"The Storm": More Than Just a Story

Joanna Bartee

In the short story "The Storm" by Kate Chopin, the two main characters, Calixta and Alcee, had a flirtation several years before the story takes place, but each made a more suitable marriage to someone else and they have not seen each other since. In the present when the action takes place they are reliving that time when their passion was at its climax. This, essentially, is what the story seems to be about at the surface. Underneath the surface, there is a deeper and a larger meaning. "The Storm" helps to define the sexual standards and restraints of the late nineteenth century while also making a statement about humans’ natural tendency towards sexual passion.

Chopin begins to illustrate this sexual restraint of the time by using the title "The Storm." When thought of in literary terms, a storm tends to be associated with conflict, uneasiness, and turmoil. Chopin uses the image of the storm to represent the sexual tension that builds throughout the story between Alcee and Calixta. Critic Robert Wilson suggests further that "Chopin’s title refers to nature, which is symbolically feminine; the storm can therefore be seen as symbolic of feminine sexuality and passion, and the image of the storm will be returned to again and again throughout the story" (1).

Chopin begins using the illustration of the storm with Calixta’s husband, Bobinot. Bobinot decides to wait out a storm at the general store with their son, Bibi. This waiting out or avoidance of the storm suggests that Bobinot also avoids the stormy passions that his wife is clearly capable of. After this, the reader is introduced to Calixta at their home, sewing and doing other household chores, "unaware that the storm is coming" (Wilson 2). This suggests to Wilson that "her sexuality is repressed by the constraints of her marriage and society’s view of women, represented in this passage by the housework" (2). Airing out on the porch are her husband’s Sunday clothes, which Wilson says "allude to society in the form of the church" (2). The story continues with other illustrations using the storm until, finally, after Alcee and Calixta’s sexual encounter, the storm finally begins to pass and everything in the world seems renewed and fresh.

Chopin uses many of Calixta’s actions in "The Storm" to represent the sexual restraint of the time. Perhaps one of the best examples of this occurs when Calixta is doing housework. Up until Alcee arrives at the house, Calixta is working with much vigor and frustration. Calixta has some clothes that are hanging out to dry on the porch and, after Alcee arrives, they are in danger of blowing away from the strong winds that are approaching with the storm. Wilson writes, "Alcee grabs Bobinot’s pants, symbolically subverting the social and marital constraints that control Calixta" (Wilson 2-3). While visiting with Alcee, Calixta talks somewhat excitedly about housework, preparing the house for the coming storm, Bobinot, and other aspects of her married life, helping to illustrate the sexual tension that she feels while around Alcee.

As the scene between Calixta and Alcee progresses even further and the storm draws nearer, both Calixta and Alcee put away their apprehensions about acting on the sexual tension that is apparent between them. This is symbolized again by Calixta’s housewifely actions. Wilson writes again about this: Calixta begins to gather up a cotton sheet that she has been sewing, in effect putting away a symbol of society’s constraints. She is becoming as unsettled as the elements outside, the passion of the storm echoing her inner emotions (3). By putting away the cotton sheet, thus putting away a reminder that she is married and has a life with another man, she is opening up to the possibility of interaction between herself and Alcee, even if the encounter turns out to be just physical without any emotion involved. Without any sort of object between herself and Alcee, Calixta is vulnerable to Alcee. Calixta now has nothing to distract her or to occupy her time and is now forced—or free—to concentrate solely on him

After Alcee and Calixta’s sexual encounter, the storm begins to depart. At this point, Calixta and Alcee are faced with the aftermath of what they have done. Instead of regretting the act, however, Calixta and Alcee feel renewed. In the last line of "The Storm" Chopin writes, "So the storm passed and everyone was happy" (309). Wilson underscores this, writing, "as Alcee leaves, he turns and smiles, and Calixta laughs out loud; her passion is seen to be natural, experienced without guilt or shame" (4). Calixta seems to receive something from the sexual encounter with Alcee that she does not receive with her husband Bobinot. Through this encounter with Alcee, Calixta is able to release her true feminine sexuality in a completely different manner than she is able to in her married union with Bobinot.

