture. Society “has always had a conflictual [sic] relationship with the female body. It is simultaneously desired and abhorred, worshiped and feared” (Boshkoff-Johnson 2). The speaker thinks that through putting her body on display she is attaining control of herself, though in reality she is letting the crowd take control of the purpose of her body. The crowd is using her body as a source of entertainment and mass pleasure—two cultural purposes associated with female bodies in the time Plath was writing. In “Daddy”, the historical oppression of females by the patriarchal system that rules society is examined. The ever-present father figure functions as a stand in for male dominance, always casting women in the position of subordination. The concept of a link between independence and death is also poignant. Women were seen as unable to have a life of their own outside of male supervision. These truths and observations are striking for Plath to have written on when she did, by this time many people were still unaware of the problem. Both poems are able to express stark truths about the society and time period in which they were written. The self-awareness exhibited in each poem stresses the fundamentally feminist perspective Plath was writing in, because, even though her speakers were ultimately unable to break free from the patriarchy, they were able to see that the patriarchy was there in the first place.
In Sylvia Plath’s poetry, her speakers are always caught in the societal system of male dominance that was a fact of life in the time Plath was writing. “The Applicant” possesses a speaker who makes no attempt to take on the overarching, male-dominated, system in which she finds herself. In “The Disquieting Muses”, the speaker wishes to conform to the world around her and envies peoples’ ignorant bliss. While “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” have speakers who fail in their attempts for independence and self-autonomy. It is easy to read these poems, and many others of Plath’s, and, astonishingly, find what can be read as an anti-feminist view—that women are destined to fail without the patriarchal system keeping them in check. Though what is most striking about her poetry is the fact that Plath is writing about these subjects at all; she is able to see the environment she lives in and makes poetry accordingly.
What makes these poems feminist is the self-awareness the speakers possess. Sylvia Plath produced the poems of a woman who was conscious of her surroundings. Before second wave feminism even started in the United States, Plath was aware of the social paradigms that dictated how people acted. She saw the ridiculousness of polarized gender stereotypes and expectations and recorded them in her poetry. Because of this, her speakers had a strong voice that was able to comment on society and record the female experience. One critic argues that Plath “‘may offer an affecting portrait of the destruction and loss which [male] oppression creates, and in doing so may explore matters coincidental with feminist concerns. But Plath does not finally, as a writer or a person, seem predominately interested in advancing the feminist cause’” (Rietz 429). But is not illuminating the female condition feminist? Plath may not have had all the answers for the oppression she saw, but she did have the wherewithal to record the oppression she experienced in her poetry. In doing so, Plath laid the groundwork for later female dissent that would emerge in the mid-sixties and onward.
Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Boshkoff-Johnson, Emily. "'All The Long Gone Darlings': Using Confessional Poetry As A Lens To View The Western Cultural Symbolical Formations Of The Female Body." Psychoanalytic Psychology 32.2 (2015): 352-365. PsycINFO. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
Knickerbocker, Scott. "'Bodied Forth in Words': Sylvia Plath's Ecopoetics." College Literature 2009: 1. JSTOR Journals. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.
KUMLU, Esin. "The Mona Lisa Smile Of Sylvia Plath: Destroying The Distorted Picture Of Reality." Selcuk University Social Sciences Institute Journal 25.(2011): 173-182. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
Mahdi, Maher A. "From A Victim Of The Feminine Mystique To A Heroine Of Feminist Deconstruction: Revisiting Selected Poems Of Sylvia Plath." European Scientific Journal 32 (2014): 93. Academic OneFile. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. Print.
Rietz, John. "The Father As Muse In Sylvia Plath's Poetry." Women's Studies 36.6 (2007): 417-430. Humanities Abstracts (H.W. Wilson). Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
Her Place is in the Home:
Gender and Race in Chopin's "Desiree's Baby"
Kate Chopin’s short story “Desiree’s Baby” explores the destruction of a marriage in antebellum Louisiana. Desiree, a foundling, is taken in when just a babe to the Valmonde family and raised as their own; her future husband, Armand Aubigny, is the son of a prominent Louisiana family raised in Paris until he was eight years old. The two marry and produce a child together, only known to the reader as Desiree’s baby. The marriage dissolves when it is noticed that the baby is not completely white, the blame of which is cast upon Desiree and her ambiguous past. She is cast out by Armand and destroyed in the process.
