Southern Gothic is defined as a style of writing that uses extreme events to examine the morals and social values of the Southern States. This is specific to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Anolik et al, p. ix). Several writers such as Kate Chopin, Walker Percy and others have been identified with this type of literary genre. Some have even identified William Faulkner with Southern Gothic even though his writing is published in the 1920s and beyond. One of the best identified characteristics of the Southern Gothic genre is how the writer uses traumatic events that take place in the story’s real world and makes them into a catastrophic event in order to bring attention to some type of perceived injustice. A prime example of this type of writing is the story Desiree’s Baby by Kate Chopin.
Chopin is best known for writing stories that examined race relationships during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, specifically referring to mulattos, or Creoles, who are a mixture of races but are still classified as non-white (Anolik et al, p. 3). This story is touching because of the love that Desiree and Armand have for one another, but things change drastically as Armand sees how dark-skinned their child is. While Armand remembers how his father warned him about marrying someone of unknown origins (Chopin, p. 2), he and everyone else feels that Desiree is of mulatto origin. Since she was abandoned as a child, no one really knew what her lineage was. However, the grotesque event used in the Southern Gothic style to end the story is Armand discovering a letter his mother had written to his father saying how glad she was that Armand would never discover that she was of non-white lineage (Chopin, p. 5). This revelation, after turning away his wife and child, leaves Armand with the terrifying truth that it is he, not the women he loved, who has spoiled the family name.
There were several clues to the outcome of the story. For starters, the description of Armand as being darkly handsome, having dark features and so forth gives a symbolic clue that he, not his wife, is the person of so-called questionable heritage. Chopin makes the reader believe that Desiree is the one who has to be non-white based upon her lack of family history which is considered precious to so many good Southern families, but in the end one of the lessons learned from the story is that even the best of families have deep, dark secrets. According to Anolik et al (p. 5), many stories in the Southern Gothic genre have some type of theme like the one presented by Chopin; every time someone or something is labeled as good or pure by Southern values, there is something dark and sinister behind it. Even with Desiree’s love for Armand, the audience sees how a secret can ruin something so innocent and make it into something grotesque.
As far as the overall theme to Desiree’s Baby, there are several that come to mind. The biggest ideal or theme to come from the story is to never assume that certain rumors about someone’s past are accurate. Even though someone can come from a questionable background, it is usually the morally upstanding family that hides the darkest secrets from the rest of the world. Sometimes in the South people tend to live in a world where they think everything and everyone is perfect and knows their social place in life, but it is incidents such as this one crafted by Chopin that disturbs the sanctity of a protected society. In conclusion, Southern Gothic is a method for writers to challenge the social and moral norms in Southern society after the Civil War. Tackling subjects such as race relations is one of the main reasons why writers such as Kate Chopin are considered to be way before their time.