Not only is "The Storm" a story about humans’ natural sexual tendencies, but this story also represents the sexual reservations of Chopin’s particular time period. Chopin herself seemed to be very much in touch with her feminine sexuality. Through her writing of this story, she was able to not only express her own thoughts about sexuality, but she was also able to make a private statement about her feelings on the sexual mores of the current time period. Since Chopin, according to her biographer Emily Toth, did not attempt to publish "The Storm," this statement remained private until the story was discovered decades later among papers and journals in her grandson’s attic.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. "Introduction." Modern Critical Views: Kate Chopin. Ed. Harold Bloom. Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Chopin, Kate. "The Storm." The Literature of the American South. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: Norton, 1996.

Elliott, Emory, ed. The Columbia History of the American Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.

Faust, Langdon Lynn. American Women Writers. New York: Inger. 1983.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin, A Biography. 1990.

Wilson, Robert. "Feminine Sexuality and Passion: Kate Chopin’s ‘The Storm.’" The University of British Columbia, October 22, 1992. http://www.interchg.obc.ca/rw/eng304-1.htm.

“Desiree’s Baby”:

Challenging Race, Gender, and Class

Tamara Sarg

In Kate Chopin’s short story, “Desiree’s Baby,” the main character is not, as the title suggests, the child, but rather the infant’s mother, Desiree. At first glance, Desiree appears weak and powerless, subject to the cultural and societal mores of her era. Yet upon closer examination, we find that Desiree does indeed have power, for she challenges the notions of race, gender, and class in a society which had strict rules for all three.

Desiree lives in a society greatly concerned with race, a society which values racial purity above all things. Just one drop of black blood is enough to be tainted for a lifetime. Yet the story is filled with characters whose lineage is largely unknown, but whose destinies are sealed by assumptions based on appearance. First, Desiree’s own background is unknown, having been adopted by the Valmonde family as a toddler. She appears white and, thus, is treated as such. Secondly, her husband, Armand, is presumed to be of flawless pedigree, coming from one of the “oldest and proudest” families in Louisiana (Chopin 302). Because of Desiree’s gray eyes and fair skin, fairer by far than his own brown skin, Armand feels secure in asking her to be his wife and disregards his future father-in-law’s warning that Desiree’s origins are unknown. Even though Armand’s skin is darker than his wife’s, he appears and is considered to be white. Finally, La Blanche, one of Armand’s slaves, appears white, but because her lineage is known to contain black blood, she is treated as black.

Desiree, with the birth of their child, reveals certain flaws in Armand’s thinking; she disputes what he believes to be true. Armand believes he can tell by appearance whether a person is white or black, but the tables are turned on him when Desiree has their baby. At first, happy to have a son, “a boy, to bear his name” (Chopin 302), Armand is like any proud parent, seeming to dote not only on his son, but his wife and slaves, too. But as gossip fills the air and reaches Armand, he realizes their child is of mixed race. The baby resembles one of the quadroon boys serving in their household, boys who are one-quarter black. As noted by Ellen Peel, Desiree “forces Armand to confront the contradiction he ignored in La Blanche” (229). Since his own bloodline is assumed to be without question, Armand is certain the impure blood must have come from his wife.

This ability to change someone’s thinking, to change a person’s opinion, is perhaps the finest example of Desiree’s power. Although this is an example of indirect power since she is not taking any express action or debating the issue with Armand, it is power nevertheless. Peel contends that “Desiree acts as a mirror, revealing absurdities that were always already there in the institutions but repressed” (228).

In the same way, Desiree forces Armand to face himself, to face his own breeding. After Desiree has deserted him, Armand discovers a letter from his mother to his father thanking “the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery” (Chopin 305). Armand had attributed his son’s blackness to Desiree, the black mark was on her, but with the unearthing of this letter, Armand has to place the black mark on himself. Desiree has forced Armand to look at himself and “hate the very thing that he is” (Foy).