Throughout the story, the character of Desiree is used as a pawn; she shows almost no free will and is passive to others’ wishes. This is quite abnormal for Chopin as an author who is widely considered a proto-feminist and writes about women and female issues in society. Through a close reading of the text, it can be seen that Chopin uses Desiree as a rhetorical tool; she paradoxically, and consciously, produces an undeveloped female character to comment on the undeveloped status of women and society’s feelings toward race. In Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby”, the author constructs Desiree as a caricature of what a woman was in male-controlled society, defining her life around the men in it; Chopin then uses her as a tool to illustrate the misogyny and racism in the white patriarchal society in which Desiree inhabits—represented by Armand.
Throughout the story, Chopin develops the undeveloped character of Desiree through several techniques. One of the most obvious is Desiree’s passivity to the world around her. In the very beginning of the story, she does not even make her own entrance to the world. Monsieur Valmonde found her while “riding through the gateway of Valmonde…lying asleep in the shadow of the big stone pillar”; immediately after being discovered by Monsieur she “began to cry for Dada” (Chopin 421). From the opening lines of the short story Desiree is craving patriarchal acceptance. She awakens without parents and is only able to say a single word, “Dada”. Desiree is essentially born to the reader without an identity of herself; she is found by the patriarch of the Valmonde family and branded with their family name.
In addition to her ambiguous beginnings, the diction employed by Chopin around Desiree is poignant to Desiree’s treatment by the other characters. Desiree is described as becoming “beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere, —the idol of Valmonde” (Chopin 421). Desiree is described as attributes that do not give any indication as to her actual self. They are adjectives that skim the top layer of personality and illuminate no true part of herself; being the “idol” of the Valmondes, something to be worshiped and idolized, is her only role. Desiree is an object that can’t be seen too clearly or else the mystery around he would be destroyed.
This sense of female idol worship is later expanded when Armand Aubigny sees her and is instantly transfixed. Again, Desiree is seen in a passive state of being when “one day against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before, the Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her there, had fallen in love with her” (Chopin 421). It is not shown that Desiree falls in love with Armand as well, but that Armand one day is “struck by a pistol shot” of love and decides right there that he must have her (Chopin 421). Through Armand’s eyes, Desiree was a goddess; something to worship and behold. It did not matter Desiree’s feelings in the matter, he was hit by the bullet of love and that was all that counted. He decided they were to marry.
When concerned with the issue of Desiree’s background, Armand saw an opportunity for even more joy. Being nameless and without a background, Armand had the chance to in essence create Desiree from himself. Her lack of identity did not matter, “he could give her one of the oldest and proudest [names] in Louisiana” (Chopin 422). Armand saw a chance to create Desiree, a female, in the likeness of himself, a man. It is the ultimate anti-feminine goal, fixing the broken female identity into the correct male form. This transformation of Desiree—from a being of nothingness to one formed in Armand’s existence –and the marriage itself are never shown. The extent of the marriage and courtship was: “then they were married” (Chopin 422); nowhere in the text do we see Desiree’s side of the story. The reader obtains Armand’s excitement about the wedding, Armand’s courtship, and Armand’s declaration’s of love. The concept of Desiree’s opinions and thoughts are completely disregarded and not examined.
Once married, Desiree’s character becomes expanded in so much as she sees her concept of self as completely imbedded in patriarchal society. When her mother comes to visit her and the baby, nothing else is discussed but domestic life. Desiree talks of the baby’s health; she comments that “the way he has grown” is astonishing and that the baby’s wails “[are] deafening. Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche’s cabin” (Chopin 422). In addition, the marriage is absolutely one sided, for “when [Armand] frowned she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God” (Chopin 422). Everything she describes, the success of her baby and the success of her marriage, she sees as success of her self. Her identity is tied to her domestic life—if either her baby or marriage should fail it would be the destruction of what she believed was her core and reason for being. Most importantly is that Desiree’s baby is a son, a male to carry on the family name. Desiree, being a product from Armand himself, sees this as the highest accomplishment because it means the continuation of Armand’s construct of identity he imposed upon Desiree. In essence she gave birth to a new Armand.
