Literature

Blackness and “womanism” in Kate Chopin’s Désirée’s Baby and La Belle Zoraide

Kate ChopinBeing a woman is being minor. Being black is also being minor. How about being a black woman?  Both Désirée’s Baby and La Belle Zoraide were written in the beginning of the 1890s, more than twenty five years after slavery was abolished in the United States of America in 1865. The heroines of the two short stories are women. Both of them are related directly or indirectly to racism and “blackness”. The following essay is a study of the combination of womanhood and blackness in Kate Chopin’s previous two short stories.

 Dssirée’e Baby is the symbol by excellence of the problematic of being black and women. That may seem a bit confusing. In fact, since the child is ‘le petit cochon de lait’. This expression refers both to the ugliness and to the innocence of the baby. The baby boy is described as abnormal. In fact, he is growing up too fast, “yes the child has grown, has changed”.  And changed what was around him. The baby is revealed to be black and has two white parents. The first person to be accused is Désirée and not the father. This fact is told and built so obviously and automatically that there is at any moment the possibility of another alternative as an eventual extra conjugal relationship. The genuine in Désirée’s Baby is Chopin’s introduction of heredity and genetics to break the received ideas that women are responsible of the “how” and the “what” of their children. At the end of the story, the father is revealed to be to be from a black parent. The tragedy is not only the death of Désirée but also, and especially, the facts have not actually changed and the end of the story. Désirée is dead because her baby is black and because he is from black parents. Even though, at the consciousness level, her husband knows the truth.baby

As “le petit cochon de lait’, ‘la belle Zoraide ‘ is both beautiful and miserable. The sonority of the words reflects this sharp contrast. Zoraid is a beautiful woman which faith is managed by her mistress and which turns her completely mad at the end of the story. The sstory is about racial issues and womanhood. The black woman slave has to marry the black slave that her misters choses for her while the black man slave has a little freedom of choosing his black wife. The fact of being both black and women ties Zoraide to choose the one she loves which leads to pregnancy:

 am I white, nénaine?

You white! Malheureuse! You deserve to have the lash laid upon you as any slave, you have proven yourself no better than the others

Contrarily to Désirée’s Baby, the racial issue is more explicit. The baby as  in the other story is the symbol linkink the issue of being black and being a woman at the same time.

 Both la Belle Zoraide and Désirée’s Baby happen at two levels told by the techninques of the story within a story and flashback as follow.  La belle Zoraide is juxtaposition between a myth and a real situation while Désirée’s Baby is juxtaposition between past and future. This shows the complexity of the issue. But at the end, it is all about past because even the myth is also taken from a past true story. The cyclic issues of race and gender are transmitted through heredity and oral tradition.

Manna-loulou prepares her mistress, Madame to go bad by telling her a story, as a child, but a tragic story that places the story of Zoraid into another gender which is the gothic. In Defining the American Gothic, Robert Hemenway says: “the replacement of gothic with dark signifies the critical displacement of the category from discussion”. The racial becomes gothic and vice-verse. Manna-loulou also washes Madam’s “white feet” while telling the story. The situation of slave/mister remains the same as in Zoraide. However, the action of telling a tragic story through a myth is a reminder and lament of the black/ white situation. Both women are old, but it is the black woman who takes care or serves the white woman.  In addition, Zoraide grows old, lonely and mad like the white mistress. This is a kind of contempt and comparison between the old “white” woman and the” black” Zoraide , who have nearly the same faith.

The two stories of Désirée and Zoraide pass through two stages; from the absolute happiness to the absolute sadness. The shift from an extreme to another may refer to a hope of real change. The two stories juxtaposes blackness and womanhood which, each one of them, is a minority, so combined together leads to tragedy and fatality; death. The baby which is a symbol of fertility, hope and renewal comes to be a symbol of sadness, race, and disarray. All in all, Kate Chopin’s Désirée’s Baby and La Belle Zoraide, tackles the issue of the black woman as gender combined with  race.

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