In considering gender issues, it is generally presupposed that women are weak. Certainly Desiree appears complacent in much of the story, until she makes the connection between her baby and the quadroon boy in their household. At this point, Desiree takes some bold actions. First, upon this realization, she confronts her husband directly, asking what the color of their child means. Armand already knew, or thought he knew, the child was of mixed blood but chose not to address the issue. He “absented himself from home; and when there, avoided her presence and that of her child, without excuse” (Chopin 303). He was content to ignore the issue, the child, and even Desiree. She was brave enough, on the other hand, to be direct, to not shrink from the truth, and to ask the question for which she feared the answer. She begged of him, “Armand . . . look at our child. What does it mean? Tell me” (Chopin 303). Armand knew the truth but was too weak to meet it head-on; Desiree did not know the truth but was strong enough to face it.

Next, Desiree writes a letter to her mother, not knowing what to do and asking for help. Her mother suggests that Desiree return to the Valmonde home with her baby. Desiree is bold enough to confront her husband and ask if she should leave. Here again, Desiree is challenging the idea of weak-willed women. She could have ignored the situation and lived in a tension-filled home as her husband was apparently willing to do. Armand does not confront her and request that she leave; he only agrees to it once she has proposed the idea.

Then, Desiree takes the baby and disappears into the bayou. She leaves with only the clothes on her back, her “thin white garment” (Chopin 304) and delicate slippers. She could have accepted her mother’s offer and returned home. She could have chosen that sanctuary, with shelter and food. She could have run home for that protection. Instead, Desiree chooses to brave the wilds of the bayou, to risk unknown perils and possible death. She once again demonstrates her strength as a woman.

Finally, in considering issues of class, Desiree lives in a world with clear demarcations between slave and master, between the powerless and the powerful. Women have fixed roles as second-class citizens, that of daughter, wife, and mother (Rosenblum). They are among the powerless; they must answer to parent or husband.

Armand, as a male, is defined “by his pedigree and by his role as master of his slaves and his wife” (Rosenblum). His slaves and wife are both there to satisfy his needs, desires, even whims. So Armand should be able to easily dismiss both, and in fact, does seem to dismiss La Blanche without difficulty. Yet Armand cannot so easily reject his wife. Desiree holds a surprising amount of power in that position. As stated previously, Desiree approaches him about leaving their home; he does not demand or even request that she leave until confronted. Desiree is the one who actually gives Armand a way out. She wields the power in this exchange.

In a world that valued the strict rules governing race, gender, and class, Armand believes he has control of the system. He is white, he is male, and he is the master. All three of these are the positions of power and strength, positions from which to rule. Desiree, on the other hand, is possibly black, is female, and is a wife, all subservient positions. Yet she surprisingly defies each of these standings. The power which society deems acceptable for her to exert is, in reality, less than the power she uses. Desiree successfully challenges the notion that black is black and white is white. Peel observes the Desiree “destroy[s] complacency about knowledge” (235). Desiree negates the idea that women are the weaker sex; she is willing to confront the possibility of painful truths while her spouse is not. Finally, Desiree demonstrates her power as a wife; what for most women is a deferential position, is for Desiree a position allowing her some authority. So while Desiree is generally viewed a passive character, she does demonstrate her ability to challenge these preconceived notions.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. “Desiree’s Baby.” The Literature of the American South. Ed. Andrews, William L., et al. New York: Norton, 1998. 301-305.

Foy, R.R. “Chopin’s ‘Desiree’s Baby.’” The Explicator 49 (1991): 222-223. Online.

Peel, Ellen. “Semiotic Subversion in “Desiree’s Baby.” American Literature June 1990: 223-237.

Rosenblum. Joseph. “Desiree’s Baby.” Masterplots II: Short Story Series 1986. Online. Magill On Literature. 11 July 2002.

Work Consulted

Arner, Robert D. “Pride and Prejudice: Kate Chopin’s ‘Desiree’s Baby.’” Critical Essays on Kate Chopin. Ed. Alice Hall Petry. New York: Prentice Hall International, 1996. 139-146.

 

 

 

"Desiree’s Baby":

Prejudice and Religion

Cheri Fontaine

The title of Kate Chopin’s short story, "Desiree’s Baby," would suggest to the reader that the story is about a baby, specifically Desiree’s baby. Although the story does revolve around Desiree’s baby, the story’s main message centers around racial prejudices with a strong current of religious symbolism. The baby is simply the form that brings these issues to the surface.