The final instance of Desiree’s lack of development as a character is her lack of action and self-autonomy in the end of the story. When Desiree first finds out the baby is of mixed race, being the last to do so, she is unable to even form words. All she can utter is a stunted “Ah!”, and then is robbed of further speech (Chopin 423). When cast out of the house by Armand she does not fight it; she takes the baby and exists the house willingly. It is when Desiree “walked across a deserted field, where the stubble bruised her tender feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin gown to shreds” that her undeveloped character is fully realized (Chopin 424). Having failed in her female role by being black and producing an unworthy child, she is neither needed nor wanted in the white patriarchal society of the world, and of Armand’s household. She does not put up a fight to this; she goes willingly and accepts her fate. Destroying herself and her baby in a suicide at the end is the finale fulfillment of her female duty—sacrificing herself and the child in the name of Armand.
Desiree is in herself a paradox; she is fully developed by Chopin as an undeveloped character. She does not grow through the story; she is perfectly passive, and entirely inactive as she is controlled and manipulated by the world in which she lives. Chopin was keen in choosing to build Desiree as she did. If the main character of this story was a strong willed woman who knew herself and fought against the system which controlled her, the message Chopin is trying to send would either not be as poignantly powerful or would be lost all together. It is in the acceptance of her own fate by Desiree that the reader sees the true hypocrisy of the white patriarchal system.
Through Desiree’s obsession with classic attributes of femininity, Chopin exposes the ridiculousness and hollowness of a life consumed by domesticity. Desiree had no concept of self outside of the home; she was devoted to marriage, motherhood, and raising the baby, yet she was betrayed by the very home life she was fixated on creating. Her baby became a failure when it was discovered to be of mixed race, her marriage was a failure when Armand threw her out for producing a useless baby that could not carry on his family name, and she herself was a failure as a woman because Armand thought she was black. Everything that she was through the novel—beautiful, innocent, tender, a shining example of femininity—was destroyed by the revelation Armand had of her ‘true’ decent. The idol he once worshiped is tainted and shattered, so she herself is forever broken.
In the same way that Desiree’s stunted growth through the text as an individual woman illuminates the absurdity of women’s place in society, her own acceptance as the cause of the baby’s mixed blood show the racism pervasive in society. In the final scene of the story, Armand is seen destroying every trace of Desiree, a manifestation of the ritualistic cleansing he felt the urge to perform to rid himself of any connection to black heritage. Though while performing this ceremony, Armand stumbled upon a letter from his dead mother to his father; in it, she explains that she thanks “God for having so arranged [their] lives that [their] dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery” (Chopin 425). Armand thus discovers that he himself is the cause of the baby being born mixed race; in the process of destroying Desiree with a purifying fire, Armand is the one who in the end is destroyed. His entire concept of self is shattered—he is no longer white, and now in society, he is no longer even a man.
Chopin’s final ironic twist of the knife declares Desiree the true ruler in Armand’s house. In the white patriarchal society a black man is held under a white woman, though Desiree is still the one who suffers. She is the one cast out of society and the one labeled a black woman. Armand on the other hand will use this racial injustice to his advantage. He will use the same fire that cleansed him of Desiree, to cleanse himself of his own past. Though his concept of self and identity are just as broken as Desiree’s, he can keep playing the role of the white man. Though both characters are ejected from their places in society, Armand is the only one who can go on living because he has society’s prejudices to back him up.
Kate Chopin’s short story “Desiree’s Baby” examines the effects of a restrictive white, patriarchal society; to make these comments on society, Chopin uses the character of Desiree as a tool. Desiree’s character is stagnant throughout the entire story. She experiences no growth and is cast off in the end of the story, though this is exactly her purpose. Chopin uses this character to highlight the sexism and racism rampant in Armand’s world. Desiree’s complete destruction of self is contrasted with Armand who, because of established prejudices, is able to live on with a lie. Desiree, the woman who did nothing wrong, is vilified by Armand and the society he represents. It is through Chopin’s use of Desiree as a rhetorical tool in the story that she is able to keenly comment on society as she did, and illuminate the horrors in said society that demolished an innocent woman.
Chopin, Kate. "Desiree's Baby." 2013. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert Levine. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York City: W. W. Norton, 2013. 421-25. Print.