Perhaps the most important of these issues is that of color or race. In "Desiree’s Baby," white is depicted as a symbol of good and God, while black is depicted as a symbol of evil and Satan. Chopin leads her readers into becoming sympathetic with the "beautiful, gentle, affectionate and sincere" (301) and therefore white and good Desiree. However, Chopin cleverly disguises the fact that Desiree is also racially prejudiced and views herself as unworthy and her life not worth living once she believes she is black.

Throughout the story, black and mulatto characters are rarely referred to by name, including Desiree’s own baby. Desiree’s baby is always referred to by "it" "he" or "the baby." In another line, Desiree is talking to her mother and states "and mamma . . . he hasn’t punished one of them–not one of them–since baby is born" (Chopin 302) which is referring to the black slaves who work on the plantation. In another passage, Desiree has her first suspicion that something is wrong and connects it to "an air of mystery among the blacks" (Chopin 303). There are three exceptions in the story in which people of color are referred to by name. Zandrine, Negrillion and La Blanche. The latter two have black representations. Negrillion has all the letters of Negro in the name and La Blanche means to take color from. This could indicate a black person who is not as dark skinned as most of the black population. The fact that black people are not provided with proper names dehumanizes them and supports Desiree’s own racial fears or prejudices.

In addition, when Desiree first realized her baby was not white her "face was the ‘picture of fright’" (Chopin 303). Shortly thereafter, Desiree approaches her husband, Armand, with her suspicion that the baby is not white. Armand immediately places the blame on Desiree for the baby’s skin color and denies loving her anymore. Upon learning this, Desiree writes her mother and says "For God’s sake tell them it is not true" and further states "I shall die, I must die. I cannot be so unhappy, and live" (Chopin 304). In this passage, when Desiree is acknowledging that she can not live, she never refers to her marriage or Armand. Desiree’s only concern was the color of her skin.

When her mother wrote her back, she did not answer Desiree’s question regarding her race. But her silence on the matter told Desiree louder than words that she was indeed black. Most mothers would have responded with whatever soothing words their children so desperately needed to hear. The evidence seems to be that the mother did not know the race of her foundling child, but she could have lied and told Desiree she was white and to come home where she was loved. Instead, her mother sends a brief note calling her home where she is loved and to "come with your child" (Chopin 304). The mother does not indicate that the child (who might be black) was also loved, but her silence on the matter of race also sends another loud message. That message is that race does not matter. The mother does not mention race she only mentions love.

If Desiree was so distraught over losing Armand’s love, she would have written her mother for advise, not just the answer to whether she was white or black. She would have asked what should she do, could the problem be fixed, or questions about her future. Also, if someone doesn’t love another person any longer they would most likely go where they knew they would be loved and comforted, such as a mother’s home. Instead Desiree chose to kill herself and her baby by disappearing into the bayou. This action shows that Desiree feared she would never be accepted in her husband’s or even her mother’s white world. Also, Desiree knew she would never be able to find another white husband or father for her baby. Basically, Desiree would never again be accepted in white society and this she could not bear.

In the story, good is synonymous with white and godliness and black with bad and evil. Now that the readers are led to believe that Desiree is black, how do the readers reconcile themselves with Desiree still being good? This is where Chopin shows her true gift as a writer.

Throughout the story, Chopin’s description of Desiree leads the readers to think of her as white, good and virtuous. Her hair is long and silky and she has gray eyes and fair skin. Her physical description is more typical of a white person than a black person. She is also gentle, sincere and innocent, traits that are equated with goodness. Desiree is described as beautiful, and her clothes are white and soft. In short, Desiree is the vision of an angel. In fact, her name means much desired. These are qualities we all desire.

In contrast, Armand’s description leads the readers to think of black and evil. He has a dark, handsome face. He also has strict, cold eyes and an imperious, exacting nature. After Armand comes to the realization that Desiree is black, Chopin describes his dealings with the slaves as having the spirit of Satan and him as having an inhuman soul. In this passage Chopin states "the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his dealings with the slaves" (303). Even Armand’s home is described as having a roof that is steep and black like a cowl. Armand’s qualities are not ones the readers would find desirable.

Although Robert Arner in his article "Pride and Prejudice" suggests Desiree only lacks a halo in the ending scene, the description of Desiree walking into the bayou suggests otherwise (75). According to Chopin, when Desiree walks into the Bayou, her hair "radiates a golden gleam" (304). This description gives the readers a visual image of a halo. Additionally, Desiree was still in her "thin white garment" and she "walked across a deserted field, where the stubble bruised her tender feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin gown to shreds" (Chopin 304). In this scene, the readers are given an image of an angel silently walking to her crucifixion. Armand on the other hand is described as sitting in a great hall, watching a big bonfire and burning all that is good. This is a very good description of hell.

In her discussion of "Desiree’s Baby" in Short Story Criticism, Barbara Ewell states that in the construction of the story, "blackness becomes the mark of universal human darkness, that demonic region where ‘the very spirit of Satan’ takes hold." She also believes the story is an indication of Chopin’s "continuing ambivalence about race" (106).

It is not until the very end of the story that race and religion are reconciled for the readers. Just before the end, Desiree goes off into the bayou never to return so as not to impose her blackness on others. However, the reader’s sympathies still lie with Desiree. Desiree’s prejudices appear to be a result of society and not any inherent meanness within her. Desiree is basically an innocent who knew no other way of life.

On the other hand, Armand is sitting before a huge bonfire burning items that represent goodness. The bonfire is a symbol of hell. In the end, you have a good black angel going off to die and a bad white devil that lives. It is not until the last sentence that the readers are informed that the angel, Desiree, is indeed white and the devil, Armand, is black.

Works Cited

Arner, Robert D. "Pride and Prejudice: Kate Chopin’s ‘Desiree’s Baby’." Mississippi Quarterly. Vol XXV. Spring 1972. 131-40. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1992. Vol. 8. 74-77.

Chopin, Kate. "Desiree’s Baby." In The Literature of the American South. Andrews, William L., et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 301-305.

Ewell, Barbara C. "Kate Chopin." Unger Publishing Company. 1986. 216. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1992. Vol. 8. 102-114.

Works Consulted

Reilly, Joseph J. "Stories by Kate Chopin." The Commonweal. Vol. XXV, No. 22, March 26, 1937. 606-607. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1992. Vol. 8. 67-68.

Spiller, Robert E. "Delineation of Life and Character." Literary History of the United States. Vol. 11. MacMillan Company. 1948. 843-61. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1992. Vol. 8. 68-69.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. "Kate Chopin and the Fiction of Limits: "Desiree’s Baby’." The Southern Literary Journal. Vol. X, No. 2. Spring, 1978. 123-33. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1992. Vol. 8. 81-83.

The Other Baby

Cathy A. Snead

From her title "Desiree’s Baby" we immediately learn that Kate Chopin is telling a story about a baby. The baby in the title is the first born son of Desiree and Armand Aubigny. As this title suggests, and as we can see from the very first line of the story, the whole tale revolves around this infant. Given all the focus on this child throughout the story, it is easy to overlook the fact that there is another little boy in the story. Though he might be overlooked at first glance, this child, the mirror image of Desiree’s baby, plays an important role in the story. Not only is his role substantial, his very presence, as suggested by Cynthia Griffin Wolff, raises the question as to whether the baby referred to in the title is in fact the first born child of Armand Aubigny (82).

Although this second child, referred to as a "little quadroon boy" (Chopin 303), appears only once in the story, his brief appearance bears a tremendous impact. He quickly destroys Desiree’s peace and changes the tide of the entire story. With the child’s appearance, Desiree uncovers the force behind the "threatening mist" (Chopin 303) that has been surrounding her. In seeing this child, Desiree realizes that her baby’s skin and that of the quadroon boy are a perfect match. The boy "becomes a kind of nightmare double for Desiree’s baby" (Wolff 82).

After making the horrifying discovery that her son is the same color as the quadroon, Desiree confronts her husband for an explanation as to why their child would have this same dark complexion. Armand immediately blames Desiree for the tainted blood line. Desiree challenges this accusation by saying to her husband "look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand" (Chopin 304). The response Armand gives to this comment is one of several examples that might indicate that there is a deeper connection between Armand and the quadroon boy. His reply to Desiree is "as white as La Blanche’s" (Chopin 304). La Blanche is a slave on Armand’s plantation and she is also the mother of several children, including the child referred to as the "quadroon boy." Armand might have chosen to compare his wife’s skin color to that of La Blanche because he knew that both women, although they appear light skinned, gave birth to offspring that were colored. Perhaps Armand has witnessed the outcome of fathering children with both of these women. Because Armand views himself as being white, and copulation with each woman produced identical children, Armand may feel justified in deeming his wife to be the "guilty" party carrying the black blood.

Although Desiree never makes the connection between Armand and La Blanche, there is evidence to suggest that the opportunity may have existed for the two to have mated. In the beginning of the story, Desiree describes her baby’s deafening vocal strength to her mother. She proudly boasts that Armand was able to hear him cry from "as far away as La Blanche’s cabin" (Chopin 302). It is with this line that we might wonder "what was Armand’s errand in her cabin?" (Wolff 82). Why was it commonplace for him to be there? What was taking place? There is no mention in the story of La Blanche having a husband; however, she has several quadroon children. If we make the assumption that La Blanche is of Negro descent, we would also have to assume that the father of her children had to be white in order for her to bear children displaying only one-quarter African blood. Armand is the only seemingly white male left on the estate and he likes to visit her in her cabin. During the time of slavery it was very common for slave owners to have fathered children with their slaves. If Armand did father children with his slave La Blanche, and if he was in fact the father of the quadroon boy, it would definitely explain the genetic similarities between the two children in the story.

Besides the obvious similarities in their complexion, the two boys on the Aubigny estate also share other characteristics. Neither child is referred to by proper name in the story. In fact, we never learn the names of these children at all. In addition, they are not clothed. They are nearly naked. Although it is a "hot afternoon" (Chopin 303), Desiree is walking around in a gown and yet these two children remain unclothed. The fact that these children are not given names or clothing might suggested that neither child is worthy enough to possess such items.

Given all the similarities between Desiree’s baby and La Blanche’s boy, it is easy to infer that the children might be half brothers. Armand’s cruel comment that Desiree is the same color as La Blanche and that fact that he frequents La Blanche’s cabin all seem to point to a possible relationship between himself and La Blanche. Perhaps this relationship led to the births of La Blanche’s quadroon children and in particular, the quadroon child that forever alters the course of Desiree’s life. Although we will never know the truth as to who fathered the child, there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that Armand is also the father of the other baby in the story.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. "Desiree’s Baby." In The Literature of the American South. Andrews, William L., et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 301-305.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. "Kate Chopin and the Fiction of Limits: ‘Desiree’s Baby’. In The Southern Literary Journal Vol. X, No. 2. Spring, 1978. 123-33. Rpt. In Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1992. Vol. 8. 81-83.

Works Consulted

Arner, Robert D. "Pride and Prejudice: Kate Chopin’s ‘Desiree’s Baby’". In the Mississippi Quarterly. Vol XXV. No. 2, Spring 1972. 131-40. Rpt. In Short Story Criticism. Gale. Detroit, 1992. Vol. 8. 74-77.

Ewell, Barbara C. "Kate Chopin." Unger Publishing Company. 1986. 216. Rpt. In Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1992. Vol. 8. 102-114.

Reilly, Joseph J. "Stories by Kate Chopin." The Commonweal. Vol. XXV, No. 22, March 26, 1937. 606-607. Rpt. In Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1992. Vol. 8. 67-68.

Spiller, Robert E. "Delineation of Life and Character." Literary History of the United States. Vol. 11. Macmillan, 1948. 843-61. Rpt. In Short Story Criticism. Ed. Gale. Detroit, 1992. Vol. 8. 68-69.